24 Frames

24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, begins with a brief description of its genesis. The late master tells us that he wanted to imagine the before and after of still images—one painting and 23 of his own photographs—by supplementing it with four-and-a-half minutes of additional footage, animated or filmed. Why he chooses 24 frames is fairly obvious, but why four and a half minutes? I suspect it’s a musical idea and the number does remind one of John Cage’s 4’33”; some of the musical pieces used in the film are just about that length. On a conceptual level, 24 Frames operates close to the structuralist mode of Five and the photograph-oriented poetics of The Roads of Kiarostami. The 24 numbered vignettes that constitute it, however, contain no accompanying text or voiceover, and take place within a fixed frame. Through computer-animated imagery and the sound mix, they imagine the negative space of the photographs: the stretch of time whose absence structures the presences within them. This stretch of time registers via the actions depicted: falling snow, trees swaying to the wind, waves at the beach, animals and birds eating, brooding, lazing, copulating, and generally being around in the frame. There’s a touch of sentimentalism in the vignettes in their focus on animals pairing up amidst the harsh weather. Romance, as Phil Coldiron observes, has been an anathema to experimental filmmaking and this appearance of love as a structural concept within an ontological examination of cinema is, despite my programmed discomfort, a welcome and perhaps even a radical idea.

The first vignette takes as its basis the only painting used in the film: Pieter Breughel’s iconic The Hunters in the Snow, which has a privileged existence in cinema, having previously appeared in several films including those of Tarkovsky. (It also has a privileged existence in my room: a copy hangs next to the Hitchclock™.) Kiarostami animates the painting not by changing or removing any of its elements, but by adding extraneous components such as smoke from a chimney of the house in the middle ground, a pair of cows crossing the horizontal, snow-covered road in the distance, a mutt that makes its way around the hunting dogs and a couple of additional crows. The manner in which the animation calls attention to only the incremental modifications to the painting is characteristic of the rest of the film, in which movement is played off against static constituents of the frame. The fact that it’s the chimney that is the first animated element gets to the heart of Breughel’s overwhelming canvas, which is most of all an ode to the feeling of homecoming, to the notions of domesticity, warmth, belonging and society. The spectre of The Hunters in the Snow looms large over the other vignettes of the film, both in its imagination of the possibility of companionship in a hostile environment and the oppositions between warm and cold, inside and outside, home and the world.

On a formal level, a tension between X- and Z-axes—horizontality and depth—characterizes most of the 24 vignettes. This, to be sure, is the basis of much of representative visual art that seeks to furnish a three-dimensional model of the world. But Kiarostami films his subjects symmetrically and head on, without any vanishing point in the compositions, not giving us any depth markers. He uses windows, pillars, fences and other foreground elements as framing supports. In some of the vignettes, he confines the “action”—and hence our attention—to a specific point in the frame, not unlike the handling of humans lost in the landscape in the Koker trilogy (recall our eyes fixated on Hossein vanishing into the field at the end of Through the Olive Trees): two crows huddling at the corner of the image, lions seen mating through a natural alcove in the landscape, swallows fighting for a hole in the snow. Sometimes there’s a counterintuitive piece of accompanying music, a choral work, an opera or a folk or pop song, which runs for the length of a shot—a structural device reminiscent of James Benning. And like Benning, 24 Frames registers incremental changes in the ambiance: slowly varying light and whether conditions, the advancing profile of wet sand on beach, a progressing deforestation mostly suggested on the soundtrack.

Except for vignette 15 with a group of tourists staring at the Eiffel Tower and the last one with a woman in front of a screen, we don’t see people in 24 Frames. Human presence is, however, felt all through, either in the form of the unseen hunters killing or threatening the creatures in the shot or through the existence of a framing perspective, a gaze, as is the case with the second vignette in which we see a pair of horses through the window of a moving car. Like in Breughel’s painting, Kiarostami’s film invokes an eternal struggle between man and nature, the former trying to constantly impose his will on his environment. A number of sequences end the same way they begin, suggesting cycles of nature that override human presence. The four seagulls perched on four posts at a beach in vignette 8 are driven away by a mass of birds approaching land; four other seagulls occupy that place once the canvas is empty. In vignette 14, birds on the road are dispersed by approaching bikes, only to assemble on the road again. Likewise, the vignettes embody a dialectic between man’s creative and destructive tendencies. The hunters are certainly destroying nature but, as Breughel’s painting hints, it is this practice that has made civilization possible. The architectural elements that frame nature in the vignettes are products of human will to shape order from the chaos and rapaciousness of nature. 24 Frames itself, with its CGI-enabled animation and microscopic orchestration of natural behaviour, is a testament to these Apollonian instincts.

Death hangs in the air, both in the form of the hunters shooting down animals as well as in the winter atmosphere. In trying to animate photos, Kiarostami brings to surface the violence underlying beauty of his photographs. In his last work, Roland Barthes wrote that photos of people carry a sense of “double loss”: they are pointers to people no more, but also reminders that these people will have died in the time after these photographs were made. Kiarostami’s expansion of still photographs into “motion picture” incarnates Barthes’ definition of the photograph as the “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.” Cinema is, of course, only a trickery that projects photographs at a rapid rate to give the illusion of continuous time. Kiarostami, whose work has always ensured the viewer is aware of the production of this illusion, pulls the curtains in the last vignette: a computer screen plays a film clip at such a slow rate that it disintegrates into a series of incrementally varying photographs. In other words, the opposite of 24 Frames. It’s an apt and beautiful end to a heartbreakingly lyrical body of work that, over thirty years, has genuinely expanded our conception of what cinema can be.

Nothing but Facts

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 383; 23 June 1957.

Men in War

If war movies make for the best box office in America, they are also highly subject to commercial and philosophical conventions. And rarely has this amalgam been rewarding: From Here to Eternity or Attack (whose last shot is reprised here in contrast), despite their audacities, don’t entirely win us over. Men in War, last of the series, rejects both philosophical theories and traditional psychology about the small group. The synopsis is extremely barebones: in the course of the Korean War, seventeen American soldiers separated from their division must, in order to get back on track, conquer “Hill 465”. Only two of them will make it. To mention a few elements of secondary interest borrowed from the original novel – war novels today are constructed on the image of films: the Black foot-soldier with a soft heart, the paralyzed colonel and his hot-headed companion. But these bits of information, rather than being harnessed by the mise en scène, are neglected in favour the mystery that the simplicity of each character’s traits hints at. Anthony Mann likes heroes who are all of a piece since these are the richest. Each of them being more or less crudely stereotyped, it would have been easy for him, as it is for his peers, to fill his hundred minutes of film with detailed psychological analyses, tedious dialogue about homesickness. He didn’t do that: at one point, the exhausted captain looks at the photo of his wife and kids. This simplicity of trait has all the power of evidence.

This new style is to be explained by the fact that we are dealing with the work of a metteur en scène and not that of an auteur. And, for once, it’s for the better. There’s nothing here that isn’t justified by some notion of a purely physical order. For example, the character of the sergeant is a purely cinematographic creation: he is fascinated by the immobility of his paralyzed colonel, which contrasts with this ever-changing world, and devotes great care to him. “Tell me the story of the foot-soldier, and I will tell you the story of all wars”, goes the epigraph. And the story of the foot-soldiers is summarized through an accumulation of facts: the best shots of the films depict soldiers, dishevelled, sweaty but always active, the one scratching himself, the one removing his shoes in fatigue, the one contorting on ground, the one struck down dead with a weapon in hand, like a Hugo hero (played remarkably by Anthony Ray, son of the director); others show us, thanks to excellent photography, all the sparse “black and white colours” across nature, shadows of clouds that cover combatants in darkness, the sun that seeps through the woods, the blades of grass of unreal tones that form the real setting for the battle. One should also note some very nice ideas, the paralyzed colonel getting cured suddenly while mechanically holding the cigarette he smokes, the sergeant who pretends not to see the enemies on his heels and kills them in one blow, the lieutenant’s clenched fist on which the film closes.

Despite inspired by a classicism of admirable reserve, Men in War could be criticized for some overly studied shot sequences, especially the first one, for some borrowings from the crude art of ellipses, the radio face cut in two by the framing, the militiaman’s hand spread over the tree he hides behind, a soldier’s death seen through the movement of his feet. But the discretion of the mise en scène that seeks, most of all, the effectiveness of a simple and unique detail, there where others prefer to disperse interest, succeeds in imposing itself on us. Let’s note, finally, the remarkable musical score by Elmer Bernstein (whose services are sought by the greatest directors today).

Is Men in War warmongering or anti-militarist? I would be hard pressed to say since it’s one of those rare films whose impartiality we can praise. The work of a man preoccupied solely by appearances and their infinite richness, it allows us to see, and therein lies the essential. Up to you to make up your own mind.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Safari

Markets don’t pass judgment on the desires they satisfy.

– What Money Can’t Buy (Michael Sandel)

 

At first glance, neither does Safari. Ulrich Seidl’s remarkable, disturbing film accompanies a German-speaking white family on their big game-hunting trip in Africa. Each member of the family leads an outing in which they track down an animal on their wish list, shoot it, exchange congratulations, feed it its notional last meal, prepare the dead creature for the photograph and pose with it. Interspersed with these hunting scenes are interviews with the family members, who speak about topics ranging from their ideas about and feelings during hunting to their preferred choice of weapons and animals. There are also comic interludes with an elderly white couple relaxing at the same facility. If Safari’s subject and quasi-structuralist approach is reminiscent of Hatari!, it’s because Seidl’s film uses the same alternating pattern as Hawks to closely interrogate the notion of a group of white people hanging out in the African wilderness as something more than just Christian men and women enjoying their God-given right.

A more pertinent kinship, however, is with fellow Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s 1966 experimental travelogue Unsere Afrikareise. It appears that much has changed in the game-hunting scene in the fifty years since Kubelka’s film. The industry’s more organized, with licenses for hunting ranches given to private players, including European settlers. There’s no interaction with the locals necessary anymore, every detail of the tour having been prearranged as part of the package. Most importantly, the technology has improved: rifles are now mounted on tripods instead of the bare shoulders of accompanying Africans. The rifles themselves have become more accurate, resulting in fewer shots fired and cleaner kills—a moral and aesthetic question as much as technological, since it avoids the unseemly sight of animals suffering long because of low-grade ammunition and bungled shots. But where Kubelka’s work sets sound against image from the get-go to subvert the original meaning of these sounds and images, Seidl remains much more withdrawn, presenting the hunting scenes largely as they happen in real time.

Seidl’s film has been called a documentary, but there’s ample evidence why that label doesn’t wholly stick. The hunting scenes that we see are fly-on-the-wall documents in which none of the participants recognize the presence of the camera, even in passing. Their voices and the sounds of the environment are captured in a hyper-realistic sound mix that could only have been possible with elaborate preplanning. Unlike in Kubelka’s film, it’s never clear if an animal has really been shot or if the camera’s recoil and the gunfire are manufactured. The interviews and the shots of the elderly couple are frontal tableaux typical of Seidl, and possess a carefully crafted vertical symmetry and a horizon way above or below the median. Seidl is interested in the process of game-hunting, its technique, its rituals, the social and psychological stakes in it for the participants. A large part of the film involves the hunters tracking, holding their breath, waiting for the animal to be at an appropriate spot and shooting range. There’s a tension between movement and stasis within the hunting episodes as well as between these passages and the interviews.

Safari doesn’t overtly take a moral stance here. In fact, it gives the family members, the elderly couple and the ranch owner, another German, sufficient scope to present their point of view. Their testimonies are frank; they don’t claim their actions to be morally defensible but they do evoke nuances of game hunting that often gets lost in passionate outrage against the practice: not just the economic benefits to host countries, but also the fact that the animals they target are invariably old alpha males that obstruct younger males from breeding and need to be put down in any case. The ranch owner invokes the problems of doing business in a recently-liberated African country as a white man, the importance of game-hunting to conservation as well as the necessity for humans to be mindful of their impact on the environment. Except for the elderly couple’s well-meaning racist comments, the film diminishes none of these testimonies and invites its audience to cut the Gordian knot itself if it wants to. The very presence of Europeans in Africa, lording over its animal resources thanks to the fruits of capitalism, produces an afterimage of colonial history that need not be overemphasized. Additionally, the family we see is a typical bourgeois unit, the patriarch overseeing each hunt and the son inheriting the practice from his father.

Instead, Seidl shifts the rhetorical responsibilities wholly on to the film’s editing: alongside the field trips and interviews are extremely graphic scenes of the killed animals being skinned, dismembered and disembowelled by the local African employees at the ranch. Everything about the hunt so far was “neat”: the shooting was done from a distance under guidance with one clean shot, the stuffed heads on the ranch owner’s walls are spotless as though they were ordered off a catalogue, even the transport of the bodies was taken care of by the tour operator. But the process of the dead animal becoming a trophy is anything but clean. These passages, in which African men take the animal apart with axes, saws and kitchen knives, serve as the underbelly to the more sanitized image of game-hunting the white people of the film experience. The very choice of including these images constitutes a stand against game-hunting; it de-aestheticizes the practice in the same way the revelation of the mechanism by which cultural objects are produced distances their consumer. The sight of a wobbly giraffe neck is a psychologically-potent undermining of the phallic force of the rifles.

Seidl’s interest, as in Paradise: Love, is also in the ways the tourism industry has inflected the traditional relationship between the Western world and the Global South. In this light, the people in the film make up a microcosm of the workings of multinational capitalism: the European ranch owner caters to his European clients while outsourcing the “back-end” operations of the service to Africans. The final section of the film turns to Africans who live with their families on the ranch in huts. They pose for Seidl’s camera holding smoked meat and other products of the animal they’ve just treated. It is plain that Safari intends this to be a contrast, but here it runs the risk of reproducing the discourse it seeks to overturn. The Africans, it appears, are the only ones really close to nature, the only ones engaged in hunting for the purpose of sustenance. They eat meat and exotic roots for the camera without a word, enjoying the fruits of their unalienated labour. Despite Seidl’s motivation, these tableaux echo the noble savage myth in their refusal to make it a more participatory affair.

On the other hand, these shots of the locals do throw into question the market-driven argument that game hunting improves the financial situation of the host countries. The money, clearly, hasn’t trickled down, the cosy bungalow of the ranch owner being a far cry from the ramshackle huts of the locals. The idea that sacrificing a few animals for the greater cause of preservation and human well-being rests on the belief that a monetary value could be ascribed to lives of these animals. In an early scene with the old couple, the man names various animals available at the resort for hunt while the lady reads the price per unit of each from the catalogue. A while later, the family lists out the roster of their favourite rifles as well as the animals on their bucket list. The success of Safari lies in its non-polemical invitation to reflect on the limits of markets, on our basis for ascribing values to things and beings. For, as Sandel has demonstrated, once moral questions are formulated in economic terms, it’s a slippery slope of brute logic.

Frozen in Hate

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 392; 21 July 1957.

The Last Hunt

We know that almost all Westerns are of great topical interest. The journey back in time gets the viewer interested in political theses and it gives progressive filmmakers a greater latitude in establishing their ideas.

The Last Hunt, like certain other films by director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value) attacks racism: it tells us the struggle of two buffalo hunters, who have directly contradictory ideas about their professions, at the turn of last century. Charlie kills for the pleasure of killing; Sandy needs money and is repulsed by the massacre he commits. This contrast explains the attitude of the two heroes towards their fellowmen. Charlie has a profound contempt for Indians, whom he kills every time he has the chance, and for humanity in general. Disgusted, Sandy leaves, taking with him the squaw who refused Charlie’s animal love. The last hunt is not to be, since Charlie, on watch outside Sandy’s refuge one winter night, dies in the cold. This statue of ice from the film’s last images – the evil eye, revolver in hand – resumes in a striking way the sterility, impotence and the ridiculousness of ultimately self-destructive, racist hate.

The intelligence of Brooks’ scenario lies in the fact that it explains the conflicts of a racial order through psychological motifs, through the taste for violence: killing Indians or massacring buffaloes helps satisfy one’s unhealthy needs without being pursued by justice. In contrast to literature, like that of a number of directors from across the Atlantic (Losey’s The Lawless, Biberman’s Salt of the Earth), it refuses pure and simple racism and relates it to the vagaries of individual conscience with great objectivity.

However, the film takes into account only one aspect of the problem, whereas the transposition should have allowed it broach more burning topics without fear of repercussions: if racial prejudice still exists in the United States, it’s to be explained first of all by a certain intellectual movement, typically of academic origin and completely alien to the desire for violence. Discrimination today affects Whites too, who are now victims of Blacks or, especially, dissident Whites, as much as it does Blacks.

Richard Brooks’ well-known honesty, so far rewarded, finds its limits here and the mise en scène affirms both the high and low points of the script. The Last Hunt is a curious Western, extremely slow and barely commercial. Brooks substitutes for the application and inventive sobriety of his previous films a somewhat belaboured sobriety. And there’s no contradiction between these two propositions: it’s a question of placing the characters within a framework that eliminates elements foreign to the psychology and the intentions of the auteur, particularly grand spectacle, fights and situation scenes. But if this kind of intellectual cinema is new and more probing than in the rare films that inaugurated it, is it desirable? Does it indicate progress? It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the anti-racist plea would’ve found a greater force in the exploitation of genre conventions than in this rather literary style, which instils – deliberately, I believe – sadness, boredom, barrenness through a sluggish narrative, perpetually dark colour palette and uncertain direction of actors.

These comments don’t stem from a misplaced sense of severity. The suspension of the mise en scène can be explained by the orientation of the script: the film describes beings in flight, real bodies without soul, and their blood-tainted existence. One must recall the splendid final image in this regard, which justifies the film’s style to the letter. None of this is cheerful. If The Last Hunt stands the test of time, it’s perhaps because the cinematographer, Russell Harlan, foremost of the chief operators in Hollywood, has been able to pin down this curious universe in images and because Stewart Granger and especially Robert Taylor, who gets his best role here, have been able to “embody” beings who are tortured and tormented for no reason other than the emptiness of their conscience, beings “devoid of life”.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Arjun Reddy

That it’s a rickety, confused film aside, the fulgurant popularity of Arjun Reddy, Sandeep Vanga’s debut about a macho young doctor’s failure in love, his suffering, his suffering, his suffering and his salvation needs consideration: Kabir Singh, its Hindi remake, is the biggest hit of the year and the film is being remade in other languages as well. At a point in time when public imagination is mostly occupied by films “inspired by true events”, the success of Arjun Reddy seems almost anomalous. The negative publicity around the film, with protests from the moral brigade as well as women’s groups, which felt it necessary to attack it by policing young people dating, can explain the box-office, but not the film’s apparently genuine acclaim, especially among women. It’s perhaps that the protagonist, Arjun Reddy (Vijay Devarkonda), represents the self-image of a new generation that knows what it’s doing, “doesn’t see caste”, and questions the values the previous generation took for granted, but he is far from the first to do so, being only the next step in the evolution of the modern Indian male Nagesh Kukunoor portrayed in his debut film Hyderabad Blues twenty years ago.

While the key to the film’s popular triumph might simply be the combination of a handsome lead actor, angsty music, edgy violence and a wily marketing campaign, part of the film’s appeal, I think, also derives from the oppositions Vanga brings into play. Arjun is a genius surgeon with a character flaw. We first see him dipping a bottle of alcohol into the apartment tank to dilute the booze—an epigrammatic image of self-centeredness. He constantly smokes or drinks; the only time his mouth is free is when it’s under the surgical mask. The first time we see his face, it emerges from wisps of smoke, as though he were literally on fire. Hot in his pants, he barges into a neighbouring apartment, brandishes a knife at a friend-with-benefits to force her to remove her pants. He is interrupted, so he tosses a handful of ice into his trousers to cool down. But a while later, he heads to the hospital, where he explains the imminent procedure with great patience to an elderly man in Hyderabadi Urdu. This split image assures us that, personally tarnished he may be, he is professionally unimpeachable and, since his profession involves people, morally too. The flaw, which changes through the film, only serves to reinforce his righteousness and certitude.

Even though she is only half a foot shorter, Shalini Pandey (as Preethi, Arjun’s romantic interest of a higher caste, Tulu background) seems diminutive in comparison to Devarkonda—a difference in perceived height that gives a paternal dimension to the motherless Arjun. The film cuts back and forth between Arjun’s ruined present and his halcyon days at the medical college, between the clean-shaven boyish youth of the university and the brooding Apollo of emanating locks of today, between the upright man of action and the horizontal, inertial being. Vanga has a taste for tonal contrasts: a fight scene at the college quickly turns into a man-to-man talk over cigarettes; Arjun and Preethi’s first meeting is cut to a Carnatic song; even the film’s upbeat ending is scored to a wistful score denoting a bitter victory. It may be that the audience takes an instant liking to outrageously good-looking people put in dark situations: it gives the feeling of being closer to otherwise unapproachable figures. Just as when Arjun later sulks against pretty landscapes of Europe later in the film. Vanga rallies his scenes around the firsts of Arjun’s life—the first glance, first kiss, first smile, first sex, first slap, first drink, first drug, first accident etc.—the endless repetition of which renders them banal.

Arjun Reddy has been taken apart for putting Arjun’s obnoxious behaviour on a pedestal and for its apparent misogyny. It’s an important, valid objection, but one that doesn’t take into account how the film’s formal strategies work against prevalent misogynistic principles of Indian cinema to an appreciable degree. It is true that Preethi is a docile cipher with no character—par for the course—but it is also true that the character is intentionally hollowed out for the film to present an idea of ghostly romance in which a strong, fully-formed personality completely takes over a weak, unformed one. Except for one false scene at her home, where she vainly imitates Arjun, the film is never about Preethi and always about him. There’s no courtship involved in their romance, only Arjun’s compulsion to protect her from perceived threat. The film clearly registers the discomfiting quality of their dynamic: till her smile following their first kiss, the baby-faced Preethi is completely passive to Arjun’s actions. Shots of her huddled with her equally hapless classmates, combined with the lack of any approving reaction shot from anyone to Arjun’s behaviour, cut a sorry—not romantic—image.

Preethi is harassed by a guy from another college. It is of note that the harassment itself—which would have been photographed in all its sordidness in another film—is elided and the viewer is not given the chance to partake in that humiliation. All we see is Arjun’s reaction to the event and Preethi’s ensuing relief. Arjun slaps Preethi once in the film. The action is presented in two shots joined by a cheat cut: we see him moving his hand and then we see her flinch. Again, the film refuses a chance to make the slap seem more ‘realistic’. (Preethi slapping Arjun earlier, in contrast, is part of the master shot). The scene in which he forces a woman at knife-point is played as a comedy, but not without turning it back on to Arjun, who remembers his dean’s warning about the scalpel turning into a weapon in his hands. Finally, unlike most Indian film heroes, Arjun doesn’t turn hateful of all women when his romance fails. Sure, he still loves her, but the film doesn’t present this failure as some injustice meted out to him. This is one reason the unending stretch of Arjun drinking, drugging himself don’t elicit pity as much as a low-key disgust.

Another reason these passages don’t settle into self-sympathy is because the film is too much in love with the actor to reduce him to that. Arjun Reddy is wholly a film about Vijay Devarkonda. Like the title that fills the screen edge-to-edge, the actor suffuses the film with his very being. Vanga’s camera is fixated on Devarkonda walking, sitting and, more often, sleeping. When he is seated on a chair after a surgery with his bloody gloves on, talking to a nurse who crouches in a mix of fear and maternal attention, the camera also crouches and the actor appears like a king on a throne. It’s curious how reluctant the director is to cut away from shots of Devarkonda. A good part of his scenes takes place in the master shot where actors come into the frame to talk to Arjun rather than getting their own shots. In an exchange with a college administrator, the camera remains on Arjun’s face—again, photographed from below—even when it’s his interlocutor that’s speaking. Elsewhere, Arjun scares his friend away from the bathroom and, even though the dialogue between the two is underway, the camera is fixed on Devarkonda speaking to his friend screen.

The director demonstrates considerable trust in the two principal actors to hold their shots, which results in far fewer edits than mainstream films hurl at us. The film’s central scene of the couple arguing (about others) is mostly a single shot, with the two actors approaching the camera as the argument grows more dramatic. It’s a dumb idea of blocking that imitates a passer-by’s point of view, but it holds our attention in its dumbness. In the subsequent shot, she clings to him, begging him not to go, as he tries to writhe out of her grasp—he wants to only hold, not be held. It’s a key image of the film, for it’s the first (and maybe the only) time we see him uncomfortable in his space. Brought up in a mansion in Banjara Hills, Arjun is a master of the universe for whom there are no barriers. He gets to any place just by wanting to: lecture halls, women’s hostel, shooting spots, other people’s houses. He wills private spaces into being and the rest of the world enables it for him. Even when he’s thrown out, he makes it clear that he leaves of his own accord.

Arjun is, however, a static character—he remains the same from start to finish. In one early scene, his grandmother (Kanchana) tells her friends about Arjun being persistent about finding a lost toy as a child. Bizarrely enough, her friends interpret this symptom of pig-headedness as a sign of hope against hope. You expect that his character arc will involve him learning the importance of letting go, of learning that the world is not always for his taking. But no. Persistent, Arjun is till the end. Even as a grown up, he behaves like an entitled child, complete with a diaper at one point. He points at people and they come and go per his wish. The girl he chooses to fall in love with, too, first appears before him among a row of other girls, like products at a toy store window. Preethi is a toy, and he moves her limbs like an action figure. Arjun’s selfishness is amply underscored throughout the film; he attempts suicide on the day of his brother’s wedding. Back in medical college, the dean scolds him for turning a football match into a bloody skirmish and shaming the institute, Arjun tells him that the fight was justified and he did it for the sake of the institute. “That’s how I am”, he tells the dean.

And so, despite its vivid detailing, the film turns out incurably blinkered. It wants us to see barriers when none exist. It sidesteps the chief question the plot poses: why does Arjun’s romance fail? He thinks it was the caste system and the tradition of arranged marriages that did him in. For a character who is proven to be above institutions and people—all those invisible barriers real people have to put up with—this faux-victimization doesn’t cut it for a moment. There’s no answer, for instance, as to why Arjun doesn’t go pick Preethi up the day after he’s been thrown out of her wedding. (Her consent was never a question anyway.) The real answer is that the film needs time to wallow long in the sorrow of a man whose only grief in life so far is a lost toy. “Suffering is private”, says Arjun’s grandmother understandingly. But Vanga makes a show of it: the spectacle of a vampire left with nothing to feed on but itself. Because nothing really changes at the end of the whole ordeal, pretty much anything can (and does) go into the final one hour of the film. Scenes ramble, organization goes haywire and filler shots abound. Secondary actors get more work in entirely dispensable scenes: there’s a particularly trying set of scenes with a housemaid.

Through all the physical and professional degradation Arjun goes through—he gets into trouble after he operates under the influence—he remains morally and philosophically sound. The more he goes into the dumps, it appears, the more he is capable of seeing things better than others. He maintains that it’s only a phase that he’s going through; the very conviction that it’s only a phase bestows on him a wisdom superior to the clamouring crowd around him. It’s evident that the film will snap out of this stupor only with a sacrifice: it’s predictably his grandmother, the only person with an intellect and moral sensitivity comparable to Arjun. They are given a tender final eyeline match that doesn’t correspond with the film’s reality. Her death cures everything—in other words, nothing was wrong in the first place—he reconciles with his family and friends, and goes on an Italian vacation. In a self-parodical, incredibly hackneyed sequence, Arjun stares into the infinite indifferent to the pretty sights of Cinque Terre (the film isn’t indifferent though). We are supposed to read this as some sort of grieving and maturation, wholly at odds with the static character of the picture. The film is wrapped up with a glibly conservative photo finish as Arjun, non-ironically, is shown assimilated in the same structures he earlier railed against.

I think Sandeep Vanga is justified in making Arjun Reddy all about its titular character at the expense of others. But his belief that the spontaneous combustion of an absurdly overprivileged male is of interest in itself is not backed up by the insight required to validate it. Between defenders who champion it as a film that goes into sticky territories of human experience in disregard of liberal holy cows and critics who have objected to its narrative politics, I tend to favour the latter. Asking filmmakers to be more morally accountable and to interrogate the choices they make is not antithetical to a pursuit of truth. Images don’t simply translate reality according to the artist’s ideas. They inscribe themselves into a representational history that modulates their meaning and affect. It would do well for filmmakers to be aware of the language they speak.

A “Nonsense” Gem

Arts no. 471; 23 September 1959.

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

We aren’t surprised that Passez muscade, whose original title is the deliciously euphonic and mysterious Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, appears in France some eighteen years after it was made. This attempt, which the Surrealists gladly categorize among the twenty greatest dates in the history of cinema, perhaps constitutes the best example of nonsense offered to us on screen. W. C. Fields’ film, like Hellzapoppin’ which follows it chronologically, goes farther than the Marx Brothers without however equalling them. And the public is likely to express its frustration by a certain reserve.

The champions of nonsense for the sake of nonsense will praise it to the skies for its intentional alone. Those who hate nonsense will leave the theatre furious at the end of fifteen minutes. However, in fact, if this film is so amusing, it’s somewhat despite the nonsense. Because the idea of this genre is to go against all established rules, especially those of good taste, quality and reason. To put it simply, let’s say that the result tends to become better when the film becomes worse. The critic has nothing to counter this perfectly-founded argument, all the more so because Fields has thought ahead. Through a device often reused since, he tells us the story of a crazy old actor who submits a nonsensical script to a director, a script which will obviously be rejected but whose unfolding on screen we follow.

To be sure, it’s not unpleasant to see the cinematic materialization of automatic writing, which so far has seemed to be the domain of animation. Animation makes everything possible and it’s been a long time since the viewer has batted an eyelid to such excess of improbability. On the other hand, the unreality of the filmed image, rarely highlighted, strikes us at every step. These mad car races, these inaccessible rocky peaks, these free falls of the hero across space fire our imagination. But a film like Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, which accepts the laws of logic, is ten times funnier, ten times truer and also ten times more beautiful. To discover the real through falsehood, or falsehood through the real, is a more successful approach than that of Fields, forced to remain forever in a purely critical universe.

The absurd soon becomes tiresome and the amusing aspects that remain could also have been part of a more realistic and commercial movie. I’m thinking of the beautiful scenes between Fields and the bar owner, between the director and his young actress. Such observational humour, which has no place in a burlesque and which is generally banished from the Marx brothers’ films, is ultimately Fields’ greatest success.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Ismael's Ghosts

“I have to reinvent myself”, says the filmmaker Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), begging his wife Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) not to leave him. It’s hard to disagree with, considering Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts is yet another autobiographical work tossing at us the same names, themes and hang-ups that characterize his work with hardly anything to speak for it. All through cinema history, middle-aged male filmmakers, generally in their fifties, seem to have had this compulsion to fictionalize themselves on screen, warts and all, regularly mistaking self-exhibition for personal art. Their urge to either exaggerate or downplay their perceived faults more often than not comes across as self-approved absolution, non-apologies by way of apology, and barely-veiled exercises in narcissism and self-therapy. Even the classics of this “genre” (The Quiet Man, 8½, All that Jazz, Deconstructing Harry) are clouded by an over-proximity to the subject. These mid-career works are, it must be noted, different from personal projects filmmakers begin their career with: while the latter spring from a necessity to express, the films in question are invariably symptoms of a creative exhaustion if not an existential crisis. Ismael’s Ghosts provides little justification as to why the personal story of a womanizing filmmaker getting into an artistic block should interest the viewer.

The film begins as a zappy espionage thriller about a diplomat-turned-traitor Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). We don’t see Ivan, but a legend is built around him by the other diplomats at Quai d’Orsay. This sequence, it turns out, is a film by Ismael—a deliberately-dumb provincial fantasy of exciting life—based on his estranged brother, now posted in Egypt (and actually based on Desplechin’s own diplomat brother Fabrice). Ismael claims to be a widower, his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) having disappeared twenty-one years ago. He has a tender filial relationship with Carlotta’s filmmaker father Henri Bloom (László Szabó), also prone to nightmares and panic attacks like him. In a flashback presented through her perspective, Ismael solicits Sylvia in a sticky but authentic manner whose presumptuousness is tempered by the formal language of courtship. In a humorously creepy scene, he insists on entering Sylvia’s apartment against her objections, only to inspect its mise en scène and get out in a jiffy. For Ismael, the apartment space is an index to Sylvia’s personality, a manifestation of the id that reveals everything one needs to know about a person. He should know: his own ancestral home in Roubaix, where he hides after fleeing a shoot, is a storehouse of supressed memories and unregulated drives.

Psychoanalysis and its language are, of course, permanent fixtures in Desplechin, whose previous two features were called Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, Three Memories of My Youth. The repressed phantom of Ismael’s Ghosts is Carlotta, who walks back into Ismael’s life as though spat back by the sea. What ensues is an unwinding of Ismael’s personal and creative life, as Sylvia leaves in heartbreak and jealousy. After sleeping with Carlotta, a hurting Ismael abandons his ongoing film to go hole up in Roubaix (Desplechin’s own hometown), where he hallucinates and goes into a downward spiral like Scottie Ferguson. When his producer comes home to take him back to Paris to finish the film, he claims he’s grieving his brother who died years ago. The producer discovers that his brother, the real Ivan, is well alive and furious at Ismael’s attempt to use his life as movie fodder. Ismael, it would seem, “kills” people off in order to both suck up the sympathy of people willing to love him and feed his own creation. When the producer confronts him again, he narrates the rest of his film: an increasingly crazy tale of international espionage that finds Ivan mistaking a Jackson Pollock scholar for a Russian spy. In this frenzy, Ismael shoots his producer in the arm. Just because.

Ismael’s Ghosts is pieced together through the perspectives of several characters. The scenes become progressively shorter as the film proceeds, sometimes reduced to a couple of shots. This perspectival dispersal isn’t dissimilar to Pollock’s “all over” paintings which, the Russian scholar claims, are actually figurative and compress Pollock’s personal relations onto the canvas. But it’s Ismael’s perspective that the film privileges. “My job (as a filmmaker) is to disappear” he claims to an actress he sleeps with (and who portrays Ivan’s girlfriend in the film within the film, perversely enough). And the action movie Ismael is making, which we see vast stretches of, is Desplechin’s way of disappearing in a film that’s otherwise too full of him. In genre terms, Ismael’s Ghosts is a schizophrenic oscillation between comedy, horror, action, melodrama (containing a couple of scenes with genuine affect) and Bergmanesque art film. It’s a highly film-aware work, employing both silent cinema tropes (irises, superpositions and back-projection) and a baroque aesthetic of accentuated colour, flamboyant camera movements, a florid string score and disjunctive edits. The actors place themselves on the neurotic scale, their caffeinated body language and expressions registering as parapraxes. There’s a lot of dressing and undressing in the film, which I suppose is also symbolic in some way. All this hyperactivity and intertextuality, however, masks a void at the heart of the film, a lack of faith in itself. Desplechin’s cinema needs a reboot.

The Double Lover

When, in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel and Carrière had their characters wake up from a nightmare only to find themselves in another, they were mocking the practice of bourgeois cinema to neatly pack middle-class fears into exciting but essentially harmless narrative excursions. The tendency allows the characters and the audience to get a taste of the life on the “other side” but also maintain distance by waking up/returning home when things get too hot. Freud demonstrated that dreams aren’t arbitrary images but rigorously-structured emanations of the subconscious. The Freudian invasion of cinema, however, has meant that anything put in a dreamlike narrative is expected to be meaningfully assimilated into the film’s structure. In François Ozon’s psychosexual drama The Double Lover, an apparent reworking of a Joyce Carol Oates novel, pretty much anything goes. The protagonist Chloé (Marine Vacth) may or may not be lying, may or may not be hallucinating, may or may not know the people around her. Either way, it is of little consequence. To her shrink, she says lines like “I want to remain weak” and “I exist when you see me like that”. The Double Lover would’ve functioned as a camp spoof of European art movies had it not been so serious about itself.

There is a story, though. Chloé, an ex-model, has pain in her stomach, but her doctor tells her there’s nothing physically wrong with her (first of the several false flags the film plants). She is sent to a psychiatrist, Paul (Jérémie Renier), who falls in love and moves in with her to a new apartment. Chloé discovers the existence of a lookalike of Paul called Louis, also a psychiatrist, from whom Paul is apparently estranged. Wanting to know everything about her dodgy but loving boyfriend, Chloé takes sessions with Louis, who turns out to be professionally and temperamentally the opposite of his brother. He humiliates Chloé, becomes increasingly punitive and finally rapes her, which Chloé, of course, likes—this domination cures her of her frigidity though not her pains. Paul proposes marriage, forcing Chloé to put an end to her trysts with Louis, who reveals a dark secret from the brothers’ past.

Chloé works at the Palais de Tokyo as a museum guard and the gallery’s white walls and empty exhibition spaces register as her psychological landscapes: the visceral photographs and tortured sculptures we see are, in fact, derived from images from The Double Lover. The film develops wholly from Chloé’s broken perspective, which justifies distortions of narrative information, but renders the reality of other characters irrelevant. The film, in fact, elides one crucial information in order to wrap up the plot. A creepy-seeming, horror-movie neighbour is thrown in for easy chills, and to provide a relief from the sight of the same two actors. Ozon uses a soundtrack full of false cues, always implying terror where none exists. His film recalls a host of predecessors: Hitchcock most of all, but also Cronenberg of Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method, Polanski of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, De Palma of Body Double and Passion, and even Aronofsky. In fact, The Double Lover in on such a familiar narrative and aesthetic beat that it seems machine-generated from these films: the same use of old American pop songs, the same circular-spiral camera and architectural descriptions, the same mirror motifs that are by now self-parodical arthouse shibboleths.

Ozon’s film equates psychoanalysis with fucking, both forms of the same action of penetrating a person. The idea is, of course, rather old and rests on the dual implication of the verb “to know”. The three characters take turns exercising phallic violence on each other, reflecting the changing power equation between them. Ozon’s camera constantly zooms in and out in an imitation of the sexual act. At one point, when Chloé orgasms, the camera penetrates her mouth and reaches her vocal cord. In one of the film’s first images, a shot of her vagina dissolves to a shot of her Marion Crane eye. Given it’s a film about parasitic twins, even a brash rape fantasy is furnished as character psychology. True to theme, Ozon uses several cloven compositions—split screens, but also CGI sequences of characters physically bifurcating. There’s a music-video like passage of twin boys wrestling with each other as Vacth and Renier stare directly at the camera. The glimpse of post-winter Paris and Ozon’s colour-coded mise en scène aren’t enough to relieve us from the airlessness of this by-the-numbers thriller.

Claire's Camera

Minor project by auteurs can sometimes serve as keys to their entire body of work. Think of Fellini’s A Director’s Notebook, Godard’s Scenario for Passion or Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire. Until Claire’s Camera, I could appreciate the wispy pleasures of Hong Sang-soo’s films, the super-light production values, their handcrafted toy-like structure and their endearing improvisational texture, but I couldn’t understand what Hong was getting at as an artist. Running for about 68 minutes—a wonderful runtime for films to have—Claire’s Camera is one more of Hong’s parallel universes, another permutation of his typical character descriptions, dramatic situations and scene compositions. But I think it offers something more and comes close to a statement of intent by this notoriously self-effacing filmmaker: making films is a way to deal with loneliness, to experience catharsis by way of representation.

What allows for this authorial transparency in Claire’s Camera is the presence of the Claire herself, played by a delightful Isabelle Huppert. With her yellow blouse and trench coat, dotted panama hat, little blue handbag and polaroid camera, Claire is an instant screen icon, the kind that makes it to fan art and DVD covers thanks to its unique profile. There’s a perpetually-drunk, philandering fifty-year-old filmmaker character, So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), whose film is playing at Cannes and who is obviously a clone of Hong’s, but he’s not the director’s alter ego here. It’s Claire, obsessed with taking pictures of people, even when they are visibly in distress. She tells So that people are not the same after being photographed. In other words, people are mystified or demystified in their photos; they’re always more or less than what they were, but never the same.

When asked why she takes photos, Claire responds that “the only way to change things is to look at things again very slowly”. Hong’s cinema, too, is about relooking, reexperiencing the same things over and over with the hope of illumination or change. The repetitions and restaging in these films function as a kind of therapy, a dwelling on small details that guilty conscience takes to be the source of big mistakes. There is then a philosophical underpinning to the reverberations of Hong’s universe—a notion of eternal return that is at once cathartic and hopeful. Yourself and Yours, Hong’s previous film which makes its appearance in a half-hidden poster in the first shot here, imagined the revival of a broken relationship through the reiteration of the gestures that birthed the relationship in the first place. The film was made the same year Hong filed for divorce over his affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who plays the part of Man-hee, a film agent once in affair with director So, in Claire’s Camera.

Hong shot the film in Cannes in 2016, a year he wasn’t showing anything at the ongoing festival. A thoroughly anti-touristic filmmaker, Hong nevertheless takes inspiration from the locations he makes films in. The sun-kissed Riviera setting allows him to pay tribute to his French influences in subtle but extraordinary ways. There’s, of course, the reference to Rohmer in the title, the final freeze frame à la The 400 Blows, and Huppert’s profession as a music teacher. It is, however, the spectre of Marguerite Duras that looms large in the film. Director So has Claire read him lines from C’est Tout—a charming image of Huppert speaking French in a Korean film she’s supposed to speak English in. Like the works of Duras, Claire’s Camera seems to unfold in an impossible, perhaps cyclic timeline. Huppert’s Claire is a kind of time master, who is able to meet characters for the first time multiple times. The film shuttles between past and present, but it isn’t certain if these time relations are sacrosanct.

Like in Last Year at Marienbad, we aren’t sure that the characters have met each other earlier, and that they are only pretending otherwise. The same words, shots, sounds and situations float around the film to be picked up later as an echo. Claire’s Camera is so chock-a-block with twin scenes, dialogues and compositions—two scenes of brutal disavowal, two scenes of three people eating, two shots of Man-hee filmed from the back, two zooms of her working at the office, two romantic escalations between So and women and so on—that the viewer can predict the sort of vignettes that will follow. Hong’s film is a low-key exploration of memory and forgetfulness in the vein of Hiroshima mon amour, another film about the encounters of a filmmaker in a land half a world away.

Hong’s is a cinema of two shots. The more the merrier, to be sure, but shots with more than two characters tend to be unstable or turn into drinking binges. One the other hand, shots with one character, such as someone smoking or walking, are always small pauses or intimations for another character to arrive. Hong’s films appear to be acting out in their form, as it were, the fear of being alone. The ideal is two—the number that calls for social drinking, confession or romantic advances. Claire’s Camera contains individual scenes with five of the six pairs possible with his four-character setup. Together with countless similar shots from Hong’s oeuvre, they constitute an exorcism, and an epigrammatic definition of what cinema is: two people talking.

On the Beach at Night Alone

            Made the same year as Claire’s Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone begins with a closeup that becomes a two shot through a reverse zoom. The scene is a café in a western country during winter. Two Korean women (Kim Min-hee and Seo Young-hwa) discuss how beautiful and liveable the city is. We aren’t told which city this is—clues suggest that it’s in Germany—and it’s only referred to as “abroad” when Kim’s character, Young-hee, is back home. A street market is visible at the edge of the frame, but that’s all the glimpse we get. Hong as a filmmaker never allows himself the decadence of a pretty sight. The second part of the film takes place in a supposedly-picturesque, sleepy town in the northern part of South Korea, but the director shows us nothing outside of a nondescript street corner. A hotel room with French windows opening to a beautiful view of the sea is expressly blocked by a window cleaner, whose purpose in the film is just that.

On the Beach forms a narrow diptych with Claire’s Camera: both are set in European countries in opposed times of the year; both feature Kim as a temperamental film professional jilted by a middle-aged filmmaker. But the driving perspective of the narrative is entirely the women’s rather than that of Hong’s alter-ego. Seo plays a wistful woman who has left her husband to move to Europe. Young-hee is spending time with Seo, but her thoughts are with her filmmaker-lover back home. The two women find European men attractive as well as gentle: they play piano for her, they serve her food and, most of all, they don’t question her. The Korean men Hong populates the film with, on the other hand, are just short of vultures. They are presented as presumptuous if not creepy, overbearing and unduly inquisitive. Young-hee tries to start her life anew in both Europe and back home, but is thwarted by Korean men in both cases: the European section ends with a Korean stalker literally carrying her away from a beach.

The uniform and unsubtle manner in which Korean men are caricatured here leads to only one inference: Hong is projecting. Excusing himself by pointing to the failing of all Korean men is no excuse, so he incriminates himself more directly in the inevitable, large dinner scene that forms the film’s climax. Young-hee’s filmmaker-lover is drinking with her and his group of assistants when the discussion shifts to his ongoing film. He talks about his personal approach to filmmaking, prompting Young-hee to wonder if it isn’t boring to talk about oneself all the time. The director’s coterie of yes-men mutters something about the irrelevance of subject matter. Young-hee launches into a righteous outburst questioning the director’s right to make films about his ex-lovers. The filmmaker breaks into tears over his own torment and diffuses the tension of the scene. Hong’s men are usually bumbling, but the serious director here is all the more comical in his seriousness. Hong is clearly in a self-flagellating mode, but his character contours are so soft, the strokes so light that it doesn’t feel exhibitionist in the way Lars von Trier’s recent works do.

While On the Beach fails its male characters, it gives its women characters the space and voice they deserve. Although structured around absent men, the first part of the film is simply images of women eating, walking, talking and shopping together. Young-hee gets to deliver a long tirade on love during a binge and then kiss another woman, Jun-hee (Song Seon-mi), with whom she develops something resembling a romance. And in what counts as a shooting star in Hong’s cinematic sky, she gets a solo shot in which she smokes and sings a song. In the final shot of the film, she wakes up at a beach to thank a man whose feet alone we see. Hong’s cinema has prepared us to expect this to turn into a two shot. But no. Framed against a vast grey sky, Young-hee bows to a void and walks away alone—a reversal of the first segment’s ending and a radical assertion of solitude in a cinematic universe mortified by that thought.

CICIM Munich no. 22-23; June 1988.

Le Pont du Nord

French cinema of the last few years is based, above all, on the personality of its directors. To trace great trends in it runs the risk of giving a false impression since they are often foreign or contrary to the personality of the leading filmmakers, who run the risk of being sidestepped by our desire for generalization.

We then run the risk of forgetting unclassifiable auteurs or ones in constant evolution such as Demy, Varda, Biette, Gainsbourg, Serreau or Depardon. We run the risk of forgetting a very important stylistic principle such as Robert Bresson’s Partitivism: in his framing, the director of Lancelot du lac indeed tends to isolate one part of the body, to exclude the head, to favour an object or a series of objects, the moment the interest of the image seems hinged on this body part.

But if one had to absolutely put a label on current French cinema, I’d say that it’s a school of hazard. If the preceding decades had produced an art very much planned out in advance, one which attained its limits because of the permanent repetition of this premeditation, contemporary filmmakers, on the other hand, set out on in search of hazard, which alone seems to be capable of bringing something new. We have here Rozier, Rivette, Pialat, who, in the course of the film (Maine Océan, Le Pont du Nord, À nos amours), veer off into a fascinating, unplanned direction. Even a super-classical filmmaker like Rohmer adopted this practice in Le Rayon vert. This is also the working principle of the magnificent Petite suite vénetienne made by Pascal Kané and of Godard’s films. We even find a premeditated hazard in Bergala (Faux-Fuyants, Où que tu sois), whose scripts set off in directions which (wrongly) seem the products of chance. More simply, such hazard can be discovered by the actor’s improvisation (in Doillon, in Téchiné).

That brings us to a cinema of actors, hinged on the expression of emotions binding two or more characters together. A cinema that replaces social tapestry with bourgeois individualism so criticized by the Marxists. That’s normal for a country like France which, in the past forty years, hasn’t really know great crises: neither famine, nor revolution or dictatorship or war.  This is the cinema of Rohmer, who strikes us with his exacerbated minimalism, of Doillon, whose psychoanalytic sense is in struggle with a taste for improvisation and in whose work love comes about through the artificial creation of a conflict, a breakup, of Pialat, of Breillat (Tapage nocturne) and often of Truffaut (La Femme d’à côté).

There is also a cinema founded on the grandeur of the image which, except in Garrel, seems independent of the principle above. Contrary to what one might suppose, this essentially visual cinema, full of light and shadow effects (Garrel, Bard, Azimi, Duras) is often a broke cinema with a precarious existence. A new variant is the music-video-movie (Beineix and, on a more elaborate level, Carax): every shot wants to be a masterpiece and is built on a strong conception of lighting. But this is often at the expense of the story, if by misfortune, there is a story.

Another characteristic is the dissociation of image and sound, which we find in Hanoun, Duras, Straub, Godard, Ruiz, a new variation on counterpoint as defined by the Russians in 1930. The most famous example is the noise of seagulls over Parisian metro in Godard’s films – a way of glorifying both elements through their contrast, where an audiovisual coincidence usually tends to put the viewer to sleep.

Counterpoint doesn’t stop there in Godard. It is systematized, extended to other elements every time it can be, notably to the relation between different parts of the image. Ruiz, on the other hand, narrates a fantastic story on trivial images (Brise-glace, L’Hypothèse du tableau vole).

In France, there is a family of dark humourists (Mocky, Blier, Marboeuf, Grand-Jouan, Sentier). There is also a whole new art born of the economic necessity of shooting quickly (one to three weeks for Vecchiali, Duras, Biette). We also notice writer-filmmakers moving from one mode of expression to another with the greatest of ease. Among the golden quartet of current literature (Weyergans, Duras, Breillat, Cavanna), three of the four have made films. Rohmer alternates between theatre and cinema. Pierre Kast has been able write a novel, Le Bonheur ou le Pouvoir, the same year he made a film, Le Soleil en face, which are both of high quality. End of specialization…

We also find classical filmmakers of quality (Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut), who – the first two at least – are faithful to a traditional structure in the same genre. More generally in the past few years, we notice a return to narrativity, to a more classical presentation, the structuralist and poetic audacities of post-1968 tending to disappear perhaps under the influence of commercial censorship or self-censorship. It’s difficult today to imagine non-narrative films like those of Bard or Silvina Boissonas, even of Garrel. On the other hand, there is a public and critical consensus towards narrative forms like those of Chabrol and Rohmer, quite identical from one film to another, which allows for a certain perfection but also carries the risk of fossilization. French cinema, like the Italian one, tends to become a cinema of the old. At Venice in 1984, French cinema was represented – brilliantly for that matter – by the four great Rs: Rouch, Rohmer, Resnais, Rivette, with an average age of sixty-two. In contrast, the fifties generation has brought us no revelation whatsoever till date.

Experimentation seems to be reserved for certain senior filmmakers who can have their way thanks to their reputation: Resnais, whose every new film constitutes a challenge, a wager, Duras, who approaches her themes through successive recurrence of undulatory movements, Godard.

Ever since Jack Lang became the Minister of Culture (1981-1986), France is also the host country for foreigners like Hollywood once was: South-Americans (Ruiz, Jodorowsky, Santiago, Solanas), North-Americans (Kramer, Berry), Algerians (Allouache), Japanese (Oshima), Italians (Monicelli, Ferreri), Egyptians (Chahine), Polish (Zulawski, Polanski, Wajda, Borowczyk), Greek (Papatakis), Belgians (Akerman), Portuguese (Oliveira), Dutch (Ivens), which makes the notion of nationality often outdated.

Another surprising aspect is the pre-eminence of meteors, exceptional films overlooking an uneven or disappointing body of work (Blier’s Tenue de soirée, Deville’s Dossier 51) or other unique or near-unique works (Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Koleva’s L’État de bonheur permenante, Dubroux’s Les Amants terribles, Breillat’s Tapage nocturne, Rouqier’s Biquefarre, Devers’ Noir et Blanc). Isolated bodies of work like those of Lampedusa, Clarin, Chamisso, Lautréamont, Lowry. This unsettles a number of people in the country where the politique des auteurs was born.

We can also list negative commonalities: predominance of crime movies, highly stylized photography working against the film, moral anachronisms (soixante-huitard behaviour in films set in the past), virtuoso verbalism of the characters for the dialogue writer to showboat with, leftist boyscoutism, where we find nothing more than in the day’s edition of Libération, overload of plot twists to avoid slow passages, lack of first-hand information about the milieux described, endless repetition of characters’ chief trait etc.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Nocturama

Jean-Luc Godard’s self-styled student revolutionaries were nothing if not talkative. They crippled themselves into inaction debating over praxis and theory. For them, as for many other Godard’s radicals, the time for action was long over, it was now time for contemplation. Not yet for the youth we accompany in Bertrand Bonello’s enigmatic, double-faced Nocturama. We first see them in action, walking, boarding and getting off the subway, always moving and doing something. There’s barely a word in the first quarter hour, which proceeds by an intense accumulation of shots of characters traversing the length and breadth of Paris in great hurry. The transfers they make in the subway mirror the way the filmmaker cuts between them. This mosaic of perspectives, combined with the precise time ticker, makes a vague promise that the characters will all be eventually connected. Their surreptitious behaviour reveals that they’re involved in a conspiracy, an idea dear to Nouvelle Vague filmmakers. It wouldn’t be some time until we learn that they’re carrying out a series of assassinations and bombings in the heart of Paris, a city we see from a bird’s eye view in the first shot.

As the threads converge, we are presented with brief flashes into the characters’ past: some of them are preparing for Sciences Po and ENA, others are interviewing for dead-end jobs. They are from different racial and social backgrounds, but we’re not given any information as to how they meet each other, leave alone how they agree on a terrorist plot. This narrative gap is characteristic of Bonello’s film, which doesn’t bother spelling out the reasons for the bombings or the gang’s intentions. From the bits of information we do get, we understand that they are a faintly anarchist bunch working against what they take to be the current world order. The real France is present, muted in the background—global capital, dwindling job market, National Front, surveillance state, legalization of marijuana—but it’s only accessory to the film. What Bonello is interested in in this first part of the film is instead the mechanics of the bombing plot, the perceptual calculus involved and the sense of people invested in an abstract mission. The filmmaker dispels any echo of contemporary Islamic terrorism, and focusing on this improbable terror outfit is his way of stating his goals.

After the bombings and killings have been carried out, and as a curfew is declared in Paris, the gang takes refuge in a large, evacuated shopping mall in the middle of the city. The film makes a reverse movement from this point, tracing the dissolution of the group that was so far united on a quest. Amazingly enough, the characters believe they could get back to normal life if only they lay low in the mall for a day. They spend this time indulging themselves, wearing the mass-market clothes on display, playing with the toys, drinking up the champagne, and playing pop music on the gadgets in the electronics section. In short, they become the consumer society they despise. This portion of the film is a picture of decadence worthy of Fassbinder or Visconti, as a group once full of conviction and meaning devolves into hedonistic aestheticism. There’s even a lip-synched song one of the boys sings under a garish make up. The film turns melancholy as the inevitable end approaches, and the random violence the gang inflicts on the city finds its response in equally senseless, faceless violence of the state.

In an early flashback, one of the gang members discusses the ideal structure for a political thesis for a university examination: introduction of the problematic, dialectical presentation of arguments, a personal point of view and a conclusion—a very French, Cartesian approach to exposition that Nocturama deliberately eschews. There is no indication that the bombings were the consequence of something specific, except a global sentiment that “it had to happen”. Nor does the filmmaker take a moral stance towards their actions or their end. In fact, Bonello forestalls any sympathy for his characters through his cubist superposition of perspectives, which swaps a dramatic event with a slightly different version of the same over and over. These perspectives are not intended to be seamless, but go back and forth in time in a slightly redundant and absurd manner in a parody of closed-circuit footage omnipresent in the film.

Somewhere in Nocturama is probably a jibe at the compromised idealism of the soixante-huitards, but Bonello’s preoccupations are more philosophical than political. He’s interested in how actions are shaped by personal and symbolic meaning and how the lack of meaning can conversely produce a mechanical society. The two sections of the film converge towards different truths, one political and contingent, the other existential and eternal. After the gang has assembled in the mall, one of the boys feels estranged from the mission and slips out of the building to wander the deserted city. He’s out there to precipitate the gang’s downfall but also to make some sense of its actions. The time for action is over, the time for reflection begins.

Non-Fiction

Going by his last three features, Olivier Assayas’s films are two seemingly unrelated works welded at the hip, bound together only by an abstract idea. Clouds of Sils Maria was about the tragedy of an actor’s aging, but also about the over-visibility of star culture. Personal Shopper was at once a ghost story, a peek into the unseen side of celebrity life, and a horror tale about digital media. His new film, Non-Fiction, deals with the crisis of the publishing industry in face of the digital revolution and the ethical problems of fiction that is too personal, but it’s also a comedy about adultery among middle-aged, middle-class cultural types. These films present themselves as puzzles that promise to fit together were the viewer to supply the connecting piece.

Guillaume Canet plays Alain, the chief editor of a publishing house that’s in the process of figuring out its strategy in a fast-changing literary climate. Laure (Christa Théret), the young expert in charge of charting the firm’s digital roadmap and with whom Alain is having an affair, believes that the only way to stay relevant is to be radical, to treat tweets and texts as legitimate publishing material. Alain has just turned down the latest manuscript of Léonard’s (Vincent Macaigne), which his wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a television actress, finds to be his best work. Léonard is in a relationship with Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), who is assistant to a rising politician of the left and who cannot humour her partner’s bouts of self-doubt and self-deluding resentment.

Like in a traditional French comedy, Assayas creates a chain of romantic affairs between the characters, but his focus is not on the entanglements they create. He treats them like hypotheses in a theory. The characters are all in the grip of professional and cultural upheavals: Alain has to react quickly and suitably to newer forms of literary consumption, Selena has to come to terms with the idea of television franchises, the monk-like Léonard must rethink the moral quandary involved in narrating the personal life of others, Valérie must understand the role perception plays in the political arena. In a way, all these issues stem from the extreme visibility, access and availability new media offers its consumers, forcing producers to constantly reinvent themselves or become obsolete. In this, Non-Fiction is of a piece with the director’s previous two films.

But what does it all have to do with adultery? I think the missing piece of this puzzle relates to the notion of double lives, which happens to be the film’s French title. Connected to their phones and tablets, the characters of the film are always elsewhere than where they are physically present. The face they present to others takes priority over their everyday relation to the people they live with, which is what adultery is at heart. Léonard insists that his novels are veiled in a smoke screen of fiction such that readers won’t suspect their autobiographical links. This self-image he creates is suppose to absolve him of the emotional violence he wreaks on the people he writes about. In positing this, Non-Fiction demonstrates a continuity between older, pre-internet forms of social behaviour and current ones, just as how Personal Shopper imagined chatting over internet as a form of spiritual séance.

Assayas’s film is also, however, a progression of tiresome, talky vignettes of people discussing the implications of internet, the devaluation of information, the narcissism involved in rejecting narcissism, the resurgence of physical books, the drawbacks of democracy and the relevance of criticism in the age of artificial intelligence. Even when actors perform them as casual dialogues over aperitif, the exchanges are overwhelming in the amount of reflection they pack. And I don’t think it’s particularly rewarding to dwell on them, function as they do as a form of smoke screen themselves to hide the film’s simple, more direct themes. Save for the final sequence filmed at a beautiful coastal location, the film is also visually exhausting with its endless supply of over-the-shoulder compositions shot in warm, indoor lighting.