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Staying Vertical

With Staying Vertical, Alain Guiraudie sustains his standing as the maker of enigmatic, beguiling films. The mystery here doesn’t stem from concealed character motivations or narrative convolutions, but by the creation of a world where familiar social rules don’t apply. The film opens with shots from the dashboard of a car moving through the countryside. The driver is Leo (Damien Bonnard, a potentially-great comedian) and, given it’s a Guiraudie film, he’s likely cruising. He solicits a young man with an instantly-suspicious body language and is turned down. The boy is Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) and lives with old man Marcel (Christian Bouillette) whose waking time is accompanied by booming metal music. Though in rase campagne, neither of them is scandalised by Leo’s solicitation – a behavioural detail symptomatic of the universe Guiraudie constructs here.

Leo continues and arrives in the prairies in the south of France, where he hooks up with Marie (India Hair), a shepherdess living with her farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and two sons. Leo frequently escapes to the city: he’s a screenwriter short-changing his producer with a non-existent script. In an abrupt time-leap, we see Marie giving birth to Leo’s baby. Depressed and anxious about Leo’s regular absences, Marie departs for the city with her two sons, leaving Leo and her father with the newborn. Leo wanders with the baby, sometimes consulting a therapist living in the woods, always keeping an eye on Yoan and Marcel. Jean-Louis discovers him, takes him to Marie by force and, given Marie doesn’t want to return from the city, keeps Leo with him. Leo escapes the farm after Jean-Louis makes sexual advances and uses his baby as bait for wolf-hunting. At the end of another series of encounters with all these characters, Leo ends up with the lonely, suffering Marcel. He helps the old man alleviate his pain by screwing him to death. He’s arrested and his baby handed over to Marie by the child services.

Staying Vertical spans the entire breath of France, but we don’t really get a sense of the scale of geography the characters traverse—perhaps a product of the film’s piecewise funding. Guiraudie’s film is a series of a journeys into and out of the heartland of the country: young people like Leo, Marie and Yoan are able to get out and return at will to the backwoods, but old men like Jean-Louis and especially Marcel have to resign themselves to this life of isolation. So, in a way, Guiraudie is mapping out the tragedy of queer aging onto the landscape, the city offering more chances of at least passing connections than the endless prairies. Leo loses his car, becomes penniless and makes it on foot across the country dodging the police. The film contains several wide-angle shots of him walking across a seemingly infinite geography. This isn’t an existential image as in Ceylan’s films, but a metaphor for gay loneliness that Staying Vertical is about.

Guiraudie’s film develops what might be called a non-normative—or even homonormative—world. Characters recognize desire in each other’s eyes instantly, their changing sexual affinities being a surprise to no one within this world. Guiraudie cycles through various permutations of his five central characters, just as he cycles through the same spaces and same framing of these spaces, to create several fleeting family-like units. Leo’s desire to retain his baby parallels Marcel’s wish to hold Yoan and Jean-Louis’ to keep Leo with him. Within these two-member units, characters are bound to each other by traditional, heterosexual familial relations as well as by their own romantic coupling. The nature of relationships between people in this world oscillates constantly between sexual and platonic. Guiraudie refuses to make a distinction since, for these gay men of vastly different ages, the same relationships must fulfil multiple needs.

Staying Vertical does have elements of melodrama in that it follows the romantic quest, fulfilment and disillusionment of a sympathetic central character. When Leo returns to the same locations, he’s always worse-off than before: all his objects of interest vanish from his ambit, he and his baby are held hostages by Jean-Louis, he loses his car, goes broke, is attacked by a group of clochards, gets implicated in assisted suicide, loses his son to child services. Without his baby by his side, he sleeps in Jean-Louis’s barn maternally clutching a lamb. This appropriation of ingredients from the woman’s weepie for queer ends finds its summit in the symbolism of the prairie wolves. Threats to the sheep and general life in the region, the wolves reside in the outer margins of the grasslands and come to represent the external world in face of which Leo must stand tall and fearless. It’s a blunt symbol that’s somewhat softened by Guiraudie’s matter-of-fact treatment.

Wonderstruck

Is Todd Haynes an auteur? Sure, he exclusively makes period films that deal with the question of personal identity within a society in flux. But Haynes’ works are so different from each other in terms of subject matter and style that they seem to be a product of many subjectivities and no subjectivity at once. If there’s any doubt as to whether this is intentional, look no further than his masterpiece I’m Not There (a title that should be read as “there is no such thing as I”). Bob Dylan stopped singing protest songs as a protest against an establishment that was expecting protest songs from him, just as Haynes frustrated the expectation from him to keep up the melodramatic high of Far from Heaven. Todd Haynes is an auteur whose preoccupation is a denial of that label. He’s done the flip again with Wonderstruck, following up a heartbreaking film about the assertion of queer identity in a conservative milieu with an equally-felt straight up children’s picture on the value of traditions.

Adapted from Brian Selznick graphic novel of the same name, Wonderstruck weaves together two stories set fifty years apart. The first unfolds in New Jersey in 1927 and follows a deaf-mute girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who runs away from her authoritarian father to her mother, a famous silent film star (Julianne Moore) in Hollywood. The premise and the timeframe allow Haynes to realize this section like a silent film—soon to make way for the talkies—without necessarily imitating its aesthetics. He pays tribute to Gish, Chaplin, Griffith, Murnau, and Vidor, but also shoots in widescreen monochrome, with a modern camera choreography and a conventional-sounding musical score by Carter Burwell. Information is revealed visually through texts that Rose writes and shows to others, producing plot surprises that wouldn’t have been possible with sound.

The second story takes place in 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Having recently lost his mother, Ben (Oakes Fegley) also loses his hearing in a lightning strike. Ben is a curator of sorts, he collects various models in his house, one of which is an old illustrated book published by the American Museum of Natural History. He sets out to New York city in search of his father, the only trace of whom is a scrap of letter addressed to his mother tucked in the book. As expected, the two stories come together in the third act in a predictable but meaningful way. But Haynes intercuts them right from the beginning in a thematic manner that allows each story to take turns in anticipating each other. This editing pattern, perhaps a little too neat, underscores the living weight of history and helps each narrative thread furnish information missing in the other. There are also a handful of psychedelic montage sequences recalling Guy Maddin where the past is evoked in the present.

Haynes’ film is most of all a tribute to museums as institutionalized memory creating and outlasting personal memories. The plot revolves around two people who manage to find their roots in a particular room of the American Museum of Natural History. The film’s key moments involve the act of touching—a proscribed yet instinctive gesture for first-time museum visitors the film understands well. Rose and Ben connect to each other in their coming in physical contact with the meteorite at the museum. The shooting stars they see in the sky, themselves, are emissaries from the past. The two stories come together in a voiceover that is cut to a miniature NYC panorama at the Queens museum, a double metaphor of museums as living histories that provide narratives and whittle down time and place to human scale. Haynes’ film is a kind of museum too, depicting the changing face of New York over a long period. Like those institutions, it aims to connect people across ages through a shared geography.

Wonderstruck is untainted in its innocence. To be sure, there are several failed parental figures and Ben has all his money stolen in the city, but the children in the film aren’t subjected to any real loss of innocence. Rose and Ben leave for New York on pure faith—a faith that is returned by its residents and institutions. In doing so, I think Haynes divests himself of his camp, ironic sensibility and pays a more profound, close-grained tribute to the silent movies. Julianne Moore is incredible, but it’s the sublime Millicent Simmonds, deaf-mute in real life, who is the very face of the film. With her cropped hair and deep, sparkling eyes, she recalls the great waifs of silent cinema. I hope we see more of her. The wolves are symbols.

Cahiers du cinéma no. 484; October 1994.

French Regions (old) and filmmakers

            In the realm of classical music, it’s commonplace to point to Germanic supremacy and English failure. Similarly, the mediocrity of Spanish cinema strikes us in comparison to the abundance of Italian or even Portuguese cinema.

These differences are even more present at the regional level. National identity remains a somewhat hollow idea, a little too recent (under Louis-Philippe, it took three weeks to go from one end of France to another), while regional identity has always existed. Its application to artistic realm is thus valid. In the United States, its creation was a moment dominated by the Midwest (Hawks, Welles, Ray, Losey) and the South (Griffith and Vidor, and also Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, Penn Warren, even Styron and Tennessee Williams), the hurt of the defeat calling for a compensatory expression. Brazillian cinema is centred around the Northeast. Transalpine cinema is, in fact, an Emilian cinema (Bertolucci, Cottafavi, Fellini, Zurlini, Baldi, Pasolini, Antonioni, etc.), opposed to the mediocrity of Tuscan cinema, which has gone down for good, and transmitted by brilliant satellites scattered in the north and the centre of the peninsula.

The regionalization of filmic space in France is less evident since film directors have to live almost compulsorily in Paris in order to work, whereas filmmakers in the neighbouring countries are spread over many metropolises and our painters, sculptors and writers can spare themselves the race to the capital. But we often notice that residential or natal Parisianism is a form of misleading disguise. Compared to the regions, moreover, Paris today has little to offer as original material for inspiration.

We have recently witnessed the burgeoning of Aquitanian cinema, with Eustache, then Téchiné, Breillat and Kané1, with at least four constants:

Childhood. It’s very apparent in Mes petites amoureuses (Eustache), even Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus if we also include adolescence. Kané remains the French filmmaker in whose work the hero is always a child (Dora, Liberty Bell, Un jeu d’enfant). A comparable frequency in the works of Breillat (Une vraie jeune fille, 36 Fillette), and of even Téchiné (J’embrasse pas, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages).

Native land, in which the filmmaker rediscovers the child he was, and not just that: we find here the commune of Pessac and its two Rosière films, Mes petites amoureuses which goes from Pessac to Narbonne to meet Le Père Noël, Biarritz (Hôtel des Amériques, 36 Fillette), the Landes (Une vraie jeune fille), the Pyrénées (J’embrasse pas), Arcachon (Un jeu d’enfant) and Téchiné’s Agenais (Souvenirs d’en France, La Matiouette, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages), Téchiné being the one filmmaker who emphasizes the light and the customs of the place.

Sexuality, broached upon with a candour bordering on scandal (Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain and Une sale histoire, all of Breillat of course, J’embrasse pas, Kané nevertheless maintaining his distance, perhaps because his native Angoulême is decentred with respect to Aquitania and to the other three musketeers).

Individualism. All four prefer characters estranged from their environment, their family and the society, and produce their work at the margins, close to autobiography, in occasionally difficult solitude2. Even on the margins of the other three, despite their commonalities: there is no school whatsoever to speak of.

One must perhaps find here the focal point of a regional reorientation that has been so cruelly lacking in France and which we could envy Brazil, India, Italy or the USA for.

It should, however, be noted that there has always been a point of convergence in France. Our real National Centre of Cinematography is, quite simply, the Centre, the Limagne, the Auvergne. French cinema is, above all, a rhombus with its north vertex at Commentry and its contour passing through Vichy, going till Cunlhat, Sardent and maybe Dun-le-Palestel. This rhombus thus encompasses Gance, Pialat, Bressonn, Chabrol and also filmmakers with Auvergnese affinities like Astruc and Truffaut. In contrast to Aquitanian filmmakers, the Auvergnese tend to obscure their origins (with some exceptions: Le Beau Serge and Les Noces rouges for Chabrol, L’Enfant sauvage and L’argent de poche for Truffaut and, for Pialat, La Gueule ouverte). These directors don’t like labels, which reduce their work to a place, a message, a subject or a trend.

Outside of their exceptional qualities, the Auvergnese hardly have commonalities. Except two:

An initial attraction towards more classical arts: Bresson and Pialat were first painters (and Jean Renoir is the son of Auguste, a native of Limoges). Gance started out as a poet. Astruc – like Renoir – wrote novels. Pialat and Chabrol authored one. Chabrol read every crime novel. Not to mention the importance of writing in Truffaut.

A discordant mix of media seduction and polemical virulence (Truffaut’s and Chabrol’s incisive critiques, Astruc’s camera-stylo, Bresson’s actor-models, Pialat’s raised fist at Cannes). The two are perhaps not so contradictory: iron hand and velvet gloves.

I sometimes wonder if Auvergne’s success – Pialat extols the positive influence of lava on his work – isn’t due to the social skills of children from the Centre. To make good films, you must first be able to shoot, know to manage things, solve monetary problems, beat your competition, gather support. This Auvergnese tide can be related to the “republic of the Bougnats” that France was after De Gaulle, and sometimes even before him.

We must note the inevitable character of conflict when an Auvergnese genius tries to work with an Aquitanian one (Breillat and Pialat on Police): these are two completely different worlds, just like Brittany and Auvergne (cf: the failure of Chabrol’s Cheval d’orgeuil).

Chabrol remains the most-advantaged French filmmaker: not only does he belong to the “golden rhombus”, but he is also the son of a pharmacist, like Resnais, Rivette, Nuytten, Juliet Berto and John Wayne. It helps to have a pharmacist father in cinema because it’s a middling socio-professional category, open to all walks of life, or because direction is a sort of alchemy.

Clermont-Ferrand is thus the true capital of French cinema, more than Paris. But Paris is not deprived either: there is, in fact, an Auvergne-Île-de-France axis, founded on round trips between the two regions, on “transfers” (Truffaut, Renoir etc.).

The express train between the two cities, the Bourbonnais, is the best symbol for French cinema. There are also pure Parisians, such as Autant-Lara, Becker or Doillon. But this species tends to be rare.

The distribution across other regions turns out quite even: in general, one or two great auteurs in each one: Pagnol and Allio (Provence), Feuillade and Leenhardt (Languedoc), Straub and Rohmer (the austere Lorraine), Depardon (Lyon), Stévenin (Jura), Grémillion and Rivette (Normandy) and, for Brittany, Resnais and Demy (who will recreate a little of his Nantes in all other regions).

We see that France splits into two: the Germanophone France of the two Lorrainers (Die Marquise von O, Nicht Versöhnt and the follow-up) and the Anglicist France of men from the West (Providence, Model Shop and the quartet Shakespeare/James/Tourneur/Bronte in Rivette). On the other hand, Auvergne and Aquitaine reject anything foreign (see the failure of Chabrol’s Sang des autres, and Truffaut’s problems with the English language).

Certain Frenchmen exhibit a contempt towards their native region, preferring their region of adoption instead: the Norman Rivette is the one who has shown Paris the best. But I’m overwhelmed with emotion when, in Mon oncle d’Amérique, after thirty-five years of self-denial, Resnais finally shows us “his” island near Vannes. There is a little of that in the Straubs’ Lothringen! too.

That brings me to the black holes: Alsace (unless we accept the dull Wyler as the flag-bearer), the Pyrenees (but it’s sparsely populated), the eight departments of Pays de Loire, from Angers to Nevers, and especially Nord.

This region nevertheless has a number of ambitious filmmakers (Daquin, Duvivier especially), but they seem to be tempted by academicism. And the difficult social reality of the region has oriented them towards a lazy naturalism. I can hardly believe Gilson and Pollet to have avoided this pitfall (the latter with a contrasting country of adoption: Greece and the Mediterranean, just like how the Nordist Malle made his best fiction, Lacombe Lucien, in Aquitania), but these are, alas, interrupted bodies of work, the Nordists not possessing the media genius of the Auvergnese. The supreme insult to the Nordist filmmakers, however is that the best local films were made by an Auvergnese, Pialat moving from the volcanoes to the slagheaps with L’Enfance nue, Passe ton bac d’abord, and getting closer in La Maison des bois. Perhaps Xavier Beauvois will reverse the trend3.

The periphery occupies an increasingly large space: not just recent immigrants (Iosseliani, Ruiz – currently perhaps the two best French filmmakers – Kramer, Bral, Fuller, Santiago, Polanski, late Buñuel, Ivens, Losey and the Ophüls), but also and especially a periphery closer to home: Swiss Romandy (Godard), Corsica (Vecchiali), erstwhile French Indochina (Duras) and, on the other hand, the purest Frenchmen associated, by way of reportage, with faraway lands (Marker, Rouch and Africa). The most surprising case remains Camille de Casabianca, who has made three films, one in Asia, the second in Africa and the latest in America.

Province-Paris, foreign country-France, is French film art founded on the pleasures and pains of transfers?

 

1 Today we can add Nolot, the Larrieu siblings, Guiraudie.

2 Besides, of the three great filmmakers to have committed suicide, two are from the Bordeaux region: Eustache and Max Linder.

3 This was written before the arrival of Dumont and Desplechin.

 

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

A Wild Pear Tree

“Simple minds like to reduce a work to a central idea”, says Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) in a conversation with a local celebrity author. It’s a gibe at the critics of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, a polyvalent, multi-thematic portrait of life in the director’s native region of Çanakkale in the western extreme of Turkey. Sinan has just graduated and returned to his hometown of Çan for his teacher’s exam preparations. Çan is chiefly known to the world as the site of the Trojan war and for its war cemetery. Sinan hates the city, whose natural beauties have been overridden by industrial and domestic garbage. All his childhood friends have left the city for better prospects elsewhere. But he’s nevertheless written a personal book on Çan and its people. Through the film’s three-hour runtime, Sinan tries to secure funds for the publication of his book, talking unsuccessfully to the mayor and then a businessman who patronizes the arts because the corporation gives him contracts. The film is told entirely through his perspective; he is present in every scene of the film, and his subjectivity merges with the events depicted.

One of the primary notions Ceylan’s film examines that of inheritance and legacy. On his return, Sinan connects with his two grandfathers, one a farmer living up in the hills and the other a retired Imam, still solicited by his younger colleagues for weddings and the like. Sinan’s father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is a school teacher and spends his weekends digging a well in the mountains close to his father’s house. Idris is of scientific temperament and believes that the villagers, including his father, are wrong about the village being barren. Sinan, in turn, rebels against Idris, whom he takes to be a gambling addict. It is said that Idris, once a white hope of the town, got mixed up in horse races and lost his house in it. But we never see him gambling and Sinan’s conviction that his father is a ne’er-do-well remains unsubstantiated.

A self-styled misanthropic, Sinan rejects this lineage, considering himself above all this. His disgruntlement with his forefathers is as much artistic as it is familial. In the conversation with the local writer, Sinan grows increasingly confrontational, provoking his interlocutor in typically-upstart fashion. He belittles the author for participating in literary conferences, insinuates that he’d not understand the kind of novel Sinan’s writing. When he manages to publish his book, he signs a copy for his mother and basks in self-satisfaction of having arrived (or rather left this region in an intellectual sense), and having been better than his father. His parricidal tendency, Ceylan seems to be hinting, is a form of wanting to be accepted and the trajectory of the character ends in his owning up to his own provenance. Ceylan’s return to his hometown to make this film is also a kind of owning up, a return to roots for a filmmaker whose calling is now international.

The loosely-autobiographical nature of The Wild Pear Tree is also suggested by the specific memories it offers. The film unfolds leisurely through a series of conversations Sinan has at home and outside. In the first of these, he speaks with a woman he knew as a high-schooler, perhaps a flame, who is now engaged to a rich man against her wishes. They kiss under a tree as the wind ruffles its leaves. In another conversation on literature, the businessman scorns Sinan’s suggestion that anything is to be learnt from the cheerfulness of the town’s old fruit-seller. Sinan’s subjective novel, of which we know next to nothing, is a defence of art as personal expression against the utilitarian approaches of the people he speaks with, who’d rather he writes about the town’s tourist attractions.

There’s a constant friction between the abstractions Sinan deals with and the rooted, pragmatism of his surroundings. In an arresting conversation with two clerics, the non-believing Sinan teases out the head Imam’s hypocrisies. A newer Imam talks about the necessary distinction between the popular Islamic scholars and the important ones, just like Sinan did with the writer. The whole exchange takes place as they walk from an apple tree in the hills down to a tea joint as the sun sinks. As is his wont, Ceylan films them as tiny beings in the landscape, the abstract contours of their theological debate set against concrete physical phenomena like the fading sunlight, smoke from chimneys, moos of cows and noise of motorbikes. The speciality of this dialectical presentation, already evident in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is that it can be interpreted differently by the Imams and Sinan, as per their proclivities.

There are references to the current situation in the country. The entire scenario is predicated on money problems and the issue of unemployment is a constant threat facing Sinan, who’s always looking for things to sell – an obsession he is oblivious to while he scorns his father for gambling. One of Sinan’s friends is now a member of the government-sponsored paramilitary (or military) mobilized to bash up dissenters. But Ceylan is not a political filmmaker – if anything he’s likely the state’s cherished cultural ambassador of cinema like Jia Zhang-ke now is. His sensibility, like Asghar Farhadi’s, is closer to the 19th century Russian novelists than anything modern, and The Wild Pear Tree stretches out like a long parable minus the moral clarity. A shot of Sinan, his father and his grandfather together pulling up a boulder from a pit only to drop it back is a cogent summation of the film’s existential thrust.

Mektoub My Love

There’s a shot some fourteen hours into Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno in which a baby goat stares right at the camera. It’s not planned but it’s the first time we are reminded of the director’s presence in a film that’s all fly-on-the-wall. Kechiche’s always-mobile camera registers the smallest wrinkle of human interaction; his film is a veritable encyclopaedia of modern French greetings, gestures and social rituals. It’s rigorous, it’s exacting, but it’s also incurably obsessed with the heroine’s body, especially its rear end. One thing is sure: Kechiche really puts the cul in culture. It’s not anything new for the maker of Black Venus, an incisive study of the objectification and progressive breakdown of the black, female body. But here, as in Blue is the Warmest Colour, the viewer’s gaze of the film’s subject isn’t questioned. The film opens with a sex scene, but the camera is squarely on the woman, an all-too-easy site of male identification that’s already pervasive in visual culture.

The ostensible point of view of this opening scene is the voyeur-protagonist at the window, Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), who is taken aback that this woman is sleeping with his cousin Tony while engaged to another man. Amin interrupts the session, prompting his cousin to flee and the woman, Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), to scamper for her clothes. The dialogue between Amin and Ophélie that follows is awkward as expected, but tensely humorous in its mixture of empty cordiality and latent expectation of sexual violence. Nothing untoward happens though, and Amin turns out to be not just the film’s most charming character, but a downright gent. The year is 1994, Amin is reluctantly studying medicine in Paris and has come home to Sète on the Azure Coast for vacation. Like the protagonist in The Wild Pear Tree, he is an artist at heart: he writes film scripts and photographs. And just like Sinan, Amin is present in every scene of the film.

Life in Sète revolves around his extended family, which manages a popular restaurant in the city together. It’s summer and Amin’s relatives, all uniformly good-looking, spend their days at the beach and evenings at restaurants and pubs. Mektoub is an endless series of beach and party scenes, and presents a dreamy idea of fun with boys and girls frolicking in groups – a 20th century version of fête champêtre paintings. The mood is invariably, suffocatingly upbeat, with one girl’s heartbreak providing a welcome, sombre counterpoint to the primary-colour emotions of the scenes. Kechiche’s film opens, funnily enough, with quotes from the Bible and the Koran about light, and the film is a showcase of beautiful sun-kissed bodies shot in immersive intimacy. After sundown, they are seen in the artificial lights of disco and bars. The men and women dance with and seduce each other in varying permutations and, given their vague relationships, the invitation to dance scan as competitive mating rituals. Kechiche films their dynamic like an ethnographer, observing the minutiae of the process of la drague, the progress of flirtatious conversations from everyday exchange to something more.

The film is narrated through Amin’s perspective, but the point of view is fluid within each sequence, with Kechiche’s camera moving around the restaurant to construct mini-scenes involving different characters, something like a Renoir tableau. One impressive aspect of Kechiche’s film is that, despite being coupled to Amin, it breathes freely. So we get a subtle, superbly-detailed conversation between women of the family trying to passive-aggressively break up Ophélie’s affair. Likewise, a moment with Ophélie and Tony trying to steal a kiss, fretting about the crowd in the pub, in a work full of explicit, very physical exchanges. Kechiche’s film brims crushingly-banal small talk and they would be of high documentary value if they weren’t so repeated and generalized. There are conversations between Ophélie and Amin about his relatives that are tediously long and go nowhere in particular. The fatigue is deliberately induced for what Kechiche wants to contrast it with later.

Amin remains an observer and a reticent participant in all this. While his cousins are busy picking up girls, he isn’t interested even when girls proposition him. On the contrary, his conversations with prospective partners builds up from shop talk to end in awkward silence, whose tension remains unresolved. He prefers spending his morning taking photos or watching Pudovkin. There’s no suggestion he is indifferent to girls, especially Ophélie, whom he stares at whenever she’s intimate with someone else. But there’s no sense that he wants to sleep with her either. As a favour from Ophélie in exchange for keeping silent about her affair with his cousin, Amin asks her if she can pose nude for his photos. His emotional peak comes in a sequence at a goat shed – a calculated break from the headiness of the other scenes – where he photographs a goat giving birth. Scored to operatic vocals, it’s a moving scene, and Kechiche pitches it at as an experience more rarefied than what transpires in the rest of the film. Amin, like Kechiche, is presented as the artist figure, trying to preserve his integrity in a world full of distractions and shapely bottoms. The point is that you can either make art or have fun. It’s Kechiche exculpating himself: he’s not having fun filming these undulating bums and naked torsos, he’s making Art.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[Spoilers below]

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, weaves a fictional narrative around the Tate murders of 1969, in which a pregnant Sharon Tate and four of her friends were killed by members belonging to the cult of Charles Manson at her residence in Hollywood. The film unfolds through a collage of four perspectives: Rick Dalton (a hammy Leonardo DiCaprio) a waning Western TV star ruing his sunset, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), once Dalton’s stunt double, now his pal and go-to-guy, actress Sharon Tate (Robbie Margot), who has just moved in next door to Dalton with her husband Roman Polanski, and the Manson Family, a hippie commune living in Spahn Ranch, a run-down movie and TV studio where Dalton and Booth used to shoot. The film begins six months before the murder and charts Dalton coming to terms with his imminent professional irrelevance, Cliff’s apathetic life alongside Dalton and Tate’s stuttering rise to public recognition. If not for its ending, the film registers as a transitional work for Tarantino in the way it leaves behind many of the filmmaker’s stylistic traits.

To be sure, Once Upon a Time turns out exactly the way one would expect a film written by Tarantino about the Tate murders to. But it doesn’t look anything like a Tarantino movie. For one, there’s a lot more “dead time” here than in any of his previous films. Nothing much happens in these long stretches except for characters driving around Los Angeles, the radio turned on, wind in their hair, Tarantino asking us to just absorb the atmosphere. The extreme close-ups that he usually reserves for a telling detail is generalized and multiplied. There are at least three identical shots of the Manson Family members walking towards Tate’s house – a superfluity that is symptomatic of the whole film. The pace is measured and the individual scenes themselves are much longer than usual, many of them outlasting their nominal purpose. There are three protracted sequences dedicated to Dalton bemoaning his decline. The last of these unfolds as a conversation with a precocious eight-year-old child actor (Julia Butters). It’s a remarkably insipid scene, even more than the other two, too shallow to be sincere and too cliched to be smart, and it’s surprising to find it in such prominence in a Tarantino film.

Secondly, Tarantino’s relationship with his influences is given much more showcase and precious attention than we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Tate looks at a poster of The Wrecking Crew (1968), her newly-released picture with Dean Martin. While this would’ve been a passing glimpse in the director’s previous works, here we get a shot of Tate looking at the poster, then a close-up of the poster and a reverse-shot of Tate again. Scenes of the real Tate in the film are also played for us. When producer Schwarz (Al Pacino) names the Dalton movies he’s seen, we see a detailed film reel of fake films starring Dalton. The reel comprises of Westerns, a musical, and an action movie where Dalton torches Nazis with a flamethrower, and serves as a wish-fulfilment for the Tarantino. Home turf for QT, the Hollywood milieu might have allowed for many more tributes, a temptation that he avoids for fewer, more elaborate quotations.

What most distinguishes Once Upon a Time from Tarantino’s earlier works, however, is the startling absence of suspense and a curious undercurrent of sentimentalism. While the film intercuts between Dalton, Booth and Tate from the outset, there’s no tension that the juxtaposition produces. It’s February 1969 and we know that the murders happened only in August. The first conflict of the film, and its first instance of accelerated editing, doesn’t occur until two hours in, when Booth visits the Spahn Ranch and picks up a fight with one of the Manson Family members. The only expectation the viewer has all through the film derives from the tragic consciousness of the Tate murders and even that is thrown into doubt considering Tarantino’s tendency to rewrite history. Unlike in any other QT film, the film’s only real tense sequence arrives at the end, on the day of the murder, when the filmmaker quickens the crosscutting with arbitrary, pointless time markers, expanding the sequence with extreme detailing of events.

The film’s emotional locus is instead vested in the friendship between Dalton and Booth, one of the few sincere relationships in Tarantino’s body of work. The friendship gets its own emotional climax, in a restaurant scene where Dalton, now married and washed-up, confesses he can’t afford Booth anymore, and a parting shot in which Dalton tells Booth he was a good friend. Also nagging the film’s conscience is Booth’s tragic professional situation. Like countless professionals Hollywood’s technological progress has left behind, Booth leads a ghost-like existence in the shadow of Dalton, himself fast becoming a shadow. He lives in a trailer park, drives Dalton around and even does household chores. His vocation is of no use anymore in the new Hollywood, where actors are expected to do their own stunts. Tarantino’s ode to the profession includes a fight between Booth and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), presented in long takes, and several shots of Brad Pitt doing stunt-like activities.

This sentimentalism might be interpreted as nostalgia, but what Once Upon a Time deals with is nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was possible. His yearning is not for the old movies and movie studios but the neon lights of cinemas and restaurants that once dotted the Hollywood landscape. It’s a yearning that’s second-hand, for Tarantino couldn’t have himself lived the experiences he describes. The film is set in 1969 (two years before The Last Picture Show was made), a time when the studio system had collapsed and the movie brats had started to shape up the business and method of making films. The Vietnam War (and protests against it) continues under the newly-elected Nixon. Tarantino frequently cuts from Dalton to Tate to set up a contrast between an eclipsing, old Hollywood of the fifties and the rising, new Hollywood of the late sixties. Somewhat of a relic, Dalton is modelled after the suburban, middle-class, Eisenhower-era executive. He is mostly seen at the lot or back home. He spends his evening preparing for work or in front of television. He prefers his beer over drugs, hates the hippies and wants nothing to do with the debauched lifestyle of the times. It’s noteworthy, for a film set in Hollywood, how little of Hollywood or its people we actually see. The only party we are shown owes to the presence of Tate, Jay and Polanski, people wholly of their era, unlike Dalton. As Tate watches The Wrecking Crew, Tarantino regularly jumps to Dalton’s shooting of a TV Western. It’s a “old-timey” Western, but made in Tarantino’s style of long takes and direct sound. We don’t see the camera crew for the most part and the decoupage is presented as Tarantino would conceive it. There are several shots in Once Upon a Time of actors snoring, spitting and slurping – sounds rare in classical Westerns. The intercutting between an actor performing and another actor watching herself performing signals the shift of American movies towards greater self-reflexivity.

This opposition between the simple forms and moral clarity of old Hollywood and the darker, self-reflexive anti-authoritarianism of new Hollywood takes on a politically-noxious flavour when combined with Tarantino’s desire to deny the Tate murders. In Once Upon a Time, the Manson Family members enter Dalton’s house instead of Tate’s. Booth, under the influence of an acid-soaked cigarette a hippie sold him, kills all of them with the assistance of Dalton, who is finally invited home by a relieved Tate. In other words, the old heroes of old Hollywood, with their clear-cut notions of good and evil, have protected the Polanski household from crazy hippies squatting over the ruins of Hollywood. The implications are odious: that though home-grown antisocial elements denigrate them, it takes soldiers and war heroes, like Booth once was, to protect the country; that the movies and TV shows of old might have shown violence, but the mediatized images of the Vietnam War have rendered the violence in movies more real, more immediate, making them even more responsible for the violence in society. Tarantino’s reactionary re-revisionism is the opposite of the necessary process of cultural reexamination filmmakers such as Penn, Peckinpah and Altman were undertaking during the time the film is set in.

In Tarantino’s dichotomous image of Hollywood, hippies, cultists, druggies, squatters, libertines, the counterculture in short, are pitted against a pragmatic, intuitive world of cowboys and Mexicans – a strangely anachronistic vision that seems to belong to the film’s era and not current day. There’s no equivalence between the Manson’s Family’s real violence and the fictional violence that Booth and Dalton exercise on them. They are home invaders and so any violence on them doesn’t carry the same moral sanction as their own violence does. Before they leave their car, the Manson Family discusses television shows. One of them wants to “kill the people who taught us to kill”. This twisted reasoning helps Tarantino justify his excesses: movie violence, no matter how graphic, is ultimately harmless compared to real violence. This gives him the carte blanche to abandon himself in the thrill of brutal imagery, as Booth smashes the face of one woman against various hard surfaces of the house, including a framed movie poster. Dalton burns another one down with a flamethrower.

It is, however, impossible to precisely pin down the politics of a Tarantino film and Once Upon a Time, like all Hollywood tentpoles, is riddled with ideological paradoxes that makes any reading tenable. It is quite possible that Tarantino simply wants to further his project of harnessing cinema’s capacity to forge myths and correct historical-representational errors. His film is set in Hollywood, an ahistorical zone where fact and legend mix. Booth is said to have killed his wife, but nobody knows. The production of its films is based on a lie that the actor and the stuntman are the same people. Tarantino recreates a scene from The Great Escape with Dalton/DiCaprio in place of McQueen, even as Dalton clearly states that he was never in the running. It’s a lie that QT visualizes nonetheless: why shouldn’t cinema belie history, when every sane person in their implicit contract with the movies knows it is all made up? One has to be as deranged as the Manson Family, the filmmaker seems to say, to take what is represented for fact. Most auteur films Hollywood tend to be bitter about the industry and its people, but Tarantino’s too much in love with its history for that. In the final passage of the film, he cycles through various characters watching prime-time television. Through the cross-cutting, this shared cultural experience takes on a communal quality. Something resembling a prayer, which is what movie-going is for Tarantino. The prayers have been answered. The movies have made America safe again, if only on screen.

Think, You Fool

Unpublished

Robert Bresson

To go with his response to Cahiers du cinéma published in the 67th issue, Bresson, at the magazine’s request, had sent across his photo: a very old snap that made him look twenty years younger… Later, in the 72nd issue, we can read his objection to the fact that Cahiers attributed to him, between 1933 and 1939, the servile jobs of assistant and scriptwriter, however verified through credits and the most reliable sources. And, for a major part of his career, Bresson had us believe that he was born in 1907 while the real date is 1901.

There is then, in Bresson, a “trauma of youth” which translates to a “fixation” in his body of work. His principal characters, except those played by Sylvie and Paul Bernard in his first two films, are always young, especially towards the end of his career, with multiple protagonists of about twenty years of age (Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably) depicted by a nearly-octogenarian filmmaker. One notices the same trajectory with Rohmer, who, like Bresson, is a man of amazing vigour and a late-blooming filmmaker. The opposite of Hawks, Ford, and Visconti, who preferred filming their contemporaries as they aged.

It appears that there’s a nostalgia here for a youth lost in unsatisfactory work, the desire to erase all past and, at the same time, experience it again in an imaginary form. The filmmaker’s delayed arrival to cinema can also be explained by his initial engagement with painting (like with Pialat, the other great Auvergnese).

From the looks of it, Bresson’s youth hints at a series of wanderings: publicist, painter, scriptwriter, assistant etc. His first attempt at filmmaking, Public Affairs, is a tribute to The Last Billionaire by René Clair – a filmmaker whom he will assist and distance himself from through this work (even though there’s the same habit of filming people through windows).

Bresson really starts making films at an age when his contemporary Eisenstein completes his last. There is a certain logic to that. Eisenstein’s is first and foremost an art of silent cinema. But Bresson could barely come up with a film during his youth, simply because it was then the silent era and because his art is based primarily on sound and speech. Not entirely (his “guillotine framing” is also very important). But what distinguishes him clearly from other filmmakers is his use of speech. Look at a copy of The Trial of Joan of Arc or The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, and cut out the sound; it’s stupid, sure, but you will have a proof of Bresson’s singularity seriously fading away. Once the sound comes back, there’s no doubt about the paternity of the film.

Everyone knows this blank monotone, which was once deemed “false” insofar as it was totally foreign to contemporary cinematic acting. I sense it rather as the expression of reality since most people generally speak in a flat manner, without vocal effects. But everything’s not so simple. Bressonian speech is identified by the absence of tonic accent and even by a lowering of voice at the end of sentences or words. In short, the opposite of the norm in France. And it’s not all: there is the great speed of diction, the absence of hesitation, dead time, and awkwardness even during a long speech. This is understandable when they are beings driven by divine speech (Joan of Arc) or those who reproduce texts they have studied at the seminary in one go (the country priest). But it’s much more surprising when it comes to the criminals of L’argent, the humble peasants of Mouchette or the miser of Au hasard Balthazar: how can this utterly repulsive being defend such a cynical and stunted philosophy while his way of professing his faith, flawlessly defined in one go and with such a dignity of expression, seems to indicate a superior intelligence in him? Whatever his beliefs, the Bressonian hero is very sure of himself and knows his personal goal very well. An affirmation distinctive of each character (somewhat contradicted by the extension of the blank vocal tone to everyone). By making them speak this way, Bresson endows each creature – even the most vile-seeming – with considerable aura and weight, a conception that’s perhaps not faithful to reality but which reveals a very optimistic vision of human beings. I’m thinking of Vecchiali, who constantly imparts a grandeur to his whores, his pimps, his gangsters, his boxers and his mechanics.

Realism and its opposite at the same time. We have the proof of that in these words of the pickpocket Michel addressed to Jeanne: “Think, you fool.” This line provokes laughter, firstly because the word “fool” doesn’t entirely belong to the vocabulary of the 20th century in which the film is set. We’d hear it in Molière rather. Today, we’d rather say: “Think, you idiot”. But that’s not the essential reason for our laughter or surprise. The problem is that, against all expectations, the small pause, the small change of tone between “think” and “you fool” that naturalism requires is missing. The text is “rolled over”. Since they shot about sixty takes of this shot (as revealed by the actress Marika Green, visibly traumatized by these two words and the shooting of the brief shot containing them), it’s impossible that this particularity is the result of negligence. Only two other hypotheses remain: either that Michel is a kind of superior human being, who has everything he wants to say sorted in his head before opening the mouth, and his remark far from spontaneous, or that Bresson wanted to break realist convention of having a pause between words and, in some way, provoke the viewer by rendering a very familiar turn of phrase in a very dry manner.

A Bressonian motif tempts me: very often, Bresson duplicates the words of his text. A Bresson film is full of “no no”, “yes yes”, “go go”, “Marie Marie”, “go alone go alone”, “take me there take me there”, “remember remember”. The repeated words are always lumped together tightly. Their abrupt doubling undoes their spontaneity. We realize then that – more important than diction – it’s the choice of text that’s the pivot of Bresson’s specificity. Sometimes, a typically-refined phrase is destroyed by a trivial delivery: a long speech on universal happiness finally describes it as “boring as hell” (L’argent). We realize then that Bresson, far from the ascetic locked up with his bare essentials he’s caricatured to be1, in fact piles up contradictions of style and tonality, creating an infinite dialectic. It’s the rule of heterogeneity, Bresson’s unity residing paradoxically in his sustained heterogeneity.

If we look a little beyond speech, we realize that this alliance of opposites exists everywhere: Bresson’s films juxtapose patently modern elements (scooters, mopeds, 2CVs, horse races at Auteuil, credit card frauds in L’argent) and elements from a distant past (in the same film, laundry is done at the washing place and Bresson’s modern rural films evoke a countryside belonging to the filmmaker’s youth – always “youth” – or to the end of the 19th century, with all its clichés: bottles at the edge of the table about to shatter, axe murders, lack of electricity etc.). It’s truly the follow-up to the meeting of Diderot and the windscreen wiper that Bazin pointed out in The Ladies (Cahiers no. 3).

These internal clashes between eras – just like the ellipses and guillotine effects – serve to agitate the viewer, dumbfounded before this unexpected pile up of contradictions, and to make him look beyond naturalism through the very confrontation of different norms of naturalism. Except in Mouchette, which is too often limited solely to a pastoral realism and which is, because of that, perhaps the worst Bresson film.

I think this bi-temporality came about naturally, almost accidentally, in The Ladies and it was deliberately and systematically harnessed after that, without the “alibi” of Diderot and a classical text: Balthazar, a modern and original subject, contains no logical justification for its archaic elements.

Finally, what Intolerance, The Road to Yesterday, François Ier and Les Visiteurs seek through their editing and their very crude juxtapositions, Bresson achieves it more insidiously, and even within a shot.

Bresson is a somewhat straitlaced man, old France, very discreet, who opposed the sexual liberation of post-1968 cinema. Giving his thugs, his frauds, his hippies a pre-1914 language was perhaps the only way for him to endow them with dignity and depth. This contempt for the contemporary, this moral motivation was perhaps the unwitting springboard for a new and astounding dichotomy.

1 All these purists, Bresson as much as Hanoun, Straub as much as Godard, are at the same time rigorous and mischievous, fanciful, even affected, if only because their rigour is a gibe at the system.

 

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

First Reformed

[Spoilers below]

With First Reformed, Paul Schrader moulds his lifelong influences – Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – into a film that resembles theirs in many ways, but is an entirely personal project. Veteran Ernst Toller (a terrific Ethan Hawke) lost his son in the Iraq War and was down in the dumps. Abundant Life, a corporatized megachurch in Albany, decided to give him a break by appointing as the reverend at the eponymous church in a small town in New York State. The church is of historical significance, but is mostly a tourist spot surviving by the grace of Abundant Life. As preparations are on for the 250th anniversary celebrations, Toller is requested by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a militant eco-activist despondent over climate change. In an arresting conversation, which he compares to Jacob’s tussle with the angel, Toller turns out ill-equipped to console Michael, who doesn’t want Mary to have their baby. When he thwarts Michael’s plans for a suicide attack, presumably against a locally-headquartered, super-polluting corporate behemoth, Balq, Michael commits suicide. The reverend gives Michael a service that includes a protest song, a gesture that doesn’t go well with Abundant Life or its sponsor Balq. Disappointed with the Church’s blissful inaction towards pressing questions of our times, Toller finds himself filling the dead man’s shoes in several ways and experiences a crisis of faith of his own. Alcoholic and suffering from cancer, he decides to continue Michael’s mission.

The Gordian knot at the heart of Toller’s spiritual crisis, it appears, is the incompatibility between two world views, between the Church’s teaching of courageous acceptance and the global consciousness of the young people the reverend encounters. When Michael despairs about bringing a child into a world that’s heading towards disaster, Toller has no convincing answer; he asks Michael to choose courage over reason in face of uncertainty. It’s an appeal for resignation that Toller himself gets from Pastor Jeffers: it may be that the destruction of the world is part of God’s plan. That advice is not just an absolution of individual responsibility, it’s a falsification of one’s spiritual turmoil – the same kind of emotional violence that positivists wreak on people claiming to have experienced religious transport. What elevates Toller’s crisis of faith above a notional concept and gives it a particular force is that it’s rooted in the character’s personal history. Toller’s disillusionment with the Church’s tendency to reduce political issues to an abstract question of providence stems from his own guilt of not having questioned his faith in abstractions like patriotism. That his son was killed in Iraq is a political tragedy, not simply a personal misfortune as the Church would have it.

Michael’s response to his despair is calculated political violence. When Toller takes the explosives away from Michael’s garage, he also takes his life purpose away, turning the violence inward and killing Michael. Toller’s response to his crisis is identical. He comes in the line of Schrader loners, present in every scene of the film, trying to work through their anguish by acting on the world around. Toller’s spiritual sickness feeds on and into his physical sickness. He tries to give meaning to his impending death and cherry-picks ideas from the Bible to justify his turn to extremism, just as Jeffers cherry-picks to justify status quo. To preserve is to participate in creation, he writes, and thus to do God’s work. And to preserve, you have to sometimes destroy. When his bombing plan is hindered, Toller wraps himself with barbed wire and tries to drink drain-cleaning acid. Mary stops him, they embrace each other in a coupling of love and death as the camera roves around them to end the film. Ultimately agnostic, Schrader’s film cannot claim to provide a solution to the dilemma, only a momentary suspension.

The Franciscan austerity of First Reformed derives from an acute film-awareness. Right from its 1.37:1 aspect ratio (same as that of Winter Light) and its old-style cursive credits, the film announces itself as the inheritor of a cinema that Schrader described as transcendental. There is, specifically, a Bressonian vein in the choice of having a priest maintain a diary, his solemn voiceover, the opening shot of the church and the style of editing. The major part of the film unfolds between two Sundays, but the film doesn’t give provide any explicit markers. Sparsely furnished, with a large living room containing a sole, inexplicable chair, Toller’s Ordet-inspired quarters as well as Mary’s house are products of a theatrical mise en scène, a possible one-act play in which the character paces around the stage and monologues to the audience. Scenes transition from master shot to close-ups sparingly, which renders the latter more effective. A shot of Toller pinned in his seat holding a coffee cup drives home his agitation all the more directly. The tight, fixed-camera shot of the reverend and Mary on bicycle is Ozuvian in its liberative simplicity. Toller himself is an extremely self-aware character, analytical about his own feelings and cognizant of the vanity of his diary-keeping project. He compares writing to praying and, in his torment, Schrader recognizes the spiritual quandary of an era.

mother!

Another film with religious overtones, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! couldn’t be more different from Schrader’s sober film, what with its unabashed formal and thematic excesses. It showboats from the opening shot where Lawrence’s bloody face stares at the viewer against a burning backdrop. A writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live in their isolated bungalow surrounded by vegetation. The building, the writer’s childhood home, was burnt down in a fire and the woman is rebuilding it entirely from memory. Her husband is experiencing a writer’s block and is growing aloof from her. When a suspicious fan (Ed Harris) comes into their house, he senses inspiration and invites him to stay over. The following day, the guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) moves in and one of their sons murders the other in the bungalow. The writer lets the mourning take place at his house, making way for the encroachment of dozens of obnoxious friends. When he finally finishes his play, it becomes a success and a horde of fans invades his house, destroys his property, and kills his baby, the writer welcoming all of it. The woman remains a helpless witness to the disintegration of her own life. Aronofsky’s film shifts from psychological horror to outright camp by the time it ends. The transformation is deliberate and is intended to sever the film from wan realism.

Aronofsky’s film is of a piece with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but with one crucial change: the narrative perspective is no more that of the artist figure, but of the woman he lives with. This tempers the overarching narcissism of the earlier films and turns the gaze back on to the artist, whose self-love now becomes a problem, the main problem. The artist here is a needy, vampiric god, sucking all the love and attention from his environment. The filmmaker is entirely critical of Bardem’s writer, to the point that he becomes a caricature, a pawn in sway to the adulation of his fans. Aronofsky’s sympathy is instead with Lawrence’s character. She is a caregiver, a homemaker maintaining the house and nurturing their child. Her dedication is met with indifference, the writer preferring to be left alone or recognized by others. Pfeiffer’s character grills her about her love life and insults her for not having a child. Ed Harris calls her a pretty face. Most direct and effective among the many allegories mother! accommodates is that of the universal mother itself.

The value of mother!, however, resides less in the interpretations it yields, which are no doubt numerous, than in the unrelenting atmosphere it creates that doesn’t allow the viewer a moment’s breather. There is perhaps a streak of sadism in dragging a character through an endless series of distressing situations which she has no power to tackle. This, of course, is a horror movie trope, the last girl who has to go through hell to come out alive. Aronofsky’s success lies in how closely he binds the viewer’s perception to that of the character. His characteristic, ever-moving camera is always fixed on Lawrence and from up close; the viewer is hardly allowed a glimpse of her surroundings before she is. This claustrophobic locking down of the viewer amplifies the horror and the suspense tenfold. Adding to this is the accentuated sound design that magnifies ambient noise to a point of threat. There are low frequency hums at certain points, but there’s no real musical score – a lack that’s barely noticeable.

Aronofsky can direct the hell out of a scene and if mother! provokes extreme reactions, it’s less because of its raw material than the way the filmmaker has turned it into a bludgeon that assaults the viewer from the get-go. He threads one gratuitous, strong image over another, one potent sound choice over another to effect a sensory overload. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw their visual cues from Andrew Wyeth as much from Tarkovsky, Malick or Hitchcock. It’s all one steady, monotonic build-up till the apocalypse at the end. Every time Lawrence’s character has a chance to intervene or get a word in, there’s an interruption – a fit of cough, the phone ringing, the stove going off – that pulls her back on the everyday treadmill. She’s always cleaning the house, fixing stuff, trying in vain to prevent its inevitable collapse. In this respect, she’s a reincarnation of the Deneuve character from Repulsion as much as she recalls Rosemary. The house is her sanctuary and its violation constitutes a rape. She is destroyed by the film’s end and replaced by another woman. The film’s campiness veers into noxious territory at times, but Aronofsky must be given the props for hyperbolizing as full-blown cinematic horror what is otherwise low-key everyday horror.

Parasite

[Spoilers below]

In the inaugural shot of Bong Joon-ho’s masterful new film, Parasite, the camera glides down from the view of a window, taking us into a netherworld where the Kim family lives. The setting is a semi-basement, a two-room residence whose only access to natural light is through this window. The family of four is leeching its internet from the Wi-Fi connection upstairs. The Kims are unemployed and make a living in the underground economy folding boxes for a pizza service. A public exterminator passes by and floods the house with smoke as the family continues folding its boxes. By the time the film ends in a green and sunny garden, however, we aren’t sure who the parasites are. Like Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the previous Palme d’Or winner, Parasite describes a society whose marginalized figures find it necessary to bend the rules of the game just to stay afloat. Even more, it presents a contemporary dystopia in which the working-class has to fight against itself for social ascendancy.

When one of his successful friends leaves the country, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the Kim family, gets the chance to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of an affluent couple, Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong). Ki-woo learns that Mrs. Park, who has now christened him Kevin, has artistic aspirations for her son. So, he introduces his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to her as Jessica, a famous art teacher. Jessica, in turn, schemes to get the family’s driver sacked and her father, Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho), hired. Mr. Kim, promptly, has the house’s long-time maid replaced by his wife (Jang Hye-jin). The film proceeds like a mathematical theorem till this point, depicting the linear, rigorous takeover of the Park household by the Kims. As the Parks drive away on vacation, the Kims sit boozing in the sleek living room of the house. There’s an uncertainty as to what course the plot will chart, now that the Kims have what they wanted. The sexual charge between Kevin and Da-hye and between Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park hints at a dissolution of the Park family à la Pasolini. The film, however, takes a whole new direction right at the midpoint. What was so far a comedy with elements of the crime movie turns into a darkly-comic crime movie. The fired housekeeper comes back and reveals a bunker in the house where her husband has been residing for the past four years with her help. As the housekeeper and the Kims one-up each other, the Parks announce their return over phone. What follows is a remarkable passage involving conflict, stealth and subterfuge in which the Kims lock the housekeeper in the basement and get out of the house without the Parks noticing.

Like Shoplifters, Parasite depicts an impoverished family tying to meet its needs by working its way through morally questionable territory. They are, no doubt, qualified to do the jobs they take up, but the means they employ to get their break is shady. They forge documents, feed on Mrs. Park’s parental anxiety, prey on other members of their class and usurp their jobs. For the Kims, this well-orchestrated employment project is as theatrical as it is logistical. They fake elite provenance, perform in front of the Park family, manipulating their fears and prejudices to their advantage. That said, the Kims a happy, loving bunch, sticking by each other at all times. They are always seen eating together and their big dinner in the posh living room attests to their genuine cordiality. Their rise is based on family solidarity, as is their incredible escape from the house. The family, in Bong’s film, is in fact the only bulwark against precarity: without the “chain of trust” that the Kim family form together, they’d fall apart.

The Park family, on the contrary is hardly seen together in the same shot. They never have their meals together, holed up as they are in different corners of their massive residence. Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won mount a broad critique of middle-class Korean family, lampooning their American obsession and their preference for western names, objects and social codes. They contrast the hierarchized relations within the Park family with the egalitarian dynamics of the Kims. Mr. Park has unflattering opinion about his wife, though he’d call what he feels towards her love. He doesn’t like the boundary between the driver’s seat and the back of the car violated and prefers that his workers stay within their line. Mrs. Park fear of her husband’s reproach is opposed to Mrs. Kim calling her husband a cockroach in jest. The whole problem comes about – and the plot moves forward – because Mr. and Mrs. Park prefer keeping information from one another. They refuse to openly talk with the employees they fire, relying on their own preconceived notions of how the servant class behaves to make their decisions. Their discreet existence has made them so gullible that all it takes to take them for a ride is a fancy visiting card.

“Lots of people live underground”, says the housekeeper’s bunker-dwelling husband to a surprised Mr. Kim. Parasite’s class-coded topography of high and low isn’t merely literal-minded symbolism, it corresponds to the spatial experience of different social classes. Perhaps for the first time since Kurosawa’s High and Low, we have a scenario whose metaphors are derived from the actual living conditions of the characters. The Kim family has to literally look up at the world. Their cellar of a house hardly gets any sun. Its window is a urinating spot for drunken drifters. When it rains, the whole house is flooded, “washing out” the residents. The basic necessities of life – clean air, water and sunshine – have been rendered luxuries in their world as in ours. The high-walled house of the Park family, on the other hand, is constructed at an elevation and sealed away from other humans. The Parks have a lush garden receiving abundant sunshine, where their Indian-crazy son pitches his tepee during the rain that floods the Kim home. They stock their daily supplies in the basement, but there’s a bunker even beyond that they’re unaware of. These bunkers, we are told, were traditional components of affluent households, constructed for the owners to take shelter during war or from debtors. Bong’s film is marked by several upward and downward movements that are physical as much as economic.

Fertile though the scenario is, the success of Parasite entirely rests on Bong’s orchestration of the material. The film proceeds at breakneck pace: Kevin’s comment about introducing Jessica is followed by a shot of the two entering the house, without any filler event intervening. Ditto with their father and mother. Their elaborate scheme to get the entire family employed at the house is presented as a montage cut to a string-heavy classical score. Bong constantly finds ways to break the monotony of over-the-shoulder shots in conversations with different configurations of actor positions. By nature of the script, the viewer cannot identify with any character in the film and Bong plays on this ambiguity all through. Our expectation in every scene changes rapidly depending on the characters involved: in the confrontation between the Kims and the old housekeeper, the sympathy lies with the latter, but as soon as the Parks are back home, the axis of identification changes. The set-piece of the family’s escape from the house is a mini-marvel of filmmaking that synthesizes all the narrative information the viewer is provided so far and provides new ones without diluting the tension. The intuitive manner in which it stitches together various spaces of the house is a tour de force of sequence composition.

Bong’s penchant for and adeptness in blending genres is well-known, and it’s an explosive generic cocktail he concocts in this film. The film weaves in and out of comedy, drama, horror, crime and even sci-fi, the multivalence palpable even on the soundtrack which overlays different genres of music. The tensest moments of the film are also its funniest. The sequence that follows the intense escape scene, in which the Kims discover their house flooded by the rain and take refuge in a state camp, provokes a complex of strong emotions one rarely experiences in cinema: relief (at their escape), worry (about the condition of the housekeeper), fear (of the Parks’ discovery of the bunker), pity (for the Kims’ flooded house), anger (at the Parks’ plans for a party). Bong’s editing is as intellectual as it is visceral. He intercuts between the Kim household drowning in rain and the bunker where the housekeeper and her husband are trapped, creating an extra-narrative working-class solidarity that’s only present subconsciously within the film. A shot of a character smashing another’s head with a rock is cut to an opera performance, the unnerving combination of low and high human impulses emblematic of the whole film.

Following Lee Chang-dong’s sensitive Burning last year, Bong gives us a work that puts Korea’s exacerbating unemployment problem under the scanner. Like Lee’s film, it throws light on Seoul’s segregated districts that keep social classes in increasing isolation from each other and which modulate the very manner these classes see themselves and each other. That it provides this insight in a form that’s as dynamic and enrapturing as it is intelligent and complex is Bong’s special success.

Otras Inquisiciones (The Exterminating Angel)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 145; July 1963.

The Exterminating Angel

I remember this sally of Rohmer’s: “Moullet, I know why you love Buñuel. It’s because both of you are slackers.” The greatest compliment of my life.

The title was Rivette’s idea. He told me that it was the title of a publication by a certain Borges. So, I read Borges afterwards.

This film, among the strangest and most audacious in the history of cinema, could’ve been made only on the momentum imparted by Viridiana, grand prize at Cannes in 1961, and, it seems, Last Year in Marienbad, grand prize at Acapulco in December 1961, awarded just before the shooting of this film in February-March 1962. Not that Resnais influenced Buñuel in any way. But the commercial success of Marienbad, combined with the similarity of characters, setting, the related mystery and the apparent incomprehensibility, allowed Buñuel to imagine a commercial future for his old project The Castaways of Providence Street.

The accidental resemblance to Marienbad stops at this superficial level since the two films are as different as they can be: one is extra-temporal and extra-social; the other is a testimony to our times and our society. One describes the psychological world; the other describes the real world and, if the subjective has a prominent role to play in it, we cannot appreciate the work without resorting to certain fundamental, objective and unquestionable interpretations. Finally, if Marienbad is a point of departure, The Exterminating Angel is a point of arrival in cinema history as well as in the career of its creator.

Even so, it’s important that the viewer is thrown into the film without any warning. The work seeks to be like the life that man encounters at birth without any reference whatsoever. And any warning, even an evasive one, places the meaning of the work in a particular territory that can’t be confirmed as its own before the end of the film. Is the film a materially-explicable prank played by the Nobiles? We can suppose so when the lady of the house tells her servant not to let the bear into the living room as planned because one of the guests doesn’t like jokes. Or when the valet appears to deliberately spill the stew. Is it a prank played by Buñuel? We could think so. Many people think so too and believe, not without reason, that it discredits the film. But that’s to forget that a prank can have deeper meaning. The greatest artists, including the most modest and the most personal, like to conceal the depth and the personal quality of their work under the guise of a prank. But, here, the fundamental explanation isn’t a prank; it’s one of the secondary explanations. Is it an intimate reverie like Marienbad, a symbolic, parabolic or a metaphoric film? And which symbols, which parable and which metaphor are we talking about?

The viewer’s uncertainty and hesitation produce in him the anxiety that haunts him every day and from which the discovery of the Fundamental Secret in the very last shots delivers him. The film’s structure hence models itself on the developmental structure of the human mind, from childhood to maturity. Maturity is an individual conquest. No doubt that, to arrive there, one must make a personal effort of breaking through to the Secret that the film’s apparent incomprehensibility and its prankish appearance weakly guard.

The Exterminating Angel is hence a detective film, the greatest of detective films, since its object is not the discovery of the culprit – although, here too, at the end we discover a culprit the nature of whose identity is crucial – but the discovery of the nature of our human and social condition and its motivations. Through the secret of the enigma and the ascent to knowledge, we discover the secret to happiness.

This need for a protective prank explains Buñuel’s attitude: “The best explanation of The Exterminating Angel is that, reasonably, there is none.” There is none, reasonably, but there are some, unreasonably: the film being cosmic and synthetic, it contains the rational and the irrational at once, one inside the other. Reasonable explanations that we are right in giving apply to a world alien to reason. Like the ending of El and Nazarin, even L’âge d’or and Archibald, the whole of The Exterminating Angel can be explained by a mix of reason and affectivity, demonstration and poetry, which allows Buñuel to declare that there’s no conscious intention here. In his works, reason is linked to instinct, and that’s why his film is the first truly abstract film and why it remains lively at the same time. The Exterminating Angel is the first screen adaptation of The Spirit of the Laws (or of Discourse on the Method, or Ethics, or Principia, as you wish), but it’s The Spirit of the Laws by way of Henry Miller.

The Exterminating Angel indeed has all the trappings of a theorem, but it’s not one, it doesn’t aspire to be one, as Buñuel mentions. It’s that there’s no logical continuity in the meaning of its actions, no dramatic scaffolding at the level of characters and their relationships or their oppositions. The work is made of straight lines – essential elements, relatively reasonable and explicable – interspersed with several broken line segments – hard to explain, secondary elements – that seem to contradict the former on a purely logical level, but reinforce them on a superior level, firstly because their meaning is similar and secondly because their lack of a superficial relationship to a theorem eliminates all impression of didacticism.

These straight lines can be defined with the help of two keys, which are also the only keys to the film and which offer an unquestionable and objective character foreign to the rest of the film.

The first is that the impossibility of leaving (or entering, which amounts to the same) is to be explained not by a physical reason, but by the absence of will in a human being living in a particular milieu, a definite society, who can never follow a personal line of conduct, nor stray away from beaten paths.

The second has to do with a metaphor based on the rule of cross-multiplication: just as they are subjected to a slow and complete degradation of themselves when they can’t leave the Nobiles’ residence, the guests will be victims of a similar degradation when they can’t leave the church. In other words, what takes place at the Nobile residence, in fact, takes place at the church. The fear of censorship seems to have necessitated this metaphor, avoided in L’âge d’or, which was a more biased but less disguised adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom.

This rule of cross-multiplication is made clear by the impression the viewer has of both sections of the film and their mutual relationship. The two sections, by construction, are placed on the same level, with the difference that the first is all about length and precision while the second is about the allusive and imprecise force of its brevity, the evocative mystery proper to its elliptical nature. If we indicate the living-room section by L and the church section by C, we obtain the following relation, whose numbered quality doesn’t seem to take away from artistic reality too much:

Since L = C, we have,

L (Degradation x 84’) = C [(21 x Degradation) x 4’]

The elliptical brutality of the last section and the speed with which we arrive at the renewal of the phenomenon of avolition gives us the impression that it’s going to return with ten or twenty times the force.

Is the relationship between the two sections located on the level of a superior and meaningful reality that one Cahiers writer called Brechtian or on the level of concrete reality, of psychological evolution? Is there an evolution to be traced in the alienated characters who liberate themselves only to find themselves in another, more serious alienation? Here, we are reduced to interpretation. The two possibilities seem to be well-founded in their own way. The first section of the film tells us that man has no escape if he locks himself up in society’s rules, opposed to the imperative rules of nature, which can manifest themselves within society’s rules only in a barbaric and secret form in direct contradiction with the spirit of these social rules.

The second part reveals the profound cause of these social rules: religion; this time, the exterminating angel of the Bible has turned against the faithful. The only way to escape this grip is to take a step back, by a kind of conjuration, to erase the past through the purification of passions Aristotle spoke about. It’s necessary to pull out evil by its roots so that purification can happen, not at the branch level, namely social reforms which are necessarily ineffective, but at the level of religious reformation, without which the degradation of man will persist, just as social troubles will persist outside, as the last shot clearly indicates.

This message isn’t wholly new as an idea. It’s simple, unsophisticated. It might seem extraneous to us who believe ourselves to be free of religion’s stranglehold. But the messages of Griffith, Welles – whose Rosebud is very similar – are of the same simplicity and they are also biased. What counts, in fact, is not the meaning or the intrinsic and discernible value of the message, but the force with which the filmmaker expresses it and his success in making us accept it as he expresses it on screen.

Now, the presentation of the film in the form of a rebus, justified by the mysterious character of concrete reality, compels the viewer, through the same process by which he has recognized the meaning of the film, to “accept” it as the product of an intimate collaboration with the filmmaker. Had the facts been presented more crudely, without any ellipse, we wouldn’t have bought into it since our participation wouldn’t have been required. So much so that the rigour of “instinctive reasoning” here is admirable and flawless: in eighty minutes, all the various forms of man’s alienation and degradation are envisaged, to the point of making us completely forget that they could be biased. We get the impression of a synthetic and cosmic study, too perfect to be false or even incomplete, even less susceptible to be replaced.

The broken line segments pose a problem: isn’t the outside world, represented by the servants, the people, and the police, also alienated since it suffers from an inverse but nevertheless comparable avolition? Aren’t there other parallel, or opposed, forms of alienation taking shape under the influence of these social rules?

The filmmaker’s dark humour manifests itself in many dissimilar forms. It’s either expressed by the characters or it is expressed by the filmmaker at the expense of his characters, whether they are masters or servants, when they claim to make us laugh.

Is it the raft of the Medusa or the ark of Noah, whose sheep were also destined for consumption, in the last shot, or do they evoke the herd of the faithful to be hoodwinked? Triple ambiguity.

Even when they contradict each other, these elements have a half-logical, half-affective meaning that has nothing symbolic about it.

The Exterminating Angel is the only film where there can be no symbols: a symbol is the sign of something abstract located in a concrete reality. Now, everything here is located on a meaningful reality which claims to take the appearance of concrete reality only to satisfy a dramatic necessity – the viewer must make the effort himself to return the film back to the level of reality it’s located in – and to respond to the demands of a modesty which is one of the dominant qualities of the work.

In contrast to Les Abysses, where Papatakis endlessly repeats the same shocking images to the point that they don’t shock anyone anymore, in The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel softens all the diverse actions which, on reflection, turn out to be of monstrous oddity. He arrives there respecting the hard times specific to all life, hard times that are not dead times because they are nonetheless bestowed with meaning. He arrives there eliminating all dramatization and often resorting to a suggestive and less inhumane ellipse.

It’s that there is no misanthropy in Buñuel. Even men alienated by clerical society aren’t contemptible and their efforts, either to liberate themselves or to save their dignity within these social rules, are evoked here with an attention, a respect devoid of any contempt, with an almost-Christian humility.

It is indeed remarkable that the most anti-religious of filmmakers (The Exterminating Angel, in view of its various mocking titles, its construction right from the credits on, and its meaning, is an essentially religious film, but also the most powerful work ever created against religion) – the most anti-religious in “content”, let’s make it clear – is one of the most Christian in “form”. Following Nazarin (1958) and Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel is the third part of the triptych based on the principle of the Christian parable which, under the guise of a contemplative chronicle, justifies this perpetual, distant and inquisitive aerial survey of the camera and places the film on a superior level, that of facts and characters, which sometimes surprises the viewer, accustomed as he is to the actor, to the point of getting bored or falling asleep, with good reason or otherwise, before these chronicles.

The acting style and the simple, monotonic diction so dear to Buñuel seem to coincide perfectly with the principle of the parable film and the principle of repetition particular to a subject exempt almost in its entirely from any progression. The convergent accumulations produce an unseen poetry of reiteration without a particular shot ever being redundantly used. Taken to its conclusion, this poetry attains the level of fascination1.

Buñuel’s power thus lies in producing emotion and in ending up with the greatest efficiency through unusual means that are apparently at loggerheads with the film’s goal: a classical cinema based on acting and aesthetics gives way to a modern cinema based, as I see it, on the Idea and its multiple poetic possibilities, whose success, rare amidst many failed attempts, is of an incomparable degree and proportional to the originality and the difficulty of the undertaking.

For those who blindly consider this new art as the sign of an impossibility of expressing oneself through means more common to the “essence of cinema”, let’s remember that this definitive film, third part of Buñuel’s triptych of parables and third part of his dark humour triptych following El (1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz (1956), also reprises certain para-surrealist themes and reveals in the dream sequences a visionary power and an imagination comparable to those of Murnau’s Faust and applied to an entirely new material in the rest of the film. That’s why, better than Faust, The Exterminating Angel constitutes one of the most sublime creations of human genius.

 

1Contrary to its reputation, The Exterminating Angel is not difficult to understand, it’s difficult to like: our admiration is a product of the perfection of a “dramaturgy of de-dramatization” as original as it is discreet in its effectiveness. In this hardly-treaded domain, the construction is of an invisible rigour and audacity comparable to that of The Young One in the classical domain. In the American pure cinema, we were frequently aware of the ideas behind shot changes; here, a similar invention takes place with the change of shots, which are in fact dictated by ideas of succession of ideas, by ideas of succession of subjects.

 

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

Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.

Oru Kidaayin Karunai Manu

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Debutant writer-director Suresh Sangaiah’s Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu (“Mercy petition of a scapegoat”) follows a group of villagers setting out for their ancestral temple. One of them, Ramamurthy (Vidharth), has gotten married and it’s time his family sacrifices the goat they’ve been raising for years to carry out their vow. The extended family and other members of the community hire a lorry and start early. Following a mishap in the middle of nowhere, they find themselves with the dead body of a young man; they’re not sure whether they’ve killed him by accident or if he was dead already. After an entire day of confusion and half-measures, they call a lawyer they know (George Maryan), who comes to the spot to sort things out. Things, however, spiral out of control and the residents of the nearby village discover the truth behind the disappearance of one of their own. Shot with elements borrowed from the international arthouse style, Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu makes compelling interventions into the conventions of the “village film”.

The protagonist of Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu is not any particular character but the community – a great rarity in fiction in general. The first portion of the film describes this community as it gets ready for the road trip. We witness the preparation process in a mosaic-like fashion: the hiring of accompanying personnel, the renting of the lorry, the various jokes, arguments and suggestions circling within subgroups and the departure before daybreak,when the entire group assembles prim and proper. The thread that connects these different scenes is the notion of community itself. The individual characters have no significance in this scheme of things, each being a caricature with one or two very humorous tics. The result is a flat canvas full of innumerable, uniformly attention-catching incidents comparable to Bruegel’s peasant paintings.

The portrait, however, isn’t all fun and games. We see the internal dynamics of the community, the rules that emerge to regulate relations within the group and squash dissent. As crisis strikes, we see fault lines emerge, but they are quickly attended to by the expedient hierarchy of the collective (organized along several axes, men-women, elderly-young, family-outsiders). When the lorry driver, or anyone else, threatens to leave, he is intimidated into groupthink. The Vidharth character is collectively cockblocked by the community till the end, but nevertheless maintains his new-groom privilege even when he’s at fault. His happiness is shared by all, as is his guilt. Whatever happens within the community stays within. Perhaps for the first time in Tamil cinema, we are dropped into Dogville (not gonna make the obvious joke here).

The abrupt shift that occurs half-an-hour into the film reorients the converging point of the narrative from the goat’s sacrifice to the resolution of the dead man problem. The death that the community was preparing for is replaced by another one that’s directed inward. The sacrificial goat now has to be a person who takes the fall for the well-being of the community. As the men try to dig a hole for the corpse using cooking utensils, the rest of the group settles down at a deserted temple and sets up a stopgap kitchen in the dark, life and death feeding into each other. The shift is also reminiscent of Luis Buñuel in that it parachutes an old world steeped in its own conventions, prejudices and hypocrisies into a situation it’s fundamentally unprepared for. (Had Buñuel made this film, he would’ve had the group consume the dead body, but Sangaiah’s view of the community is too ambivalent for such radical gestures.)

Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu has for its central line the movement of the group from tradition to modernity. The group starts from the village and ends at the courthouse. Legends, myths and half-truths abound within the community. The film opens with photographs from village temples: idols of village gods who were perhaps once men, totems and talismans to be used in rituals, miniature cradles and ribbons tied to trees as vows. On the soundtrack is a folk ballad about an animal killing by the villagers – real or collectively-accepted like everything else here. As the preparations for the function are on, the goat gets its own apocryphal history by word of mouth. The characters are addressed by nicknames that have unsaid stories behind them. We can’t tell legend from fact because one constantly becomes the other. Though there are cell phones, the villagers’ contact with modernity as a knowledge system comes when they have to call the lawyer and the doctor to sort out their issue. When the truth is out, cohabitants of the dead man get into an armed skirmish with them, until the police intervenes in this medieval justice. The liberation of the sacrificial goat and the chicken, in this regard, coincides with the community’s final submission to modern law, which does not deal in half-truths. Though the group is acquitted, they never know the truth, for what they have seen is truth enough for them.

Remains the goat, the mute witness to the entire drama. It’s treated as property and objectified by the community, but the filmmaker endows it with sentience with several point-of-view shots. Its gaze, however, is neutral, incapable of ascribing moral value to the villagers’ actions. Like the donkey from Agraharathil Kazhuthai, it is located at the eye of the storm around which the human community polarizes and fights it out. Its own existential threat is ignored as the film shifts gears, making it somewhat of a superfluous appendage. The world remains a mystery to the goat, just like many things in the film are to the viewer. In this, the animal perhaps shares the filmmaker’s vision of the universe, a morally neutral space with an internal harmony, where one sacrifice is swapped for another, a lost son replaced by another. There’s no evidence that the filmmaker’s desire to keep the answers from us – the nature of the death, the lawyer’s intentions, the perception of the goat – stems from a coherent philosophical position, but it makes for a welcome ambiguity.

Kurangu Bommai

A nondescript don in inner Tamil Nadu has his hands on a precious idol and wants to smuggle it to Chennai. Acting as his courier is the naïve Sundaram (Bharathiraja), who is supposed to hand over the idol to the cricket-obsessed Sekar (Elango Kumaravel). Sekar decides to appropriate the idol and have Sundaram take the fall for it. Sundaram’s son Kathir (Vidharth), whom Sundaram believes to be employed as an engineer, makes his living in Chennai as a taxi driver. One day, Kathir finds a pickpocket making away with a man’s bag, apparently valuable, and retrieves it after a chase. But the man’s gone and Kathir decides to surrender the bag to the police. The bag, however, has a mind of its own and decides to go from one pair of hands to another. Writer-director Nithilan’s debut work, Kurangu Bommai (“Monkey picture”, referring to the image printed on the bag) crisscrosses the lives of its seven or eight central characters over the possession of the idol and, while always interesting, the result is less than illuminating.

A comparison of the film to Maanagaram is unavoidable, but also unflattering. Where Maanagaram (as do some other hyperlink films) embodies a specific conception of the metropolis and its residents, Kurangu Bommai can only imagine Chennai as a village where the characters bump into each other on cue. The film flattens its social landscape, its characters abstractions floating in an unmarked narrative space. The film’s story could take place anywhere or nowhere – with any group of characters – and it so happens that it’s in Chennai. The hero, a nonentity, posts a picture of the bag he has on Facebook, and the entire city seems to be on it. The issue here is not the implausibility, but the distorted idea of what connects the inhabitants of a city. The hero is supposed to be a driver, but outside of an opening montage, we never see him at work though he always appears in uniform. He’s given this profession as a screenwriting formality. He takes to extreme violence at the push of a button, people are killed and bodies disposed of without repercussions, because the director is thinking in terms of templates in order to arrive at the sucker punch he wants to deliver at the end.

If Kurangu Bommai manages to hold the attention despite its numerous contrivances, psychological inconsistency and lazy scene detailing, it’s thanks to its overall construction. The film shuttles between two timelines that unfold linearly and have a certain overlap. The first thread is piloted by Bharathiraja as he travels to Chennai to hand over the statue to contacts. The second one is led by Vidharth and his efforts to return the bag to its owner. The weaving of these two story-threads creates a series of changing questions in the viewer’s mind, first related to the destination of the bag with the statue, then to Bharathiraja’s fate, the discovery of his body and finally the form of revenge the hero will exact. The film shifts from one story to another at points calculated for effect. Some work, some don’t: the emotional climax the film’s been building towards, with Bharathiraja’s disappearance at the focus, occurs at a point earlier than its ideal location. Individual sequences, in turn, are over-edited, betraying an insecurity towards the script and the actors. Despite the softness he brings, Bharathiraja is too intelligent a public figure to pass as the slow-witted Sundaram. It’s Vidharth, doing less once again, who is more convincing.

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