Cinema of France


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Unpublished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]

Based on a True Story

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner) has had a success with her new novel, Vienne la nuit, and fans are queuing up to get their copies autographed. They have all been touched deeply by the book and believe that it speaks to their own personal problems. Unnerved by this unsolicited responsibility, and the series of poison letters she receives for having made money out of her family’s story, Delphine retreats into a shell, unable to write anything anymore. She meets the mysterious, charming Elle (Eva Green), her “biggest fan”, who casts a strange spell over her. Elle helps Delphine with her work, sorting her notes and giving her suggestions, and starts occupying an increasingly large place in her life. She disparages Delphine’s ideas and insists that Delphine must not give into the demands of what her editors want but write her great, “hidden book”. Delphine doesn’t resist the takeover and instead sees Elle as a potential subject for her next novel. What ensues is a tug-of-war between Delphine and Elle to unlock each other’s history. That description might make it sound like an arthouse cliché à la Persona, but Polanski’s circular film treats the obvious symbolism directly, without conceit, and steers clear of the lures of psychological interpretation.

Based on a True Story is an adaptation of Delphine de Vigan’s 2015 novel of the same name, reportedly an autobiographical work. A viewer of Polanski’s film can well imagine the extreme self-reflexivity of the book: here’s a novel about an author who withdraws into herself for four years following the success of her latest book. In 2011, Vigan wrote a personal book about her mother’s suicide and it took her four years to come up with Based on a True Story. She is married to the literary journalist François Busnel who, just like his character in the book, was mired in controversy for interviewing Vigan on his own show and who was traveling the USA interviewing authors at the time Vigan wrote this book. Elle (L. in the book) urges Delphine to reject fiction, dive into her memoirs and write about her own life, but Delphine argues that even autobiography needs a perspective and is, in the final analysis, fiction. The solution to Vigan’s problem of perspective is the character of L./Elle, who gives concrete, personal form to Delphine/Vigan’s memories.

Surmounting creator’s block by representing it is not new even to cinema – Fellini did the same thing in 8 ½ – but the special force of Vigan’s material comes from the social commentary it derives out of the situation. Vigan’s/Delphine’s creative paralysis comes from the conflicting demands society makes of her as a woman, an artist and a woman artist. L./Elle is the ideal version of Delphine, always perfectly groomed and dressed, capable of saying no to her editors and publicists, turning up to events she’s signed up for, rejecting the need for male companionship, and even burning down the house with her abusive father. She is a ghost-writer, which means she doesn’t ever have to burden herself with book tours, speeches and signing sessions, and can therefore concentrate on her writing all the time – a luxury that Delphine can only dream of. Delphine, on the other hand, is in a relationship with a famous journalist whose company she increasingly looks forward to. L./Elle’s self-confidence and unapologetic career-focus is in contrast to Delphine’s jealousy over her boyfriend’s courting of American authors and her guilt of ignoring her children. On screen, this pits Green’s impeccable elegance and command of space against Seigner’s maternal clumsiness and vulnerability.

Needless to say, Polanski’s adaptation – the very intention to adapt – unmakes the vertiginous mise en abyme the book constructs with Vigan at the epicentre. Even worse, the story of a middle-aged matron (played by Polanski’s wife) being supplanted by a younger, more beautiful woman introduces an uncritical element of male fantasy into the film, especially bothersome considering the filmmaker’s history. The film nevertheless works as a dramatization of the creative process, reimagines as it does the quotidian artistic dilemma of what to write about and whom to write for as a ghost story. We are not sure who is haunting whom, with Delphine trying to get into Elle’s head to mine material for her book and Elle taking over Delphine’s life to instruct her on what to write. Delphine keeps getting complimented for capturing her reader’s minds so accurately, but it is Delphine’s whose mind-space is constantly conquered by her reader-subjects. The artist writes on the world, but the world writes on the artist too, dissolving the boundary between the two. It’s truly the death of the author.

A few years ago, when I heard Haneke was making a film about the internet, I expected what we got from The White Ribbon and Amour: a declarative statement about the dangers of the digital age and its capacity for abetting evil. But Happy End is more open, more suggestive than the conclusive theses that were Haneke’s previous two films. To be sure, there’s hardly anything spontaneous about the new film and its shot compositions are still very calculated, perverse in their vehement disavowal of violence, but the manner in which information is presented or withheld forces the viewer to actively stitch the pieces together to understand what’s happening. Even when the final picture emerges, one is not entirely sure if all the behavioural details, choice of shots or narrative information have been accounted for, which makes for a summary that’s far from decisive.

Michael Haneke’s Happy End, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is set in Calais in the northern extreme of France and centres on an upper-class white family that owns a public works construction business. The grouchy head of the Laurent family, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) suffers from dementia and wants to kill himself. His doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is married but is having a kinky online affair with another woman. Georges’ daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) heads the business one of whose sites her bumbling son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) manages. Following an accident at the site, in which a worker is seriously injured, their business comes under the risk of government sanction. Meanwhile, Thomas’s daughter Eve (an incredibly precocious Fantine Harduin) from his first marriage is forced to move in with him following her mother’s death. Present in the outer orbit of the Laurents are housekeeper Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), his family and the many refugees of the Calais jungle waiting to get across the channel.

None of these character relations are clear until late into the film. The Laurent family is given to us in shards, as though like pieces of a broken mirror. They appear to be representatives of an old order, the haute bourgeoisie, now crumbling under the weight of political and technological turmoil. Georges the patriarch has lost his mental faculty and thus economic power; he wanders the film looking for ways to die. In an interesting scene, he’s on his wheelchair in an impoverished part of town, having forgotten his way home. Amidst deafening traffic noise, he speaks to a group of male refugees, who don’t understand why he’s willing to give them his watch in exchange for information. Waning under his mother’s supervision, Pierre feels emasculated. Thomas doesn’t really believe in marriage anymore. Eve is out poisoning herself and other people. At the eye of it all is Anne, trying to unsuccessfully hold this European union together.

Numerous instances of digital media feature in the film. Eve records her life with her smart phone and sends the recordings to friends. She watches videos of YouTubers discussing their personal lives. Thomas’s affair takes place entirely on phone, e-mail and social media. This increased publicization of private lives, which Haneke clearly sees as dangerous, is contrasted with the infusion of the public affairs into the Laurents’ private lives. Their business is troubled by strikes in Scotland. The government is grilling Pierre to trace possible negligence as the cause of the accident. At Anne’s all-white engagement, Pierre brings in refugees from the area and creates ruckus. (Not that he’s the voice of the marginalized, he simply uses them as bugbear). The family members love each other, but you sense that it’s the wealth that ultimately holds it together, the stability of the family dependent on the stability of the capitalist social structure they represent. Happy End is Haneke’s vision of post-Brexit Europe.

First Man

Made during the runup to the golden jubilee celebrations of the first moon landing, First Man begins in the middle of action: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) manoeuvres his plane at the edge of atmosphere, veers close to catastrophe, but manages to land back on earth without much damage. The reason for his lapse of judgment, it is revealed, is that his toddler daughter is suffering from an incurable tumour. She dies shortly thereafter and Neil moves with his wife Janet and son to Houston, having been selected for the test programmes in NASA’s moon mission. Life in Houston has all the trappings of middle-class normalcy – sub-urban house with a lawn, grill parties with neighbours, pastel-coloured wallpaper – but Neil and Janet can never blend in. The moon mission is proceeding at full throttle against all odds, resulting in the loss of several astronauts, all Neil’s friends and neighbours.

It appears that, constantly touched by death, Neil is a stoic, melancholy man, not yet on the moon, but entirely not of this earth. He removes himself completely from family life, content to gaze at the moon every night. In the film’s most effective scene, he is forced by Janet before he leaves for the mission to have a final chat with his sons, which Neil completes like a press meet. Gosling channels some of his work from Lars and the Real Girl and one of the ironies First Man is going for is that this man, brilliant engineer but a social outcast, is constantly asked to bear the burden of history, to be in the eye of media attention, give press conferences, attend White House dinners, and be the receptacle of popular anger against the mission; that he had to go to the moon to be able to get back home. The thrust of Damien Chazelle’s interspersing of Neil’s incurable gloom and the agitations of the sixties is that, no matter one’s privileged social-historical situation, private grief is all-consuming and can’t be relativized.

In this, the film also seems to want to paint a metaphysical portrait of the sexes. Like Western heroes, Neil’s and his fellow male astronauts’ straying away from the pull of domesticity towards the unknown and the endless suffering of their wives and children comes across as descriptions of an eternal condition. The repeated superposing of the domestic scenes at home featuring Janet and children and NASA’s commentary of the mission is supposed to have an Odyssey-like weight, but only grows increasingly wearisome. Janet’s character, more than Neil’s, remains greatly underdeveloped (Claire Foy’s drama school tics condemn it to a type) and it’s symptomatic that this film, which namechecks various discontentment of the sixties, completely sidesteps the sexual revolution that could’ve given Janet a more rounded presence.

Some of the formal choices are interesting, especially its low-budget-movie tendency to avoid spectacle for suggestion of spectacle: most of the thrill is conveyed to us not through rocket ballets but via numbers on screen, the low-key score, the sound of metals clinging, the actor’s frenetic breathing and the claustrophobic setting of the capsule. Not allowing for sights outside the capsule makes for a subjective experience of impending death. It also reinforces the film’s parallel theme about man’s conflicted faith in technological progress. In a recruitment interview, Neil says that he wants to go to space in order to get a better perspective of life on earth, hinting at a distrust of technology that wasn’t able to save his daughter.

Given that everyone knows how Apollo 11 or the preceding missions panned out in reality, screenwriter Josh Singer pegs the dramatic power of his script on the time-limited nature of the mission. Kennedy’s declaration that an American will be on the moon within the decade taken alongside the impossible odds against which that goal has to be achieved lends the film the thrill of a countdown. Chazelle employs glass as a crucial element of his mise en scène and the material comes to reflect Neil’s emotionlessness, his distance from his family as well as the vastness of the unknown facing him. The last scene, loudly understated, is La La Land Redux.

High Life

The human aspect of space travel is also at the centre of Claire Denis’ first full-length English language production, High Life. Far in the future, death row inmates are given a choice to volunteer for a one-way mission to the nearest black hole. Strict rules are observed on board, the inmates are still treated like prisoners, with everyday tasks to be completed. Overseeing the ship is a slowly-disintegrating captain (Lars Eidinger) and a cookie scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying in vain to produce babies by artificially inseminating the female prisoners with semen samples from the male prisoners. With exposure to radiation mounting as they near the black hole, the prisoners get increasingly restless and Dibs keeps them sedated by adulterating their rations. But the strict prohibition of sexual contact between inmates leads to a breaking point and the mission is thrown into jeopardy.

Well, that is the story, but we don’t get to it right away. The film’s opening fifteen minutes constructs an otherworldly ambience. A glide through a misty garden with a mysterious shoe hints at earth. A baby is seen in a cradle surrounded by screens and electronic equipment, her father Monte (Robert Pattinson) speaks to her through the computers, but he’s perched on top of a spaceship trying to fix an issue. There’s no information about how these spaces are linked and the enigma creates fertile connections in the viewer’s mind. The film proceeds in several stretches through such mosaic of details, which are glued together through clumsy expositional elements such as an Indian professor in a train on earth spelling out the premise. The image of a man and his child aboard a ship heading nowhere is a combination of hope and doom that the film drops for the more ordinary spectacle of the inmates going bonkers.

The everyday events on the ship unfold gradually with sudden bursts of violence, causing the attrition of the crew. We are never sure how big the prison-ship is or what the exact relation between the spaces we see is, except that the garden is a more spiritually-invested zone that disinfects the inmates, gives them an experience of home and helps them come to terms with their dire situation. Monte resists Binoche’s charms to preserve his essence, but is overpowered by her and fathers a baby unbeknownst. His resentment and eventual acceptance of the child perhaps is perhaps what the film is most committed to, turning the story into an allegory of sorts for life on earth. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and there’s a twenty-year jump that finds the baby all grown, now picking up human concepts like faith and cruelty through videos still being transmitted from earth – an improbable Bildung we are asked to take on faith.

As is customary for Denis, particular attention is given to the various textures of the ship: the plastic curtains overseeing the garden, the fabric in “The Box” where prisoners go to let out steam, the padding on the ship’s walls, Binoche’s writhing skin, the actors’ hair which seems to have some special power in the narrative. Every bodily fluid that exists is roll-called and becomes a resource to be harnessed. Denis shoots in odd aspect ratios and that adds to the echo of Solaris resounding through the film. The film, to be sure, is a distinct auteur excursion into this derided genre. But it lacks the consistent ambiguity of The Intruder or the emotional beats of 35 Shots of Rum. Going one-up on the cynicism of Bastards, High Life seems to embody a bitter outlook towards not just civilization, but the human race in totality. Why bother?

Seesaws and connections

Cahiers du cinéma no. 410; July-August 1988.

Francois Truffaut

Thematics

When we examine Truffaut’s work, we run the great risk of getting caught up in thematic and psychological constants, of enumerating them and continuously looking for them.

It’s that everything invites this approach. Truffaut was the first critic to systematically list the commonalities across various films of a filmmaker he defended. That was needed in the years 1954-57 in order to prove that directors like Hitchcock, Aldrich, Ophuls or Nicholas Ray were also auteurs of films, something that a lot of people denied. And, more than any other approach, this catalogue furnished irrefutable proofs. It’s normal, then, that to speak of Truffaut the filmmaker, we adopt an old principle conceived by Truffaut the critic. But it’s somewhat of a tautology: how could one suppose for a moment that the champion of the politique des auteurs wasn’t himself an auteur? A tautology and an anachronism: discovering auteurs through Hollywood standards of the forties and the fifties constituted an unusual and justified quest. Looking for auteurs among independent French films of the sixties and the seventies is a little like looking for Blacks among Africans…

On top of that, the choice of Truffaut encourages this approach: five of his films reuse the same central character (and the same actor): a continuity that we don’t find in any other filmmaker, except of course the comics. And, with some indulgence, we could even extend this consistency to The Wild Child or Small Change – the Doinel from before The 400 Blows – or to Day for Night or Two English Girls, thanks to Léaud.

Even if it takes the easy way out, I’m not against such an approach. It’s perhaps indispensable. But there are so many similarities that lend you a helping hand… So, we stop there and forget the rest, the essential. After all, if Truffaut titled his first article on Hitchcock “A bunch of false keys”, it’s because he knew very well that with so many commonalities one could also end up at the wrong place. “Auteur perhaps, but of what?”  said Bazin. A quip that must be used for the films of Zeffirelli, Cavani, Robbe-Grillet, David Hamilton, Vadim, Petri, Ken Russell, Magni, Albicocco, Moguy to name a few.

An example: the literature on Truffaut often evokes the theme of the double, the presence of mirrors. I confess that I didn’t notice them during my viewing. On reflection, it seems quite evident to me. But it doesn’t take us far. If I didn’t notice them when I saw the films, it’s because these constants don’t work very well, too derived as they are from outside influences, that is to say from the masters Hitchcock, Ophuls or Sirk. Perhaps because there’s no moral resonance in the Hitchcockian sense: the innocent double of the culprit belongs to an ideology different from Truffaut’s, where no one’s either innocent or guilty, good or bad. Perhaps because the mirror has no plastic existence in the work of this filmmaker who tends to give plastic values a miss.

High points

Every film of Truffaut’s contains one or many moments (varying according to the viewer’s sensitivity) that leaves a precise memory, striking and indelible even after twenty or twenty-five years. Perhaps the only exceptions to this law are Two English Girls1, one of its kind, a meteor in Truffaut’s work, and Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. It’s not a coincidence that these are consecutive films: should one see here a fleeting influence of post-68 modernity? Whatever it was, after the relative lack of success of these two films, Truffaut was to definitely return to the practice of high points.

This presence of a high point is an increasingly rare characteristic today (except among the comics, and Truffaut makes you laugh).

It’s difficult to find them in Duras, Bene, Rocha, Rivette, Jancso, Fassbinder, Oliveira, Straub, Bertolucci, Satyajit Ray. It’s a general impression that emerges from their works, the whole and not the part. This is another feature that links Truffaut to olden filmmakers and draws him away from the modern ones. Today, films of which we recall a single sequence are failed or low-calibre works. Interesting films tend to be difficult to grasp, to slip away like an eel from any effort to analyse them.

It could be a line of dialogue or a short series of words, the child invoking the death of his mother to justify coming late to class (The 400 Blows), the “yes, sir” addressed by the employee to his boss, who understandably takes it for a declaration of love, or Antoine’s repetition of his name thirty times in front of the mirror (Stolen Kisses).

There is a commonality here with dialogue-based French cinema of 1930-50, but in Truffaut, the author’s remark doesn’t have a descriptive, accessory or gratuitous character like the too-famous “bizarre, bizarre” of Jouvet or the “atmosphere, atmosphere” of Arletty. It’s rather a rapid, unusual, paradoxical and provocative explosion that often changes the course of the story being narrated.

The intermittent and literary aspect of these high points partly explains the success of his films among viewers and critics: this shows an evident proof of talent that’s easy to communicate to others…

We could also add to the list the opening tirade in The Green Room, where Truffaut the actor walks around a coffin and expresses his indignation about the Church easily assuring the superiority of the other world. Here, the high point is in the text, in the performance and in the situation all at once.

For the high point is often based on the situation, the idea of a scene: The Man Who Loved Women is killed by a double “accident at work”: run over by a car while getting to a pretty woman across the road, he snaps the tube of his drip trying to caress the nurse. The murderer in Confidentially Yours gives himself away when he lights a second cigarette while already having one in the mouth. There is the actress who agrees to shoot only if she is served a block of butter at breakfast, which the manager hypocritically obtains by mixing many packets, Valentina Cortese’s opening of the wrong door (Day for Night).

At times, it’s an odd story picked up from a minor news item: Nelly Benedetti sets out to kill her husband with a huge rifle in a contemporary restaurant (The Soft Skin).

Romantic high points are frequent: Fanny Ardant meets Depardieu, now married like her to another person, after many years in a very eighties, banal and adulterous context (an underground parking), but when he kisses her, she faints in the purest romantic style (The Woman Next Door). If the ten-year-old boy keeps going to his friend’s place, it’s not to meet the friend, but his mother, whom he is in love with (Small Change). Pisier (Love at Twenty) slowly turns Leo’s love into a sibling relation while she openly flirts elsewhere, an ambiguous situation unknown in cinema where one had to either love or break up. The woman discourages and terrifies the seducer on the street by bluntly expounding the reality of sexual facts (The Soft Skin). Nathalie Baye says yes to Menez’s allusive courtship right away, challenging the man to proceed further, turning the tables once again (Day for Night). And I easily have twenty more examples in reserve.

The high point, especially when it’s anecdotal, draws its power from its genuine quality. It’s so odd and absurd that it couldn’t have been invented. It’s necessarily true. It’s hence very much at home in Day for Night, where the viewer tends to take the story of the shoot for an unquestionable reality because it distinguishes itself very clearly from the film being shot, Pamela, a very obvious fiction. A new form of an accentuated impression of reality, even though it’s totally refuted upon reflection.

The high point is almost always comical, except when the situation is too dramatic: that’s the case with the two funerary urns (Jules and Jim), the paltry remains of the two heroes, with the presence of a single person at the funeral. In the olden days, when cinema filmed the burial of its protagonists, it made sure it showed a large and heavy coffin and, if possible, a large crowd. Another high point in opposition to cinematic tradition.

There are rarely more than three or four high points in a single film. It loses its effectiveness beyond that. It’s omnipresent in Shoot the Piano Player (Aznavour’s hand going over the body of Marie Dubois, over that of Michèle Mercier, Lapointe’s song, the dying grandmother, Nicole Berger’s suicide etc.) and this is thanks to the heterogeneity of facts. This permanence creates an obstacle, a refusal to accept the reality shown and, secondly, a dangerous and reductive addiction. After Piano Player, high points will be more integrated, better distributed across a smooth narration, appearing after we’ve had the time to warm up to the film, to accept it.

The paradox

As we have seen, it often characterizes the high point. One of the rare commonalities with Godard. It’s the woman who takes the initiative. Or it’s Léaud who calls Delphine Seyrig “sir” (adding to this is the flamboyant paradox of the Léaud-Seyrig couple). It’s Antoine’s arrest, not when he steals a typewriter – as any writer would have had it – but when he returns it (The 400 Blows). Through an insane investigation, the man who loved women succeeds in finding out the address of the pretty girl he once glimpsed. On the telephone, she doesn’t sound unresponsive to the man’s approach, and we expect a typical seduction lesson during the scene of their meeting. Bang, the man learns that there’s been a mistake and leaves with an apology, while the woman’s attitude makes us think that it could all have worked out very well. Truffaut manages to surprise us every time. He defuses the scene, avoids the commonplace the viewer expects, all the while retaining the potentials of the situation, harnessed to the maximum. A praiseworthy approach for an age in which the viewer is often way ahead of the story.

The absence of surprise is also the reason for the failure that, in my view, constitutes Fahrenheit 451. We’d read the book, or knew that it was a variant of 1984. It’s the same principle, certainly original, but repeated from start to finish, with good guys and bad guys. And, on top of that, the publication of the shooting diary eliminated the few unknowns that remained for a certain number of viewers. A disappointment that’s customary with long-matured or late-blossoming films (The Big Red One, The Demise of Father Mouret etc.)

This taste for paradox, this desire to do the opposite of what others are doing, must be seen against a work and a life in contradiction with itself, in constant oscillation. It’s this game of seesaw that makes the work so “alive”, so unexpected, and gives it its force, far removed from all sectarianism. Truffaut reacts every time against what others are doing, and against what he himself did the moment before. The contradictions are numerous…

This classic filmmaker, who’s always taken pains to establish a protective distance between his work and himself, between the public and the private, who has always eliminated the “I” from his films, suddenly starts playing lead characters in The Wild Child and The Green Room. This maniacal perfectionist, who rewrites his scripts ten times, who spends six months on his editing which he sometimes modifies five or six times after the film’s release, makes his films with the least malleable material that exists: children.

As a critic, he champions, with the rage of a fanatic, films that were the total opposite (except those of Gance and Welles): masterpieces of a modest appearance, founded on rigour, moderation and discretion, primarily The Golden Coach, all Resnais, all Hawks, Journey to Italy and even – in a certain sense – Hitchcock, hidden behind his labels (detective movie-humour). Whence a non-paradox, there where people often see one: it’s not surprising that, like his masters, he too made films of a modest and conformist appearance.

As a critic, he champions films by atheist intelligentsia and celebrates an art inherited from the past, based on a traditional aesthetic and on Christianity. As a director, the denounces common sense morality against that of conventions, in a spirit agnostic and respectful of human insignificance (Jules and Jim) and rises against the mirage of the Christian hereafter (The Green Room) with a vigour much more energetic than that of Jean Aurenche whom he once decried so much.

What is this discontinuity between the detractor of post-war “progressive-humanist” cinema and the signatory of the “Manifesto of the 121” that many leftists didn’t dare to even sign, between the pro-Langlois, anti-Cannes militant of May 1968, the seller of La Cause du peuple and the one who had Bernard Granger slapped, guilty as he was of deserting the theatre for the Resistance (The Last Metro) or the one who associates the only true villains of his entire filmography (Richard Daxiat in The Last Metro and Lonsdale in The Bride) with political engagement.

Was the image that Truffaut gave of himself a false image intended to forge a legend, or was there an evolution – as we can rightly say in the case of Godard or Chabrol – or is there a natural dichotomy between the critic, sensitive to what had been done, and the creator, understandably driven to do something different from what the masters had done? I admit to hesitating between the second and third options. I am tempted to say that, in Truffaut, we must make reference to an instinctive logic based on the precise moment of action, which we will discuss later.

Connections

The existence of high points is the most evident characteristic in Truffaut. Is it the most brilliant sign of his art? It’s better to qualify our statement here.

There are high points in Small Change (romantic: the kid loves his friend’s mother; anecdotal: the baby falls from the sixth floor and is unhurt; verbal: “thank you for the frugal meal”). But the film doesn’t work. It’s a series of gems without any connection between them, a collection of interesting scenes that Truffaut couldn’t put in his previous films. It doesn’t work because Truffaut didn’t deploy his master weapon, narration. No principal story, no connecting thread. Like all failures, Small Change is negatively more revelatory of its auteur’s art than his perfect successes.

On the other hand, let’s consider a film essentially built on narrative talent, but without high points, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. It holds together magnificently. It’s a series of dizzying dramatic turn of events, sudden impulses of characters, absolutely unbelievable – but we don’t have the time to realize that – and without any concern for psychology. Characteristics that provoked the distain of French critics. Like in Piano Player, Confidentially Yours or the beginning of Stolen Kisses, it’s the little world of fantasy, very Left Bank à la Queneau-Vian-Audiberti, superposed on the more structured world of the American crime novel by Goodis, Farrel or Williams. Another game of seesaw. The film works marvellously on pace and narration, but it’s a tightrope act since it rests on nothing. I realized that well the day I saw a scene from the movie on television isolated from its context. It seemed to me to be totally gratuitous, morbid, voyeuristic, abject. Evidently, it’s the connection between the elements that makes for Truffaut’s art and not the elements themselves.

We can say the same thing about Confidentially Yours, where an element essential to a work supposedly so respectful of its characters is surprisingly lacking: we don’t understand why the secretary falls in love with her boss. We could suppose that she has a maternal side, a protective side for the man in danger.

We could suppose that, but the film doesn’t give us any clue to say so. There is surely an explanation for this blatant miss: Trintignant, small, timid, awkward, evidently stands for Truffaut. And a description of Fanny Ardant’s motivations towards Trintignant-Truffaut would’ve constituted an indecent intrusion into Truffaut’s private life, which would’ve disturbed his modesty.

We realize that this apparently conformist and narrative filmmaker works against psychology or without bothering about it, whereas we frequently group narration, psychology, classicism and realism together.

Why did the man who loved women love women so much? Sure, there is a brief reference to the mother. But it has more visual and comic value than explanatory value.  It’s only after having seen Blake Edwards’ remake that I realized that Truffaut had eliminated the reasons for this neurotic, or at least odd, behaviour and that the film held together very well without these explanations. On the other hand, Blake Edwards’ film gets unfortunately tangled up in a very American and very pedantic psychoanalytical study that forestalls the surprises created by the actions and the elliptical elegance of the original.

We sense that Truffaut was hostile to psychology inasmuch as it supposes a certain continuity in the individual. He latches on to an actor’s truth of the moment, which can be entirely different from the truth of the next moment. We understand better the Truffaut character, apparently so contradictory. It might be that we are nothing more than unpredictable reflexes and instincts – the moral of Jules and Jim.

Psychology, in the literal sense, study of the psyche, study of the soul, is hardly present in Truffaut, except perhaps in the beginning, in The Soft Skin, for example. It’s rather the observation of instinctive behaviours (whence The Wild Child and all the films on children and adult-children). What interests Truffaut is the sudden explosion of unusual reactions. He plays on the unusual. And, at the same time, thanks to the actor’s work and thanks also, as we have seen, to the unquestionable enormity of behaviour, he makes us believe and accept these behaviours. The difficulty of the undertaking necessarily brings him to either dazzling success or total failure. In fact, there’s only one total failure, Mississippi Mermaid, where Belmondo was happy to recite a text which aimed too high. Finally, Truffaut is able to make us overlook psychological improbability just as Hitchcock could make us accept factual improbability. We accept the relationship between Mrs. Tabard and Antoine Doinel while it doesn’t stand a considered examination.

The last storyteller

Connection, and so narration, but not traditional narration. There are some great narrators in cinema – Griffith, Ford, Pagnol, Mankiewicz, Fassbinder. After the death of Fassbinder (whom he admired), Truffaut became the last storyteller. No one’s left now. The end of an era. Comencini, Brocka, Cronenberg, Rohmer use narration well, but it’s less important in their work than the thing narrated. There’s Chabrol, in theory. But he doesn’t use his storytelling gifts in Death Rite, or in The Twist, or in Alice, or in Blood Relatives, or in The Horse of Pride

Great narrators base their art on a certain manner of taking their time and, often, on a duration that’s much longer than the average. With Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, One Exciting Night, America, Griffith stays at around three hours. Ford gets close (Cheyenne Autumn). Pagnol crosses it (Manon of the Sources) and pegs his minimum at two hours. With Cleopatra¸ we are at four hours and Berlin Alexanderplatz eyes fifteen hours.

Truffaut, on the other hand, never takes his time. He is afraid of boring the audience. With his customary discretion, he prefers to stick to the norms, except with two films, where he marginally crosses two hours (The Last Metro, Two English Girls). He was so remorseful about the latter film that he cut a quarter hour from it to bring it under limits.

And if One Exciting Night or Sleuth took a story unfolding in a brief time interval and extended it over a long runtime (Sleuth, in this regard, has set a record), Truffaut does the reverse: twenty-five minutes of runtime for six months or a year of life narrated (Les Mistons, Love at Twenty). All these films unfold over months, years (Jules and Jim, The Wild Child, Adèle H. etc.), the shortest time interval being that of Confidentially Yours, perhaps a few days. But it’s an exception. In truth, I must say that I’m hard put to discern the time interval in which the stories unfold, except The Last Metro and Jules and Jim because they refer to the two great wars. It’s as though the exact duration was of no importance (we sense it clearly in Adèle H, or Two English Girls). The reason for it is that, rather than narrating an action, as other great storytellers do, Truffaut narrates feelings, the evolution of feelings, or an idée fixe2.

The action, even if it exists, is of little importance in Truffaut’s work. We aren’t all that eager to know if the bride gets caught by the police, or who the murderer of Confidentially Yours is: the ultimate insult for a crime movie… It doesn’t matter how it ends, what happens next to the characters, if there is a happy ending. The ending often seems to be the product of chance (Les Mistons, The Soft Skin, Piano Player, Mermaid). We are always in the present moment, we never let ourselves be anguished about the future (the opposite of Hitchcockian suspense).

The idée fixe is The Bride (a vengeance abstract in its disproportion), The Wild Child (Itard’s pedagogical obsession that ends up becoming an absolute torture by education) and, of course, The Green Room, The Man Who Loved Women, Adèle H., three consecutive films, as though by chance. Here too, the idée fixe becomes abstract: by dint of pursuing the man she loves, Adèle doesn’t even recognize him anymore. Curious premonition, two years before the Buñuel of That Obscure Object of Desire.

Feelings: Truffaut gleans ten interesting seconds one day, ten the month later; this is the principle behind the two films adapted from Roché and, less overtly, behind all his films. A survey of action, of emotions (or of the idée fixe) with numerous short stopovers at meaningful moments connected by the commentary track.

Here too, a surprising contradiction: fan of the ten-minute take in his reviews, expert of the long shot during filming, Truffaut soon manages to butcher his long shots (with the exception, right at the beginning, of Léaud’s famous interrogation by the social assistant in The 400 Blows) to retain no more than ten seconds sometimes.

Mister Post Office

You must’ve noticed a practice that’s familiar in the novel: less attached to reality than cinema, the novel can afford to flit over time. Truffaut’s cinema, as everyone has noted, is the continuation of the novel, the 19th century French novel in particular3, often quoted throughout his films whereas he ignores references to plastic arts (except, indirectly via Almendros and the “candle period” in a work that remains rather accessory to Truffaut and more conventional than his – cf. Adèle H.) and to music (except contemporary French pop music). I will consider as negligible the borrowings from Mendelssohn, Chopin, Vivaldi (Vivaldi, for Truffaut, is perhaps mostly The Golden Coach). The opposite of Godard.

Perhaps this indifference stems from the fact that painting and music are arts more foreign than French, elite and thus more distant for Truffaut the autodidact.

From the novel, he goes to the source, to letters, since the novel, at its beginnings, disguised itself as a collection of letters (Manon, La Nouvelle Héloïse, Laclos etc.). Truffaut, a famous letter writer, turns some of his films into a series of letters. It’s these letters that facilitate declarations of love. If I had to describe Truffaut in a single word, it would be Mister Post Office.

There is, in his work, two pieces of anthology. The first is the series of letter exchanges in Jules and Jim, where the camera insists more on the material circulation of mail while the soundtrack discreetly evokes the content and the evolution of emotions. The second, adapting to the evolution of time, is the exchange of telephone calls (often hung up or aborted) by the lovers of The Woman Next Door and of Confidentially Yours.

This importance of connection, through post, allows the filmmaker to summarize the contradictory evolution of minds briefly and precisely, to express in terms discreet and concrete at once a range of emotions that, shown more directly, would come across as too indecent or could be suspected of falsity: when an actor and an actress kiss, the viewer can always suppose that they are pretending. On the other hand, when these emotions are indirectly alluded to and the viewer actively participates in their discovery, they can hardly be questioned.

Postal reference will also constitute one of the strengths of Adèle H. Truffaut takes pains to show all the material circumstances of Adèle’s quest – difficulties in getting the mail, in having the money sent to her, her various wanderings – which most other filmmakers would’ve eliminated as being too trivial.

Truffaut – and it’s the secret of his critical genius – always starts from the material and the particular to arrive at the abstract and the general. An autodidact’s approach more in tune with lived facts than learned ideologies. When he becomes a militant ideologue, he falls flat (Fahrenheit).

Connections are of so much importance that they become a world in themselves, the only world that creation really exerts a hold on, that they locate their power on the exaggerated banality of the connected elements: everything is relation, everything is but relation. Everything’s been said, everything’s been shown. Maybe creation is only an art of relations. Plastic values, as we have seen, tend to be ignored, the composition of the image “within the frame” has nothing exceptional about it, the social is forgotten or disdained (whence the ire of Zhdanovian critics) and I’m tempted to say that there’s no psychology. We can wonder what remains. Disconcerting gaps, especially since this is one of the most complete bodies of work in existence.

A typical example of the neutrality of elements is the last shot of The Bride, probably the most beautiful last shot in the history of French cinema. I won’t say the most beautiful ending in the history of all cinema, since there’s the wave that drowns Matahi in Tabu, and Citizen Kane, whatever one says about it. But we’re not very far.

Generally, in cinema, we guess the ending five minutes in advance, if not earlier.  Comforted by a quick glance at the watch, we have already put on our coats, scarves or our shoes – as the case may be – to prove that we’ve not been fooled, that we are ahead of the director. All that is impossible, thankfully, in The Bride, where Truffaut manages to surprise us (like he had us with the final bridge of Jules and Jim, whose broken section was hidden in the preceding shots). Vaguely uneasy, we wonder at the beginning of the shot how Truffaut can possible conclude, since it’s time the film ended. We’re sure, at any rate, that it’s not the current shot, so trivial, that can serve as the epilogue. In a long hallway, the heroine wheels a trolley containing food for the inmates of a women’s prison. A banal shot that could’ve been shot by anyone.

It’s only in the final seconds of the shot – the hallway turns right, there’s no one in the frame, but we hear a scream off-screen – and we understand that everything’s been said. There can’t possibly be any other conclusion, nor as logical a conclusion. And just then, the external signs of the film’s end appear. The time interval between the ending and the viewer’s understanding, if there is one, isn’t more than one second one way or the other.

Nothing in the shot, everything in the relation to the context. Genius is genius precisely because it’s based on nothing.

 

1Although the stain of blood…

2There are exceptions such as The Last Metro and Day for Night. His knowledge of the entertainment world is so considerable that, along with the plot it constantly fuels, it constitutes the principal subject of his films. Ellipse and overview are very rare here. It’s perhaps due to these characteristics that they constitute Truffaut’s two biggest hits among the audience.

3Everything links Truffaut to the past, not to the present. It’s perhaps more the rejection of the present than the necessity of the past. Truffaut is at his best when he limits himself to studies of romantic relationships disregarding the period (notably Two English Girls) or when he situates himself in the past: the 19th century of Adèle H., The Wild Child, the twenties in Jules and Jim, all the more so because there’s no one to contest their veracity. Or it’s the Occupation (The Last Metro), the fifties (The 400 Blows), the isolated world of entertainment (Day for Night, The Last Metro) that he understands marvellously.

The opposite of Resnais. Resnais is the present invaded by the past. Truffaut is the past experienced in the present; that is, the search of the present moment.

It seems that, after 1959, Truffaut cut himself off from the world around him through work. That’s of no problem when the film doesn’t engage with it, hinged when it is on fantasy (Confidentially Yours), feelings (Mermaid) or abstraction of the idée fixe (The Green Room), but there’s something scholarly, and indecisive, in the presentation of provincial social reality in The Woman Next Door, thankfully very marginal to the film. This isolation destroys Love on the Run: it’s a film based solely on the relation between its elements, between various stages in the life of a man, which is right up Truffaut’s alley, but the modern element is not simply neutral here. It’s negative in that it expresses a total absence of experience, which contrasts with the elements of the past (deriving from Love at Twenty) which are infinitely more genuine. Bed and Board was limited in this regard, closer to the world of René Clair than that of 1968-70.

A filmmaker can’t film everything. It’s to the credit of Truffaut’s intelligence for having always known, expect one near-exception, what he could film and what he couldn’t.

 

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

L’Écran français no. 197; 5th April 1949.

            (After the preview of Jean-Paul Le Chanois’s Passion for Life featuring Bernard Blier.)

Passion for Life

            Too conventional. The film leaves you cold. The story about the “rights of man” is one thing I’d get rid of were I the filmmaker. Apart from that, the dialogue is good. Good performances by Juliette Faber and the kids.

(Luc Moullet, 12 years, middle schooler.)

 

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

The Image Book

“Before the talkies, silent films had a materialist starting point. The actor said: I am (filmed) therefore I think (at least I think of the fact that I am being filmed), it’s because I exist that I think. After the talkies, there was a New Deal between the matter being filmed (the actor) and thought. The actor began saying: I think (that I am an actor) therefore I am (filmed). It’s because I think that I am.”

– Letter to Jane (1972, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)

 

“The fact remains that, thanks to machines, and in reference to the domination of the realm of images in our societies of spectacle, never have as many deaths been filmed as in the last five or six years. The corpse has become a more familiar, more ordinary image and is often not even an object of attention. A particular mise en scène, spontaneous or arranged, is needed, the shadow of a history must float over the corpse of this dead child, face against the sand, for the mediatic vortex to get going.”

– Daesh, Cinema and Death (2016, Jean-Louis Comolli)

 

“What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

– King Lear

 

In the beginning was the image, until it was tainted and supplanted by the word. Or so suggests Godard’s latest work, The Image Book, in which the filmmaker militates for the image against a world enslaved by words. It’s a full circle of sorts for Godard who has always alerted about the treachery of images and their power to deceive and corrupt. It’s also a full circle in a formal sense in that, after the digital cinematography of Film Socialism and Goodbye to Language, The Image Book harks back to his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and is made almost entirely of pre-existing footage and sounds. The footage and sounds, to be sure, are heavily manipulated – colour-saturated, over-exposed, slowed-down, chopped-up and noise-fed to a point of nonrecognition – but the film still remains a classical collage work deriving its meaning chiefly from the association of disparate elements rather than from the elements themselves. Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Image and words: Godard’s eternal preoccupation are brought into conflict right in the first two shots of the film: a detail – the upward pointing finger of John the Baptist – from Leonardo’s painting followed by a text excerpt from Georges Bernanos’ Les enfants humiliés. As a hand goes over a reel of film on an editing table, Godard’s voice echoes: “Five fingers, five senses, five continents of the world, five fingers of the fairy. Together they make the hand. And man’s true condition is to think with his hands.” To think with his hands, by the way, is what Godard appears to be doing in the publicity spot he made for the Jihlava Film Festival: scrolling back and forth through the photos on his iPhone, as the voice-over rolls back and forth in response. And what is scrolling through a photo album but a form of ‘manual’ editing? Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Five fingers, five senses, five parts in The Image Book. The first part, titled REMAKES/RIM(AK)ES pits images against words: images that speak truth, words that lie and kill. Shots of soldiers abusing a captured woman while the voice-over states that they are reviving a Vietcong combatant for interrogation. Shots of suffering and atrocity cut to Godard’s voice reading a Joseph de Maistre text hailing the divinity of war. In cinema, too, the images were mute until words came along to subvert their material, polysemous reality. Also in focus in this part of the film is the way cinema and war have fed off themselves and off one another, remade each other: Vietnam war footage, Les Carabiniers, shots of shark-faced jets from World War 2, Jaws, Blood of the Beast, images from the Holocaust. As Jean-Louis Comolli has written about at length, its precisely Hollywood spectacle that Daesh recruitment videos try to emulate and Godard acknowledges this perverse response of reality to his lament that cinema has never caught up with history by juxtaposing shots of soldiers drowning rebels in Paisan with clips of Daesh drowning its captives.

The second part of the film opens with shots from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Continuing with de Maistre’s text Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, Godard overlays its potent call for arms and doomsday prophesying with images of brutality and violence fictional and documentary. Words being on the side of war, it would seem, could only be given the lie by images of war. Like Lear choosing the seductive beauty of painted words over reality, history has been led astray by those wielding power over language. As the third section of the film implies, image, on the other hand, has always stood for hope and survival. A compilation of train footage through history – rather conventional given it’s Godard – the central part of the film takes the symbol of Western technological progress and the proto-image of cinema – the moving train – and reflects on how the same entity that helped civilizations thrive also culminated in Auschwitz.

The fourth part of the film, named after Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, mounts a frontal attack on the machinations of language in the form of law. Sandwiching Montesquieu’s dreams for a harmonic state-subject relationship between Victor Hugo’s rather graphic description of state atrocities in Serbia, Godard underscores the normalization of violence and imperialism through the language of law. “The Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse,” wrote Barthes, “the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us.” At one point, Godard follows up a frame from Histoire du cinéma that says “montage interdit” (editing prohibited) – Bazin’s famous maxim – with excerpts from La Marseillaise and a shot from Gus van Sant’s Elephant where we see the school shooter firing at a victim in the same frame. This, perhaps, is also a joke of sorts for Godard, who was always a champion of the classical decoupage and editing in opposition to Bazin’s long shot filmmaking. As Comolli demonstrates, the “montage interdit” maxim now lives most emphatically in Daesh’s videos that show the executioner and the victim in the same frame.

The final portion, its title and some of its images drawn from Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, trains its attention entirely on the Middle East – a subject of the filmmaker’s interest since long – albeit a fictional Middle East, a lost paradise. It’s an unusual passage for Godard, excerpting Egyptio-French writer Albert Cossery’s An Ambition in the Desert at length for the voice-over (spoken by someone else) and illustrating it with assorted documentary and cinema shots from the Middle East. The story, that of a Machiavellian emir who tries to stage a fake revolution in his oil-bereft Middle-Eastern country in order to attract Western attention, is interspersed with thoughts about the world’s political indifference to Arabs, the failures of Middle East itself to escape Western imperial forces and counter Daesh’s worship of the Word (Daesh’s production of images, of course, stems from its virulent anti-idolatry). An explanation of counterpoint in music finds echo in a title card containing the word ‘Palestine’ in Arabic and Hebrew overlapped.

Another joke perhaps: the film’s end credits roll five minutes before it actually ends. Godard, who’s regularly been said to retire since Film Socialism, follows the credits with key images from the film, now played without the context, as though to finally liberate images from the debilitating stronghold of words. “Word and image” reads the final title card, reversing the card “image and word” shown at the beginning of the film. In the film’s final words, pronounced on the soundtrack over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance: “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” The final images that follow, in turn, gives us a long, mute excerpt from Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, a masked Jean Galland dances himself to exhaustion. It’s a pure image, silent, beautiful, self-sufficient and liberated from the need to “speak up” – a return to cinematic zero of sorts that’s always been the filmmaker’s objective.

2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.

The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.

 

1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)

 

FrancofoniaAt a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really,  the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.

2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)

 

No Home MovieThe jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.

3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

 

TaxiTaxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.

4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

 

The Pearl ButtonA beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.

5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)

 

ShiftThe most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.

6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

 

A Century Of EnergyOne of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace.  Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.

7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

 

SpotlightThomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.

8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

 

SThe Eventergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.

9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)

 

In TransitA remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.

10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)

 

Wake (Subic)One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.

 

Special Mention: Chi-raq (Spike Lee, USA)

I'm Going Home

 

“Life is a moment which is always past, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the genius of artistic creation to attempt to retain life. This is the function of literature, of painting, of sculpture, which preserve the passing life. Not its historic dimension, but the ephemeral dimension of things which flow like the water of a river. The place is the same, but the water isn’t.”

— Manoel de Oliveira, at 90

 

It is something of an irony that Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who passed away at the age of 106 – a full life and a half – on Friday in Porto spoke frequently about the ephemerality of life. To cinephiles who have celebrated and cheered for him during each of his post-centenary birthdays, it seemed that Oliveira will be around forever, making the kind of films he makes, free not just from the ruthless exigencies of commerce, but also the passive-aggressive demands of film festivals, academia and cultural fads at large. Even the Venice Film Festival felt obliged to give him their lifetime achievement award a second time in 2004, having underestimated the late bloomer’s career plans the first time around in 1985.

To be sure, Oliveira’s vast body of work, the bulk of which was made after the filmmaker turned 70, despite regular critical acclaim, hardly fostered undying allegiance in his already niche audience. He was a thorough modernist, yet worked consistently with classical texts and themes devoid of political polemic or cultural commentary favoured by the academic establishment. He was at the vanguard of cinematic experimentation, but was so religiously bound to the written word as to frustrate “Pure Cinema” evangelists. The typical Oliveira shot is static, with the fixed camera squarely filming well-costumed actors flatly spouting dialogue in an anti-realistic, declamatory fashion. One recalls old Tamil films where actors, burdened as they were by the tradition of theatre, spoke looking at the camera than at each other.

Instead of shunning theatre for the critically venerated idea of film as a pure form, Oliveira’s cinema embraces and even subordinates its filmic elements to it. For the filmmaker, there is no real need for cinema to consciously distinguish itself from theatre, for its very nature sets it apart from the latter. Theatre is always material, contingent on actors and décor, while a movie, once filmed, is fixed and ethereal with its bodiless phantom actors. Theatre, cinema and reality form a triad in Oliveira’s films, each one feeding constantly into and illuminating the other two. Like Michel Piccoli in I’m Going Home (2001), who comes to terms with his old age only through the conventions of the stage, Oliveira believes that it is theater that helps us better understand reality.

So too with cinema, which captures fugitive moments of life and preserves it for eternity in order that we have a clearer view of it. Nowhere is this preservative quality of the moving image more piercingly and movingly portrayed than in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), one of Oliveira’s last films and one of the greatest films of this century. Like so many of the director’s films, Angelica is a story of unfulfilled love and thwarted desire, in which Isaac the photographer (played by Oliveira’s grandson and regular collaborator Ricardo Trêpa) falls in love with the image of a dead girl he has photographed. Through Isaac’s attempts at bringing to life this girl through the imaginings of his art, the film becomes an ode to the redemptive quality of cinema in which impressions, people and memories long dead are resurrected through the magic of the medium.

Art and life: the two co-ordinate poles between which Oliveira’s cinema resides and oscillates. Characters in Oliveira’s films yearn that the shortcomings of life be dissolved in the perfection of art, while art harshly brings them back to bitter the quotidian reality around them. These romantics always want to be somewhere else – some other time, some other place, some other medium. Perhaps that is why these films routinely straddle multiple historical timelines that often meld into each other such that the contemporary seamlessly cohabits with the classical, the modern with the medieval. Oliveira’s is a cinema of longing, of this vain desire to be ‘somewhere else’, of the uniquely Portuguese feeling of Saudade, or what he himself calls, the nostalgia for the future.

(For The Hindu)

While my writing on this blog came to a grinding halt in 2014, watching and reading hit an all-time high, with the year practically spent in the eight feet between my bookshelf and computer screen. The films that I really liked last year consisted of some boldly adventurous mainstream Indian features (Haider, Dedh Ishqiya, Pisaasu, Jigarthanda), strong arthouse dramas (Waste Land, Two Days, One Night, Clouds Of Sils Maria, A Midsummer’s Fantasia), experiments in participative ethnography charting newer territories (Episode Of The Sea, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long), intelligent and reflexive modernist works (Actress, The Salt Of The Earth), classic fly-on-the-wall documentaries (National Gallery, Of Men And War, Maidan), purely formalist delights (Journey To The West, Panchromes I, II, III, Khan Khanne) and nearly unclassifiable mysteries without mysteries (Jauja, For The Plasma, Mercuriales). But (nearly) no film of the year, I thought, compared to the best offerings of the previous few years. Here’s hoping for a much richer 2015. As always, only the films that had their world premiere in 2014 are considered for this list. Happy New Year and good luck at the movies.

 

1. Goodbye To Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland)

 

Goodbye To LanguageThere is a reason why Godard’s explosive ‘second final’ film is called Adieu au langage and not Adieu à la langue: what it seeks to bid farewell to is not any particular language, but the system of language itself – not surprising for a film that attempts to wrestle with half a millennium’s worth of Western perceptual history. In 3D, which he employs like Cézanne employed watercolours, Godard finds a tool that can demolish the Albertian perspective of 2D images, decenter the human spectator and ultimately dethrone anthropocentric perception as the preeminent way of observing the world. The result is a torrent of phenomenological incidents in which stereoscopic images reinforce and undermine one another, stereophonic monologues diffuse into dialogue and ‘stereotemporal’ narrative shards respond to each other tangentially. Goodbye to Language is a investigation into the 3rd dimension in every sense of the word and sets up a plethora of sonic, visual, narrative and conceptual dialectics to see what the synthesis does to its two constituents. It is an attempt to find a perspective outside language – one of a dog, perhaps. No other film this year animated me and annoyed me as much. More importantly, it snapped me out of a cinephilia-induced intellectual stupor.

2. The Second Game (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

 

The Second Game

The simple and cozily domestic setup of Porumboiu’s pseudo-single shot movie – the director and his father bond over a recorded game of televised football, in which the latter was a referee – belies the complex chain of implications that this physically hermetic film sets in motion. Running for exactly the length of one football match (played between two governmental bodies in 1988 on a spectacular snow covered ground), The Second Game is part-filial wish fulfillment of watching his father at work, part-review of sports aesthetics under communism and part-remembrance of an outmoded video technology, all filtered through a present day perspective. Striking an equivalence between his profession and his father’s, in both of which players have to be directed and decisions have to be made on the spot, the film is likely a reflection on whether or not the filmmaker has temperamentally inherited anything from dad, whose view of sports as perishable commodity is antithetical to his son’s view of it as art. It is more importantly one of the most intelligent and productive instances of appropriation art, with Porumboiu refashioning out of obscure sports footage a trademark film that is “long”, where “nothing happens” and which is nonetheless highly suspenseful.

3. Transformers: The Premake (Kevin Lee, USA)

 

Transformers: The PremakeIf what Porumboiu accomplishes sitting in front of a TV screen was amazing, what Chicago-based Kevin Lee does sitting in front of a computer is downright revelatory. Weaving together hundreds of internet videos about the making of Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), uploaded by common folk in America and Hong Kong and official news agencies in mainland China, Lee develops a brilliant and scary picture of corporate cultural hegemony in which seemingly the entire world bends over backwards to affiliate itself, consciously or otherwise, with the American conglomerate. Imbibing the spirit of Harun Farocki and Theodor Adorno (who, not coincidentally, lend their names to Lee’s HDDs) respectively in its tracing of modern forms of labour and commodity production and its critique of the darker side of popular entertainment, Premake reveals a post-globalized, post-nationalist Hollywood whose financial motor is now set to ensure China-friendly films to capitalize a booming market – a pertinent reminder that the influence of patronage on aesthetics is strongest in cinema of all arts. It is a short, sharp alarm call about the all-pervasive nature of Big Money, which can forge adherents out of the very people it has run over.

4. Bronx Obama (Ryan Murdock, USA)

 

Bronx ObamaRyan Murdock’s bountiful Kickstarter-funded documentary about Bronx-based Puerto Rican single father and Obama-impersonator Louis Ortiz is an oblique tale of possession and haunting. For the recession-hit Ortiz, Obama’s ascension to power is not only a story of national hope, but also a personal one that rides the coattails of Project Merchandise Obama. Murdock’s richly thematic film ties his fate to that of the POTUS in heady ways that demonstrate the double-edged nature of power: while his daughter can’t take for granted the privileges that the president’s can, Ortiz, unlike Obama, has infinitely more power in being able to stop playing the president any time he wants. It is also a snapshot of a common man struggling to maintain his dignity and identity under the weight of celebrity, for Ortiz has to not only become a receptacle of repressed racial hatred towards the president, but actively undercut his beliefs and parody his idol for one-percenter entertainment. When Ortiz looks at his hero speaking on television, he is at the same time looking at a mirror, continuously calibrating his speech, gesture and gait to match those of his doppelgänger. A Kagemusha for the 21st century.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

The Grand Budapest HotelIt seems to me that, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson set himself his biggest challenge to date. If making films with genuine affect wasn’t tough enough in a postmodern art climate where unironic approach to material is generally considered reactionary, his new movie assigns him the task of conveying nostalgia for a world doubly lost to our post-ideological age, in which the only valid nostalgia is the nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was even possible. The Matrioshka doll-like construction of the film aptly serves this objective by employing nested frameworks, each set in crucial periods of 20th century Western history, that bring this lost world closer to us instead of distancing it. The result is a deeply felt work about the enduring value of categories such as truth, beauty and basic human decency, really, which sets Anderson apart from most of his equally flamboyant peers, whose malevolent or agnostic universes seem to reject the spiritually uplifting side of art. If ever Renoir’s faith in Human Goodness in The Grand Illusion (1937) felt as being trapped in a time capsule beyond contemporary access, Anderson’s film releases it back into our epoch.

6. Letters To Max (Eric Baudelaire, France)

 

Letters To MaxDear Max, Are you there?” asks Baudelaire in the first of his 74 “impossible letters” to his Abkhazian friend and ex-diplomat, Maxim Gvindjia, addressing, in effect, both his interlocutor and his country. This existential question haunts the entirety of the film, which investigates what it is that really makes a nation. Is it the spectacular rituals and glorious anthems reinforcing nationhood? The time-worn buildings and landscape that give it a unity of character? The dubious accreditation of superpowers? Or is it indeed an imagined community forming an identity in opposition to ‘the other’? Such a dialogue between the material and the abstract is woven right into the structure of Letters to Max, where the very possibility of the physical letters that Baudelaire dispatches from France reaching Abkhazia gestures towards a recognition of its existence. Baudelaire’s film is partly an amicable correspondence between amis sans frontières and partly an interview between a bureaucrat and a political critic in which Eric’s broaching uncomfortable questions thwart Max’s desire to paint a unblemished picture of Abkhazia, putting him in a double bind paralleling that of his country: a nation torn apart as much historically between change and preservation as it is geographically.

7. False Harmonies (Paul Vecchiali, France)

 

False HarmoniesVeteran French filmmaker Paul Vecchiali made not one but two sublime films in 2014, the other being the Dostoyevsky adaptation, White Nights on the Pier. In False Harmonies, Vecchiali plays a man who is grieving the death of his long time partner. He chances upon email exchanges that the latter had had with an anonymous user on an online gay dating website and imagines the texts being read out to him by this unknown young man, who is played by two different actors depending on the tone and content of the messages. On one level, False Harmonies is an intelligent modernist exercise that charts its own making, wherein the script of the film is its very subject and the elaborate central scene of letter-reading is, in effect, the audition for the actors playing that role. But, like White Nights, it is also a work of soaring honesty about the essentially limited nature of romantic relationships. It suggests the frightful probability that the person you have spent half your life with might be the one you know the least; that we play roles in a relationship, sure, but we also seek out other roles to complement it; that getting out of character might be as important as getting in.

8. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)

 

Li'l QuinquinIn its conception, Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin, made as a four-part television miniseries, recalls the slyly subversive films of Robert Altman in his heyday. Picture this: 1.4 million French folks tune in to Arte TV expecting a comic broth of northern hicks, bumbling detectives and enfants terribles. What they get instead is a progressively morbid feuilleton about an ersatz Old Testament God meting out gory punishment for vaguely defined transgressions and a community with a twisted idea of moral propriety willing to shield this vigilante who seems to give potent form to their own thwarted drives. This is fine, topical screenwriting that responds to the rapid rise of the far-right in France, portraying a nation whose barely-repressed xenophobic streak during and before WW2 rears its ugly head in the present as Islamophobia. (Quinquin seems so tailor-made for India, where similar political upheavals have taken place and where a psychopath with a perverted sense of bovine justice is very much in the realm of possibilities,) It’s a world where pre-adolescents inherit, internalize and put into practice adult beliefs and rituals without reflection. Despite its humour and frivolity, darkness looms in the future that Dumont’s film lurches into.

9. The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Bulgaria)

 

The LessonThe debut feature by Grozeva and Valchanov, like Two Days, One Night, works within the melodramatic form, moving its protagonist from point A to B through a series of progressively challenging obstacles. But while I found the Dardennes’ formidable and formally astute picture nonetheless a tad too ‘clean’, in the way it deliberately takes an irresolvable ethical quandary as a starting point and keeps underscoring a globalized Europe, The Lesson seems to me to retain the messiness of some of their earlier great films. On one level, it is a simple parable about the fallibility of authority, but it is also an uncompromising portrait of the tyrannical nature of all forms of social organizations, be they human systems with conscientious individuals at the helm or faceless bureaucratic ones with no vested interests. Slowly shifting its narrative space from the classroom to the metropolis with an enviable economy of exposition, The Lesson facilitates a double-edged critique that argues that the values taught in the class are but modeled on the values the state imposes on us and that what the state demands of us is to be ideal pupils in a classroom that is less than ideal.

10. Melbourne (Nima Javidi, Iran)

 

MelbourneThis remarkable debut feature by Nima Javidi naturally reminds one of Asghar Farhadi’s films, with its strong sense of drama, tremendous actor interpretations and mature writing that does not compromise the integrity of any of the characters. But there is also something particularly “new generational” about it in the way it harnesses the choice in front of affluent young Tehranians: to stay in Iran and own up its problems or to leave the country to start life anew. The inciting event in the film that dramatizes this choice stops the train of life dead in its tracks, exposing its protagonists to the unbearable “nowness” of the present. It is a terribly universal predicament in which time freezes around the material reality before you and all plans for the future and memories of the past seem like a remote, inaccessible country, a crisis that makes you want to either regress in time (“wish mother were here”) or to jump to a future day when the clouds have cleared, a moment where husband and wife see each other’s innermost character in all its stark nakedness. Though the couple might physically arrive at the eponymous neverland, the utopia it once represented is irrevocably lost.

 

Special mention: National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

A glance at the lineups of the major film festivals reveals how strong a year 2013 was for cinema, though the most important films, as is usually the case, wouldn’t see the light of day until about a year or two later. Personally, even more than it did in 2012, cinema took a back seat for various reasons and I could see only a fraction of what I wanted to this year. (Favorite discoveries this year include Douglas Sirk, Harun Farocki, Ernst Lubitsch and Samuel Fuller.) This post lists my favorite films that premiered in 2013. Other films I really liked were Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra and Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope. Hope that 2014 will be a much better year on all fronts.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

 

The Wolf Of Wall StreetReligion is the opium of the people” wrote Karl Marx. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wall Street evangelist and stock market prophet, Jordan Belfort, might just agree, even though the kingdom of heaven he promises is very much of this world. Martin Scorsese’s loud, unhinged and debauched portrait of the rise, fall and resurrection of the loud, unhinged and debauched Belfort is the anti-Christ story of our age: a man who lets others suffer for his sake and for whom every object, experience and sensation in the world is worth commodifying. Scorsese’s presents late capitalism in all its rapaciousness and vulgarity, as a force which appropriates pretty much everything in its way, including criticism, to gain momentum, as a psychosexual space in which the id is given free rein and libido finds an outlet in the act of moneymaking and as a state of perpetual sensory stimulation where wealth accumulation for the sake of it becomes as addictive as sex and drugs. Rife with film references and genre games, The Wolf of Wall Street is as much a duet between Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and the topicality of Terence Winter’s adaptation as it is a soaring, endlessly fascinating example of commercial filmmaking that witnesses a veteran craftsman at the top of his game.

2. Stranger By The Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

 

Stranger By The LakeIrrationality is also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s simmering Stranger by the Lake, in which the object of fear is also the object of desire and where death and sex– la mort et la petite mort – are inseparably intertwined. Like Tsai Ming Liang’s quasi-phantom protagonists and their deserted habitats, the ghost-like characters in Guiraudie’s film haunt the lake by the day and vanish by night. And like Tsai’s cinema, Stranger employs a repetition of similar shots, spaces, movements and perspectives that both imparts it a structural simplicity and makes the gradual deviations from them even more pronounced. Marked by three distinct spaces – the woods, the beach and the parking lot – that trace the Freudian topology of the human psyche, the film presents a homo-normative world in which heterosexual presence is literally pushed to the margins, resulting in a level playing field divested of the problems of male gaze. More importantly, Stranger is perhaps the most visually accomplished film of the year and its handling of the interaction between Caucasian bodies and sunlight, foliage, twilight sky and water surface recalls the finest Impressionist works, especially those of Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir.

3. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, USA)

 

StokerAn extremely inspired piece of filmmaking, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant Stoker contains some of the most exciting cinematography, editing, sound and production design seen this year. Like Polanski’s movies, Park’s film is about the gradual induction and eventual decimation of Good by Evil. As in Stranger by the Lake, what is most seductive is also the most frightful. Fear and desire are enlaced together and embodied by the figure of Uncle Charlie, who is both an instrument of death and object of sexual desire. Stoker is evidently the result of synergy between a strongly authorial filmmaker who thinks primarily in terms of images and a rich, meaty script that draws as much from horror cinema and literature as it does from Hitchcock’s body of work. Park’s erotic, alluring economy of expression distinguishes itself from the self-congratulatory shorthand of ad filmmaking in the way it establishes subtler association between images and sounds in the film. Strikingly directed with strongly vertical compositional elements and an eerily accentuated sound palette, Stoker is a glorious return to form for Park, who is among the most remarkable visual stylists working today.

4. Shield Of Straw (Takashi Miike, Japan)

 

Shield Of StrawTakashi Miike’s juggernaut of a film, the proto-dystopian Shield of Straw, works off a premise familiar to Western movie audience: a group of cops have to transfer a pedophilic killer from the city of Fukuoka to the police headquarters in Tokyo. But there’s a problem. A multi-billionaire has announced a bounty on the guy so massive that it overshadows any fear of imprisonment. What’s more, the killer is such a despicable figure that any residual moral compunction about knocking him off is eliminated. The cops, as a result, have to protect him from not only the entire Japanese population but also themselves. A distant cousin to Scorsese’s film, Shield of Straw imagines a society where both moral and legal obstacles – the superegoist constructs of sin and crime – to Darwinian social-climbing are eliminated or, worse, justified. More impressive than the demonstration of how such an economic system becomes a perfect incubating ground for greed is its central existential dilemma, in which the obligation is on the individual not only to do the right thing, but to understand what the right thing is.

5. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia)

 

The Missing PictureHow do you represent history on film that was never documented visually? This is the question that to which Rithy Panh’s highly original, challenging and affecting work responds. Seeking primarily to be a document of life in the Khmer Rouge concentration camps, the film uses neither fictional recreation, which might end up graphic and exploitative, nor animation, which lacks the material presence that photographs offer, but hundreds of meticulously hand-made clay dolls that stand in for people who are to be represented, the concept being that clay would symbolically contain the remains of the camp victims. The resulting film places the audience at a distance from the horrors being described while always retaining a space for empathy. A densely detailed voiceover , on the other hand, recounts Panh’s personal experience at the camps, his lament about images that should or should not have been made, the way cinema had become a tool for totalitarian oppression and reflections on the wacky “Marx meets Rousseau” ideology of the Khmer Rouge that justified the camps. The outcome is a thoroughly thought-provoking essay film that has both the simplicity of a historical document and the ambitiousness of a deconstruction project.

6. In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß, Georgia)

 

In BloomOne of the regrettable things about Nana Ekvtimishvili’s and Simon Gross’ absolutely heartbreaking debut In Bloom is that it is being promoted and received merely as a coming-of-age film set against Soviet collapse. Though the film is certainly that, it is grossly unfair to pigeonhole a wrenching portrayal of female camaraderie on par with anything that Pedro Almodóvar has made into a convenient marketing category. Two 14-year old ‘women’ Eka and Natia, superbly played by debutants Lika Babulani and Mariam Bokeria, in the process of transitioning to adulthood, negotiate the social and cultural problems that plague a country in transition and quietly break patriarchal norms. Dysfunctional families, street violence and the war with Abkhazia are all definitely forces that shape the young women’s lives, but they reside on the periphery of the narrative, which, like the finest Italian Neorealist films, does not underestimate the power of individual agency while acknowledging social constructivism. There is as much truth in Natia acceding to be married to a guy she does not like as there is in Eka tossing the Chekhovian pistol into a lake.

7. Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France)

 

Mood IndigoTrust a wild music video director like Michel Gondry to come up with the zaniest, trippiest, most imaginative film of the year. Adapted from Boris Vian’s (apparently unfilmable) book L’écume des jours, Mood Indigo is escapist cinema in the truest sense of the term and presents a universe free from the laws of physics and logic. So you have the Pianocktail which concocts a drink based on the notes you play, a rubbery dance form where legs wobble and sway with the woozy jazz soundtrack, split-screen weather conditions, a doorbell that needs to be squashed every time it is set off, a star philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre discoursing from inside a gigantic pipe and a floor full of stenographers writing in chorus the film they are in. Mood Indigo’s gently satirical tale of downward mobility embodies the spirit of the best musicals, producing a strange, unwieldy yet alluring film that combines levity of form with the somberness of its story. Rivaling Terry Gilliam at his surreal best, Gondry’s ceaselessly inventive film is something of a descendant to Georges Méliès’ and Émile Cohl’s cinema of dreams.

8. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers/Ben Russell, Estonia)

 

A Spell To Ward Off The DarknessBen Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s hypnotic tripartite work presents a single nameless character, played by musician Robert A A Lowe, living in three different social setups: as a part of a commune in Estonia, as a loner in the Finnish woods and as a member of a Norwegian Black Metal group. Specifically, the film shows the character in three states of being, in which the identity of the individual is subordinated to larger ones – the New Ageist assimilation of individual into the community, the Tarkovskian oneness with nature and the Black Metallic transcendence into the realm of the occult. These, on a more general level, are also the three avenues through which men create meaning in their lives – purposeful communal living, Thoreau-esque simple life in harmony with nature and creation of art. Although Spell’s significance arises from the interaction between its three parts, the individual segments themselves contain enthralling passages, especially the trancelike last section, made almost entirely out of the close-ups of performers’ faces and the discordant soundscape, transports the viewer to an experiential plane far removed from his mundane corporeality. It reinforces what André Bazin said of cinema: the Real can be arrived at only through artifice.

9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

 

Like Father, Like SonA decidedly worn-out premise is at the origin of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son: two babies are swapped at the hospital at the time of birth and end up in different social strata. What could have been an exercise in broad comedy or, even worse, class stereotyping – though the film is a comedy and does double as a fine comedy of class-bound manners – is instead transformed into a piercing examination of parenthood, in which bringing up a child becomes a process of coming to terms with one’s own flaws and insecurities. Through turn of events the film undermines the perspective that men look at their offspring as a continuation of bloodline and women view them as the recipients of their care and affection, While, on the surface, the film seems to be merely a cautionary tale about the perils of spending too little time with your kid, on careful unraveling, it reveals itself as a much more delicate look at the tradeoffs one has to make in bringing up a child, at the question of where to interfere and where to let go.

10. Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, USA)

 

Drinking BuddiesWith Drinking Buddies, the insanely prolific Joe Swanberg, who wrote and directed a modest three films in 2013 and acted in five, has made a work that might well situate him in the line of filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater and Hong Sang-soo in both its structural simplicity – marked by numerous small symmetries – and its fine observations on human relationships. The terrific ensemble is as much an author as Swanberg is and the actors evidently draw from personal experience. A naturalistic depiction of the lives of two friends at a brewery, the film treads the ever fuzzy boundary between friendship and romance. Like in the equally excellent Mexican comedy Club Sandwich (2013), Swanberg and his actors host a playful game of smudging the boundaries of sexual propriety by employing ambiguous actor positions, dialogue and physical interaction that fudges the accepted movie conventions about on-screen friendship and romance. If not anything else, Drinking Buddies is an embodiment of the shortcomings and apprehensions of the ‘millennial’ generation, for which the line between friendship and romance has become porous and tricky to negotiate.

 

Special mention: Young And Beautiful (François Ozon, France)

« Previous PageNext Page »