Review


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Our Daily Bread

“Vidor was a filmmaker with a strong visual sensibility—he was also a painter—and it shows even in this modest production. The film opens with a markedly diagonal shot of a staircase in an apartment complex—a diagonality that will reappear in the wipe transitions linking different scenes. This vertical urban space is contrasted later with the horizontal sprawl of the open fields, and the upward movement of the characters in the first scene with the downward movement of the water towards the viewer in the final shot. A champion of camera movement, Vidor constructs his scenes with gentle pans and tracking shots, as when the camera follows the couple into the house after they have expressed surprise at its condition. He often composes outdoor shots with the horizon near the top of the frame, and his low angles produce a sense of wonderment at nature’s bounty. A Christian Scientist, he binds men and nature in a religious aesthetic, with the farmers in the foreground facing the vast fields in the background, whose fruits they have to earn through the sweat of their brow.

Vidor was also a filmmaker with social-realist aspirations that didn’t go down well with the established studios. The Crowd dealt with the struggles of the average Joe and Jane within the alienating machinery of the city during a time of general economic prosperity. Hallelujah (1929) was a production with a mostly African-American cast intending to show Black life in the South. In an introduction to Our Daily Bread, filmed years later, Vidor explains that he proposed the idea for the film to MGM, who were encouraging but didn’t want take the risk. As a result, Vidor had to secure funding independently, mortgaging his house in the process. Produced by Vidor himself under the banner “Viking Productions” and distributed by United Artists with the help of Charlie Chaplin, Our Daily Bread was also one of the earliest films to comply to the production code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the effect of which shows in the film’s coy dialogue and sexual dynamics”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

The sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival, organised by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bangalore, opened with the premiere of Lalit Vachani’s Recasting Selves. Revolving around the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, the film is a respectful but not a celebratory description of the institute’s activities. With an aim to hone students from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) background for jobs in the private sector, where there’s no affirmative action, CREST conducts five-month-long diploma courses for batches of thirty-odd students. Participants are trained in public speaking, presentation, group work, assertive body language, positive thinking and personality development. They learn the basics of corporate etiquette through engaging audiovisual support. The teachers are dedicated and nurturing, but don’t have illusions about the course. They acknowledge that it’s too limited an experience to be transformational. Recasting Selves, which follows the induction and graduation of one particular batch of students, is not a success story; yet some progress is made at the end: some students get placed, some become first graduates from their community, and some others go back to their traditional professions.

The film is a mix of talking-head interviews with the institute’s staff, vignettes from the classroom and scenes at students’ homes in villages far from Calicut. In the latter, we get a peek into the Aranadan community, to which one student belongs, their non-Vedic beliefs and their disappearing language. At the home of another, we have a conversation between the student, who wants to start a fashion boutique, and her tailor father, who advises her to take up a stable job. These exchanges are performed for the camera, which is a little discomfiting for the viewer as it is for the participants. Back in the classroom, during the presentation sessions, the handheld camera stands close to the students, sometimes making them freeze in fear. It redoubles their consciousness of being seen and heard, which is what is the course helps them overcome. On the other hand, the students are more articulate when the camera is on a tripod. They talk about their aspirations. They recount their personal experience of caste discrimination, or lack thereof, and present their opinion on reservation. All of this in English.

The batch is fairly divided between boys and girls. It’s a much better gender ratio, in any case, than at the IIM campus they visit for a workshop on public speaking: the sight of CREST girls in their colourful salwar kameez, moving as a mass into the IIM lecture halls implicitly questions the gender distribution at IIMs. Recasting Selves points out that, beyond their social identity, these students are also products of a pan-social generation. Not just in their entrepreneurial ambitions and ease with technology, but in their tendency to substitute questions of opportunity for questions of rights. In their desire to rise beyond politics and assimilate into the corporate workforce, they represent a paradigm shift within Kerala’s social politics. One Adivasi student, we are told, was actually a BJP candidate of his constituency, a choice that he explains in terms of exposure and personal progress. Politics, whose ubiquity Vachani captures in shots of party posters across towns, appears to have lost its hold on this generation, whose symbolic counterpart is the English-language coaching centre banners competing with the party posters.

There are traces of institutional critique as well. Vachani asks the head of CREST about the lack of DBA teachers in their campus. The director doesn’t see that as being an issue, while quickly promising to include “at least one Dalit faculty” soon. In an awkward moment of hand-wringing, a programme coordinator says he doesn’t think there’d be Dalit pedagogues willing to teach the social theatre that’s part of the curriculum. Likewise, a famous newspaper that recruits CREST students as interns discusses the under-representation of DBA groups in their newsroom—a concern that comes across as a PR talking point. These institutional blind spots call to mind an early scene in the film, where the CREST direction, apparently none of them from a DBA background, is choosing candidates based on representational quotas. The scene prompts the question of self-sustaining privilege in even socially-conscious academic and journalistic institutions, of who gets to say which groups are more vulnerable and need opportunities.

Running through the film is a tension between an assertion of the students’ caste identity and its suppression. The film was shot just weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the discourse surrounding the event prompts students to confront their identities. They take cognizance of the invisible barriers they have come up against during their schooling. They recast their experience in terms of discrimination and envy. It is plain that Vemula’s suicide has instilled feelings of vulnerability. One of the boys points out that it could happen to any of them. At the same time, many students make it clear that they want to move on. Recasting Selves brings this dialectical line into sharp focus in the final sequence of the film. As part of their end project, students are required to mount a street play together. The choice of subject is between Vemula’s suicide and Bengali immigration to Kerala. Working with activist and theatre director Dakxin Bajrange, they research the two topics, make presentations and take a vote. The second topic wins by a significant margin. Asked why they don’t want to talk about Vemula, one of them says discussing caste isn’t going to fill their stomach. Another is just fed up of having to talk about discrimination all the time.

Going by their line of questioning, the CREST faculty are strongly in favour of the first subject. So is the film: when the students present the perceived ills of Bengali immigration—criminality, terrorism, job loss, lack of hygiene, language barriers—Vachani accelerates his editing to produce a feeling of dread that wasn’t present in the presentation on Vemula. It is evident that the film is underlining the intersectional nature of oppression, and the irony of the film crew and the non-DBA faculty wanting the students to engage with DBA identity politics isn’t lost on the film. Recasting Selves recognizes this as a double-bind in the discourse around caste. The students’ refusal to perform caste is located in a political landscape where communist consciousness has suppressed discussion about caste (one faculty member mentions that Kerala accounts for the fewest inter-caste marriages), itself couched within a climate of assertive identity politics.

In this light, their choice to speak about Bengali immigration scans as the other side of the coin: by deflecting the question of caste onto immigration, the students, it appears, are able to assume a broader Malayalee identity—a mainstreaming that the subject of Vemula’s suicide doesn’t afford them. It also speaks to their generational anxiety about vanishing opportunities within the fixed pie of neoliberal order. Vachani’s film demonstrates that this dilemma of the students is, moreover, the institute’s own. CREST intends students to work through their complexes by owning up to their roots. Their curriculum involves participants researching into the history of their communities. Outside their classroom, the boys and girls unite in folk ballads about feudal oppression. At the same time, the institute is forward looking; through its training in the theatre of social relations, it helps students be corporate-ready, to shed their caste identity and blend into the wider middle-class. Recasting Selves resumes this identity crisis in its the cut from the hardy face of an Aranadan woman at her village to a laptop screen in the classroom.

 

[An edited version was published in The Hindu]

Asuran

After two modest, moderately successful projects in Polladhavan and Aadukalam, it seemed to me that Vetrimaran truly hit his stride with his third feature, Visaranai (“Interrogation”), an unflinching look at police brutality whose intelligent structure stoked and then implicated the viewer’s apathy towards the issue. But delusion of precocious grandeur caught up with the filmmaker sooner than I expected, his next film, Vada Chennai (“North Chennai”), a hollow, self-styled epic mistaking scale for vision, straining for import at every turn. Vetrimaran’s new film Asuran (“Demon”) assures us that Vada Chennai wasn’t a stray blip, but a sign of things to come. A mediocre work in terms of not just artistic merit, but even basic technical competence, it continues the rapid plunge of a director who was briefly the white hope of Tamil cinema.

Vetrimaran’s second literary adaptation after Visaranai, Asuran begins in medias res, with Sivasami (Dhanush, in his fourth collaboration with the filmmaker) and his son Chidambaram (Ken) making their way through a water body. They have murdered a VIP from the village and are being pursued by the dead man’s family. As they pause at a hilltop, a narrator (the director himself) takes us into the reasons for their flight. Sivasami’s three acres were being eyed by the upper-caste family owning most of the land in the area, and this led to a series of confrontations between Sivasami’s hot-blooded son Murugan (Teejay) and the landed family, resulting the murder that triggered Sivasami’s flight. A large part of the “present” traces Sivasami and his son walking day and night, traversing the lawless terrain of the countryside in the hope of getting to the nearest city, where they have a hope of surrendering themselves to the law.

Like Vada Chennai, the nested structure of Asuran seeks to dig beneath present-day conflicts to reveal the deep-rooted nature of oppression. In another flashback on their flight, Sivasami details his tragic past: his job as a toddy-maker with an upper-caste baron in another village, his romance with his sister’s daughter, the organized struggle of his brother towards getting back lands their community lost to the baron, Sivasami’s own political awakening following his boss’s betrayal, the escalation of violence succeeding a volley of public humiliations, ending in a bloodbath modelled on the Keezhvenmani massacre. In the present, Dhanush plays a character well above his age: a timid middle-aged drunk with a curved spine, a ridiculous patch of white hair, a loose shirt, a soiled veshti hovering above the ankle and a Palakkad towel on his shoulder. It’s a character that’s emasculated to prepare us for the Sivasami’s heroics in the past: the sight of Dhanush’s young, thin frame taking down scores of thugs, always punching above its weight.

These passages of poetic justice are also what vitiate the film. Every time the narrative pries open the question of structural violence, Vetrimaran sublimates it in the macho spectacle of Sivasami dishing it to his oppressors. In a film full of institutions failed and functional, it’s only the agency of brute person-on-person violence that’s given any real weight. And how? Vetrimaran depicts all acts of lynching, humiliation and aggression in full detail, allowing the audience to partake in it, while at the same time using these scenes to drum up sentiments in favour of Sivasami’s retribution. For a filmmaker who was so clear-eyed about audience participation in Visaranai, he treats the viewer like a Pavlovian dog, introducing an exhausting trumpet theme to whip up emotion every time Sivasami moves in shallow-focus, slow motion to take down a gang in a bloody skirmish.

The first part of the film (the “present”) contrasts Sivasami’s non-violence with his son Murugan’s machismo, a trait that the younger Chidambaram inherits a while later. Chidambaram (and his mother played by Manju Warrier) belittle Sivasami’s submissive impotence, permitting film to restore his masculinity through a triumphalist assertion of Sivasami’s bravery through his violence. This presentation of Sivasami as a supremely macho, courageous man also allows the film to seal his lineage, Murugan’s and Chidambaram’s sense of honour being only a bequest of the respectable patriarch. Following the bloodshed of Sivasami’s youth, the narrator notes in all sincerity that Chidambaram understands now that his father isn’t useless. This demagogical bent of the film isn’t part of some legend-building exercise, for Sivasami’s political consciousness vanishes as quickly as it came. At one point, the wise, old Sivasami tells his son that acting on impulse is what led to his family—a patently untrue claim that falsifies the bigger battle his brother was fighting. At the end, he gives a hollow-sounding sermon about education (!) as the sustainable solution to their oppression.

But Vetrimaran’s focus, justifiably, is not on the politics but the spectacle. The entire thrust of the story is not on whether Sivasami will get justice, but on whether he and his son will get caught in their flight. And the director uses several devices at his disposal to bludgeon us into revulsion: a lynching that’s staged the same way a boar hunt earlier was, a public humiliation around a pair of slippers (a symbol of self-respect of the oppressed akin to the towel around Sivasami’s forehead) photographed and edited sensationally, the extended, CGI-enabled sight of a rotting, decapitated corpse. The tactic was the same in Visaranai, but the sadism there was integral to what the film sought to do. Moreover, the dubbed sound of Asuran is significantly out of sync with the image, which lets us suppose that that major rewrites were involved post-shoot or that last-minute self-censorship was called for. In any case, it suggests that Vetrimaran’s daring stems wholly from the script and, when that’s compromised, the filmmaking is too.

Of course, Vetrimaran is not a hack, and there are aspects that come through. He composes almost the entire film in wide shots, sometimes extremely long shots à la Mysskin that turns characters into mice in a maze. His eye for landscape is still intact: Sivasami and Chidambaram sneaking through marshes, shrublands, rocky fields and plantations like in a studio Western gives an existential counterpoint to the father-son relationship, which is one of the film’s focal points. He also emphasizes the difference between the well-lit, geometric streets of the upper-caste main village and the irregular, moonlit pathways of the theru, the kutcha settlement of Sivasami’s community. And it’s commendable that he resists the temptation to DI-enhance the dull colours of the landscape, which here simply exists.

On the other hand, there’s a markedly rushed quality to the shot and sequence composition bordering on embarrassing (at least two shots with the .ari file name on them visible!). The edits are constantly confusing and one particularly egregious scene of a Panchayat meeting cycles through scores of shots of random perspectives just in order to dramatize the proceedings. Sivasami’s past proceeds at a breakneck speed to show betrayal and revenge even before the initial dynamics are settled—clearly an afterthought to reduce runtime. Vetrimaran arm-twists Sivasami’s relationship with his elder son into a sympathetic register through a set of rather outmoded choices. The distance offered by his wide-angle, long-shot composition—with actors moving about the space like on stage—collapses when he is dealing with scenes of violence, which simply advances on auto-pilot. The sound-mix, likewise, is overly detailed with redundant information even when the shots allow the actors to breathe. A dire undertaking that continuously short-changes both its viewers and subject matter.

Joker

(Possible spoilers ahead)

You were never really here is what the Joker thinks the world is telling him. It is also the title of the film I was most reminded of watching Joker, nevertheless reminiscent of several other works whose influence it carries lightly. In Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 thriller, Joaquin Phoenix played Joe, a traumatized war vet living in a New York apartment with his eccentric mother. In trying to clean up the rotten system ruling the city, Joe also struggled against an inheritance of malady, a violent disposition that might already be running through his veins. Explicitly channelling Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s film was a meditation on violence and masculinity that offered a critical distance to events Scorsese’s film denied. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro feature in Todd Philips’ new film, but masculinity is hardly the pressing question here, for Joker is the story of a subjectivity reduced to dust.

When we first see Arthur Fleck alias Happy alias Joker, he’s in front of a mirror putting on clown makeup. He’ll be in front of mirrors two more times in the film, but he’ll look at his own image on the newspaper and television all through. There’s a split between Arthur’s external and internal selves that Philips and Phoenix emphasize through a range of formal choices. Arthur is a social outcast, and in the opening passages of Joker, he alternatingly comes across as a threat and a victim. The melodramatic scenes depict him being ridiculed and bullied, while his interactions with decent people forebode an outward aggression. Moreover, Arthur has a medical condition—he laughs uncontrollably in stressful situations—which makes those around him suspect he’s being funny, even though he’s feeling the opposite in reality. Arthur’s behaviour belies the conventional equation of laughter with comfort and control. And Phoenix does a phenomenal job of embodying this duality.

This split perspective of Arthur as a comic and a tragic figure suspends the viewer in an uneasy relation with the character. Scenes of Arthur’s debasement prompt us to sympathize with him and expect retribution, but it’s far from liberating when he does get back at his tormentors. Part of the reason for this is that Philips and co-writer Scott Silver remove the character from the mythos of the comic world and plant him within a realistic discourse around mental health. Arthur is admittedly deranged and acts of vengeance aren’t gratifying or cool; for the most part, they are untimely and disproportionate. Philips, in fact, distances his revenge from any sense of poetic justice. The first time Arthur hits back is in a subway where three Wall Street types are beating him wild. Arthur kills them with the gun he’s carrying, but Philips composes the sequence as though it were an accidental happening. The first bullet goes off during a scuffle under flickering light and Phoenix plays the scene like a survival attempt.

Arthur tries uneasily to comply to social codes, but he’s always laughing at the wrong lines. His internal life, on the other hand, is tenuously held together by a handful of relations: his self-deluding mother living in the past, the man she says is his father, the woman next door he grows close to and De Niro’s comic talk show host Murray Franklin whom he takes to be a father figure. When these relations are proven to be lies one by one, Arthur’s inner life collapses and he becomes a purely external being, a public image without connotation. Joker traces in these disappearing connections to the reality the seeds of the character’s nihilism. With all narratives about himself falsified, Arthur becomes a being without history or future, and the universe emptied of import. The money-burning, neutral chaos that the Joker stands for corresponds to a loss of internal signification. The anarchy he witnesses at the end of the film, consequently, is a pure spectacle without meaning.

When asked about his motivations, the Joker maintains that he’s apolitical and that he has nothing to do with the anti-rich movement his subway murders have initiated all over Gotham city. It’s the world around him that ascribes a political meaning to his actions. To be sure, the Gotham city of Joker is not a morally neutral space. The garbage flooding the town is as much moral as physical—a detail that is established in the first scene in which a teenage gang harasses and beats up a hapless Arthur. The head of the Wayne corporation, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) is a neoliberal figure running for mayor’s office who thinks that the city needs to be cleaned of its super rats and that vigilantes like the Joker are losers hiding behind a mask. Funding for social welfare and healthcare is being cut down—Arthur’s medical visits are forced to end—and resentment about inequality is in the air.

Arthur too shares the sense of disenfranchisement the Blacks around him experience. But the Joker is no Bane. For him, the sight of protesters donning clown masks and taking to the streets has no political weight; it’s a show to be enjoyed. Even though the protesters appear to take him as a figurehead, he doesn’t represent any community and religion is wholly absent in this world. There’s no feeling of injustice (to him or to his mother) fuelling Arthur’s actions, which are merely reactions to an environment trying to erase his existence. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly nihilistic act. That’s why the film’s climactic passage doesn’t wholly cohere: when Arthur (now self-christened Joker) is invited to Murray’s show to be humiliated, he launches into a screed about how the world is indecent and malevolent—hardly the words of a person who sees no meaning to things. What the harangue does is to provide a cri de coeur for someone who has been proven to be hollow.

This last scene also underscores the film’s starkly non-mythical bent. Though the Joker might be nihilist, the film is anything but. In trying to understand the origins of Joker’s anarchism, the film exhibits the sort of empathy and insight-creation that’s usually the reserve of realist cinema. Given the industrial context of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, which depend on fan loyalty and familiarity for their signification, I think it’s also commendable that Joker offers a self-contained work that uses the Batman mythos only as a remote backdrop, like the way, say, Ben Hur uses the Bible. Compare the film’s sustained engagement with Arthur’s experience to the third-act shift in The Dark Knight Rises, which few viewers outside of fans could find interesting. The result comes close to the semi-independent cinema of the seventies. Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher balance warm and cool colours in almost every shot—reflecting Arthur’s split image—to produce textures that, to my eyes at least, resemble 16mm. Their 1.85:1 ratio Gotham city seems painstakingly reconstructed from archival documents of Manhattan. Phoenix, in an evidently virtuoso performance, walks its sordid streets, going up and down staircases, looking up and down television images, contorting his emaciated body in a combination of ballet and tai chi. Thankfully, the film does justice to him.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Sergeant York

“The film follows York’s outward spiral, from his self-centred individualism to his coupledom, to his community membership, and finally his American citizenship. This corresponds with an opening up of the film’s consciousness as it moves from the secluded life in the hills, to the national melting pot that is the army, and to the veritable international forum that is the war trenches. Hawks is in his elements when dealing with the egalitarian camaraderie of the recruits at the army camp, and the idea of inverting the village topography in the war field is interesting. But for the most part he’s clamped down by the material’s reverence. Hawks and his cinematographer Sol Polito shoot a good part of the film in Warners’ house style full of lights and shadows, but York’s transformation scenes are conceived with a preciousness and sentimentalism closer to Frank Capra territory. His second conversion is a baroque sequence filmed on the edge of a rock, with the silhouette of York and his dog set against the sunset, as the conflicting demands of the pastor and the captain on the soundtrack. Once York’s moral quandary is resolved, the film goes down the hagiographic slope.

In his Oscar-winning role here, Gary Cooper refines the naïf character he developed in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Forty years of age, Cooper interprets the character with a boyishness endearing in its absurdity. He grooms himself awkwardly in front of a mirror as “Ma” fixes his pants and makes his meals. His characterization as a great shooter who eschews violence gives him a power that pays off at the end. That he could finally kill the German soldiers the same way he shot turkeys back home bestows on him an aura of innocence beyond corruption. Cooper conveys his entire character with a play of his fingers, especially his thumb: he adjusts his suspenders, dabbles with “bottom land” soil on a plate, turns the page with a lick of his thumb, hesitates with his left hand and, more remarkably, wets the aim of his rifle with saliva before shooting—a single gesture that seals his status as a son of the soil untainted by war, business and the big city life.”

[Full article at Firstpost]

The Treasure

The Treasure, the fiction film Corneliu Porumboiu made between two splendid documentaries, The Second Game and Infinite Football, begins with an image of paternal anxiety that would be at home in either of the latter films. Seated at the back of a car, Alin (Nicodim Toma) is upset that his father Costi (Toma Cuzin), offscreen, was late to pick him up from school. Costi replies that he wasn’t late, merely hiding, and that Robin Hood is never late. Alin doesn’t buy it, and tells Costi he isn’t Robin Hood. This offhand exchange, which has little to do with the plot of the film, functions as a kind of primal wound in the father-son relationship that Costi will attempt to mend. A little further, when he learns that Alin is being bullied by a classmate at school, Costi kneels down to teach his son how to handle it. In a tender bit of education, he instructs Alin to push the bully away and scream, but not to hit him. Later in the film, Costi chides his wife for letting Alin know he’s out looking for a treasure because it will set him up for disappointment. Among the numerous pleasures The Treasure offers is an endearing but unsentimental image of a father who judges himself through the eyes of his son.

Like all Porumboiu protagonists, Costi is a functionary. He is responsible for resolving land disputes, for authorizing private property. Costi is a straight shooter, he cannot lie. When his unemployed neighbour, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), shows up at night asking for a large sum of money, Costi turns him down, giving a clear account of his situation. Unwilling to let go of Costi, Adrian tells him that his great grandfather had buried a treasure in their ancestral house before the communists took over, and that if Costi helped him hire a metal detector to fish it out, he’d share half of whatever they find. Skipping his bill payments, Costi arranges for the sum of money. The two set out on a Saturday to Adrian’s country home, where they’re joined by Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), the metal detector guy. Working with two devices whose operation they can’t entirely trust, the trio scans the length of the garden and zeroes in on a spot. After a protracted quarrel with the impatient Adrian, Cornel drives away, leaving the neighbours to dig alone.

With its simple premise and single line of thought, The Treasure resembles a short story. Like Police, Adjective, the film is a procedural that emphasizes the duller, everyday facets of the treasure hunting process. Costi slips away from the office in the afternoon to go look for metal detectors. He discusses pricing and timing with a small agency, but finds Cornel at the exit willing to do it at a cheaper rate. Back at office, his boss confronts him about his afternoon absence, and Costi tells him the truth. Incredulous, the boss is convinced Costi’s having an affair. A considerable part of The Treasure finds the three men walking like zen monks in the garden, hoping that the detector reveals something. There’s a significant presence of technology in the film in the form of various electronic devices but also as numbers and charts. The men’s faith that these figures will announce good news resembles something like a superstition.

The Treasure is set against the backdrop of contemporary Bucharest—its problems of unemployment, mortgage pressures and wealth inequality—but is essentially a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale because it’s set against these harsh realities. Rendering Costi as a sympathetic man in financial distress, Porumbiou pegs the film as a rags-to-riches narrative of individual success, prompting the viewer to cheer for the man in his treasure hunt. Costi, for his part, does everything he can to spoil this: he tells pretty much everyone around him what he’s up to, the villagers around the country house turn nosy, and even the police get a whiff of it. But none of it hinders their project; true to template, they discover a treasure. Porumbiou, however, concocts an ending that pulls the rug from underneath us, turning the fairy tale’s ideology inside out. More precisely, the ending displaces the film from one fairy tale to another. We realize then that the film’s focal point was somewhere else, that the listener the story is being recited for isn’t us but Alin.

The Treasure explains this shift in historical terms. The three men are looking for a treasure buried in a land that may have been under dispute during the 1848 revolution in which, we are told, sons of landlords redistributed their elders’ property. Adrian believes the treasure itself was buried in the 20th century, before the communists’ time. It turns out it wasn’t; it was buried during the communist regime. The ancestral home was a school under the communists, became a bar after the 1989 revolution and came back to Adrian in 1998. As the men dig, they find evidence of the site being used as a brick-producing site and later a steel mill. Like Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, The Treasure reframes the story of the present through several levels of history buried underneath. As the men excavate the history of Romania layer by layer, they discover constantly changing definitions of wealth and crime: from private property being theft to its infringement defining theft. In doing so, The Treasure imagines fairy tales as negations of the social conditions producing them. Robin Hood can flourish only in a greatly inequal society. What did communist kids dream about? Stock markets, probably.

Graduation

Dreams of escape is what Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation begins with too. Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon, imagines a better life in the West for his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), who needs to perform well in her high-school examinations if she is to get a scholarship to Cambridge. A day before the exams, she is assaulted on way to school apparently by a convict on the lam. Eliza is understandably traumatized and doesn’t perform as well as she should’ve in the first exam. Fearing this might ruin his plans for her, Romeo arranges for her next evaluation to be rigged against the wishes of his bedridden wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar). In this, he is aided by a chief inspector, a deputy mayor and an educational officer, all four trading favours with each other.

Graduation opens with a shot of someone digging outside Romeo’s apartment complex in broad daylight. It’s an image that’ll appear one more time, but one that won’t be explained. Similarly, we aren’t told who is it that’s throwing stones at Romeo’s windows. Romeo simply accepts these events and is convinced of the deep rot afflicting the world around him. A potentially damning bit of information about Eliza’s boyfriend at the scene of the assault is also left hanging, even by Eliza whom it concerns the most. Romeo is having an affair with an administrator at Eliza’s school, a fact that the long-suffering Magda knows about, but doesn’t bring up. Everybody in Graduation is ethically compromised—there’s no moral centre to the film—because that is the only way to cope with things around here.

When Magda doesn’t agree with Romeo rigging the exam results, he reminds her of their own broken aspirations. They had decided to return to Romania after the revolution, but things haven’t changed as they wished. He tells Magda that Eliza, having had a cocooned upbringing, won’t be able to handle with the sordid realities of the country and must do what they couldn’t. Romeo repeatedly asserts, spelling out the film’s anti-moral, that sometimes the results are more important that the means. In exchange for favourable exam results, Romeo prioritizes the deputy mayor, who put Romeo in touch with the education officer, for a liver transplant. It doesn’t seem like anyone is losing out by Romeo’s bypassing of the transplant waiting list, just as it seems no one is really affected if Eliza’s score is fudged. But, of course, someone is.

What Graduation continuously points out is Romeo’s willing blindness to things. He believes that Eliza wouldn’t have been assaulted had the police done their job properly, but who’s to say that the convict’s escape wasn’t one of these ‘harmless’ arrangements? He complains about corruption and stagnation, but dodges draft and thrives as a surgeon thanks to these very elements. The institutions the film revolves around—police, hospital, school, town hall—aren’t pictured as Kafkaesque labyrinths but intimate spaces made or broken by individuals in it—something like a family, which is here a tainted institution too. Romeo exploits and benefits from due process not being followed in these institutions. His downfall comes when people, for once, start doing the right things: the investigation bureau decides to examine the deputy-mayor’s dealings, the police sniffs out Romeo’s arrangement, Eliza refuses to follow his instructions and loses faith in him.

Like in an art film of the seventies, Mungiu takes considerable pleasure in charting the downfall of respectable middle-class Romania. Romeo’s sealed-off existence is hinted at from the very first scene, where it’s pierced by a stone hurled at his window. The doctor spends rest of the film trying to fix this hole, literally and symbolically. Mungiu composes several indoor shots with windows visible in the background, the opening scene having prepared us to expect them to shatter any moment. This sense of fragility and pervasive dread—peaking in a late scene in which Romeo wanders a shady neighbourhood pursuing Eliza’s assaulter, only to struggle to get away from the location—is counterbalanced by the rather affectionate portrayal of the father-daughter relationship. I was reminded of Ozu throughout Graduation, with its long shots of Romeo peeling fruits, changing shirts or just sitting in wait of his daughter’s imminent departure. The pain of generational shift is brought into focus through the figure of Romeo’s ailing mother, who doesn’t want Eliza to leave Romania. That Eliza is the one who saves her grandmother in one scene, when Romeo is at his lover’s place, reinforces the film’s implicit theme of the necessity to own up to the past.

24 Frames

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

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

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

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

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

Safari

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

– What Money Can’t Buy (Michael Sandel)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arjun Reddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismael's Ghosts

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

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

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

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

The Double Lover

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

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

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

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

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