Nocturama

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Copie Conforme (2010) (Certified Copy)
Abbas Kiarostami
French/Italian/English

 

Certified CopyA possible manifesto for postmodernism, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) reminds one of a million other pictures – from the director’s own early films, through Godard, Rossellini, and Hitchcock, to Scorsese, Hou and Jarmusch – in both its major and minor strokes. This actually goes well with the film’s central argument of there being no originals in art as well as life. It asserts, as does Jarmusch’s latest, that meaning and authenticity exist in one’s gaze of objects rather than the objects themselves (Like the director’s previous film, this one reverses the artist-audience relationship and suggests that the viewer is the original author of works of art), that the question of authenticity is obviated if a (relative) truth could be arrived at through artifice, that no art can be inherently original given that it is feeds on and reshapes reality and that all aspects of human existence – appearance, language, behaviour, relationships and gestures – are reproductions of existing templates. Building upon the latter argument, the film examines the importance and inevitability of role-playing in our lives through the lead characters/actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel), who bear an original-copy relationship themselves. Through them, the film proposes that there is no absolute ‘self’ and that it is only within context and within a relationship that each ‘role’ we play obtains a meaning. It is not that these two characters are faking it during one half of the film, but just that – like Sartre’s waiter – these inauthentic people segue from one level of role-playing to another (On one level, Certified Copy is a film where actors play characters playing characters playing characters). Akin to Shutter Island (2010), Certified Copy is divided into two realities, with the verity of each half being valid only in relation to that of the other. However, there’s much more to Kiarostami’s film than such straightforward illustration of philosophical ideas. (Like Scorsese’s movie, this one wears its themes on its sleeve, thereby undermining them.) Throughout, it probes where the essence and authenticity of a film rests: in its grand, ethereal ideas or in its banal, concrete physicality. Does the spirit of Certified Copy lie in its precise, recursive structure and its intricate mise en scène or is it in the minute, magical gestures of Binoche’s visage and the gentle eroticism of her loose-fitting gown?

(Continued from part 1/2)

Hao Nan Hao Nu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995)

Good Men, Good WomenGood Men, Good Women (1995), the final part in Hou’s trilogy on Taiwanese history, could well be considered as the first in a series of highly experimental films by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Dividing the film into two time lines – one set in the Chiang Kai-Shek era of White Terror and the other in contemporary Taiwan – Hou investigates both the unifying spirit and the chasms that exist between the nation’s past, present and future. A lonesome actress Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh) is to play the role of Chiang Bi-Yu, a Taiwanese resistance fighter from the 1940’s. Ching’s confrontation with the painful history of her nation coincides with a confrontation with her own dark past, where we learn about her stint as a bar host and her affair with a man named Ah-Wei (Jack Kao), whose murder she becomes an accomplice to, for three million bucks. The betrayal of a group of loyal partisans by the very side it wished to fight for serves as an agonizing reminder of her betrayal of a man who loved and trusted her. Hou’s highly stylized direction cuts back and forth between the scenes from the past that use soft, black and white footage and those from the present, shot in a bland colour stock, both of which mingle at one point, pointedly suggesting the marriage of collective and personal histories that gives a not-so-rosy picture of the future. Good Men, Good Women is a transitional film for Hou in the way it acts as a bridge between the idea of inseparability of past and present indicated by The Puppetmaster (1993) and that of absolute isolation of the two from each other that characterizes Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996).

Nan Guo Zai Jian, Nan Guo (Goodbye South, Goodbye, 1996)

Goodbye South, GoodbyeWith Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Hou seems to have bid farewell to narrative cinema for good. It is safe to declare that absolutely nothing happens in the film, for right from the first shot of the film, where we witness a bunch of blasé youngsters sitting in a train and one of them losing signal on his cellular phone, to the last one where a car carrying those people crashes to a standstill, there is simply no indication that the vicious circle that the characters are treading on will break some day. Neither their choices nor their actions seem to make any difference to the drug-addicted, gamble-driven, aimless and nihilistic lives they seem to be leading. They live for the moment, without a shred of consideration for the consequences or causes of their present actions (They open a restaurant where they end up telling the customers what they should eat!). With an absurdly exaggerated colour scheme, consisting mostly of primary colours, Hou builds the film as a string of moments, each rife with dark, brutal humour (“Did she slit her wrists again?”), that gradually reveal how a whole generation is living with neither an apparent memory of the past nor a hope for the future. Alternating between scenes of motion – trains, motorbikes and automobiles – and transit, whose destination is never once clear, and utter motionlessness, shot in dimly lit, cramped interiors, Goodbye South, Goodbye is a stark and affecting portrait of a stalemated generation whose loss of identity seems to mirror that of the nation they are living in.

Hai Shang Hua (The Flowers Of Shanghai, 1998)

The Flowers of ShanghaiCould there be a more baffling and contrasting follow up to the apparent frivolity and irresponsibility of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) than The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou’s only film to be set entirely in the pre-WW2 era? Slightly redolent of Zhang Yimou’s magnificent Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Flowers of Shanghai, set during the turn of the nineteenth century in the brothels of Shanghai, presents us a series of seemingly endless conversations and bouts presided by men, presumably belonging to the officer class of the ruling government, who indulge themselves by patronizing the courtesans and playing drinking games on the table. Hou’s most relentless and most rigorous film till date, The Flowers of Shanghai is shot completely indoors, with carefully orchestrated actor choreography, consisting almost entirely of medium shots and with a intensely reddish lighting scheme throughout that evoke a high degree of claustrophobia and suffocation, which perhaps mirror the experience of the flower girls themselves (the exact feeling that is induced when one watches Ten (2002)). It is hard not to think of the film as a political allegory given the fact that the whole film plays out within a single, enclosed structure and the intricate way in which relationships are reduced to ideas of ownership, subscriptions and contracts. However, even if the case for political abstraction is dismissed, The Flowers of Shanghai still remains a scathing examination of power and freedom of a highly marginalized section of people living under a decidedly patriarchal structure – an exploration that remains as potent even in the most modern of times.

Qian Xi Man Po (Millennium Mambo, 2001)

Millennium MamboMillennium Mambo (2001) arrives, at the turn of the century, as a timely reboot to Hou’s Daughter of the Nile (1987). Like the protagonist of the latter film, Ah-Sang (Fan Yang), Vicky (Qi Shu) finds herself in a stalemate of sorts, with no relationship to really hold on to, and wishes to escape into the past as a means of overcoming the abyss called future. She seems haunted by the idea of beginning anew in a new place and a new time and is fascinated by the antiquity of Hokkaido, Japan, the old people who live there and the old cinema posters that adorn its slow-clad streets. However, unlike Ah-Sang, she seems numbed by her condition so as to not show any signs of desperation for escape. There are echoes of both Tsai Ming-Liang and Wong Kar Wai in this film in its existential overtones and (yet) brimming optimism. In stark contrast to the medium-shot rigor of his previous film, Hou’s aesthetics are freewheeling and he shoots in cinema vérité format, employing a mildly accentuated colour palette and a large number of loosely focused, handheld shots and close ups that was hitherto uncharacteristic of the director. Like some of his previous films, Hou seems to be interested more in capturing the rhythm of life during a specific time period in Taiwanese history than anything else. Consequently, Hou employs a highly evocative techno soundtrack and punctuating slow motion shots that gives one the affecting feeling that these are moments of utmost transience to be cherished for eternity, much like the evanescent face imprint that Vicky leaves on snow.

Kôhî Jikô (Café Lumiére, 2003)

Cafe LumiereCafé Lumiére (2003) is the kind of film that I would have expected from Jarmusch, given his preoccupation with Japan and, specifically, Ozu (No wonder he cites Hou as one of his idols). However, in retrospect, it looks like that no other director deserves making this film as much as Hou does. That is because Café Lumiére serves both as the updation of Ozu’s themes for the new century and as the next logical step in Hou’s body of work. Most minimal in terms of plot in all of Hou, Café Lumiére continues Hou’s exploration of the new generation that has been cut off from its past and that seemingly unbridgeable generation gap that exists between the members of two generations – a characteristic Ozu theme that had its cultural roots in Post-war Japan – in this post-globalization world. However, Hou examines this chasm from an outsider’s point of view, as and through a person straddling the cultures of Japan and Taiwan – a stance that permeates the whole film, tying what is quintessentially Hou to that which is quintessentially Ozu. Hou’s stylistics, too, become inseparable from the Japanese director’s as he concocts similar ground level compositions, with meticulous actor choreography filmed in long shots and  separated, at times, by major ellipses. Like Jarmusch’s latest, Hou’s film is also one about transition – one without any particular destination – and he adorns the film with images of trains and railway stations. In fact, Hou’s film is the cinematic equivalent of the painting that Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) creates in the film, indicating a generation that rests within the womb of a dense network of trains, slowly bleeding.

Zui Hao De Shi Guang (Three Times, 2005)

Three TimesHou Hsiao-hsien’s most acclaimed film, Three Times (2005), brings him back to overtly political filmmaking after a hiatus of, arguably, four films. Divided into three segments – set in 1911, 1966 and 2005 in Kaohsiung, Dadaocheng and Taipei respectively – Three Times seems like a distillation of three of the director’s earlier films. Hou’s aesthetics change with the time period the film deals with (in a highly cinematic sense too). He uses a green filter, a mixture of outdoor and indoor shots and a soundtrack composed of romantic songs for the first segment, a red filter, largely medium shots filmed indoors with a static camera and a classical soundtrack for the second and a blue tinge and fluid camerawork with a number of close-ups for the third, reflecting the spirit of each age. But Hou’s film is far from a simple comparison of lives in three distinct time periods. Hou is more interested in the underlying similarities and ironies more than the apparent and inevitable differences. Like many of the director’s previous films, Three Times is an exploration of the distance between individuals, the communication gap that separates them and the ways those distances and gaps are bridged. In the bittersweet, first segment, letters and boats serve the purpose of bringing people together, with words complementing when stretches of silence aren’t enough. In the second segment, voices are entirely muted as intertitles replace conversations. In the final one, despite the infinite means of communication and commutation available, characters don’t seem to be able to connect either with each other or with their past, as they ride off in their contraptions to nowhere.

Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge (The Flight Of The Red Balloon, 2007)

The Flight of the Red BalloonThe Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) might just be Hou’s greatest accomplishment to date.  Hou’s second film on foreign soil is aptly set in Paris, France – the city of arts – and takes off from Lamorisse’s childlike short The Red Balloon (1956). The latter trivia is very important and provides thematic context to Hou’s film. The balloon in Lamorisse’s film becomes a symbol of beauty and of art, abandoning a cruel world that rejects it and embracing and protecting those who recognize beauty in the mundane. Likewise, in Hou’s film, Simon (Simon Iteanu) is surrounded by a number of art forms – music, literature, photography, puppetry, cinema and painting – and mother figures – his actual mother, his nanny, his piano teacher, his “pretend sister” and, of course, the all-mysterious red balloon. Hou, evidently inspired by the city, creates a fractal of art forms around these wonderful people in the film who seem to be striving to capture instantaneous reality and achieve peace and perfection through the art forms they practice. Hou uses semi-transparent, partially reflecting surfaces and has melodious music pieces accompany the most quotidian of images to underscore both the impossibility of life to attain the utopia of art and the presence of art in everyday life, all around us (The dense, final scene of the film employs Félix Vallotton’s painting, The Ball, to highlight how art is created out of the ordinary and how it embodies a desire to overcome the imperfection of reality). When Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) asks the blind tuner if he can tune the piano back to normal, she might well have been taking about her life.

Shirin  (2008) (aka My Sweet Shirin)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

“I fear that this embrace may turn out to be a dream. Like all the dreams we had throughout the years which, on waking, would turn into horrible nightmares.


ShirinIt’s been long since Abbas Kiarostami started trying to eliminate the role of the director in making films. His works bear witness to the fact that, with him, the function of a director is closer to that of a concept artist than a logistic manager. His latest, Shirin (2008), is the next logical step in this process of progressive non-intervention of director. An extrapolation of his segment Where is My Romeo? (which seems like a experimental doodle in comparison) in To Each His Own Cinema (2007), Shirin presents us an audience in a movie theatre, made up mostly of women, played wonderfully by over a hundred professional actresses, watching a period melodrama based on the love triangle between king Khosrow, princess Shirin of Armenia and Farhad, the ace mathematician and sculptor. No, we do not get to watch one frame of the film that is playing in the theatre. Instead, what we get is a film whose imagery is constructed entirely using close-ups of the audience’s reaction to the movie they’re watching while the soundtrack is that of the movie being seen. Emotions run the gamut – empathy, sympathy and apathy – as Kiarostami’s mildly differential and subtly accentuated lighting lovingly captures each contour of these beautiful women’s faces.

One familiar with the works of Kiarostami would know how the director uses the film screen as a kind of mirror for introspection. Be the mirror pointed towards the society at large, as in Homework (1989) and Ten (2002), or towards cinema, like in Close-Up (1990) and Five (2003), or towards the director himself, as in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) and Life, And Nothing More… (1991), Kiarostami’s cinema has always flourished on this dialectic between reality and its reflection on screen. Here, in Shirin, he turns the mirror towards us – the viewers in the theatre – as we become our own audience. As a result, our reactions get tied to those of the audience on screen. We smile when they laugh and we are moved when they break down. We are surprised at every small twitch of their eyebrows, every casual gaze away from the screen, every mild shudder of theirs, and every tear that reaches their lips. Shirin make us privy not only to all our gestures and emotions which we are usually oblivious to, when sitting disarmed in the darkness of the cinema hall, but also to the taken-for-granted social experience shared by the collective of strangers wherein we all seem to concur emotionally and, yet, differ vastly in the vehemence of our responses.

ShirinShirin takes place in real time. The 90 minutes of the film coincide with the runtime of the film within the film. In some ways, I guess Shirin could be considered a companion film to Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), which took off from the fact that women, in Iran, are not allowed to enter football stadiums and which, too, unfolds in real time – 90 minutes again – alongside an international soccer match. While, in Panahi’s film, we are presented with a model of rebellion against existing norms, Shirin hints at conformism. Offside showed us an attempt to change existing reality whereas Kiarostami’s film presets to us a longing to enter an alternate one. There is a glint in all these women’s eyes that betrays their celebration of the film, which seems to perfectly acknowledge and express their own plight, and, consequently, a yearning to enter it forever. They seem to understand that this freedom is going to be short-lived and they would have to return to their oppressive lives soon (One woman has a plaster on her nose. We are tempted to ascribe it to domestic violence). Even though none of the men in the cinema hall get a close-up from Kiarostami, they do have a constant, ghostlike presence in the background. Whenever the scarves on their head slip off, the women snap back to reality to adjust it. One woman even winces when sunlight falls on her face as the door nearby is opened suddenly.

Of course, the first movie (not considering too much the hilarious opening scene of Ross Herbert’s Play It Again, Sam (1972), which too explored the possibility of life merging with art) that comes to mind watching Shirin is Godard’s My Life to Live (1962), in which Godard provides a close up of Nana (Anna Karina) weeping while watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a movie theatre. Like Godard, Kiarostami links the life of Shirin to that of the audience in the film by making the “story” of the film highly reflexive (Kiarostami might even be referring to Dreyer’s film, given the French connection of the film in the form of Juliette Binoche). Following Khosrow’s death, the princess asks her friends: “Are you shedding these tears for me, Shirin? or for the Shirin that hides in each one of you?”. This is as overt as Kiarostami’s film gets. The world in the film, too, is highly patriarchal, with the fate of Shirin being decided by power games played by men – kings, sons and lovers – alone (“Damn this game of men that we call love!”). By impartially cutting from one face to another, instead of dwelling on a single face, Kiarostami might just be making a statement of generalization and pinning the film down to the situation in present-day Iran. This notion becomes even more plausible given that the love triangle between Khosrow, Farhad and Shirin is essentially a contest between the government, an artist and a woman.

ShirinDespite its avant-garde and nonconformist nature, surprisingly, Shirin works well as an experiment in popular genre cinema – the one zone that the director has been reluctant to get into. Shirin proves, at least as far as modern day genre cinema is concerned, that sound is more important than the visuals if instant gratification is aimed for. It is certainly easier to keep track of and engage ourselves in a film when we look away from the screen than when we close our ears while watching the images. In Shirin, not once are we given visuals from the film within the film, but we are clearly able to understand its structure and chronology. There are flashbacks in the film that we never miss. Action scenes play out in our minds vividly (with reduced ASL, of course!) and voices are immediately matched with stereotypes that have been given to us through the ages. In a humourous moment, we see a mildly tearful woman break down completely when the orchestral music swells. This is genre cinema being taken apart to reveal its manipulation, folks. Kiarostami removes the redundant video track, so to speak, and adds a new one to counterpoint the soundtrack instead of reinforcing it. So, in a sense, Kiarostami moves both towards and away from genre cinema simultaneously. In the director’s own words: “It is a combination of both freedom and restriction.

Kiarostami once said the following in an interview which sums up so effectively his whole body of work and especially Shirin:

“A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason… I make half movies. The rest is up to the audience to create for themselves“

Kiarostami’s idea of cinema is one that requires the physical presence of an audience for the completion of the enterprise that the filmmaker has set off (“There is no such thing as a movie before the projector is switched on and after the theatre’s lights are turned off.” he says in another interview). Shirin is yet another half movie in the director’s filmography not only in the sense that it provides us with only one half of the melodrama – the soundtrack – being played, but also because it leaves it to us to decide the connotations of this bizarre marriage between an expressionistic soundtrack and a realistic imagery. In fact, Shirin is made of numerous such interactions between the prime elements of Kiarostami’s cinema. Throughout the film, there are rich conversations between sound and image (by direct opposition between generic and non-generic forms), the past and the present (The women seem to be able to identify themselves with a fictional character living in a distant past), fiction and reality (As always with Kiarostami, one isn’t able to separate what was scripted and what was spontaneous), the women and the film they are watching and Kiarostami’s film and us. And that is one of the reasons why Shirin is best watched in a theatre (It’s kind of like watching the last chapter of that Tarantino movie!), where, for once, we would be tempted to take a look around.

[Where is My Romeo (2007)]