Sunday, November 22, 2020

Summer of '85 (Été 85)


Director François Ozon

Ozon with Félix Lefebvre (left) and Benjamin Voisin


SUMMER OF ‘85 (Été 85)                      C+                                                                           France  Belgium  (100 mi)  2020  d:  François Ozon

Opening in French cinemas on Bastille Day, a candidate for the best opening credits sequence of the year, a curious confessional accentuated by The Cure’s In Between Days In Between Days (Remastered) YouTube (2:58) exploding onto the scene at an idyllic sunny beachside location on the English Channel in Normandy, but all goes downhill from there, a teen gay love story turning morbid, lacking humor and the devlish wit Ozon is known for, becoming, unfortunately, just another film.  Adapting Aidan Chambers’1982 young adult novel Dance On My Grave, the film was initially going to be called Summer of ’84, but Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure, refused to grant permission to use his song, as it was actually released in 1985, so Ozon changed the name of his film.  Set in Le Tréport, a picture postcard location surrounded by giant cliffs, 16-year old Alex (Félix Lefebvre) is seen in the opening scene getting arrested, but in voiceover we hear his thoughts, “I must be mad.  I should have known all along if your hobby is death, you must be mad…Don’t take me for a psycho.  Corpses are not my thing.  What interests me is Death, with a capital D…Actually, one corpse had a terrible effect on me.  That’s what I’m telling you about.  If Death doesn’t interest you…if you don’t want to know about what happened to him and me, and how he became a corpse, you’d better stop right there.  This is no story for you.”  Cut to The Cure.  The sun, the colors, the perfectly placed lighthouse, and the extraordinary beauty of the sea offer a Rohmeresque view of the world where people meet and fall in love, often seen frolicking in the ocean, as it’s their summer playtime, beautifully shot on Super 16mm by Hichame Alaouie.  Appropriately enough, Alex borrows a friend’s sailboat and spends a carefree afternoon sunning himself in the breeze, but an instant summer squall changes his fortune, with heavy winds and a lightning storm quickly upon him, desperately trying to rehoist the sails, but the boat capsizes, leaving him in the drink calling for help.  Like the answer to his prayers, David (Benjamin Voisin), just two years older, boldly makes a beeline directly towards him, like the arrival of the cavalry (“He’s the future corpse”), calmly instructing him how to turn the boat over for a tow back to shore, then welcoming him into his home, where his overly affectionate mother (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) literally strips him of his wet clothes just minutes after meeting him, favorably inspects the merchandise, then sends him into a hot bath, purring “You’re so cute.  I could eat you up!  My adorable little bunny.”  So far, so good, with everything looking promising, though David and his mother appear to come on a bit strong, but they’re simply exaggerated examples of the French sensibility, both still reeling from the death of her husband, so they’re trying to make the best of a new friendship.  Alex’s parents, in stark contrast, are much more aloof, showing their concern by worrying when he starts coming home late.  Curiously, Ozon was a teenager growing up in this era, a kid similarly drawn to a morbid obsession with death and darkness, so there had to be some personal identification. 

In an aside, Alex is reaching an age where he has to choose between continuing school or finding work, counseled by one of his teachers, Mr. Lefèvre (a completely unrecognizable Melvil Poupaud), who admires his writing, demonstrating a flair for originality, wishing he’d continue with his studies.  While his father would like him to come work for him, his mother just wants him to be happy, so he’s at an impasse, with David filling the void, as they go everywhere together, meeting night after night, riding together on his motorbike, where David is a reckless speed demon, becoming a whirlwind romance, otherwise known as a summer fling.  For Alex, however, things not only get heated, but extremely serious, as he’s certain this is the man of his dreams literally walking into his life, where there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for him, utterly devoted, though also perhaps overly naïve.  When David rescues a drunk off the main street, preventing a sure accident, it doesn’t end there, as he walks him all the way to the safety of the sea, leaving him in an isolated but protected area.  Even after Alex returns home for the night, David spends several more hours “checking up” on this rescued curiosity, suggesting he doesn’t mind playing the field.  While Alex doesn’t quite know what to make of it, more confused than anything, there’s no mention anywhere of AIDS, the deadly scare which captured the headlines of the era, particularly lethal in the gay community, yet they’re right back at it the next night, dancing like there’s no tomorrow in the clubs to a strobe light effect of changing lights, once more ecstatic in each other’s arms, set to the music of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing,” Rod Stewart - Sailing 1975 HQ - YouTube (3:46), where every day is a new adventure.  Simultaneous to this budding love affair, with David already identified as the corpse in the opening segment, the story jumps back and forth in flashback, as the police are conducting an investigation into his death, with Alex high on their lists of suspects, but he refuses to talk to anyone, including a social worker compiling her own report, getting nowhere with him.  The key, supposedly, is to get Alex to work with his teacher Mr. Lefèvre, who is proposing he write his thoughts, as they’re often easier than saying them.  Early in the film Alex meets Kate (Philippine Velge), an Engish student studying in France, cute and overly friendly, speaking expert French.  When they run into her again, she is welcomed into the team, like one of The Three Musketeers, but Alex immediately notices a shift in tone, as everything starts going downhill, with David immediately showering her with affection, leaving Alex the odd man out, feeling not only disrespected, but scorned in love, leaving behind a sour aftertaste.  The two boys get into a jealous dispute afterwards, with Alex steaming out in a huff after being called “boring,” as David has evidently grown tired of him and is ready to move on.  Not long afterwards Alex sees a news report on television identifying David as the crash victim in a serious road accident.    

Too much of this film is spent in the tailspin, literally dwelling on the aftereffects of personal anguish and grief, with Alex feeling guilty about his actions, thinking he may have caused the death.  While this may have been the main thrust of the novel, exploring death and all its ramifications, especially from the point of view of a young teen who is still on the verge of becoming an adult, the cinematic effect is morbidly dreary, as Alex alone can’t carry the picture.  David was the more dominant of the two, much more active and spontaneous, partnering with his eccentric mother, both generating most of the energy, with Alex passively commenting upon it through voiceover.  By himself, however, all the air seems to have dissipated, while we’re basically watching a kid feel sorry for himself, going through the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of grief, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross - Fields and Dennis LLP (pdf).  More than anything, it appears, the death allows Alex to explore his own gayness, which also goes through various developmental phases, The Cass Model of Gay/Lesbian Identity Development (pdf), yet what’s worse is his inability to offer the proper respect to David’s mother, who has catastrophically lost her husband and son in short order, which is the film’s biggest tragedy, yet is completely overlooked by his own coming-of-age drama, becoming the film’s biggest deficiency, as it’s essential to offer help and consolation, despite her open objections, blaming him for her son’s death, but it never happens.  Instead Alex continues to think only about himself, which is considerably less interesting, becoming something of a farce, with Alex needing to see the body, as he was never able to pay his last respects, concocting a harebrained scheme with Kate to appear at the morgue in drag, assuming the role of a woman, donning a wig, shaving his legs, thinking that would make the staff more sympathetic, but his deplorable behavior is stunning, perhaps meant as dark and morbid humor, as it appears right out of a Monty Python skit, where one could imagine John Cleese jumping on a naked corpse with a flurry of kisses, representing the epitome of bad taste.  Afterwards, Alex is seen riding through town on his bicycle in drag, arriving home with a dress in tatters, much to the shock of his mother, claiming it immediately reminded her of Uncle Jackie, someone in the family no one talks about, who her husband abhors.  Alex, of course, immediately takes an interest in Uncle Jackie.  This weaving in and out of his own budding sexual identity is continually overshadowed by the tragic death of his friend, feeling somehow less important, as Alex is simply too bland a character, unable to generate any real screen enthusiasm.  Yet the fact remains that’s the storyline, assisted admirably by Kate, who remains upbeat and supportive throughout, his only real friend, eventually confessing everything to her, as the floodgates suddenly open through his writing, becoming the story we are witnessing.  Ozon has always had a flair for originality and invention, and this suffers from a lack of his own original material, feeling bogged down by someone else’s limitations, where standing in stark contrast is In the House (Dans La Maison) (2012), a student writing exercise that blossoms into a ridiculously innovative film, with readers, in this case his disinterested, bourgeois English teacher and wife, devouring every page, craving more, literally inhabiting each new page of the developing story. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

There Is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)


Director Mohammad Rasoulof

Baran Rasoulof accepting the Golden Bear for her father


THERE IS NO EVIL (Sheytan vojud nadarad)                    A-                                                     Iran  Germany  Czech Republic  (150 mi)  2020 ‘Scope  d:  Mohammad Rasoulof

A disturbing yet meditative essay on the death penalty in Iran, where in the year 2017 the nation of Iran carried out half of the world’s total executions while continuing to execute a higher number per capita than anywhere else in the world (just last year Iran executed 225 people, compared to 22 in the USA), a frightful example of a repressive authoritative state running amok, with the director stringing together four Kafkaesque morality tales, all tragically interconnected, emphasizing freedom of choice and the power of saying “no” in an autocratic society, each commenting differently on the subject, examining in many ways the consequences of one’s actions.  Despite working with a miniscule budget, this is a full-blown art film of the highest standards, where the acting is superb, while the writing offers enough variation to keep viewers on edge, maintaining suspense throughout, named the winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin Festival.  Rasoulof has a long and protracted history with the Iranian government, beginning with his dispute of the 2009 Iranian presidential election of President Ahmadinejad, calling it rigged and a fraud, describing Iran as a dictatorship where artists may no longer speak freely and are routinely arrested and tortured under interrogation, as he was the following year along with filmmaker Jafar Panahi, both sentenced to six years in prison for “conspiring against national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic government.”  Furthermore, both were banned from making films, writing scripts, giving interviews, or traveling abroad for 20 years, each stripped of their passports, a blatant attempt by the Shiite fundamentalist regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to silence two internationally acclaimed directors and politically intimidate any other artistic critics of the regime.  The sentence was later reduced to one year in prison.  Shortly after winning his Golden Bear, he was given the summons to serve the one-year jail sentence that the Iranian Revolutionary Court imposed on him (along with a two-year ban on travel), but he has not complied due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.  Earlier this year, 55,000 Iranian prisoners were released due to concerns about the spread of Covid.  Undeterred, and despite continued harassment and repeated arrests, Rasoulof continues to make films (which are banned in his own country), actually shot by his assistants, where he directs remotely, providing very precise shot lisitings, though his name is never mentioned on the crew lists and production schedules, receiving critical accolades at both the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals.  In the tradition of Kieslowski’s A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (1988), an expanded sequence on the death penalty from his masterful The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988), or more recently Boo Jungfeng’s Apprentice (2016), examining execution practices in Singapore, which in the late 90’s led the world in per capita executions, we are reminded of German-born American philosopher Hannah Arendt, who introduced the phrase “the banality of evil,” believing no human is born evil and that people are victims of the systems in which they live.  In covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of Hitler’s Final Solution who helped identify and coordinate the transportation of millions of Jews from occupied Europe to Nazi death camps, carrying out his duty with a horrible efficiency, yet after examining 3,600 pages of police interrogations, Arendt did not see a monster or psychopath in him but considered him to be a mid-level bureaucrat who would do anything for a promotion.  That is Rasoulof’s assessment as well, where the following incident may have prompted the making of the film, with the director revealing:

Last year, I spotted one of my interrogators coming out of the bank as I was crossing a street in Tehran. Suddenly, I experienced an indescribable feeling. Without his knowledge, I followed him for a while. After ten years, he had aged a bit. I wanted to take a picture of him on my cellphone, I wanted to run towards him, reveal myself to him, and angrily scream at him all of my questions. But when I looked at him closely, and observed his mannerisms with my own eyes, I could not see an evil monster.

How do autocratic rulers metamorphose people into becoming mere components of their autocratic machines? In authoritarian states, the sole purpose of the law is the preservation of the state, and not the facilitation and regulation of people’s relations. I come from such a state.

And driven by such personal experiences, I wanted to tell stories that asked: as responsible citizens, do we have a choice when enforcing the inhumane orders of despots? As human beings, to what extent are we to be held responsible for our fulfillment of those orders? Confronted by this machine of autocracy, when it comes to human emotions, where does the duality of love and moral responsibility leaves us?

While Rasoulof has examined this subject before in Manuscripts Don't Burn (Dast-neveshtehaa nemisoosand) (2013), that film becomes bogged down in the weight of its own subject, yet this is more profoundly lyrical, offering some of the most exquisite locations to ever grace the screen, simply stunning in their beauty, much like an earlier film, The White Meadows (Keshtzar haye sepid) (2010), becoming an allegorical narrative combining four different stories, each shot independently, like film shorts, with a shifting style and genre element, all stunning in their traumatic impact, with each setting growing farther and farther remote.  The opening segment is entitled “There Is No Evil,” a family drama set in the rush of Tehran big city life centered around Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), a heavy-set man with a beard caught up in a daily routine, performing the mundane ordeals in the everyday life of a typical middle-class family in Iran, calmly enduring the nagging presence of his constantly complaining wife, while trying to appease an overdemanding, spoiled young daughter as well.  As he fights his way through city traffic, with blaring noise and reckless vehicles constantly darting in and out directly in front of him, it’s a relief to finally get home and enjoy some quiet moments.  Taking a nap that extends to the middle of the night, an alarm awakens him at 3 am, when he takes a shower, gets dressed, and is off to work in the wee hours of the morning, parking in a massive garage, finding his way to a non-descript room where he sits and waits.  When a series of green lights appear on a screen, he presses a button that produces a truly shocking surprise, an astounding moment that takes one’s breath away, superbly prefaced by the banality of such ordinary events.  The second episode, “She said, you can do it,” is an equally oppressive setting, with young men jailed in tight prison quarters, yet they wear official uniforms.  Using military conscripts instead of trained professional staff, part of the basic training in fulfilling the 2-year military service forces them to participate in executions of fellow citizens, becoming complicit in the government’s killing apparatus, yet Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar) can’t imagine killing another man.  However, with an honorable discharge, he can apply for a passport and realize his dream of leaving Iran to live abroad with his girlfriend.  Openly tearful, on a cellphone with his girlfriend, he pleads for help finding a way out of this predicament.  The other men chime in, offering their own comments on his moral dilemma, suggesting he’s no better than the rest of them, mostly suggesting soldiers follow orders, as if you don’t they make things very difficult afterwards, increasing your required years of service while refusing passport and driver’s license requests, finding it hard to ever work again.  While the setting is drab and dreary, no windows, all color washed away, it’s a peculiar arrangement to find them imprisoned, as none are accused of committing a crime.  At the bewitching hour when his name is called, Pouya is reluctantly released, with another guard ordering him to get the prisoner, handcuffing himself to that prisoner as they walk down a long, empty corridor, falling occasionally, whimpering with dreaded anticipation, with the guard pulling him up, barking encouragement at him, as the roles are reversed, as the convicted prisoner is perfectly calm while the accompanying military guard is behaving like it’s his own life on the line.  In a split second, however, Pouya grabs the guard’s automatic weapon and locks the two of them up as he makes his escape, a harrowing journey accompanied by pulsating music, suddenly turning into a suspenseful prison escape thriller with an uncertain outcome, brilliantly culminating with an Italian anti-fascist song of resistance, Milva - Bella Ciao - YouTube (2:42).

If the first two segment feature oppressive settings, the next two are mesmerizingly beautiful, capturing the natural world like few films do, magnified even further by being shot in ‘Scope by Ashkan Ashkani, with the third segment entitled “Birthday.”  Opening with magnificent shots of distant mountains, Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), a young soldier on a three-day pass is crossing the vast openness of the country by train until he arrives at a remote location in a dense forest near the Caspian Sea.  Cleansing himself off in the river, he heads for an isolated home in search of his fiancée, Nana (Mahtab Servati), bringing a ring, asking her father’s permission to propose on her birthday.  But the situation is dour as they’ve just learned of the death of a close family friend, a teacher who was viewed as a son by her father, beloved by all who knew him, yet Nana never mentioned him before, so this revelation comes as an unexpected surprise.  With mixed emotions, the family plans for a funeral service, hiring musicians and holding a personal family ceremony for the recently deceased, including candles lit alongside a giant photograph.  Once Javad takes a look at the photo, his heart sinks, immediately growing ill, throwing himself into the river, as if washing away his sins, drawing the attention of Nana, providing him a dry set of clothes, with Javad realizing his own dark connection to the deceased, having participated in his execution as an enemy subversive, creating a situation where the political becomes personal.  Afterwards they hold an engagement celebration, revealing nothing to the family, yet both appear like zombies or the walking dead, void of all emotion, where the hours pass like years.  When it’s time to return, his fiancée simply walks away without uttering a word.  The final segment is entitled “Kiss Me,” featuring the director’s daughter Baran Rasoulof as Darya, a college student receiving her education as a medical student in Germany, visiting her aunt Zaman (Zhila Shahi) and uncle Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr) in what has to be the most remote region in Iran, a hilly yet desolate outpost where they raise bees.  With miles and miles as far as you can see of utter isolation, it soon becomes clear they are living lives of self-imposed exile, visiting with her father’s approval, as Bahram appears near death, having serious episodes coughing up blood, tenderly cared for by his wife, with Darya looking on, wondering why her uncle received a medical degree just like her father, educated at the same school, but then threw it all away to live out in the wilderness tending to bees.  Their story is inexorably connected to earlier episodes, resembling a classic tragedy, morphing into the ethical dilemma of Antigone, depicting what happens when an individual insists upon their moral beliefs and challenges the authority of the state, in this case altering the equilibrium, uprooting their families, exchanging children for their own safety, then living with the consequences of remaining hidden away in secrecy, ultimately leading to questions years later of altered parentage.  Enraged and hurt by the revelation, Darya feels little sympathy, believing it was a selfish decision, yet Bahram calmly stands behind his actions.  With so many transplanted families due to the European migration of refugees, you’d think this is a relatively common practice, yet few films actually touch on this issue.  The final shot resembles one of those magnificently extended final shots from Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy (1987 – 1994), a perfectly composed shot that poetically expresses the emotional paralysis that sets in, unable to truly comprehend the extent of the personal sacrifice, literally laying it all on the line for one’s beliefs, yet her blazing anger reveals the cost.