Thursday, April 10, 2014

Those Happy Years (Anni felici)

THOSE HAPPY YEARS (Anni felici)        C+       
Italy  France  (106 mi)  2013  d:  Daniele Luchetti

While this is obviously a personal autobiographical work, feeling a bit like Edward Yang’s YI YI (2000) in that it attempts to be a funny and somewhat unorthodox portrait of an ordinary family struggling with their own personal self doubts and alienation, their long, pent up frustrations, their exploration to find love and meaning in their lives, a film where Ting-Ting, a young teenage character in Yang’s film asks “Why is the world so different from what we thought it was?”  But in this film there is a problem throughout in tone, often feeling absurdly stereotypical and over-the-top, and also at times disingenuous, particularly as it addresses the concerns of women, actually feeling make believe in an otherwise realistic setting, set in flashback mode to the summer of ’74, examining the fluctuating lives of the parents of two young boys, one of whom narrates the film and would eventually become the filmmaker.  The strength of the film is well-crafted characters that feel authentic and their problems real, using naturalistic dialogue throughout, but the film also has the leering eye of male fantasy throughout, like the thrill of kids literally peeking through a keyhole to catch naked adults unawares and off guard.  Since so much of the story is seen through a child’s eye, one troubling aspect is a lack of reflection, as children hear things or are exposed to adult activities that would normally be off limits for children, yet because they’re seen as cute kids these scenes are played for laughs, actually undermining the seriousness of the material and often delving into uncomfortable territory.  The title itself exudes a certain amount of irony, as most of the film shows two unconventional parents embroiled in the turmoil of an unraveling marriage.

Set in the liberating post-60’s era, described as “the summer when everything changed,” the film initially has a whimsical, light-hearted style where Guido (Kim Rossi Stuart) and Serena (Micaela Ramazzotti) are happily in love with their two adoring boys, Dario (Samuel Garofalo), the director’s alter-ego, and younger Paolo (Niccolò Calvagna), where Guido is an art teacher with designs on becoming an avant-garde artist.  As an aside, in real life, the director’s father was Luca Luchetti, a well known Italian sculptor whose artwork is actually used in the film.  Guido is a live-wire, would-be-artist, spending his time making plaster body casts of beautiful naked women, while also splashing paint on their naked bodies, all presumably in the name of art, and on full display before the curiously interested eyes of his two young sons, sending them outside only when he wants to spend some personal time with the models, and then returns home to his alarmed wife, who has a right to be suspicious, as her husband tells her nothing, claims she’s overreacting, and ignores the impact of his own behavior.  But he sees himself as a prominent person, a rising star in the artworld, where making provocatively bold and liberating statements is required in order to attract recognition, but Guido mixes up his own carnal desires with his art, often unable to tell the difference.  What he desires is a devoted fantasy housewife, a sexually charged woman who cooks, takes care of the kids, pleases him in bed, and asks no questions, where he gets the best of all possible worlds, making no sacrifices himself, again on full display before his sons.  This is a man’s world, where women are just supposed to accept it, where Guido constantly lies to protect himself and does nothing to alleviate his wife’s pronounced jealousy, despite outpourings of marital frustration and endless arguments in front of the kids, turning this into a bummer of a summer.   

Guido, however, gets his comeuppance when the reviews of one of his savagely naked live art exhibitions turns into a full-fledged disaster, calling his art empty and fake, panning his artistic pretentions, an event that derails his career and sends Guido headfirst into a melancholic swoon.  During his doldrums, he buys his son Dario the 8mm camera he’s always been begging for, which he brings with him when Serena (bringing the boys in tow) accepts an invite from a local art gallery owner, Helke (Martina Gedeck), to head off to a feminist camp in France.  The biggest problem of the film is the director’s conception of a “feminist” camp, which couldn’t be a more pretentious expression from the leering gaze of a man, filled with women frolicking naked on the beach or running around naked, constantly displaying their bodies, playing sports, dancing, or listening to male bashing speeches, with Dario running around filming it all like it’s a boy’s summer fantasy, calling it “erotic dust.”  Whether the exaggerated look at the 60’s art world or the feminist camp, the tone of satiric absurdity undermines any serious developments and prevents the transformative coming-of-age theme from being taken more seriously within Serena, who finally gains the courage to stand up to Guido’s backward view of women, but it also comes at a cost, especially when Helke becomes affectionate and has her own designs on Serena, making frequent passes, treating her with more respect than she’s ever received in her marriage.  This internal crisis turns her world upside down, as she never sees her husband in the same way afterwards.  He, in turn, is going through his own existential crisis, where he has to reach inside himself and determine if he is the artist he hoped he would one day become.  An often delicate and nuanced film, there is, however, little sympathy generated towards either parent, both of whom are too self-absorbed and clueless, needlessly exposing their children to the harmful effects of their continual bickering, but also their wayward indulgences where they simply drift apart.  These were, according to the narrator, somewhat tongue in cheek, the happy years.  

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