Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Roulette)

CHINESE ROULETTE (Chinesisches Roulette)                 A                           
Stöckach and Munich (86 mi)  April - June  1976  d:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I have tried to make a film that pushes artificiality, an artificial form, to extremes in order to be able to totally call it into question.  I’m pretty certain that in film history there is no single film that contains so many camera movements, traveling shots, and counter-movements of the actors.  The film I’ve made, which appears to speak out for marriage as an institution, is in reality about how infamous, mendacious, and destructive marriages are, and perhaps, precisely because of this equivocation, it becomes stronger than other films that explicitly speak out against marriage.
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1977)

Taking us into a minefield of marital discord, creating characters the audience loves to hate, including one of the most poisonous mother/daughter relationships this side of Mommie Dearest, which hadn’t even been written yet, this deliciously fascinating Gothic chamber drama is a psychological examination of the indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie, where infidelity and deep-rooted family contempt prevail at this country estate, filled with aristocratic austerity and detachment, hostility, distrust, and malicious intent.  Fassbinder disbands his customary stock theatre troupe, utilizes two of Godard's actresses, the always lovely and enchanting Anna Karina as the husband’s mistress, and Macha Méril, who is simply brilliant here in a mute role as the governess to a spoiled and overly pampered, polio-stricken child, the equally brilliant Andrea Schober, who turns the tables on her unsuspecting parents, inviting both to show up at the estate with their respective lovers on the same weekend, feeling they are blaming her for their own unhappiness, so she challenges them to a truth or dare game that has deadly consequences.  These roles of Méril and Schober, similar to PERSONA (1966), are among the most inventive in the Fassbinder repertoire, and the Sirkian style here is reminiscent of THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VAN KANT (1972), with fabulous choreography, a kaleidoscope of statuesque faces that are constantly in motion, constantly reflected back in bizarre glass and mirror images, like abstract double reflections, very slow and cold, gracefully refined, elegantly beautiful, featuring extraordinary camera work by Michael Ballhaus, also starring Margit Carstensen (brilliant, as always) and Alexander Allerson as the parents, with Ulli Lommel as the wife’s lover.  Blink and you’ll miss a brief scene of a blind beggar knocking on a mansion door, only to be seen moments later throwing away his crutches into the back seat of his Mercedes and driving away, an indicator of how appearances are deceptive and the entire world is living under some kind of illusion.  This film is a little tribute to the failings of marriage, and how each act of infidelity is akin to an emotional murder, always hidden and secretive, covered up in lies, like a secret assassin, with devastating results. The final scene of this giant castle in the darkness has the feel of a vampire film, as if the inhabitants are largely bloodsuckers.

Chaos as Usual: Conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder  Interview with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, edited by Juliane Lorenz, Marion Schmid, Herbert Gehr, pages 105-106:

He never allowed anything to just take its course.  He was far too interested in the process.  But by and by, a strong mutual understanding developed between us—which doesn’t mean that we always agreed.  It’s just that our relationship graduated to another level.  We no longer had these constant confrontations.  We knew what we could accomplish together.  Three movies evolved in that period, which are interesting with regard to our collaboration.  One was Chinese Roulette, a movie which I find impossible to watch today but which had a special meaning for us then.  There the camera turned into a person, an actor, so to speak.  We developed a very precise and interesting visual language.  I learned an incredible amount while we shot it, and our work was surprisingly harmonious.  By the way, only three months elapsed between the idea and the finished product—the fastest work of my entire career. 

Rainer had been given a grant.  So he said, “Let’s make a movie.  What shall we make?”  We first chose the actors and decided on a locations.  I told him, “We own this house in Franconia.  We might do it there.  It’s quite a beautiful location.”  Rainer went to Paris for a couple of weekends and returned with the script.  We decided to shoot the movie in our house, and I realized that this was bound to end in disaster.  Rainer, who goes out every night, who constantly needs to be surrounded by people, in a place where there’s no entertainment for miles.  The nearest bar was in Schweinfurt, and it was very boring.  I thought it was going to be awful but it turned out to be the exact opposite.  We were all together in that house, we lived together, ate together, spent every evening together playing Chinese roulette.  Of course, we also tore each other to pieces.  But Rainer felt he had a family, and in the end he didn’t want to leave.  A lot of crazy things happened, but he felt at home and never even left the house.  It was a strange experience.           

Ballhaus, who went on to work in the 80’s with Martin Scorsese in America, shot a total of sixteen films with Fassbinder, the last being THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979), arguably the director’s most commercially accessible work, a film that played at international film festivals and placed him on the international map.  Many of his earlier films were only discovered afterwards, where this tense psychodrama is among his most visually stylized works, reminiscent of Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), making it a point to shoot a choreography of faces in close-up merging in and out of one another, like cells symbiotically reshaping themselves, constantly reflected in mirrors or sculpted glass, creating a kind of Picasso disfiguration, as the camera incessantly moves around the room, peering around corners, including a glass liquor cabinet in the center of the living room, dazzled by the refracted images seen while staring through the glass.   Actors are often shot at odd angles, or hold their poses like fashion models carved in stone, dramatizing the tense interpersonal relationships that develop, each one growing more suspicious of the other, where Fassbinder’s drama literally has them on display, like animals pacing in a cage, with the camera continually encircling them, Escena (dolly circular) de Chinese Roulette (Fassbinder) YouTube (1:19), as if capturing them offguard, naked and exposed.  It’s a uniquely opulent technique, some might even think garish or overdone, yet it visualizes the unseen psychological breakdowns occuring throughout the film, enhanced by a conceptualized vision that accentuates the fragile vulnerability of what’s happening underneath the surface where a series of emotional explosions are taking place, leaving the characters onscreen in tattered pieces afterwards.  The film opens with an emotional shock to the system, Chinese Roulette (Opening Scene) - YouTube (2:15), as Arianne (Margit Carstensen) and her 12-year old daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who walks with metal crutches for both legs that can be heard clanking throughout the film, are sitting in separate rooms listening to the operatic sounds of an LP record playing the lush finale to Mahler’s ecstatic 8th Symphony for voices and orchestra, one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical repertoire, a work that looks to the heavens, bathed in the lyrics of Goethe’s Faust, arguably the most famous narrative of man making a pact with the devil, yet so powerfully celestial that it’s often called “Symphony of a Thousand.”  Through the windows, trees are seen rustling in the breeze, a contrast to the inert and wordless characters onscreen, as both women appear stuck in time.  The scene is exceptionally dense, using exalted music that spiritually transcends the limitations and smallness of humankind.  As if on cue, the father, Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson), opens the front door and the music instantaneously stops.      

All that is transitory
Is but an image;
The inadequacy of earth
Here finds fulfillment;
The ineffable
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
leads us upwards.

Using Biblical names for several characters, the innocence of this Edenesque opening scene abruptly unravels into multiple derivations of original sin, as a wealthy Munich couple are heading their separate ways this weekend, leaving Angela and her collection of dolls in the hands of her mute governess, Traunitz (Macha Méril).  Gerhard is heading to the airport, supposedly a business conference in Oslo, while Arianne is dashing off to Milan, yet within minutes the viewers realize the deception, as Gerhard is at the airport meeting his longtime mistress Irene Cartis (Anna Karina), a French hairdresser, with plans to spend an idyllic weekend together at his family’s countryside home.  Part of the intrigue is the exquisite interior of the estate itself, which is identified late in the film as Castle Traunitz, suggesting the governess may be the natural heir to this family estate, yet through sinister legal subterfuge and some carefully kept family secrets, indicated by a devious housekepper Kast (Brigitte Mira) who confides to Gerhard that Ali ben Basset was murdered in Paris, suggesting criminality is involved, yet this is only implied, as more is never revealed.  However there is a clearly defined aristocratic class system in place, where Kast and her embittered, sexually ambiguous son Gabriel (Volker Spengler) are the live-in servants and caretakers of the home, who begrudgingly follow every order and command, no questions asked, just as if it was a precise military operation.  This hierarchy is conspicuously in place the moment Gerhard arrives, barking out instructions while he and his mistress head out for a little walk in the woods, where they sexually commune with nature.  Afterwards, as they return inside the house, they walk in on Arianne having sex on the floor with Gerhard’s business assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel).  Astounded, shocked, hurt, and bitterly disappointed, both couples laugh at the absurdity of the timing, yet continue to pair off as they had originally planned.  After an awkward dinner, perhaps most unexpected is the later arrival of Angela, bringing along her hideous collection of broken or disfigured dolls, accompanied by Traunitz carrying each and every one out of the trunk, where only Kast seems to have had some inclination about this all along.  Arianne goes ballistics and is ready to strike her daughter (Gerhard holds her back), actually pointing a gun at her at another point, as she diabolically planned this entire weekend event just to get back at her parents, tired of all the lies and deceit that had been going on for years.  This bizarre group of eight comprises the household, much like François Ozon did with his zany musical tribute 8 WOMEN (2002), as the weekend unravels in a series of embarrassing unpleasantries, offering continuously changing mood shifts from jealousy, mistrust, rage, hatred, and sadism. 

Angela starts the next morning by opening the doors of each parent, finding them naked in bed with their “new” partners, having a laugh at their expense as the adults go about their business as if nothing has happened, liars and cheaters one and all, where the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie is scathingly depicted, always remaining overly polite, as is customary for the aristocratic class, wrapping themselves around custom and established routines, where the women especially compliment one another, even show signs of affection, though the men, seen later playing chess, are much more wary.  Actually the female characters assert themselves more and literally stand out in this film, typical of Fassbinder’s inclinations later in his career, always overshadowing the presence of men, providing most of the real internal intrigue, where they become the dominant players in the room.  Gerhard’s authority rests on the fact that he is indisputably the wealthiest person in the family, but he is no match for the vicious psychological warfare taking place before him.  One of the most startling scenes is a look inside one of the many closed doors that line the narrow halls of the estate, where loud music is playing, kraftwerk - Radioactivity (Original Version) - YouTube  (3:34), representing a stark new German modernization, juxtaposing the new world against the old.  Inside, Traunitz is dancing furiously to the music while using Angela’s crutches, spinning around and kicking her feet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Chinese Roulette (excerpt) - YouTube (54 seconds), offering an explosive look at her underlying feelings of unbridled liberation, showing how neither woman will allow themselves to be victimized by their physical disabilities.  What follows is Angela’s turn, initiating an incendiary parlor game of “Russian roulette,” where one side tries to get what another team is thinking by asking a stream of questions, with Angela choosing the teams ahead of time, where Irene and Kolbe, the two adulterous lovers, the always suspicious Kast, and her despised mother comprise one team, revealing a chilling calculation on her part.  While the game itself may seem silly and harmless enough from afar, but in the room amongst the players, the dramatic intensity that Fassbinder provides with each successive question, along with the shocked reaction on the faces, reaches an extraordinary level of sheer Sirkian melodrama, with the director milking it for all it’s worth.  While this vicious game is meant to be intentionally cruel and sadistic, there’s a kind of camp, wicked fun to be had by asking such provocative questions like, “Who would this person have been in the Third Reich?”  Traunitz, exceedingly clever throughout, comes up with the most ingenious answers, yet they all indulge Angela and play along, where the results are perhaps not surprising at all, as ultimately it allows Angela to not only insult, but express her unbridled hatred and contempt towards her mother.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the number of ideas planted in every scene, where the framing of the film, the artificiality of the color, the mirrors, the décor, and the extravagant look of the characters really tell the story, as this is another extraordinary Fassbinder social critique that mocks existing social norms by highlighting failed relationships and extreme emotional manipulation, where the ending is so operatically over the top that it’s hard not to take a certain amount of pleasure in this family’s demise.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

2016 Top Ten List #8 Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)

RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)   A-           
South Korea  (121 mi)  2015 ‘Scope  d:  Hong Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo was born in Korea but got a bachelor’s degree at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and his masters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Making films since 1996, Hong is known for complicated narratives, sometimes showing the same events twice, each time through a different character's eyes, but also for the most obnoxious male characters on the planet, usually grotesquely overbearing, with bad manners and a tendency to get drunk and hop into bed with younger girls, usually they are artists like film directors or professors sleeping with younger students, where they perform miserably if at all.  Impotency is a key ingredient, even if only psychological, as his characters mostly remain in a state of emotionally repressed inertia.  He's certainly a minimalist, writes his own films, and remains perhaps the last of the independent film movement left in South Korea.  He's left alone to make art films that exist in his own universe, though NIGHT AND DAY (2008) was partially financed by France and was filmed in Paris.  Critics love to call him the Eric Rohmer of the East, as his films are nearly all dialogue, examining relationships in much the same way, but this is misleading, as Hong is far more confrontational in his use of deluded and misbehaving men, using complex narrative schemes that result in a more experimental style all his own, as his films are a devastating critique of befuddled male abhorrence, where it’s fair to say the abominable behavior on display is universal, the ultimate power play option where men are constantly trying to get the upper hand even while they’re flailing away in utter futility.  They simply refuse to admit their weaknesses, even when they’re caught in the act.  None of his films register as a Wow factor, instead they are all low key, intimate, and conversational.  He has an extremely naturalistic style of storytelling, creating a compelling atmosphere, especially a complete lack of artifice, which he uses to shoot among the best sex sequences in the modern era, as there are simply no inhibitions.  But men are boorish and women are mysteriously attracted to their authority.  The director’s first 8 films were all shown in Chicago, either at Facets or the Film Festival until 2008, bursting onto the scene with distinguished flair and imagination, but then haven’t been seen since though he’s continued to make one film a year.  Now releasing his 17th feature film, the last 8 have all been shown at the New York Film Festival, while none have screened in Chicago.  In June at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York even screened a retrospective of his entire feature-length output (The Hong Sang-soo Retrospective Is a Must-See - The New Yorker).

Hong has always had a fascination with mirror images, treading the same ground twice, allowing characters to see themselves differently, where this slight variation on a theme often leads to startling results, where he finds moments of gripping honesty that come out of nowhere, like a shock to the system.  Shooting in a tableaux style, the camera remains affixed, usually to a tiny, enclosed space, often holding for extended sequences, allowing the scenes to develop, and perhaps at the last moment the camera will veer up into the trees or sky or distant landscape, once again holding the shot, or zoom onto a specific object of focus, such as a face, allowing the emotional state of mind to register.  In this way, the director decides what the audience sees and notices, carefully making subtle changes at appropriate moments, inevitably changing the outcome significantly with almost surgical precision.  Many claim Woody Allen has been making the same film for successive decades, with only slight variations.  The same can be said for Hong, though far fewer people see his films, which have just about become an endangered species, as his top-grossing film until now has been IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (2012), featuring international star extraordinaire Isabelle Huppert in the lead role, raking in a grand total of $25,000.  So this guy operates on a completely different wavelength than what we’re used to, often dealing with modern routine and repetition, yet showing a surprising amount of originality.  Like a puzzle piece that all fits together in the grand scheme of things, he operates with almost mathematical certainty, continually changing the players, shifting their focus of attention, yet the prevailing themes are immediately recognizable, an adherence to social customs, male power and vanity on display, the elusiveness of love, the difficulty of sustaining relationships, violating moral boundaries, a refusal to learn from past mistakes, leading to regrets, apologies, moments of tenderness, and personal torment, as he’s an extraordinary playwright who continues to explore the human condition by finding a seemingly unlimited variation of new possibilities.  While one might think being away from his films for nearly a decade it would be easy to fall out of the rhythm and visual language of his cinematic style, where memory plays so heavily in the slight shifts and variations from film to film, instead it felt like “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” as there was a renewed appreciation for what we’ve been missing all along, which is a director that shuns pretense and commercialism, but instead insists upon exploring how people operate within themselves, using a Jacques Demy choreography of missed opportunities, showing how easily the choices we make might lead to another direction, where he loves to compare parallel storylines, each one a distinct possibility, where there’s no one single existing reality, but a merging of what takes place only in the imagination and what actually happens, where it’s up to each individual viewer to distinguish the difference. 

What’s amusing, yet tragically profound, is how this film reveals Hong’s autobiographical arc, as he has in real life finally become a character from one of his own films, breaking from the years of routine and repetition, in this case 30 years of marriage, to run off with the female star of one of his films, Kim Min-hee, who is twenty years younger, declaring his love for her and his intent to start a new life.  This has caused such a major scandal in Korea that it has become tabloid fodder, with both at the center of attention in what can only be described as a moral dilemma.  Besides being an actress, Kim was a spokesperson for a line of cosmetics, but after public adultery was exposed, she was immediately dropped with the company demanding compensation for back pay.  Meanwhile Hong’s longtime wife is outraged, claiming her husband is failing to support their own daughter, claiming he is no longer paying for her education abroad as he needs to support his new girlfriend, covering for her unexpected financial loss.  Back and forth texts between Hong’s wife and Kim’s mother have been made public, with one claiming the other should have been a better parent, while the other reminded the irate wife that she is having difficulty raising her own daughter.  Like Woody Allen and his 1992 breakup fiasco with Mia Farrow, running away with one of her own adopted daughters, declaring his undying love, while at the same time fending off charges of child molestation that have stuck with him throughout his lifetime, let’s just agree that this is another huge mess, though Hong’s wife indicated she had some inkling something was up after watching this film, with its own stark revelations, where truth and fiction intersect.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the lead male role is an art film director, Ham Chun-su (Jung Je-young), visiting the city of Suwon for a screening of his most recent film, where he is invited to participate in a Q & A discussion.  The title card interestingly reads, “Right Then, Wrong Now,” a distinct play on words suggesting something is out of place.  Arriving a day early, as the event was pushed back a day, he mulls around town visiting historic sites, including an ancient palace, carrying hot coffee in a cup to warm him from the winter chill in the air, where he soon notices an attractive girl, Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), introducing himself, where he’s surprised to discover she recognizes his name as a noted director, inviting her for coffee, learning she is a former model that decided she was much happier instead spending her days painting, though it leaves her alone and isolated for much of the time.  Pressing to see her work, they retreat to her art studio, which happens to be nearby, describing her paintings as loosely going with the flow without an inherent plan, which is also how he describes his movies, believing they have something in common.  While obviously attracted to her, making that plain for her to see, he seems more interested in drawing her out of her shell, yet hides his real intentions behind pleasantries and flattering politeness, while she remains shy, quietly hidden behind a customary wall of reserve.  Working up an appetite, they go out for sushi, which includes a heavy dose of soju (rice alcohol), making toasts to one another, before heading off to a café where a friend is having a party.  Imbibing in still more alcohol, he inadvertently blurts out more than is discreet, causing Hee-jung to excuse herself, as his constant attention is making her uncomfortable.  Both having drunk too much, they depart on separate paths. 

The next day at the screening shows amusing aftereffects, as in front of a scant few, Chun-su suffers an emotional meltdown, still hung-over from the previous night’s drinking binge, erupting in anger at having to describe in one sentence what his films are attempting to convey, floundering for a while before gaining momentum, where his words only grow more aggressive and inflammatory, as if it’s ludicrous to even attempt such a thing, claiming his films have always fought “against” words, eventually walking out of his own film discussion, having reached a breaking point.  Once outside, having a smoke, he rails against the insipid shallowness of the film critic on the podium, describing him as “ignorant,” absolving himself of any responsibility for the incident before returning back to Seoul.  Retracing its steps, the film begins again with a different title card reading “Right Now, Wrong Then,” as the two meet in front of the palace, head off for coffee and tea before visiting her art studio.  This time Chun-su is more demonstrative, calling her work utterly conventional, as she refuses to challenge herself, suggesting she may need to reevaluate her artistic motives.  She is floored and dumbstruck by these remarks, which he quickly apologizes for afterwards, suggesting he needs some air to smoke.  As he steps out the door, she asks if all directors are like that.  Grinning sheepishly to himself, he responds, “Yes, we are.”  Surprisingly, she takes more interest in him when he’s inconsiderate and wrenchingly honest, even to the point of being brutally cruel.  This time, in the drunken conversation over sushi and soju, Chun-su passionately declares his love for her, like uttering a personal proclamation, but then collapses into a heap of embarrassment and personal torment by revealing he’s married and has kids (a pertinent piece of information that was not revealed the first time around), which seems to have a crushing effect upon him.  Although consumed by tears, he once again declares his love, making sure there is no misunderstanding.  Overheated by all the drama, he needs to step outside to clear his head, welcoming the blustery winter cold.  At the party, Hee-jung quickly excuses herself, claiming she’s drunk too much, leaving Chun-su to make a spectacle of himself, as he hilariously removes every stitch of clothing to several terrified women who react in horror, utterly petrified by what they see.  This panicked confusion is followed by Chun-su and Hee-jung leaving together, where they wonder if they need to invent a lie or create an acceptable explanation to avoid moral suspicion, which is equally amusing, considering what just happened.  Once outside, Chun-su suggests they take a taxi to Kangwon Province (a reference to his second film), which she readily agrees to, but then both lose their courage when a taxi arrives but is pointed in the wrong direction.  Several more taxis go by just crossing the street, so they end up walking instead down dimly lit, narrow streets that are completely empty in the late hours as they approach her house when Hee-jung receives an anxious call on her cellphone from her mother, wondering if she was with that “madman” from the party earlier, as one of the girls obviously described him as a lunatic that took all his clothes off in front of them.  Scrutinizing him afterwards, she curiously asks what got into him, but they’re both still too inebriated to make a fuss.  Not yet ready to say goodbye, still flush with the adrenaline of possibilities, Chun-su urges her to go in, but come back outside, suggesting he’ll wait in the bitter cold.  Promising to do exactly that, she goes inside, with her mother greeting her at the door, while Chun-su has a smoke in the bitter cold, still standing in a nearby alley, which also references his fourth film TURNING GATE (2002), where a gentleman suitor waits hopefully in an alley waiting for a girl to step outside her family home.  In each case, they wait in vain, as Chun-su, showing no patience, quickly exits.  The next day there is no meltdown at his screening, no verbal jousting, instead he stands around outside the building smoking with friends, accepting all flattery that is directed his way, which includes greeting Hee-jung’s arrival, as she eagerly anticipates viewing his first film, vowing to watch his others as well, again, both going their separate ways.