Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Slack Bay (Ma Loute)

SLACK BAY (Ma Loute)                  C+                  
France  Germany  (122 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Bruno Dumont

This is a film that will scramble your brains, leaving nothing but mush afterwards, a surreal remix of L'il Quinquin (P'tit Quinquin) – Made for TV (2015), where again people mysteriously disappear in a small seaside village on the coast of Northern France, while the befuddled and constantly inept police inspectors on the scene make no progress whatsoever in solving the crimes, yet this version is more over-the-top, as everything’s done to such horrific excess that bad taste is essentially the theme of the film.  Ironic, then, that what is arguably the worst film in the Dumont repertoire will have the most commercial success, as theaters, for no apparent reason, are willing to book this film as an outlandish, cutting edge comedy, and people are flocking to the theaters in droves.  Is there no accounting for bad taste?  Perhaps this, in itself, is a comment on the current state of arthouse cinema, where Dumont in the past was a Bressonian disciple, one of the most ardent masters of bleak and austere dramas, yet then somehow in mid-career he completely altered his style, as he now makes proletariat comedies, as if they are an essential component to modern life, using escapism as an alternative to the brutally harsh realities of his earlier films, like Flandres (2006), 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #5 Hadewijch, and Hors Satan (2011).  Dumont was known for his use of non-professional actors, but all that changed with Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), where actress Juliette Binoche’s understated performance was the centerpiece of the film, a punishingly uncomfortable historical drama.  You’d never know this is the same actress in this new film that features a collection of highly recognizable French actors, none more pretentiously overwrought than the forever swooning, high-pitched histrionics of Binoche, just one of the lunatics in the asylum of this exaggerated comic farce, an apparent revival of sorts to Buñuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972), a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of the middle class.  Honestly, this film, as written, may have been better served by the minimalist experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose silent era homage and subversive humor is more in line with the ridiculous aspect of the material, where actors aren’t nearly as accentuated as the surrealist production values. 

As is, the film is like an experiment gone wrong in a highbrow acting class, pushing actors well beyond the comfort zone, each making contact with the grotesque in bizarre and wildly grandiose performances, where each one has some sort of noticeable physical impairment or deformity that is played for effect, where humans become caricatures instead of real, as if playing in front of mirrors in order to amuse themselves for heightened pleasure.  Viewers may find this kind of shtick overly ridiculous, especially since it continues throughout the entire film, growing tiresome after a while, lacking the subversive wit of Monty Python style comedians who do this kind of thing for a living.  The French title, by the way, also the name of one of the lead characters, loosely translates to “my dick,” used to great effect in several of the overly raucous group scenes, causing near mayhem, but never resorting to pie-throwing incidents.  Set in the summer of 1910, the film is a comedy of manners, a satiric dissection of class structure, with the poorer class living along the seashore, having to collect oysters in the bay and scavenge for what the sea has brought in at low tide, led by a rugged seaman known as “The Eternal” (Thierry Lavieville), whose Keatenesque face is filled with world weary crevices, the patriarch of the Bréfort family that includes his hardened wife (Caroline Carbonnier), usually seen with a butcher’s knife in her hand, as she carves and cooks human flesh for her family, taking tourists out on boat rides and knocking them unconscious with the boat oars before serving them for dinner, also 18-year old Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), a seaman following in his father’s footsteps, recognizable by his gigantic ears, and three young ruffian brothers that seem to fight all the time.  Living high atop the hill overlooking the bay is the aristocratic Peteghem family, never seen doing a bit of work, with servants to prepare everything for them, including the overly anxious matriarch Isabelle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, sister of the former First Lady Carla Bruni), her nitwit husband André (Fabrice Luchini), who walks hunched over with a cane speaking utter nonsense, but smiling to everyone, as if in post-lobotomy mode, the wayward brother Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent), who seems demented, all supposedly creatures of a degenerate family history of incest and inbreeding that has wreaked havoc with their brains and genetic make up, with two near identical daughters in braids that are always dressed alike and never speak, but just make faces all the time.  Visiting her sister is the elegant and always glamorous Aude (Juliette Binoche), wearing a feathered boa and a shamelessly ostentatious, flowered hat, bringing along with her a young androgynous daughter Billie (Raph) with transgender tendencies, though she may simply be a punkish cross-dresser who enjoys altering her sexual identity.  

Like a variation of the Montague’s and the Capulets, Ma Loute and Billie are romantically inclined from the first moment they lay eyes on each other, where their rhapsodic moments together require no words, just rapturous expressions on their faces, causing extreme consternation on the faces of their less than amused families, where each reviles the other.  The film is largely a slapstick choreography of human misfortune, where despite the comic overtures, Dumont continues along the same misanthropic path, exposing the worst side of human behavior, where humans are little more than carnivores feeding on one another, reduced to cannibalism to survive.  Deeply separated into a society of the haves and the have nots, the Bréfort family have become human ferries, carrying individuals in their arms, transporting them across the shallows in order to reach the other side, where it seems all but impossible that the haves would actually get their feet wet.  This silly ritual is repeated at least half a dozen times, and is how Ma Loute and Billie met in the first place, as he seemed to take great delight in hoisting her in his arms, while she viewed him as her great protector.  Adding to the comic absurdity is the highly illogical services of the town constable, Machin (Didier Desprès), an oversized gentleman wearing a dark suit and bowler hat, accompanied by a miniature version that follows him around, Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), a sounding board that allows him to test his dubious theories, a Laurel and Hardy team where the two remain oblivious to what’s happening right under their noses.  With law and order firmly resting in their hands, perhaps it’s no surprise that all hell breaks loose, with the inflated looking Machin actually floating into the sky, with Malfoy keeping him tethered to a rope, or he would simply fly away.  Similarly, there are other levitation sequences, a preposterous and surreal response to the subtle use of this device in earlier Dumont films, like HUMANITÉ (1999), containing a brief, almost overlooked moment that represented a transcendence from earthly matters.   While the cinematography by Guillaume Deffontaines is superb, expressing a gorgeous array of brilliant colors on the northern Pas de Calais coastal region that are only brightened by the sunlight, the storyline is slight, to say the least, seemingly intent on grotesque physical comedy, where going for laughs and guffaws take the place of ideas.  The film is likely to be extremely divisive, in the love or hate category, with the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema naming it the 5th best film of 2016, though the crude humor may alienate many viewers, none more than when Ma Loute realizes he’s been conned, discovering Billie is a boy, where he savagely beats him, holding nothing back, becoming a sick comment on a brutal reality that is all too prevalent in society, as transgenders are often targets of abuse, known as Trans bashing, and to the actor’s credit, this androgynous identity was maintained throughout all Cannes public appearances.  Nonetheless, Billie is the heartbeat of the picture, where the malicious treatment leaves viewers feeling violated, where the lawless, anarchistic tinge of lunacy prevails, like an ill wind sweeping the landscape, supposedly wiping away all sins, yet the residue of moral rot remains.   

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Personal Shopper

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint

Director Olivier Assayas at Cannes

PERSONAL SHOPPER                    B+                  
France  Germany  (105 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Olivier Assayas           Official site

It’s important to remember that Assayas was a painter before he became a filmmaker, where the remarkable fluidity of his film style may be attributed to his ability to visualize ahead of time the exact look he wants onscreen, where a rush of images resemble an improvisatory style of painting, perhaps accentuating the spontaneity of the moment, using a contemplative, stream-of-conscious narrative that comprises a radically modernist film style, at times somber and reflective, while at other times feeling like an assault to the senses.  Here he resorts to an old-fashioned, haunted house genre, conjuring up dead spirits and ghosts from the past, which at times is amusing, like an homage to Hitchcock, a filmmaker having fun and playing with the art of his craft, yet also delves into the horror genre, where fear and existential angst create an absorbing interior dread.  At the center of the picture, and in nearly every shot, is the young protagonist Maureen (Kristen Stewart, who seems to inhabit the role), an American in Paris, a psychic medium who believes she is capable of communicating with a spirit world.  Some in the audience will giggle, constantly whisper amongst themselves, and simply never get past this point, as they will find the premise too preposterous, too far-fetched and unbelievable, especially the use of cheesy CGI effects in an otherwise realistic film.  While the film was booed at Cannes, this is largely because a prominent French filmmaker made a film starring a tabloid celebrated American actress where the predominate language spoken is English, yet others, to be sure, are among this camp of ardent disbelievers.  Assayas, however, has always been on the cutting edge of new technology, prominently featuring an iPhone as a secondary character, where the narrative is advanced by rapid text conversations from someone identified as “Unknown,” which gives the film something instantly recognizable, while also adding an element of mystery and intrigue.  Using a film-within-a-film device, Maureen becomes riveted by watching a documentary piece on her phone about Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944), (Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction (eng.sub) - YouTube, 22:01), who claimed to be a clairvoyant, who was told by spirit voices to paint “on the astral plane,” whose work is derived from mysticism and the awareness of higher levels of consciousness, an aspect that is currently being marginalized in an increasingly materialistic world.  Af Klint is another psychic believer who conducted séances with other artists, whose occult-inspired paintings were among the first representations of abstract art, so she refused to publicly show these paintings during her lifetime, knowing they would not be understood, as they were believed to be decades before their time, released twenty years after her death, as stipulated by her will, where in an interesting parallel, the creativity behind these paintings was inspired by “unknown” forces.  

Like the last Assayas film, 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria, the director’s first collaboration with Stewart, she plays another disaffected assistant to an overbearing star.  While she played a secondary role in the earlier film, here she is the centerpiece, where we see everything through her eyes.  While the film is comprised with on-the-street, cinéma vérité moments of Kristen Stewart zipping around Paris and London on a moped picking out ultra chic designer outfits and Cartier jewelry for an haut couture fashion model star who is rarely ever seen, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), whose domineering reputation precedes her, where the selfish conceits of her narcissistic boss are unnerving, making her a pain to work for, placing her in a fully subservient and demeaning role, yet the idea of having the freedom to work with designers, choosing their latest creations, and having them at your beck and call, as her boss is too busy and too recognizable to perform these duties herself, offers a kind of titillating luxury most of us will never know, flittering in and out of the high life, dropping off accessories, having access to often empty upscale apartments where she’s free to imagine herself in a parallel existence leading a life of pampered indulgence.  But the film is not about class difference, though in stark contrast, Maureen runs around in jeans, T-shirts and old sweaters, instead one of the visceral thrills she gets is secretly trying on her boss’s clothes, something she’s explicitly forbidden to do, but operating completely on her own, almost never running into her boss, she sets her own boundaries.  With occasional skype calls from a boyfriend abroad (Ty Olwin), who is consumed by a high tech security instillation in Oman, Maureen makes frequent visits to her sister Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who seems to keep her grounded.  When not shopping for Kyra, she spends her free time communing with the dead, hoping for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, as both share the same congenital heart condition, which caused his sudden death, and both are psychic mediums, having made a pact that the first one to die would send a recognizable sign.  This aspect of the film has sinister implications, especially when the wrong spirits show up, as they are often angry and incensed at finding themselves summoned by strangers, where the idea of wandering endlessly in the spirit world does not sound inviting.  Because she is a medium, however, she’s able to understand these mix-ups, a skill viewers may not share, leaving them perplexed by the cinematic trickery involved, where the baffling weirdness of ghosts onscreen is still relatively shocking in arthouse cinema. 

Assayas shared the Best Direction prize at Cannes with Romanian director Christian Mungiu for Graduation (Bacalaureat) (2015), two very different styles of film, yet both are eerily distinctive at tapping into modern era anxieties and discontent, where Maureen is not only trying to come to terms with her brother’s death, exposing herself to phantoms of the spirit world, but leads such a detached existence, disconnected from her own employer, always missing each other, instead leaving each other notes, rarely having any contact, she is also targeted by an unknown caller on her smartphone, all but contaminating an indispensable part of her existence, who seems intimately familiar with her every move, initially suspecting it was her brother from beyond the grave, but it leads to more menacing implications, as if someone is stalking her and watching her every move, where an unsettling relationship, of sorts, develops over a prolonged sequence of text messages that leads to a great deal of confusion and fear, feeling completely exposed, even ashamed, where there are dangerous forces on the loose.  This powerful sense of emptiness and loss follows her everywhere, which may be associated with her enveloping grief, but is further exacerbated by her entry into the supernatural, where all the forces align in painting a complex portrait of contemporary unease, becoming a meditation on loss, but also jealousy, identity, and desire, where Maureen loses all sense of herself.  One of the more bizarre sequences finds Maureen alone in Kyra’s apartment, as she is away on business, allowing her to try on various outfits, changing places with her employer, perhaps reminiscent of Jean Genet’s The Maids, yet the eerie music on the soundtrack is Marlene Dietrich singing a bleak Viennese folksong about how Death doesn’t differentiate, as it cuts down the rich and poor alike, Marlene Dietrich "Das Hobellied" 1952 (Feathers 2/2). - YouTube (2:02), which opens the door to darker, more ominous forces that creep ever closer, brilliantly conveyed by a series of unread texts unraveling in waves, that develop a more threatening tone with every new line, instantly filling her with dread, feeling exposed, as if she is on the precipice of the abyss.  With the phone itself becoming an instrument of horror, violence ensues, though not as one might suspect, as technology is a tool that seems to have robbed our souls of greater meaning in life, leaving us even more disconnected and alone, a vulnerable and precarious position, to be sure.  Caught in a labyrinth of fear, she makes her escape, scampering off to Oman, where the specifics of her detailed instructions out into the hinterlands lead her farther and farther away from any recognizable signs of civilization, where she may as well be in an altogether different universe, like a portal to the unknown (where there is probably no cellphone connection).  Maureen continually places herself in haunted space, contemplating her experience afterwards, though by the end whether she is liberated or not remains an open question, yet there are inevitably lingering doubts, larger existential questions that go unanswered, but viewers are likely to be caught off-guard while the film searches for answers about the unknown mysteries of the modern world, including a driving, often irrational need to fill a void of emptiness in our human existence.