Friday, March 25, 2011

The Arbor

director Clio Barnard

THE ARBOR                             A                    
Great Britain  (94 mi)  2010  d:  Clio Barnard

She had a bit of a gob on her and she was hot-headed at times.
—Natalie Gavin (describing Andrea Dunbar) 

This is one film where it didn’t help knowing absolutely nothing going into the screening, because in format alone, this is a dizzying conception that defies convention and has the audience on their heels from the outset.  Much like Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009), my initial reaction was thinking this is another unvarnished exploration of British miserablism, utterly downbeat, centering on life in the slums, where I was not fond of any of the characters presented onscreen, and in fact found much of the initial material somewhat loathsome, as they were introducing characters fast and furious like a Tolstoy novel, none of whom seemed to matter at all.  By the opening twenty minutes or so, I was ready to throw my hands up in the air wondering what in hell was going on, as I wasn’t sure if I recalled correctly from the opening or even believed that the actors were actually lip-synching the original material.  Most of the time characters are speaking directly into the camera, as if in an interview format, though each, as it turns out, is a recreation.  Other times the cast is gathered on the front lawn and enact scenes from the play as neighbors watch from the street.  I’m not sure when it clicks in, but at some point you stop fighting what you initially can’t comprehend and start appreciating what’s happening onscreen, as the film only grows more intimately compelling until the audience is completely riveted and even overwhelmed by the material. 

Like a musicologist such as Béla Bartók, who went around his country recording various musical folk melodies, compiling 9200 in all by the way, playwright and local resident Andrea Dunbar grew up in the Buttershaw Estate housing project in Bradford, West Yorkshire in Northern England, living on the toughest street known as The Arbor, where for two years in her life in the 1970’s she collected audio interviews from friends, family, and local residents, shocking everyone when at 15 she wrote a heralded play known as The Arbor, an autobiographical account of her life growing up there, the supposed drug capital of Yorkshire, whose corrupt police force in the 1980’s was notoriously depicted in THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009).  Dunbar wrote three plays, all shockingly detailed accounts of lost childhoods, depraved youth, underage sex, prostitution, drug abuse, wrenching violence, and racism, one of which was adapted into a movie, RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO in 1986.  Buttershaw residents were outraged at how negatively their lives were portrayed, many denying their family members could ever stoop to such behavior, sending death threats to Dunbar who continued to live on the premises, but nothing materialized.  Dunbar died in 1990 at a local pub of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29. 

What’s initially so mysterious is the unique power of the language itself, wrapped in gutter talk, slang, and profanity, but also a profoundly uneducated street way of speaking, where even the subtitles make it hard to describe or comprehend.  It’s not just an example of illiterate youth speaking, as it might first seem, but adult characters at times are equally incomprehensible.  Over time, we start to identify with some of the central characters, including Andrea, the outspoken Natalie Gavin, and her two daughters, mixed blood Lorraine (Manjinder Virk), who is part Pakistani, and Pamela (Kathryn Pogson).  Oftentimes the voices heard are the real voices from the interviews, while actors also fill in from time to time, especially during heated exchanges.  Mixed in with characters speaking to the camera and artificially recreated scenes are actors sitting in chairs and reading their lines, as if reading a letter, as well as the use of fictionalized documentary style footage, also other archival materials, creating a stream-of-conscious blend of expression, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s radio drama Under Milkwood, a play initially read by actors sitting on stools.  The presentation is so radically different than what viewers are used to that they may have a hard time realizing what they’re witnessing, but they’ll certainly pick up what’s essential.  In my view it’s blurring or crossing the line to call this a documentary, even if the initial source material used is all true.  I don’t really have an argument for why this wouldn’t qualify as a documentary except that it uses the power of the theatrical performances, some of which are sensationally powerful and worthy of an award nomination, especially Manjinder Virk as Lorraine, to heighten the blistering intensity of the film, which by the end is just phenomenal.  This is unconventional filmmaking combining the dramatic power of language with a fierce new sense of theatricality, a major work brilliantly directed, using a dazzlingly inventive conceptual design to accentuate some of the most intimately personal and humane material to ever grace the screen.  

The Border (Hranica)

THE BORDER (Hranica)                   C                    
Slovakia  (72 mi)  2009  d:  Jaroslav Vojtek 

Slovakian filmmaking still has a long way to go, as despite the compelling nature of this film which documents an absurd border dispute, a longstanding historical oversight between two nations, viewers will have a hard time distinguishing between different nationalities.  Next to no historical background information is provided, so instead of receiving an education on the subject, we are forced to accept overheard man-on-the-street gossip and hearsay, where politics and personal views are discussed.  Initially, however, a kind elderly gentleman leads the camera to his backyard where he counts out the few meters to the border between the Ukraine and Slovakia, which was divided by the Russians under cover of night way back in August of 1946 by entities then known as the Soviet Union, now independent Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia, which in this region is Slovakia.  Families that used to walk three minutes to visit one another were suddenly restricted from crossing the border, where a guard watchtower was constructed armed with regularly rotated soldiers carrying machine guns keeping watch.  We see them amusingly on guard walk past the gentleman’s backyard border looking for who knows what, but it’s their marching orders and their routine.  Today that family can shout at one another, perhaps a 30 or 40 meter distance over the constructed barriers, which we see them do for family updates, but they’d have to travel to the capital to petition for a visa request and back again to receive the decision if they wished to visit relatives today.  The country road between the towns is completely indistinguishable, hardly of any significance whatsoever, grown over by grass, perhaps used more for cows than cars.  But the division also separated the cemetery and the church, which exists only on one side.  Residents of the other side can see it, but receive no visa to actually participate.  As a result, families haven’t visited their parent’s graves in decades. 

Many of these families on both sides are elderly, nearly all on both sides of the border turn out to be of Hungarian descent, where from what we hear in conversations, the Ukrainians dread having to visit the Slovaks as their roads are in miserable condition and they’re forced to endure a meager existence, as the quality of life is much poorer.  We see cars on both sides backed up to a complete stop, as the processing of visas is unendingly slow.  One man dons a priest’s outfit in order to move quickly to the front of the line.  But time passes, and the separate nations eventually become part of the European Union, keeping hope alive that they’ll loosen up the border restrictions.  The Ukrainians get excited, getting their visas approved and their passports stamped only to be rejected on the Slovakian side, where things apparently move at a more slothian pace.  On the magic day when both sides agree to open the borders, there are public speeches and marching bands, families are thrilled to be united once again simply by walking a few meters.  One man walks about 5 feet and exchanges a bag of sugar for a bottle of vodka, enthusiastically beaming with pride.  An elderly blind woman is aided up to the border gate, where she doesn’t have a passport to walk across, but is reduced to tears just being able to get that far.  As we see citizens share drink and conversation, we hear villagers after awhile actually regret the border opening, as it does little to change the lives of most people on either side of the border.  Instead people come for miles to buy reduced priced goods in the cheaper Slovakia, which has become the local Walmart.  There’s a huge influx of noisy street traffic and congestion as cars line up early at 6 am before they run out of supplies.  Now citizens have fond recollections for much quieter times when the only thing that moved were the poor soldiers who could use a helpful pack of cigarettes now and then and the occasional cow that sauntered past.  It’s always ironic how progress and modernization only bring about unintended headaches. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011


APPLAUSE                                  B                     
Denmark  (85 mi)  2009  ‘Scope  d:  Martin Zandvliet

The spirit of Applause echoes films from the late 60s and 70s.  Indeed I am in search of the emotional drama you found in films back then.  Applause may also seem like it’s from a different time — a cinematic tradition centered on the human soul and on acting.

For me Applause is about betrayal.  About how we as human beings betray the ones closest to us, when we ourselves have been betrayed.  About having difficulties trusting other people and judging what is right and wrong. About the complexity of longing for something better. About reacting as extremely egocentric or extremely helpful, about varying between despondency/discouragement and spite. All in the hope of being seen, heard, and loved.   

— Martin P. Zandvliet 

In a surreal coincidence, on the day of actress Elizabeth Taylor's death, the movie seen that night was this Danish film featuring a bravura performance from one of Denmark's leading actresses, Paprika Sheen, where the film follows her shattered and deteriorating marriage while at the same time offers glimpses of various segments from her actual 2008 Copenhagen Theatre onstage performance as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a role that epitomizes what’s legendary about both Ms. Taylor, who was incredibly only 33 when she played the role, and Ms. Steen who is a more mature 45.  The role is so bruisingly iconic in the dramatic repertoire that playing the part is considered a rite of passage in one’s career, as is Hamlet or King Lear for men.  With tributes to John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands listed in the end credits, what stands out is the desperately driven, all-in attitude of Steen’s performance, which mirrors Rowlands’ vital need to be loved in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), especially the scenes with her two children, the older of which, Otto Rieks as William, is her own son.  When she bounds across the floor wearing her Viking helmet declaring she is Eric the Red, charging towards her sons who have appropriately been given giant swords and shields, she lovingly creates an imaginary world second to none.  How could any kid resist, except - - they do, thinking perhaps their mother is a little bit crazy.  She pounces on this thought, exclaiming of course she’s crazy.  “Isn’t it cool to have a crazy mother?”  They sheepishly are forced to agree with her before she leaps up declaring “I’m Eric the Red again!”

Steen is a product of the Dogme movement, the only actress to work in each of the initial three productions, THE CELEBRATION (1998), THE IDIOTS (1998), and MIFUNE (1999).  Needless to say, Steen as Thea is a drama queen in the best sense of the word, which means there’s not a moment in her life when she’s not acting, as she lives for the intensity of every moment, which not everyone can stand, including her divorced husband Christian (Michael Falch), who has custody of both sons, and who has long ago tired of her theatrical outbursts.  Thea gave away her rights to custody during an extended alcoholic binge when her behavior towards her children was worse than intolerable.  Fortunately they are still young enough that they may barely have any scars or fresh recollections.  Christian, on the other hand, is unforgiving, especially when Thea announces her interest in reestablishing custody rights.  Visits are fine, when planned and mutually agreed to ahead of time, but nothing spontaneous or improvisational, which is the life blood of her craft, namely living.  She spurts out insults about how he’s turned them into little Toys R Us Nazi children, how she barely recognizes her imprint in their personalities any more.  From her perspective, they may as well be suffering from the effects of an impersonal and demoralizing foster care system.  As Christian, one assumes, is a doctor, and his new wife a psychiatrist, Thea blurts out how the entire medical establishment has conspired against her.  The dark humor used throughout the film continually covers up the aches of loneliness and personal torment, where what must hurt most of all is having no one to blame more than herself.  That’s the real curse, which feels like a stab in the heart. 

A continuing theme of the film is her long walk from the stage to her dressing room, always helped by her young dresser (Malou Reymann) that she’s always trying to fire for the crime of being young, yet she continually shows up in exactly the same place, as pretty and perky as ever, which really must disgust the star of the show, who sulks endlessly about her “dog skin” face, loathing the body that has seemingly turned on her with age as she gulps down another shot of bourbon before she stalks down the hall to take her rightful place onstage in the boozing and brawling of Edward Albee’s play.  Thea has the sad habit of reappearing in bars, frequenting the old stomping grounds even as she refrains from taking a drink anymore, seen bored to tears at an AA meeting where she’s forced to actually have to listen to the sad plight of others.  It’s in a bar that she meets Tom from Berlin, Shanti Roney, a guy with a sick smile plastered to his face that she orders him to wipe off when they first meet, which pretty much describes their sick affair together, connected by neverending wounds of anguish and pain.  Nothing ever goes the way it’s planned, as Thea hurls herself headfirst into her new future with all the gusto and incoherence that defined her complicated past.  “I hate ordinary people,” she bellows, but realizes in the same breath that she must learn to live among them, never actually trusting any of them, as if they were a strange breed of mutants, yet continuously it falls back upon her own shoulders and the burden she must bear.  It has all come to this, as she’s seen staring at herself in the mirror, smacking her lips with a new sheen of lipstick.  There is no one left to blame, all the bridges behind have been burned, leaving her alone once more standing on that precipice, about the take the first baby steps of a new beginning.  With her, it’s always opening night.       

Rabbit à la Berlin

RABBIT À LA BERLIN                            B+                  
Germany  Poland  (51 mi)  2009  d:  Bartek Konopka

This is a delightful short film that’s likely to catch the viewers off guard, as it takes a look at Berlin history from the perspective of oddly chosen innocent bystanders, the timid little furry creatures that burrow into holes at the first sign of danger while also reproducing several times a year.  A truly amusing Cold War commentary is offered from the perspective of rabbits that just happen to proliferate in the grassy lawns across the street from the Potsdamer Platz, a place of historical merit.  Shown initially with a blend of cuteness and curiosity, the film opens in Black and White, where the war has obliterated one of the most bustling intersections in Europe, leaving behind nothing but rubble, but also, strangely enough, rabbits.  Narrated by Michal Ogórek, it reeks of sarcasm and dry humor, but the Zelig-like editing scheme showing rabbits witnessing the German reconstruction at Potsdamer Platz is hilarious, where construction noise initially drives them into their burrows only to wake up a few days later to see the Berlin Wall, with barbed wire and anti-tank barriers constructed around what used to be their friendly environment.  Adhering to the official party line, the rabbits realize they have been shut in for their own good.  As the wall also keeps their natural predators out, this is seen as a godsend.  Since rabbits are by nature friendly creatures, they warm up to this new renovation, and can be seen resting comfortably protected from the shade under the upright anti-tank slabs.  

Former watchtower guards recall how endlessly boring it was passing the time in the tower, where the only thing that held their attention was watching the rabbits at play in the field directly below the tower, where shots of them using standard military binoculars to watch the rabbits scurrying below are amusingly shown.  Despite the rapid rate of growth in the vicinity, each new project threatening to wipe out their grassy fields, they miraculously survive, even after government attempts to round them up, stretching nets across the landscape and scooping them up, placing them imprisoned in boxes, where we can see them staring out the little air holes.  Located at the center of several major development projects, the architectural design always seems to somehow bypass rabbit turf, leaving them a little bit of open space just in front of the Wall, an area where nothing else can be built, known to humans as the Death Zone, reminding them of the penalty for attempted escape (where we see corpses carried off by guards), but again, a godsend for the rabbits.  There’s hilarious footage of great heads of state who come visit, like Khrushchev, Castro, and even JFK, who can be seen waving to the crowds, which also happens to be bunny turf.  Despite being under siege for almost thirty years, they survive all the Cold War madness, where their seemingly nonpolitical stance is a welcome relief to the nearby population, often lovingly photographed for family albums.   

When the Wall eventually comes down, again overnight without explanation, the rabbits all disappear immediately to the other side, like the Promised Land, where they venture into virgin territory untouched by rabbits for decades.  However, to their surprise, it’s much harder than it looked over on the other side.  Just like Wallace and Gromit in A CLOSE SHAVE (1995), the clever use of alarming newspaper headlines expose a panic stricken public crying foul at a sudden outbreak of rabbits overrunning West Berlin.  Like the Wild West, vigilante justice prevails, where ordinary citizens suddenly turn into hunters to eradicate their neighborhoods of the problem.  The poor critters are rounded up in droves and used for rabbit stew.  Yet still they survive, as many returned to their once thriving grassy fields in front of the Potsdamer Platz, which still offers a chance for a good life, but now wary of hunters and the false dream of inhabiting beautifully landscaped golf courses, as seen in a gorgeous painting, two rabbits sitting overlooking the giant expanse of green—dreaming, hoping.  Back on friendly turf, rabbits may not be so plentiful, but they’ve survived.  Written by the director along with his cinematographer Piotr Rosolowski, this clever rabbit world satire resembles the similarities and confusion East Germans must have faced when they were suddenly free to explore the uncertain world lying in wait on the other side.

The Invisible Frame

Tilda Swinton with the director

THE INVISIBLE FRAME                                           B-                   
Germany  (60 mi)  2009  d:  Cynthia Beatt

The mechanism of this repeated journey afforded us the opportunity to meditate freely on the whole concept of borders, history, adaptation, natural cycles of development and a host of other conceptual and existential territories.

—Tilda Swinton

Cynthia Beatt is considered a British director, as she studied there, but was born and raised in both Jamaica and the Fiji Islands, residing in Berlin since 1975.  She collaborated earlier with actress Tilda Swinton on an experimental documentary photo journalistic essay called CYCLING THE FRAME (1988) where Beatt followed Swinton with a hand held camera while traveling the entire length of the Berlin wall, which was just under 100 miles, as they were only allowed to observe East Germany by photographing what they could see by peeking over the wall.  The actual border between East and West Germany, which was covered in minefields, was closer to 860 miles.  Today, this rarely screened document would be viewed as a historic time capsule.   Having grown up in a former British colony, Beatt was particularly sensitive to the annexation of East Berlin, as the view of East Germans became that of an inferior second class people, whereas before the wall, they were all Germans.  Beatt got the idea after living in Berlin for 12 years above an old factory near the Potsdamer Platz where she could view soldiers in the guard watchtower from her window.  The Wall was her neighbor, not just an inconvenience, but a restrictive spiritual entity, a constant reminder of a divided city where anyone wishing to get to the other side would be shot on sight.  Built in 1961, visited by President Kennedy, after more than 2 and a half million citizens fled from East Germany to the West, eventually losing too many of their skilled workers, so they closed down the borders and constructed a restricted area military wall overnight.  No official figures were kept, but it’s estimated that more than 1200 East German citizens were killed attempting to escape after the wall was built, where Chris Guefrrey was the last official casualty who died in a hail of bullets while trying to flee.  Afterwards it was learned he was under the impression the shoot-to-kill order had been revoked.  He was not the last East German killed however, as a victim known only as Frank M. was found in the Oder River near the German-Polish border just two days before the Berlin Wall fell.    

Marking the twentieth anniversary of both the original film and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this largely wordless 60-minute film was shot in June, 2009 using Hi-8 film while the director rode her bike with one hand and carried the camera in the other, attempting to follow the route of where the wall used to be, which was obviously difficult at times, as Swinton likely took a few wrong turns, often standing at a crossroads staring at a map while no one stops to offer any assistance.  At times she ran into dead ends, where locked gates or fences had been constructed, and she often ended up in the middle of a heavily wooded forest area, where at one point standing next to a lakeside retreat, a bystander points out that West Germans were only allowed to swim halfway across the lake.  Since no wall exists, there are double brick cobblestones that remain visible on official asphalt roads, but she spent a good deal of time on German bike paths, which are away from German roads and thoroughfares, leaving her out in open countryside regions for a good deal of her journey, where at one point she rides past an inexplicably gorgeous poppy field.  Still, there was evidence of guard watchtowers along her path, as she did visit the memoriam built at the suite of Chris Gueffrey’s death.  The film is mostly a free standing visual essay of Berlin today, where Swinton rides by immaculate flower draped houses built in high rent districts, but also passes by graffiti laden factory districts and remnants of former tenement buildings, eyesores that are now dilapidated and boarded up with plenty of broken windows.  Often, where the wall used to be has been replaced with newly constructed housing developments, where it’s easy to get confused, wondering what used to be there.       

Swinton adds her own spare, personally written inner narration which has poetic overtones, offering views on borders, walls, and freedom, often lapsing into an existential reverie, pondering to herself, “East, West, does it matter where I am anymore?”  Oftentimes she weaves back and forth straddling what used to be the border, while also stopping along the way at pastoral sites, where we see her reading Hans Fallada’s book Alone in Berlin or checking out the street signs for Karl Marx Straße while occasionally electronic music from Derek Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher-Turner adds a quiet poignancy to her otherwise wordless ride that at times resembles a ghost trip, as she’s conjuring up thoughts and images from a world that no longer exists, still haunted by fragments of memory.  Perhaps a fault of the film is relying too exclusively on the viewer’s historical recollections, as the film offers little help.  Thinking about it afterwards, this is really a cyclist's film, perhaps incomplete unless seen from a cyclist’s perspective, like over here:  Bicycle Film Festival at this site:  George the Cyclist, as they're the ones who would truly appreciate a film that is exclusively shot from the perspective of a rider on a bicycle.  As this film suggests repeatedly, cyclists have no narrations or things explained to them when they’re on their bikes, and oftentimes outdated maps are of no use either.  This film replicates the sightline and the virtually-always-alone mentality of a cyclist, where their chosen interactions with strangers are completely random.  There were many walkouts, but they were strictly people who aren't used to seeing a near wordless film, who need an explanation to what they're watching, but that's actually one of the features of riding a bike, in addition to being one of the true pleasures of this film.  That’s the real freedom. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux)

Two archival photos of the French Trappist monks of the Tibhirine Notre-Dame de l'Atlas monastery of Medea, 1996

OF GODS AND MEN (Des Hommes et Des Dieux)               B+                  
France  (120 mi)  2010 ‘Scope  d:  Xavier Beauvois

I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.

—Psalm 82:6-7

Despite its heralded success at Cannes, taking the second prize or Grand Prix award, this is a surprisingly formulaic film, much more so than his earlier works which play out in a more gritty and realistic manner.  Based on a real life incident of nine French Trappist monks that took place at a Trappist monastery in Algeria in 1996, this also has a near documentary approach, but the somber and grave undertones depicted throughout the picture foreshadow the outcome, significantly altering the overall impact, very much like Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003), as what happens feels inevitable and preordained instead of the spontaneous actions of free men.  Not the towering work it might otherwise have been, there is also an opening Biblical quote from Psalm 82 that undercuts the dramatic impact, as the finale is anything but a surprise and has been anticipated all along, as the narrative itself has removed any sense of suspense.  Be that as it may, the film is beautifully poetic with a meticulous precision for the rhythm and manner of actual Trappist monks.  My guess is that the individual appreciation of the film may increase depending upon the devoutness of one’s religious convictions, as there is a religious sweep to what happens, much of which is layered in actual scripture.  Since Jesus himself is viewed in Christianity as a martyr whose ultimate sacrifice for mankind defines the essence of being human, he is the model used by the monks themselves in demonstrating their own humanity. 

Based on actual historical circumstances, thirty years after their independence as a French colony, Algeria was caught up in a bloody civil war where a corrupt government annulled unfavorable election results and declared martial law while a ruthless Islamic insurgency was attempting to eradicate the nation from foreigners and infidels with what seemed like daily occurrences of beheadings and throat slashings.  Within this context, the original government representative asks the monks to return to France, as he can no longer vouch for their safety.  The situation had become too volatile.  Initially the leader of the monks, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), scoffs at the idea as they are committed to peace, but over time, growing fears lead many of his fellow monks to raise objections about staying, thinking it would be suicidal.  Based on their conflicting views, they decide to pray and ask for God’s guidance in the matter.  While this is not a historical account, rather a poetic rendering of their search for faith during a time of deepening crisis, each is perceived in the most human sense reacting to their own fears and flaws, where some have difficulty sleeping at night, others find God silently absent, and all struggle with their ongoing doubts about the conflict.  What the movie does portray well is an interesting harmony that exists with the local Muslim community, as part of the monk’s vows include poverty and charitable work, providing free medicine and health care to the poor while also intermingling with traditional Islamic religious events, where they are regarded as friends and as welcome as any Muslim.  Early in the film before the eruption of violence, local Algerian men freely offer assistance in needed help around the monastery as well.  But soon, bloodshed and fear are everywhere, where the local police still harbor resentment and blame leftover from the French colonial era.   

Shown as a repeated motif are the continuing images of the daily rituals within the monastery, dressing in robes and hoods, reading and writing letters by hand, attending group meetings and sharing meals where their personal thoughts are conveyed, but especially the communal songs and solemn prayers that the monks sing in unison which act as the film’s spiritual narration.  What’s likely to appeal to viewers is the collective portrait of human decency and personal intimacy reflected during such barren and hostile conditions, where men lead starkly austere and unadorned lives, where they spend their lives in a state of perpetual reflection seeking nothing more than the grace of God.  Simplicity is the key, as these are men who do not concern themselves with anything except what’s essential, reflected so eloquently by the sect’s physician Brother Luc (Michael Lonsdale) as he offers his most heartfelt thoughts to a young Muslim girl about the essence of true love, while in another scene he literally immerses himself into the interior realm of a religious painting, placing his cheek directly onto Christ’s chest, as if listening for his heartbeat.  Perhaps the most controversial sequence is the blatant tribute to Carl Dreyer and his silent film era use of painterly close ups in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), so modernist at its inception, but easily attributed here in a signature Last Supper shot set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a scene Beauvois brilliantly makes his own as there’s a timeless poetry reflected by the sheer joy of communal love.  The use of snow at the end is especially haunting, reminiscent of Kurosawa’s DREAMS (1990), where reality becomes coated with a dreamlike fog that closes the film with a hushed whisper. 

Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times)

LE QUATTRO VOLTE (The Four Times)                   B+                  
Italy  (88 mi)  2010  d:  Michelangelo Frammartino

This is cinema of the sublime, a rare instance where it’s near impossible not to be amused and enchanted by a director’s vision and imagination.  A few years back there was a festival film called HUKKLE (2002), a near wordless film from Hungary that drew many admirers for its unusual format, basically telling a story with few words.  This does the same, only there are no words whatsoever and there’s little, if any, storyline.  Instead there’s a series of images shown in a documentary manner, though one wonders if it even fits the documentary format.  First and foremost, the film is utterly gorgeous, shot by Andrea Locatelli in Calabria, Italy, easily the most beautiful film seen so far this year where the focus of attention is the verdant green rolling hills where a herd of goats grazes in a natural state of grace.  This is Bresson’s Balthazar (1966) without the Sisyphus-like series of human horrors that follows its short lifespan on earth.  These goats already live in their own paradise, free from any human interference save for the constant barking of herder dogs and the worn out footsteps of an aging shepherd who has a hard time keeping up anymore, who has to continually stop and rest along the way, where amusingly, and politely, the goats wait for him to sit down before they rush ahead along the narrow pathway through the woods.  The goats themselves are natural scene stealers, as these are among the healthiest goats ever to grace the screen and they frolic and freely jump onto anything they can climb, showing a rare exuberance in the wild, where the constant bleating has a calming effect.  But it’s the beauty of their environment that holds the key to this film, as that ultimately is the film’s subject.  The goats are simply non-professional actors willing to work cheaply, adding their own unadulterated realism to every shot, shown using long, extended takes and natural sound.

As he herds the goats back home where they spend the night in a gated pen, the shepherd visits the church where he picks up a package of dust collected from the floors of the altars, which he places in his water at night as his medicine.  Come morning, there is a rooftop shot overlooking the goats laying in their outdoor pen as a truck pulls up and parks nearby, as the occupants disappear and slowly a procession passes down the street, where afterwards a poor girl is penned in by the herder dog that continually prevents her from passing, an amusing game between man and beast that idly passes the time until the girl is finally left unimpeded.  The dog is more interested in kicking the rock out from underneath the truck’s tire, causing a near catastrophe in the making.  But the camera amazingly swings away in the opposite direction as the viewer can only imagine what happened, an interesting diversion before swinging back and showing a truck that rolled downhill backwards through the goat’s pen, as they are now milling around the street like curious bystanders.  This is a particularly humorous sequence as interior shots show goats bounding up the stairs, some standing on tabletops, others just bunched together around the poor shepherd who never made it through the night.  As the villagers carry his casket and lay it to rest, one can still hear a heartbeat which is quickly segued by a newborn goat falling out of his mother’s amniotic sac, dropping to the ground where it remains squashed on its knees until it can gather enough strength to stand.  This gorgeous white kid goat becomes the focus of the camera’s attention, seen in various stages with other goats, both adult and baby goats, where their interaction couldn’t be more human, as the babies are cleverly mischievous at play and can’t wait for their mothers to return when left alone in a cleanly swept barn all day. 

One of the most transcendental shots is following this white kid goat as it passes through the mountainside hills and gullies with the bigger goats, but gets stuck in a dry gulch that the others easily cross, losing contact with the herd.  With utter effortlessness, the vulnerability of the goat is exposed by its unanswered bleats, a heartbreaking moment that may be the shot of the film as after wandering aimlessly all day he finally lays to rest at night beside a giant tree.  After a quick series of shots that hold the same image affixed during changing seasons, the focus is shifted to the tree, which becomes the subject of the annual Spring Tree Festival.  In a visualized pageantry, dozens of villagers are seen climbing and surrounding the tree in an attempt to harvest it, a largely symbolic gesture that signifies the season for harvesting and the gathering of wood for fuel.  Later more trees are subsequently reduced to ordinary sized firewood that is charred in a hand built smoker.  This ancient ritual is a painstakingly deliberate process of building the hut out of sticks and mud, then slowly packing and drying the mud until it can withstand heat, adding smoke holes for ventilation, transformed into a giant smoker that turns the wood into usable charcoal, which is later distributed throughout the village.  This is a beautifully edited, naturalistic, cycle of life film that inventively keeps changing the focus of the film, using plenty of wry humor and exquisite imagery that connects one section to the next, always finding involving footage that shows ageless wisdom and maturity behind the camera.  This is extremely enjoyable filmmaking, highly original and compelling throughout.  While the cyclical nature is a story in itself, it’s the beauty of the landscapes, the rooftop overviews, and the inventive compositions that continue to delight the viewer, as it’s easy to become transfixed by the near Biblical austerity of a timeless place that continues to exist in the present much as it has for centuries. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Special Treatment (Sans queue ni tête)

SPECIAL TREATMENT (Sans queue ni tête)              C-                    
France  (95 mi)  2010  d:  Jeanne Labrune

This is another Isabelle Huppert vehicle, which by itself offers promise, but there’s nothing special or remotely interesting about this film, as it features people who are continually bored with themselves.  Without exploring the origins of this ennui, the director instead chooses a dry, lighthearted attempt to show unhappy professionals, call girls and psychiatrists, who have outgrown all interest in their professions, where Huppert as Alice is in a midlife crisis as an expensive call girl with a taste for the finer things in life, but a growing disinterest in her often ridiculous clientele.  Huppert has played prostitutes before, but brings nothing new to the role, as initially the focus of attention is on the eccentricities of her clients, which is mildly amusing, but also stereotypical.  When one of her johns decides to play rough, she goes into a crisis mode afterwards wondering why she’s even willing to put up with this nonsense.  In a simultaneously told parallel story, Xavier, a bored therapist (Bouli Lanners) sits and listens endlessly to people who have little or nothing to say, again a stereotypical depiction where fortunately the patients shown are not seriously disturbed, as the therapist isn’t listening anyway.  And to make matters worse, his wife, Hélène (Valérie Dréville), a fellow therapist, has lost all interest in her husband, forcing him to find alternate accommodations.  Within this set up, the director who also co-wrote the script decides to play musical chairs with the storyline possibilities. 

Advancing the story through small vignettes, much of it shown through repetitious set pieces where Alice and Xavier are both aloof, going through the motions of the same routines in life, growing bored and disaffected, where they barely know themselves anymore, each decides drastic measures need to be taken.   With Xavier’s marriage in trouble, he decides he needs to spice up his ordinary love life, so why not a call girl, while Alice thinks the right shrink may help her open new doors of discovery.  Their scenes together never generate much of a spark, as each detests themselves too much, where they can’t shake the feeling of self-loathing.  The truth of the matter is there’s not much to this movie, as it’s not really about anything.  Richard Debuisne has co-written and also acted in each of Labrune’s last 3 films, where he plays a hospital psychiatrist dealing regularly with the mentally ill.  But even in this setting, there’s an underlying lightness to the subject, but Debuisne is excellent, appropriately serious and slightly offbeat in the role.  What we really see is Huppert go through a series of costume changes, as she’s an actress who makes herself right at home in the wardrobe department, much like Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams finding humor with any available props.  She makes any role her own, and this one’s no different, adding an existential air of detachment and even sadness, where besides one fellow working girl (Sabila Moussadek), she has no close friends.  There’s nothing daring or original in this film, no great scenes, but there are excellent upscale production values and an icy cool musical score from André Mergenthaler that accentuates the coldness of the character’s interior worlds.  While there’s always a hint that more could be lurking under the surface, this is more a comedy of manners than a serious drama.   

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Purple Sea (Viola di Mare)

THE PURPLE SEA (Viola di Mare)                 C
Italy  (105 mi)  2009  d:  Donatella Maiorca   

While this is another one of those movies “inspired by true events,” there’s nothing remotely truthful about this film.  In fact, Berlusconi’s iron grip seems to be suppressing every ounce of creative thought coming out of his nation.  Instead, everything seems to have the Italian seal of approval stamped on it as a generic product, which means despite a relatively modern and risqué subject matter, a same sex lesbian love affair, there’s nothing remotely modern or groundbreaking about this film, irrespective of its obvious efforts to be exactly that.  Set in the 19th century on one of the rugged islands of Sicily where the predominate export is rocks, where male workers slavishly work and earn money from the rich landowner performing back breaking work in rock quarries, while females are seen as a hindrance and a burden, where the island’s fathers really don’t care if baby girls live or die, as only sons are valuable.  Into this brutal, male dominated world, where her father (Ennio Fantastichini) is the work foreman, a man who routinely beats his own children for acts of insolence and disobedience, where girls remain illiterate and aren’t even sent to school, Angela (Valeria Solarino) narrates her own birth, where from the outset she has difficulty fitting in and is perceived as having the devil in her, which turns out to be a crush on her best friend Sara (Isabella Ragonese). 

Fast forward a dozen years or so from early childhood, where Sara has been living on the mainland, but returns to a flurry of interest shown by Angela, where they meet out alone on the rocks overlooking the sea showing romantic inclinations, which is realized using various camera angles instead of any expressed emotion or state of undress.  Already the established tone is dishonest, as the audience is led to believe this is a raw and brutal world, where the graphic reality on this remote island is barren and harsh, where this could just as easily be the setting for a Taviani brother's film, yet these two women who are knowingly breaking the boundaries of love are continually shown in a safe mode, no nudity, no poetry, no passion, nothing daring or shocking, where there isn’t a spark or an ounce of honest emotion between them.  Yet the viewer is expected to perceive a rhapsodic love affair just materializes out of thin air.  It’s only when Angela’s father arranges her marriage to a quarry worker that she blatantly refuses, expressing her desire to love only Sara.  When her father hears this, instead of killing her, which seems to be his first inclination, he locks her up in an outdoor underground storage shelter until she’s willing to accept his conditions as her father, a position supported by the church, where he ends up leaving her there to rot for what seems like weeks on end, with the family slipping her meals.  But rather than break her will, she’s only disgusted by her father’s brute force and the tyrannical hold he has over her family, a blatant metaphor for Berluscone if ever there was one.    

What eventually breaks this logjam and what happens afterwards is too ridiculous for words.  A more obvious solution would be to ship one of the women off the island, which is the punishment shown later for wrongful male behavior, to have her live on the mainland with a relative or friend, or even in a convent, which could certainly be arranged by the church.  The father could be rid of her, which is what he truly felt about her in the first place since she wasn’t a son.  But this more realistic option is never considered.  Instead it veers into the territory of the absurd, becoming overly showy and ludicrous as time goes on, losing any emotional credibility.  Perhaps something like this really did happen, but the events as presented in this film are simply a showcase for a world the director wants to present, which is a heavy handed drama that attempts to place a message of same sex love and female empowerment against the backdrop of a brutal, male dominated atmosphere of fascist tyranny, using a remote and impoverished historical setting to make her point.  Despite the terrific on-location shooting and some excellent performances all around, this is a limp costume drama that couldn’t be more pretentious, never getting at the truth, never trusting in her characters, resulting instead in something so timidly generic and utterly homogenized, given the politically correct seal of approval, but ultimately a wretched offering.        

Two in the Wave

TWO IN THE WAVE                     B-             
France  (91 mi)  2010  d:  Emmanuel Laurent

This is a delightful romp through the archives of the late 50’s and early 60’s French New Wave films, specifically referencing François Truffaut, whose landmark film 400 BLOWS starring a young 14-year old Jean-Pierre Léaud was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959.  Simultaneously, a fellow writer from the Parisian film magazine Cahiers du cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, was busy readying his first film BREATHLESS, which opened nearly a year later also to resounding success, elevating both young novices to becoming spokespersons for the nouvelle vague.  Since both were erudite and educated, used to expressing their thoughts on paper, they did not shy away from the cameras which followed them everywhere, plastering them on magazine covers, making them an international sensation.  Breaking all the rules about rigid narrative filmmaking, much of it just copying traditional formulas guided more by economics than genuine inspiration, this brash group of young guns broke away from film studios and invented a new art, preferring to shoot on location where their editing and visual style expressed a new sense of urgency and personal expression, inventing new rules as they went along.  The trip down memory lane guided by clips of their early films is a real treat, as they play out like personal photo albums or favorite songs, as so many audience members will recollect seeing these films and recalling what a vital part they played in transforming their own attitudes about art and cinema. 

Both Truffaut and Godard are seen in clips as documentary interviewers as well, where Truffaut wrote a legendary book from his Hitchcock interviews, while Godard wrote a film CONTEMPT (1963) that was largely inspired by his interviews with Fritz Lang.  The young novices idealized directors who exhibited a flair for cinematic art and imagination, like Renoir, Hawks or Hitchcock, or who could express emotions through an unabashed realism, like Nicholas Ray.  Unfortunately, many of their compatriots were left out of this venture, as there is no mention of Chabrol’s LE BEAU SERGE (1958), oftentimes cited as the first New Wave film, or Eric Rohmer who built a career around character observations and dialogue, or the brilliant contributions of Jacques Rivette, who they all admired as perhaps the most radical artist among them, while including clips from Agnès Varda’s shorts, where we see a playful side of Godard in front of the camera, and Jacques Demy’s LOLA (1961).  This oversight streamlines the density of the subject matter, which is not so much a historical account of the New Wave, something the public appears clamoring for, but focuses instead on just two contributors, and barely makes a dent on their films, really only exploring their early years where each suffered box office casualties along with their successes.  Interestingly, despite noting their radical artistic achievements, the film doesn’t weigh in with any historical analysis or perspective on either man’s career.  In fact, there is no one onscreen who disputes the film’s findings or who offers a dissenting view.  In an interesting foreshadowing of events to come, both men are seen rallying the troops in 1968 and consolidating their combined voices against the French ministry’s firing of legendary film archivist Henri Langois from the Cinémathèque Française, even halting the Cannes Film Festival that year, which led to the turbulent street demonstrations that reinstated not only his position but the needed funding.      

Activism and artistic differences eventually leads to a permanent artistic rift between the two men in 1973, where Godard embraces radical politics as an essential ingredient to any socially relevant art, while Truffaut believes art transcends politics.  Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1973), absent any politics, provokes an excoriating public denunciation from Godard, calling it irrelevant and nothing more than a bourgeois trifle, while Truffaut countered with the publishing of a twenty-three page personal critique of Godard, calling him a sham, an illegitimate spokesperson for the working class as he lives a typically bourgeois lifestyle surrounded by wealth and riches.  The two men never spoke again for the rest of their lives, like something out of CITIZEN KANE (1941) when Orson Welles stopped speaking to Joseph Cotton.  Earlier in the film, Godard relished a Welles quote:  “Art as a moral stance against tyranny.”  Under the circumstances, however, considering the contributions both have made to cinema, their public spat seems petty and childish, even if their respective views both happen to be true and offer the best analytic film criticism this movie has to offer.  What is especially sad is seeing both men competitively vie for the personal allegiance of Jean-Pierre Léaud, the poster child of the New Wave, who feels compelled to continue to work for both directors while being pushed and pulled from both ends, like a child in a divorce custody case.  While this documentary only skims the surface, using ridiculous images of actress Isild Le Besco paging through old copies of Cahiers, the real interest lies in reviewing clips from the early films which come alive onscreen, beautifully capturing the vibrant energy of youth, a timeless moment in cinema history when the world stopped to watch and listen as the medium playfully spit out the past while rejuvenating itself. 

Kawasaki's Rose

KAWASAKI’S ROSE                                      B                     
Czech Republic  (100 mi)  2009  ‘Scope  d:  Jan Hrebejk

Thank God somewhere on earth they continue to shoot using real film, as it’s positively thrilling to see a gorgeous looking movie, something that may as well be preserved in a time capsule, as they’re becoming such a rare commodity these days.  This is a throwback to an old school style of filmmaking, where mature acting and an intelligent story is a prerequisite, though one wonders about the underlying message, whether it’s a fictionalized story or whether writer Petr Jarchovský is targeting someone specific within the Czech historical elite, where one immediately thinks of the highly decorated Václav Havel, a political dissident who after spending a good deal of time in prison under the Communist regime became his new nation’s first President.  Martin Huba plays Pavel, a distinguished aristocrat, a former dissident who is now a revered and respected psychiatrist, approached by a young team of television journalists who wish to interview him at his country home for the record.  What appears to be routine escalates into something of a smear campaign, led by Pavel’s son-in-law Ludek (Milan Mikulcík), who has been sleeping with his blond film crew member Radka (Petra Hrebícková) for over a year while his sick spouse Lucie (Lenka Vlasáková) has been attempting to find answers for what she suspects is stomach cancer.  Ludek has an inferiority complex around Pavel, always suspecting he disapproved of the marriage because Ludek’s father was a lowly Communist police agent.  But as soon as Lucie finally receives the news that she doesn’t have cancer, but something benign yet hard to diagnose, Ludek springs the news to her about his wayward philandering, even bringing in Radka in an absurd face to face discussion preaching a Siddhartha-like Buddhist need for forgiveness that winds up getting Ludek thrown out on his rear.  Good riddance.  But he becomes a focal point in the film, as he has personal reasons for ruining Pavel’s public reputation, driven by his own hatred for the man, thinking he acts so pious and so high and mighty.  In reality, however, this taints Ludek’s motives, giving the appearance that his methods come from the gutter, as he’s constantly seen behind the scenes rubbing his hands in relish, willing to resort to any means to gleefully bring this man down. 

Bearing in mind that this would likely receive an entirely different reaction in the West than the Czech Republic, as this would be like raising similar moral charges against JFK or Martin Luther King, revered historical icons who suffered these same kinds of gutter allegations when they were alive, so a Westerner’s view would immediately be suspect of the sudden discovery of incriminating evidence, a secret file with historical implications suggesting Pavel cooperated with the Communists in getting a fellow artist, Borek (Antonin Kratochvil), a rival suitor to Pavel’s eventual wife, deported permanently out of the country.  As it turns out, Pavel’s wife was pregnant at the time with Borek’s child, making him Lucie’s real father, a man exiled to Gothenburg, Sweden who hasn’t been seen or heard from in thirty years.  But in Eastern European countries, they’re familiar with the Communist method of spying on their own citizens, where the presence of such files could almost always guarantee compliance, where few could withstand the harassment of repeated arrests and tortuous interrogations.  The question is who is the driving force behind the release of the files?  Lucie is starting to denounce Pavel as well, having read the specifics of the case, where in a seemingly beneficial manner, Pavel routinely held dissidents shielded as psychiatric patients away from the police during the days of the Communist era in order to protect them against political interrogations.  But one of those men was Borek, whose hospital file was allegedly handed over to the secret police, certainly damning evidence if true.  The question is whether the same dark forces that compiled the files would be willing to fabricate suppressed evidence even after the establishment of a democratic republic?  It is here that the family suspicions match the unraveling secrets of the nation. 

Lucie and her pink haired, pierced and punkish looking teenage daughter Bára (Anna Simonová), easily one of the bright points in the film, seen hilariously stuffing herself with chocolate candy bars before being run out of a corner shop by a family of Asian owners, eventually set sail for Gothenburg to meet their long lost “real” father and grandfather.  The Swedish scenes are luminously shot by Martin Sácha, showing a thriving port city where the giant ships at sea move in and out of the harbors, sailing under immense bridges, offering a stunning landscape given especially rich textures, where the bright and thriving colors are a direct contrast to the drab colors of Eastern Europe.  Borek is living with a fellow Japanese artist, Mr. Kawasaki (Isao Onoda), a painfully shy and secretive man who paints flowers, but hasn’t painted since he lost his family to the sarin gas attack massacre in the Tokyo subway.  They make an interesting pair of abandoned exiles, but greet their newly discovered family warmly, again a sharp contrast to the contemptuous superiority exhibited in a simultaneous camera interview of a former secret police investigator Kafka (Lasislav Chudik), the man behind Borek’s alleged torture and deportation.  He calmly and proudly displays the kind of arrogance of men in his position, an officer whose role was to routinely break the spirits and physical stamina of dissident prisoners.  The film makes reference to Charter 77, a wide ranging group of artists and dissidents who in the late 1980’s signed in solidarity against the dictatorship, including Václav Havel, thus becoming targets of the government.  While the questions raised are potent, to be sure, and historically relevant, as there are likely many established heroes who collaborated with the enemy, the melodramatic flourish of the finale wraps things up all too easily.  Much more impressive are the film’s dark elements, the unanswered moral quandaries, where the characters are scrambling around for the truth, literally forced to defy all that they formerly knew, where pockets of confusion blur the line between memory and history.  Excerpts from Handel’s opera Ariodante, a searing melodrama of betrayal and false accusations, play over the end credits.    

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


AURORA                           B                     
Romania  (181 mi)  2010  d:  Cristi Puiu

Certain film nationalities are immediately recognizable, such as the dialogue driven screwball French comedy that plays out as farce, the near documentary simplicity of Iranian films, the strict adherence to precision and razor sharp detail in Austrian films, or the Romanian cinema that we have here that features endlessly long takes of real time drama which focuses on the absurdity and utter banality of life.  Puiu’s earlier work, THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) was so searingly realistic, many left the theater believing they witnessed a documentary, only to discover afterwards that the whole thing was meticulously scripted.  Puiu’s reality is so explicitly realized onscreen that you barely realize he’s using actors.  As if to become even more intimately involved in his next project, he places himself in front of the camera as the lead actor known as Viorel, a puzzling, ordinary man with a rather mousy personality reminiscent of Fassbinder’s WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK (1970), a film shot with a dull, dispassionate style which is only exacerbated by the three hour run time of the movie.  Viorel is immediately seen as a guy on the fringe, as early on, he just seems to be in the way, taking up space, as others are busy living their lives, including a wife and two daughters, all of whom have a rushed, morning routine while he stands around doing nothing.  His expressionless face reveals a pathetic figure of a man beaten down to the point of self-pity, an odd choice for the lead in such a lengthy film.  But like LAZARESCU, the director paints a portrait of a post Communist world that is slowly finding its way out of the dark, yet reveals scathing examples of the darkness left behind. 

What’s immediately striking is the virtuoso piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a 19th century American composer whose music is so lively and upbeat, like a mazurka, that one could joyously prance around and dance to it as it plays over the opening credits about ten minutes in, a striking contrast to the otherwise drab and downbeat mood of the film.  Violel soon finds himself spending his time alone in a rutted apartment partially stripped for rehab, where he’s immediately met with a water leak from the apartment upstairs, as one of the kids let the bathwater overflow.  All we hear is a berating mother offering an endless barrage of insults to her son as Violel is obviously pictured as a drowning man flailing away in the forgettable and rather dubious nature of his own life.  The viewer gets used to seeing him quietly spend time alone, where visitors, unanswered phone calls, or knocks on the door are all perceived as meaningless interruptions, where the guy just has no connection to the world.  We see movers in his home removing certain items, while he instructs them what not to take, signs of a marital separation.  In a disturbing scene, we see him purchasing a 12 gauge rifle, where buying Czech or Russian products result in a significant discount, but the scene includes an obvious disturbance from an offscreen customer who is shouting profanities that are included in the film’s trailer (Aurora [2010] trailer), but edited from the actual film’s subtitles, a good example of how a film gets cleaned up for the foreign market.  It’s an interesting scene, however, as there’s the turbulent suggestion of an unseen, underlying menace growing out of control.  Next thing you know, the guy’s ominously stalking around his house with a loaded rifle, even taking practice shots, which surprisingly go unheard and unreported in Bucharest. 

Mild-mannered Violel has suddenly turned into a prodigious planner, where he looms silently undetected in the darkness of a hotel garage, inexplicably shooting two people on sight.  Puiu’s style is to provide as little background information as possible, leaving the audience stunned and in a mysterious daze, clueless as to any motive.  As Violel’s behavior gets more and more disturbing, becoming more aggressive and confrontational with people, the world around him gets louder and grows more claustrophobic, where he rides the bus with people literally standing on top of one another or he recklessly darts across busy city streets, risking his life with each crossing.  Perhaps the creepiest scene in the entire film takes place in a women’s clothing store where he’s looking for someone who’s not there, but he suspects they’re covering for her, leaving exposed his fragile male ego that is so indignantly wounded that his behavior becomes crudely offensive in his animosity towards the female clerks, where our familiarity with what lies just under the surface only accelerates more horror filled visions in our heads, the kind we read about all the time.  Puiu’s character does not disappoint, as he’s simply out of touch with the world around him, where he constantly perceives himself as the harmed party.  Like an exploding time bomb, Violel continues to make the rounds across the city, always carrying the weapon in his bag, where the city itself is oblivious to his intentions.  Part of the absurdity of the film is how the director holds back any motives for nearly the entire duration of the movie, only really becoming apparent by the end, where Violel, ever the victim, feels his damaged soul is just too complicated for others to comprehend.  Apparently it all makes perfect sense to him, but his problems are literally drowned out by the systematic banality in people’s routines, where their already troubled lives leave them exhausted by the endless accumulation of petty annoyances and on-going needs that consume their daily lives.  In the end, it’s all a chamber drama of misdirected, undermining psyche’s pushing and pulling one another away from any meaningful compatibility.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ne Change Rien (Change Nothing)

NE CHANGE RIEN (Change Nothing)              B                   
Portugal  France  (100 mi)  2009  d:  Pedro Costa

France especially, with the familiar sound of the accordion heard throughout the streets of Paris, at least in the movies, is a musical city, and one whose culture thrives in the familiar art of the chansons, perhaps best depicted by Édith Piaf.  One of the best film references is hearing Bernadette Lafont drown her sorrows by repeatedly listening to Piaf sing “Les Amants de Paris” (YouTube - La maman et la putain on YouTube 3:05), a 1948 recording in Eustache’s mammoth masterwork The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1972).  The tradition of actors that also have singing careers is hardly unique to France, as names that come to mind are Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Panamanian salsa star Rubén Blades, or even Jennifer Lopez, while French popularity calls to mind Marlene Dietrich, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour, Françoise Hardy, Anna Karina, hell, even Gérard Depardieu played an old broken down crooner in a recent film, while any number of current European actresses also have recording careers, as it’s a lucrative business.  It might sound surprising to hear the name Jeanne Balibar mixed in with this group, as she’s considered a serious dramatic actress that works fairly regularly with Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas, or Arnaud Desplechin. 

Nonetheless, here she is in a documentary as a singer being filmed mostly in the studio by Portuguese director Pedro Costa, no less, an intensely challenging artist, an experimenter and stark minimalist, as anti-commercial a director as there is working today, known for his lyrical yet near documentary sense of realism depicting socially downbeat subject matter.  Typically in his films, nothing moves, as the director’s eye for film composition reveals everything the viewer needs to know.  Here as well, shot entirely in Black and White by the director himself, the camera sits completely motionless as Balibar sits in a chair or stands at a mike with a cigarette, as there is barely any sign of movement.  Amusingly a cat enters the picture midway through and provides more action than anything previously seen.  However, each frame is carefully constructed, a blend of shadow and light where the prominent themes reflect feelings that live in the dark, songs of isolation and alienation, each one immersed in a melancholic wistfulness that sounds like a hushed quiet, as Balibar doesn’t sing so much as dramatically whisper or speak her songs.

Don’t expect Jonathan Demme here, as these are not completed works ready for the stage, instead this is a behind the scenes glimpse of the punishingly endless repetition required to get it stage ready.  This is like listening to scales being played on the piano, where that’s all you get to hear, as the film is about the learning process, where guitarist/composer Rodolphe Burger seems like a driving musical force behind the operations, as the arrangements are stunning, all about tone and texture.  Balibar bravely exposes herself in preliminary phases, where at times she flubs the words, or sings flat or off key, or in one particularly hypnotic number, the title number, doesn’t even sing at all, but just hums as she can’t find the natural rhythm of the piece, despite the musicians counting out the numbers of the beat, or hearing several playbacks which focus on a different musical instrument.  Balibar’s timing does not reflect natural rhythm, as she’s continually off just a bit, which is why the endlessly repetitive rehearsal time is needed.  For the viewer, however, this can get frustrating and may strain the limits and feel excessively monotonous, as we only hear individual sections, never the whole, so there were many walk outs during the screening, where entire rows disappeared.  But the song, which we never hear in its entirety, is instead heard in various layers where either the voice or the musicians are isolated, experimenting and blending together different arrangements.  My own personal favorite was the uncredited similarity to Curtis Mayfield - Superfly (on YouTube 3:53), accentuating the soul percussive intro and the funk horn arrangement, which they most likely tossed by the end.
What’s especially gratifying are the musical selections themselves, as they do reflect the imagination of a cinephile and a stage dramatist, including an eclectic grouping that ranges from the muted emptiness of Nico (Jeanne Balibar - These Days on YouTube 3:58) or the smoldering sexuality of Marlene Dietrich in heavily accented English (Jeanne Balibar - Torture on YouTube 3:11), where the all inclusive cigarette is her act as Balibar is nervous and not yet comfortable with her own rendition, to an operatic number from Offenbach’s La Périchole, where a voice coach never lets her get through more than a line or two without immediate criticisms and corrections, while also offering praise where indicated, but these constant interruptions go on through the entire song, which feels, from Balibar’s view, like it will never end.  This is also shown in a live performance of some kind, but from a view behind the curtain of the piano player and a few of the singer’s backs.  This was the closest we came to a finished product, as the hauntingly sad, socially relevant Brecht Mother Courage style lyrics were especially poignant.  Perhaps the strangest choice was the eerie Peggy Lee theme to the film JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), barely recognizable in the film, offered here in an alternate take (not in the film, but on YouTube 4:07), Johnny Guitar, as opposed to previous versions Johnny Guitar (Title Song)  sung by Peggy Lee (on YouTube 3:12), or an exotic instrumental here Johnny Guitar  (on YouTube 3:17), or here Amaro Del - Johnny Guitar  (on YouTube 3:20).  For actual scenes from the film, Ne Change Rien (2005) [SHORT] 1/2 is on YouTube (6:30), where the opening song Rose (4:20) is in the film, while the rest is not.  Unlike a YouTube rendition, however, nothing in the film ever feels that complete, but instead feels like the Basement Tapes rendition of scenes on the becoming of an artist.  Never once do we feel Balibar is ready, but her quiet charm is effusive.