Friday, March 29, 2013

Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung)

Ulrich Seidl

 PARADISE:  HOPE (Paradies: Hoffnung)        B                     
Austria  Germany  France  (100 mi)  2013  d:  Ulrich Seidl  

The final chapter of the Paradise Trilogy has some of the same provocatively uncomfortable and miserablist themes that consistently run through Seidl’s works, but interestingly draws a sharp generational comparison, where instead of adults, the focus of attention here is instead on 13-year old Melanie (Melanie Lenz), a non-professional actress that appears briefly in Part One getting dropped off with the sister as her mother departs for a vacation trip to Kenya.  The mother and sister are extensively scrutinized by the director in the first two segments, painting a stigmatized portrait of societal unhappiness and loneliness, where adhering to Austria’s strict code of discipline and orderliness does not correspondingly lead to personal happiness.  This near mathematical precision is reflected in the meticulous film composition brilliantly masterminded by a partnership between Seidl and cinematographer Ed Lachman, yet the colorless and washed out look of the film is so drab and dreary that one would have thought this was filmed during the Ceauşescu era in Romania or back in the Soviet controlled days of East Germany.  And of course, there is a connection, as the old ways of conformity, following the rules, racial purity, and xenophobia are part of the perfect world order, where the isolationist Austrian society fails to teach or implement concepts like racial or religious tolerance, helping others less fortunate, or being open minded.  Accordingly, Austrian films, with a blend of fiction and documentary filmmakers like Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Michael Glawogger, Michael Haneke, Ruth Mader, Markus Schleinzer, Götz Spielmann, or Hubert Sauper are known for their icy cold tone of reserve and beautiful restrained direction with a controlled, austere style, often featuring long takes that linger in silence.  Seidl adds his own precision-like style into the mix, blending fiction into ultra realist stories that resemble documentaries.  

Packed into their tiny little box of a car that resembles stuffing overweight Dad Bob Parr into his car in THE INCREDIBLES (2004), Anna Maria, in her Radio Maria car, drives her overweight niece Melanie into the fresh alpine air to a diet camp for teens.  Amusingly, the first thing roommates do is exchange candy and condoms, with four girls in two bunk beds to a room.  While it is a mixture of chubby boys and girls, all living in the same sterile dormitory nestled in the mountains, a dreary looking building drained of any color, what immediately stands out is the contrast between the stark ugliness of the building and the vibrant colors worn by the kids, where Melanie quite comfortably wears a bright yellow tee shirt.  Seen leading them through a series of calisthenics, after weighing and measuring each one, their routine is defined by their whistle-blowing fitness coach (Michael Thomas), typically reciting how they need to obey the rules, that first and foremost what’s important in any well-run organization is to establish discipline, though what they’re really preaching is group conformity, something these young campers could care less about.  The mood of the kids is utter indifference, as they have little interest in being there and no motivation whatsoever to lose weight, where the choice was obviously made by their unseen parents.  Accordingly, the kids make midnight raids into the kitchen, stuffing themselves with snacks, where they’re of course caught and forced to endure painfully humiliating punishments.  In this coming-of-age exposé, Melanie falls into an easy friendship with her roommates, especially the more mature Verena (Verena Lehbauer), who unashamedly shares her sexual history, which arouses the curiosity of Melanie who has none.  Their friendship develops naturally and never feels forced, reflecting a surprising amount of tenderness in their chatty conversations with each other, where other than being overweight, all the kids display healthy attitudes, even when stripped down for swimming, where surprisingly there’s not an ounce of self-consciousness. 

Melanie develops an interest in the camp physician, Joseph Lorenz, the only adult with any sense of humor, so she habitually takes refuge in his quarters by pretending to have stomach aches, often seen sitting outside his office waiting for him before he arrives for work.  Their flirtatious behavior, originally seen as a diversion from the passing boredom, develops into an infatuation, where she actually has a teenage crush on the man even though he’s likely forty years older.  All of her feelings are shared with Verena, including Melanie’s anxieties and self doubts that perhaps he wouldn’t like her because of her weight, so she begins applying make up and actually dressing up for him.  While he duly notes officially that she should stop waiting outside his office for him, he’s also flattered by her attention, as otherwise he’s seen passing the day alone smoking a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, bored with nothing else to do.  The two of them have a cat and mouse game throughout, where Melanie actually starts feeling empowered by her growing sexuality, where she and Verena are entirely comfortable with their oversized bodies and their looks.  Seidl playfully toys with their relationship, where it becomes a wish fulfillment game, as they’re obviously attracted to each other, but as an adult he’s conflicted, fully aware that having sexual thoughts is one thing, but acting upon them is something else.  There’s an intriguing sense of visualization, never crossing the line, wonderfully blending alpine forest imagery with an enveloping fog, where the audience is never really sure what, if anything, transpires, but there is no doubt a seed is planted in the imagination.  Out of boredom and sheer desperation, Melanie and Verena make a prison break, armed with a stash of those tiny bottles of alcohol that airlines use, finding the nearest club where the two of them joyfully dance the night away.  Although Melanie passes out drunk before the night is done, expressing that impulsive nature of teens and their utter disregard for consequences, always wanting to grow up too soon, she is seen back in her yellow tee shirt with the rest of the weary campers who can’t wait for their dreadful summer experience to be over.  Using a typically austere visual style with no recorded music, Seidl explores the world from a teenager’s point of view, optimistically suggesting the world may be in better hands when they grow up, as they’re not used to the post-war struggles and disappointments of their parents who had to survive the Nazi’s, war, communism, and authoritarian rule, where the inherent prejudices and cynical distrust in government remain, leaving citizens more isolated and alone than ever, where the democratic principles of freedoms were abandoned in order to govern through a more conformist, consumer controlled, yet stabilized society.  Viewing the overall impact, Seidl seems to be suggesting it’s time to loosen the reins and allow Austria to come of age.   

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube)

PARADISE:  FAITH (Paradies: Glaube)       B- 
Austria  Germany  France  (113 mi)  2012  d:  Ulrich Seidl  

Women at a crossroads in their life seems to be the common thread in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, where they’re all looking for something, hoping it will bring them closer to what they think they want or need, but are instead left emotionally blindsided and even more pathetically alone.  This second installment is not an easy film to like, though it has its moments, and there were plenty of walk outs during the screening, where Seidl returns to more familiar territory, using a grown up Maria Hofstätter, the overly chatty, utterly annoying hitchhiking star from his depressing and horridly ugly film DOG DAYS (2001), the movie that put Seidl on the map at Cannes, one of the more provocative films ever made due to the astonishingly humiliating and hateful content, where here Hofstätter is Anna Maria, an overly pious radiology technician living alone in her dreary but spotless apartment that features crosses, crucifixes, framed pictures of Jesus, and other religious paraphernalia hanging on the walls in every room.  When we witness her prayerful routine of unlocking a drawer and pulling out a whip, then pulling her dress down where she flagellates her naked back, all the while begging forgiveness of Jesus on the cross from a large-sized crucifix hanging on the wall, we quickly realize that pain and self-induced punishments suggest the devotion of only the most fanatically obsessed believers.  Anna Maria also sings religious hymns while alone in her home playing an electric piano, and is also part of a heavily devoted prayer group, the Legion of the Sacred Heart, whose avowed mission is to return Austria to Roman Catholicism.  But it’s her practice of carrying a large wooden statue of the Virgin Mary with her as she hops on a train and visits poor and mostly immigrant neighborhoods door to door, announcing “The mother of God has come to visit you,” that may be the most problematic, as everything else she does in the privacy of her own home, harming no one, but here she literally barges into people’s lives, offering very little spiritual comfort.  On the contrary, her lack of familiarity with the scripture or church history makes her something of a brainwashed devotee whose presence can be highly disturbing.  In fact, we never once see her step inside a church or receive a priest’s blessings, as this is instead something she’s decided to do on her own, like declare this her mission in life.      

While her orderly life is supported by a repetitive series of pious acts, what’s missing is any amount of spiritual reflection.  In this, Seidl has returned to an earlier theme explored in his film JESUS, YOU KNOW (2003), where priests in church are surrounded by statues and religious icons, but rather than communicate with the divine, they are forced to hear an earful of endlessly petty and utterly selfish concerns from the Catholic parishioners who are looking for the Church to help them find a way out of their everyday problems, forcing priests to continually have to deal with the ordinary mediocrity of humans.  Anna Maria’s routines are so superficially methodical, where she delusionally thinks she’s communicating with the Lord, performing his missionary service, that it never occurs to her that there are differing points of view.  Perhaps her most glaring shortcomings are exposed when a friend drops off a cat for her to look after for a few days and Anna Maria hasn’t an ounce of compassion, instead locking it up in her darkened basement garage 24 hours a day.  This recalls another Austrian film, Markus Schleinzer’s Michael (2011), where it is a 9-year old boy kept locked in the basement.  But her real test is the arrival of her missing husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian-born believer of the Muslim faith who’s been away for two years, crippled from an unexplained prior accident that left him a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.  Anna Maria’s marital vows now include no place for her real husband, as her vows are for Christ alone.  While initially it seems it may take awhile to get used to sharing her home and habits with another person after the accident, she instead thanks God for it, as it inspired her to renew her faith.  She makes a separate bed for him and then leaves him alone to fend for himself, ignoring him completely, which only makes him grow more hostile, believing that he’s being treated like a dog, where an undeclared holy war exists between the two of them who have no business whatsoever being together.  While there are humorous touches as he replaces a photo of Jesus at her bedside with their wedding photo, but she quickly sets things straight, only reinforcing her position, which makes him go on the offensive attacking all the religious icons.  While there is no backstory to how they met, it does draw a comparison to Fassbinder’s ALI:  FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974), another film where xenophobia cripples a marriage. 

Seidl’s films tend to dwell in miserablist human conditions, where there is no way to view Anna Maria’s life without seeing how disconnected she is from any real human companionship, as she has no family or friends, has nothing in common with her husband, who she blatantly rejects at every turn, turning him into a monster, and no interests outside of a delusional mission to serve Christ.  So all her efforts prove to be in vain.  At night, when she takes the crucifix off the wall and starts feeling the body of Christ for sexual arousal, all bets are off, especially when she masturbates to it, which may be a bit much for true believers.  This turns her from a tragic to a completely pathetic figure, one of the walking wounded, who is little more than a ticking time bomb before she goes off.  Her practice of visiting the needy only grows more ridiculous, as she’s in no condition to help anyone, and only further confuses the lives of people already marginalized from society, as they don’t know what to make of her, like Herr Rupnick, an over-aged orphan who has already lost his replacement mother and family, whose life is in such a state of turmoil that she can only add to his emotional imbalance, or Natalya Baranova, an already over-the-edge Russian prostitute who despises Austria and spends the entire visit drinking recklessly, barely able to stand up, literally attacking Anna Maria each time she has to hear her religious spiel, where the two are tussling on the floor, pulling each other’s hair out, all in the name of Christ, apparently.  In the howling winds afterwards, the fates appear against her, where she’s continually fighting a losing battle, surrounded by sinners and non-believers who have no intention of converting to Catholicism, leaving Austria in a state of abject misery.  While the style of the film is completely uncompromising, given a near documentary look, the repetition of routine only accentuates the claustrophobic confines of her Christianity-proofed apartment, where she eventually pours holy water in the form of a cross on her husband’s clothes, and even on her husband, as if he were a vampire ready to strike.  Xenophobic hatred is extremely well integrated into her religious fanaticism, as in her mind foreigners are the wretched of the earth, where all they need to turn their lives around is to find Christ, making them a true Austrian.  But without a conversion, they remain society’s outcasts, a burden to the highly disciplined Austrian way of life.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe)

Ulrich Seidl 

PARADISE:  LOVE (Paradies: Liebe)   B                   
Austria  Germany France  (120 mi)  d:  Ulrich Seidl

Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl has cornered the market on miserablism, making films that are guaranteed to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and unlike his compatriot Michael Haneke who dabbles in violence and horror, where Funny Games (1997) was intended to drive people from their seats in droves, Seidl uses strictly human qualities to make people squirm.  Seidl’s specialty is humiliation, where characters are intentionally forced to feel debased and humiliated, and the audience in turn is forced to endure it as well.  At festivals, there are usually many walkouts that accompany his films, as not everyone is willing to sit through what feels like a marathon session in human degradation.  But what gets his films invited to festivals in the first place is the social relevancy and consummate form of his films, where the line between truth and fiction is blurred somewhat, but his films are grounded in a documentary style objective truth.  In the Paradise Trilogy, Seidl explores human nature by creating three intimate and highly personalized portraits that seen as a whole offer a collective glimpse into modern Austrian society.  PARADISE:  LOVE is a departure for Seidl, as it’s his first venture outside Austria and Europe, where he ironically follows a small group of single, oversized, middle-aged Austrian women to a vacation resort on the sunny beaches of Kenya in Africa, led by Teresa, Margarete Tiesel in a fiercely brave performance, who stashes her daughter and cat with her sister before heading to paradise in search for love.  The opening sequence, however, gives us a glimpse of Teresa at her normal job, supervising a group of developmentally disabled adults on a demolition derby field trip excursion of ramming each other in bumper cars.  It’s clear this challenges the audience’s view of what’s considered strange, a lead-in to the showcasing of oversized women in their typical beachware.

There are certainly parallels to this film and Laurent Cantet’s HEADING SOUTH (2005), which takes place in an upscale resort in Haiti, as both examine sex tourism by affluent white women in exotic black locales, where women literally purchase young boys for the sleek look of their bodies and for sex.  While Cantet views the work as violating child labor laws and also explores the colonialist impact, where the poor are manipulated into unspeakable actions, enhanced by their need to survive, where from their position of powerlessness they overcompensate by becoming tradable commodities in human flesh, Seidl avoids the political ramifications and seems content to let the audience view the experience largely through Teresa’s eyes.  Unfortunately, this choice determines where Seidl points his camera, as he’s a brilliant observer of minute details, but he avoids the political and sticks with what he’s familiar with, as the European women are there largely to indulge themselves.  Much of what we see seems absurdly ridiculous, where up until the finale, much of the audience was in stitches with laughter, as these women certainly objectify the black male anatomy, where in their minds these are boy toys, where they can pleasure themselves night and day with whomever they choose.  Teresa meets a fellow Austrian woman at the bar, Teresas Freundin (Inge Maux), who can’t stop gushing about the carnal opportunities at this resort, where there are young boys everywhere hawking their goods, where sex is for sale along with the bracelets and necklaces they carry with them to entice the women.  A walk to the beach immediately reveals the class barriers, as the young beach boys are restricted to standing in the sun like statues on the other side of a rope separating all the resort patrons who are more comfortably lying in the shade next to the pool.    

Teresa, in typical Austrian fashion, is used to a customary order in her home and nation, where in no time she has these African beach boys following her instructions, as ludicrous as that may be, as she offers primary lessons on how to fondle her breasts, gently stroke and not grab, French kiss, not using too much tongue, until they eventually learn to give her what she wants.  After an initial disappointment with one kid, she discovers the amorous touch of Munga (real life beach boy Peter Kazunga), with Tiesel seen in various states of nudity throughout, actually developing an emotional connection with this kid, or so she thinks, until she’s lured into paying extra cash for various family ailments, all of which appears to be part of the two-sided exploitation game.  Once he’s played her for the cash, he moves on, but Teresa can’t let him go, wanting more, believing with money she sets the terms, but this is an extension of colonialist thinking.  Once she realizes how she was scammed, she finds him on the beach and literally pulverizes the poor kid in a state of rage.  The film is really an exposé on human depravity, revealed with stark honesty, using nudity as a provocation, exploring the depths of just how far people are willing to go when staring in the face of loneliness and poverty.  Despite Teresa’s newfound understanding, the women continue to look for human sex toys, where their real interest is continually pleasing themselves, often humiliating others in the process, but this hardly matters, as they’ll never see these kids again after the vacation ends, but they will have to live with themselves and their own aberrant behavior.  Perhaps the most humiliating ordeal of all is hearing Teresa’s pathetic attempts to call her daughter on her own birthday, but her daughter refuses to call her back, leaving her alone and emotionally devastated at the end, where the real love she needs is never reciprocated.    

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata)

DORMANT BEAUTY (Bella addormentata)         C              
Italy  France  (115 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Marco Bellochio

A grim, depressingly downbeat, and emotionally unsatisfying effort from Bellocchio, who was so distraught that the film didn’t win any awards at the 2012 Venice Film Festival that he announced he would never bring another film to Venice, while Jury member and fellow Italian director Matteo Garrone vowed never to serve on a jury again for an Italian film festival.  This is nothing new, as in 2010 under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, his Italian culture minister Sandro Bondi threatened to take over the festival because the judges (led by Quentin Tarantino) awarded no prizes to Italian films, claiming since the festival is financed by the state he should be able to hand-pick the jury, a move that was quickly rejected by the festival.  Ousted by the Berlusconi government in 2002, Alberto Barbera was reinstated as the Festival Director in 2012, where after all the headlines in the national press focusing on Italian films, it must have come as a big surprise to Italian filmmakers who felt they had stacked the deck in favor of their films.  It’s extremely disingenuous, however, to inflict nationalistic sentiments at an international film festival, where only 9 French films, by the way, have been awarded the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Festival since 1939, only once in the last 25 years, so that’s actually what makes it such an attractive and world prestigious event.  While Bellocchio has been nominated for the Venice Golden Lion three times to go along with six Palme D’Or nominations at Cannes, he’s been shut out from taking the top prize, though he was awarded a lifetime achievement award at Venice in 2011.  No Italian film has won the Golden Lion at Venice since 1988, which may not say a lot about Italian films, but it speaks volumes for the credibility of the festival itself.  Why prestigious Italian artists are intent on undermining Venice and turning it into a provincial festival makes no sense, so Bellocchio and Garrone, both well known and respected international directors, only look foolish, where they’re apparently buying into the outdated Berlusconi propaganda.  For what it’s worth, only one Italian film has been nominated as one of the five finalists in the Academy Award Best Foreign Film category since Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL in 1998, so Italian films have not exactly taken the world by storm in the past decade or so as they did in the 50’s and 60’s.   

Bellocchio’s last film VINCERE (2009), however, was one of his best, a gorgeously powerful historical drama documenting the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini as seen through the eyes of the mother of his firstborn son, born out of wedlock, so when Mussolini rose to power, both were secretly whisked away and sent to live in asylums throughout Mussolini’s regime, eventually dying in confinement.  The film certainly casts a shadow on the moral depravity of Italian leadership through World War II, where the parallel to Berlusconi’s own extensive record of moral hypocrisy and criminal conduct does not go unnoticed.  DORMANT BEAUTY attempts to examine another moral issue making headlines in the Italian press, namely what to do with coma patients that show no sign of brain activity, where the argument is whether they are actually dead, kept breathing by life support, or in a state of sleep where they might one day miraculously recover.  Much like the 2001 Terri Schiavo case in the United States, right-to-life religious groups, led by the Catholic Church, believed she was still alive, while her own husband wished to remove the life support system after 8-years in a coma but was prevented by government involvement, prolonging the case until exhausting all judicial avenues four years later.  Italy had a similar public debate over the Eluana Englaro case in 2009, where after 17-years in a coma from a car accident the father chose to remove his daughter from life support, but the Berlusconi government and the Catholic Church aligned themselves to prevent him from doing it, initiating legal challenges and going public on all the Berlusconi-owned Italian newspapers and extensive TV channels, including three national and several private stations, including RAI, which is one of the producers of the film, in an attempt to convince the public this is paramount to murder.  The effect was so extensive that the Friuli Venezia Giulia Film Commission in the Northeast province where this film was shot actually dissolved its own organization hoping to block financing for the film, but they are also listed as one of the production companies. 

Without offering any backstory, which in this case necessitates confusion or is playing strictly to an Italian audience, the film, co-written by the director, unfortunately assumes familiarity with the case, where after a decade of court decisions strictly prohibiting any action, in 2009 Eluana’s father is finally given the legal right to remove life support.  However, the nuns caring for Eluana since 1994 are seen on television making a public appeal to continue taking care of her, believing she is still alive despite her father’s contention that she was already dead, forcing the father to move her to a private nursing facility, which is where the film begins.  Despite the court decision, a right-wing crusade led by Berlusconi and the Vatican, along with a well-financed media campaign, promote the idea that Eluana’s father is murdering his daughter, the view of the Church, further inflamed by Berlusconi’s pronouncement that Eluana is not only alive but capable of bearing a child.  While public opinion suggests more than 80% of Italians support the father’s right, a defiantly outraged minority lead organized demonstrations and candlelight vigils in Eluana’s behalf while the government hastily draws legislation that would impose religious standards over the rights of individuals.  Bellocchio interweaves several different melodramatic stories, including a conscience-stricken politician, Toni Servillo as Uliano Beffardi, a first term senator elected from Berlusconi’s party, who already faced this dilemma with his own wife, and while he’s adamantly against the proposed legislation, he’s advised by his party to abstain or disappear, but his bigger fear is losing his religious-minded daughter in the process, Alba Rohrwacher as Maria, who joins the angry public demonstrations, meeting someone she likes on the opposite side of the police barricades, Roberto (Michele Riondini), constantly seen attempting to appease the disturbing actions of his violently angry, mentally ill brother.  The budding romance between the two quickly gets lost in the constantly shifting dynamic.  

In a similar side story that confusingly resembles that of Eluana, where many in the audience may not realize the distinction, Isabelle Huppert, known only as the Divine Mother (as she is called by her son), embodies the position of the church with her own coma-stricken daughter.  A famous actress who abruptly quit her career to assume full-time care of her daughter, alienating her husband and son in the process, she devotes her life to religious devotion, complete with an army of nurses and nuns who look after her in a palatial estate, she gathers her family together to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, where it’s impossible not to hear the constant sound of the life support apparatus doing the breathing for her.  Despite the constant drone, emotions fly fast and furious, especially the near hysterical rants from her spoiled and overly pampered son who seems to be having an absent mother crisis, while the regal countenance of Huppert displays an aristocratic control over her suppressed emotions through a kind of self-imposed noble rigidity, literally imposing her will over every aspect of her daughter’s immaculate care, though she can be heard muttering to herself the lines of Lady Macbeth, unable to get the stain or smell of blood off her hands.   And in yet another storyline, a young doctor (the director’s son, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) gets sucked into the desperate acts of a suicidal drug addict (Maya Sansa) whose beauty betrays her noxious intentions.  While the rest of the hospital staff callously take bets on the hour of Eluana’s eventual death, he keeps a watchful vigil over his new patient’s hospital bed, inexplicably drawn to her fierce desire to end her life, telling her, “You’re free to kill yourself, and I’m free to try to stop you.”  Straining for dramatic cohesiveness and never developing any sense of emotional impact, the mood remains overly detached and downright gloomy throughout, though one has to chuckle at a somewhat surreal scene that comes out of nowhere, taking place in an ancient candle-lit bath house where Roman senators nakedly congregate before important votes, their heads seen floating on the surface of the water with their eyes glued to the television.  Roberto Herlitzka plays a medication dispensing psychiatrist prescribing uppers or downers to depressed politicians.  Bellocchio, however, fails to establish any connecting interest between the underdeveloped characters and storylines, especially with the director’s insistence to continually interrupt the proceedings with the disturbing actions of mentally unstable characters, where the suggestion of romantic possibilities, for instance, feels contrived and downright ludicrous, losing focus and interest in a convoluted structure that feels increasingly disconnected.  While the experience is frustratingly disappointing, what the film does have going for it (besides Huppert) is a superb soundtrack by Carlo Crivelli in an ultra dramatic, percussive-laden adaptation of Brian Eno and David Bowie David Bowie Abdulmajid (Ryko version) - YouTube  (3:30).   

Monday, March 25, 2013

Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles)

WILD GRASS (Les Herbes Folles)      B+          
France  Italy  (104 mi)  2009  d:  Alain Resnais

No matter, we shall have loved each other well.  —Gustave Flaubert, L'Éducation sentimentale, 1869

A surprisingly light-hearted French comedy from the master of the nearly incomprehensible Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad)  (1961), a bold existential reverie told with a striking geometric visual scheme filled with perfectly dressed characters looking like mannequins who exist in a purgatory of forgotten memories that are about to disappear forever.  This film makes use of small, somewhat quirky overlooked moments that might easily be forgotten, yet they’re given a synchronous narrative structure where they become the highlights of the film, quite reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s charmingly upbeat use of the same sort of romantic structure in CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994), where this film even looks like it was shot by Wong’s cinematographer Christopher Doyle, but it is Eric Gautier who provides a stunningly beautiful color palette that is so brightly lit, an impressionistic blur of neon-lit colors, that at times it takes one’s breath away.  Since the narrative itself is minimal, a woman’s purse gets stolen and the man who finds her wallet is struck by the myriad of possibilities with the thought of returning it to her, which leaves plenty of room for character driven improvisation, something the French excel at.  A comedic battle of the sexes ensues.  The woman who loses her purse is the director’s live-in companion, Sabine Azéma, a flaming red-head some 27-years his junior, while the man who discovers the missing wallet is André Dussollier, who is the picture of manners, convention, and social grace.  There seems to be a story within the story about his real profession that’s barely referenced, only alluded to, and then swallowed up by an entirely new train of thought, leaving all those possibilities behind in exchange for brand new ones.  Through a whimsical narration that also includes people’s heads and thoughts popping up like an animated comic strip, this film has fun with its own conceptual design, as despite the occasional hilarity, the sequence of events are extremely well edited and there is a remarkable display of wit.  For many this will be a bizarre little headscratcher bathed in the luminescent light of a budding love story that feels innocent and warmhearted enough, becoming a master class on cinema itself, but makes little sense.   

While Dussollier wishes to make a personal impression after he returns the wallet, he ends up talking to Azéma’s answering machine every night, leaving revealing messages where he expresses an interest in meeting, but when they finally talk, she tries to put an end to that idea.  So he starts writing her letters instead, including one that appears to be about 10 pages long, revealing his life’s story and his various thoughts of the day, as if she were his best friend.  This all gets a bit tricky, but he’s consumed by her while she deflects his interest, though it’s clear he’s made some sort of impression, as she’s clearly enamored by his attention and misses it when she puts a stop to it.  So she turns the tables and starts secretly following him, where the moment they meet is electric, like something out of pure fantasy, yet there it is happening before our eyes.  She begins calling his home, where his wife (Anne Consigny) calmly answers as if this is nothing out of the ordinary, where they all seemingly become best of friends, yet the underlying motivations shift around and remain unclear.  The pursuer becomes fascinated by the unknown, never knowing quite what to expect, while the pursued seems to love the attention, even if they’re already married and the pursuer comes to sit in their living room.  The audience doesn’t really know what to make of this either, as the married couple seems perfectly content and not at all jealous, apparently pleased with each other’s happiness, where the added interest only seems to brighten up their lives.  No one knows where any of this is going or where it will lead.  What’s truly remarkable is the ease with which these veteran actors sink their teeth into their parts, as they’re a joy to watch simply to discover what they’ll do next, becoming instantly familiar characters, cleverly drawn and skillfully inhabited, with a series of movie references, including familiar movie music and title cards appearing on the screen, including several endings.  But mostly what works is the thought process that leads us through this bounty of oddball experiences, looking through the cracks of our well-ordered lives, as there’s a refined intelligence behind it all and an uplifting spirit that feels remarkable, as if we in the audience are missing out on the choices we make in our daily routines, continually overlooking these deliciously small moments that when maximized seem to define our humanity.  It hardly matters if we make fools of ourselves, what people remember is the effort, which is the proof that when we lived, we cared.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Vous n'avez encore rien vu)

YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHIN’ YET (Vous n'avez encore rien vu)        C   
France  Germany  (115 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Alain Resnais 

This is another of a recent series of aging filmmakers to express themselves through sheer artificiality, much like Manoel de Oliveira, 100-years old and still counting, and the recently deceased Raúl Ruiz, whose immersion into literary source material often leaves their films rigid and lifeless onscreen, so stark in execution that the viewer ends up spending a majority of time simply reading the subtitles, as these are films with non-stop verbiage, almost as if the filmmakers preferred stories that were read to the audience.  While the last film of Resnais, Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles) (2009), couldn’t have been more playfully energetic with its quirky story of near forgotten moments leading to a budding romance, intoxicating with its impressionistic blur of neon-lit colors, where it obviously had plenty of whimsical fun with its own conceptual design.  Not so here, where you’ll be hard pressed to find any ounce of spontaneity or flair for life in this film, a re-enactment of French playwright Jean Anouilh's 1941 play Eurydice, where the story of Orpheus and Eurydice has previously been told quite impressively in Jean Cocteau’s magical surrealist film ORPHEUS (1950) and the spectacularly colorful BLACK ORPHEUS (1959), a Marcel Camus film that uses the lush backdrop of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, featuring the exotic delights of fabulous costumes, nonstop dancing, and wall to wall samba music.  While the play itself was written during the Nazi occupation of France, this historical context is completely left out of the film, though one can infer this may have been the reason it lingered for so long in the director’s imagination. 

In the opening interlude expressed in a montage of split screen images, a varied group of actors receive identical phone calls informing them that Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès), a friend and beloved theater director has died, requesting their visit to his country estate for the reading of his will.  Once the guests arrive, all gracefully met by Marcellin (Andrzej Seweryn), they are treated to a video performance of the Jean Anouilh play, where as the actors recall their own performances, Resnais blends a mixture of theater, memory, and real life into his own film.  While it sounds clever enough, what it amounts to is largely a filmed theatrical piece, using three different sets of performers, where Resnais interjects onto the screen two sets of older actors watching the movie who recall performing the play in their youth, where they are suddenly projected onscreen as the featured players alongside a video version of younger performers from La Compagnie de la Colombe which was actually filmed by Denis Podalydès.  With a brief break between the first and second acts where all the assembled players light up and smoke, Resnais simply films the entire play, intercutting brief elements of another more modern Anouilh play, Cher Antoine ou l'amour rate from 1969.  So while there is some interest in how the concept initially develops, there are no more surprises, and despite some of the best French stage and screen performers, there is little interest in the play itself, as it exists in a cautious, overly refined, and artificialized setting that accentuates the literary aspect of the play, adding little visual enhancement.    

While there is some pleasure in watching great actors, with Sabine Azema and Anne Consigny as Eurydice, matched by a young and vivacious Vimala Pons, from Jacques Rivette’s final film AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN (2009), and Pierre Arditi and Lambert Wilson as Orpheus, it must be said that the team of Azema and Arditi badly overact, adding a neurotic element that goes way over the top, turning this into an antiquated melodrama.  Rivette is probably the most brilliant director incorporating theatrical performances into his films, but he also infuses his characters with intelligence and a probing curiosity, where one can’t help but take interest in the energizing aspect of their appeal, as they are literally teeming with life.  But Resnais has made a film that only grows deadly boring after awhile, where the energy of the young and relatively unknown company actors consistently outshine the cadre of stars who never bring this piece to life, as it instead sits there onscreen like a stuffed shirt overly pleased with itself.  Never invoking the dramatic power and tragedy behind the immortal play, where the all consuming power of love offers Orpheus a chance to bring Eurydice back from the dead, which initially comes from Greek mythology, revisited in various artistic forms for literally thousands of years, from Plato, Virgil, and Ovid to painters like Titian and Puissin, as well as music from Monteverdi, Gluck, and Offenbach, this can only be considered a minor version of a master work, a pale comparison to the legendary Cocteau film, the second of his Orphic Trilogy Films, which notably does make historical reference to the buildings in ruin after World War II, using them as the eerie setting for his underworld, where the Orpheus trial was made to resemble the German inquests after the occupation.  While this was touted on the festival circuit as the swansong for Resnais, whose first film short was made back in the 30’s and first feature followed the war, there is yet another film already in post production, another collaboration with English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, his fourth film adaptation, where it will continue this obsession of aging film directors with literary works. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Silence (Das letzte Schweigen)

THE SILENCE (Das letzte Schweigen)            B+  
Germany  (111 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Baran bo Odar                Official site [de]

Not to be confused with Ingmar Bergman's THE SILENCE (1963) or Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Iranian film THE SILENCE (1998), where this film may not stand with that elite company, however the Swiss director has worked as a second unit assistant director for the Maren Ade film THE FOREST FOR THE TREES (2003), an unusual German film told in a measured and meticulously distinct, realist manner with a truly provocative final sequence.  A film with no opening credits, here the opening shot surveying the gorgeous Bavarian landscape sets the scene, resembling the aerial shot in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) following a car as it makes its way down a tree-lined highway, where this homage is likely not accidental, especially considering the content of the movie.  Writing, directing, and producing his first feature-length film, it also explores the unpleasant underbelly of an otherwise orderly and mainstream German society where people on the surface at least have nothing to fear, where children are often left on their own, probably resembling the quaint life in most small towns where everybody knows everybody else. Set in the pastoral heartland of Germany in 1986 with golden, waist-deep wheatfields extending to the horizon, we watch the tail end of what may be a snuff film, or at the very least, a pedophile’s sexual fantasy, where two men, Peer, Ulrich Thomsen, a Danish actor seen in Susanne Bier’s film In a Better World (2010), and Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring) then hop into a car on the lookout for young prey, eying an 11-year old girl Pia (Helene Doppler) riding her bicycle alone down an isolated country road, where the girl is viciously raped and murdered in the wheatfields by Peer as Timo passively watches in a state of shock and horror at the outcome, her body dumped into a lake afterwards, where the killers were never caught, as Timo mysteriously disappears afterwards in a mixture of anger and personal disgust. 

The film jumps ahead 23 years, introducing an entirely new set of characters, including another young girl, 13-year old Sinikka (Anna Lena Klenke) who storms out of her parent’s house in a furious rage after a perceived invasion of her privacy, never to be seen or heard from again, as she becomes the victim of a copycat killing at the exact same location, where the police are again without a suspect for the crime.  The community is in an uproar, where the police have no answers for a seethingly angry public, but we also see the stunned reactions of the parents, including Elena (Katrin Saß) the mother of the first girl, Pia, who lives only a few hundred yards away from the murder site and has to undergo the experience all over again, where people are dumfounded and shocked at the gruesome similarities.  While only the audience sees the original perpetrators, everyone remains clueless about both crimes, where the community is aghast at having to re-live through this same horrible ordeal again.  Adapted by the director from the second of three Jan Costin Wagner novels, Das Schweigen (2007), all of which take place in Finland featuring the same lead character, Detective Kimmo Joentaa, a rather frumpy and hapless looking detective who in the movie becomes David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg), a damaged soul still mourning the death of his wife from cancer, which happens in the first novel, Ice Moon (2003).  Perhaps because of his own personal experience, Detective Jahn, along with the steadfast help of his devoted partner, Jule Böwe as the pregnant detective Jana Gläser, they are the only ones in law enforcement who see this as more than a case to dispose of to make the public get off their backs, as there are larger implications that are routinely being ignored.  What is truly exceptional here is rather than invest energy attempting to solve the crime, the director is more interested in examining a cross section of people affected by the crime, where their response becomes the dramatic focus of the picture.  

The director doesn’t forget Peer and Timo, much older now and barely recognizable, where Peer remains at the same apartment complex working as the maintenance worker, where the audience immediately senses the obvious, the presence of a pedophile literally surrounded by unsuspecting children playing in the yard area that he maintains.  Timo on the other hand has moved to another city and is married with two children, where his wife Julia (Claudia Michelson) believes he’s an architect away from home for a few days inspecting a site location, while in fact he’s gone to visit Peer after the second murder, suspecting from the similarities that he’s involved.  Timo remains conflicted about the visit, still feeling guilty about the original incident that Peer has long since forgotten, yet their meeting together is the Macbethian stain from which all tragedy occurs, where countless more characters are still having to deal with the ugly ramifications of their actions.  The film is reminiscent of Tony Hillerman detective stories, where the overwhelming prominence of the natural environment affects each and every one of the characters, where the beautiful and tranquil landscape shots here are a stark contrast to the mental anguish and torment felt by entire community, much like the overriding grief felt throughout David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990 – 91), where the small town police work is really more of an excuse to reconnect several of the characters, alternately shifting various points of view, keeping the audience off balance while brilliantly interweaving the piano and violin in the stylishly original music of Michael Kamm and Kris Steininger as Pas de Deux.  While Wagner’s book is more like INSOMNIA (1997), a Nordic noir murder mystery that takes place in the Scandinavian summer heat under the perpetual midnight sun, introducing a dreamy, almost unreal quality to it, this movie is more interested in exploring and exposing the depths of human anguish, reconnecting people’s lives to deep seeded feelings that were long thought dormant, becoming a sad and sorrowful elegy for the dead.  Like Egoyan’s THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997), the film is an accomplished expression of community despair, somewhat disguised as a detective whodunit story, but instead becomes a complex study of grief, remorse, obsession, and the persistence of long pent-up guilt.   

Friday, March 22, 2013

My Joy (Schastye moe)

MY JOY (Schastye moe)            B                                          
Ukraine  Germany  France  Netherlands  (127 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Sergei Loznitsa

What starts out with huge amounts of style and promise, where Loznitsa envisions a Russian SÁTÁNTANGÓ (1994) after the cinematic style of Béla Tarr, creating a lengthy road movie told in extended segments of real time, but it’s a film that does not have the humor, depth, or complexity of Tarr’s original, and cannot sustain its initial artistic heights.  It’s also worth noting that while the composition of many of the shots is breathtaking, the use of a digital camera limits one’s appreciation for the subject, as it simply doesn’t have the depth of image and feels even more flattened out over time.  The narrative itself is a little puzzling, as characters can get lost in the storyline, but in this film, the overall mood is paramount to character.  The story itself isn’t nearly as important as the way that it’s told, in long takes with near documentary precision and with no musical score. 

Russia’s open road is fraught with potential dangers, creating a bleak underbelly of criminality lurking behind every hardened face, including the faces of children, where young teenage girls parade in front of cars and trucks that are stopped due to a truck overturning up ahead and offer their sexual services. When one truck driver Georgy (Viktor Nemets) befriends one of the girls, eventually asking for alternate directions out of the area, she turns on him in a wrath of fury, offended that he didn’t take her sexual offer seriously, as this is indeed how she makes her underage living.  Georgy ends up walking through the village streets and through a crowd, where the camera pans up into the faces of villagers, none of whom look happy or relaxed, as people of all ages seem to have that dead look in their eyes, but the camera moves and explores, finding an object of interest and becomes fixated on that subject for awhile until it moves out of sight.  Later the truck’s headlights are seen in the blackness of the night, moving in what appears to be circles in the middle of a forest until it comes to rest with the motor stopped.  Two men in the night hear the sounds and converge towards it, where human kindness is seen as a sign of weakness and an opportunity that presents itself on this road that suddenly goes nowhere. 

Occasionally the film introduces a character who opens the floodgates to a flashback, where time jumps backwards, creating a journey into a seemingly timeless exploration of memory and our knowledge of certain familiar landmarks, where the same house is seen inhabited by different sets of people over time, all lending itself to a differing perception of history, while also creating memory gaps that not everyone may be familiar with.  The viewer is given knowledge that the characters onscreen may not have, as we’ve witnessed certain incidents that took place in a different time.  This seamless movement back and forth in time is barely discernable, but the audience is fed new characters which bring us up to date on the changing times, just as brutal and horrific as the olden times.  While the specifics aren’t that important, what remains imprinted into the viewer’s minds is the vision of a nightmarish hell on earth where no one can be trusted, where scoundrels move into positions of authority, and where the landscape moves ever darker into a lawless, apocalyptic nightmare, where only the briefest hint of light protects humans from gradually creeping back into the dark ages.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

In the Fog (V Tumane)

IN THE FOG (V Tumane)                   B          
Russia  Belarus  Latvia  Germany  Netherlands  (127 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Sergei Loznitsa
Official site 

Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for those men, whose souls are of barbarian nature.
—Sergei Loznitsna, film director quoting pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus

Not sure how this film qualifies to play in the European Union Fest, as this is a decisively Russian-Belarus filmmaker, neither country members of the EU, though much of the film was shot in Latvia, the supposed country of EU origin.  Ironically the filmmaker has moved to Germany, a country with one of the best run and most efficient state-assisted cinema programs in all of Europe, allowing him to make films that would be impossible to make in Russia, also helping to produce the financing for his films.  It’s the Russians, however, that have a fondness for their own history and that of the former Soviet territories, where they never forget the terrible price paid in human lives to keep the Germans from overrunning Moscow and Stalingrad in World War II, coming within 20 miles of Moscow before the Russian lines finally held.  Over the course of the war they eventually lost anywhere from 22 to 26 million dead, 15 – 20 % of their entire population defending their nation.  Nearly every family was affected by this kind of dramatic impact, leaving behind for generations to come the terrible scars of history, where no one makes films about this era with more wretched misery than the Russians, who suffered tremendously through this unimaginable horror, perhaps best represented by The Five Best Soviet Era War Films.  Like Trial On the Road (Proverka na dorogakh) (1971), The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye) (1976), and Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985), all set in Belarus and all steeped in the psychological horrors of World War II when the occupying Nazi forces applied a scorched earth policy, burning Belarusian villages to the ground, slaughtering all the inhabitants, literally attempting to wipe Russians off the face of the earth, leaving whatever civilians that survived to starve or die of exposure to the cold.  Carrying the historical weight of Russian history, where more than two million were killed defending the western territory of Belarus, this is a slow moving, morally conflicted, bleak interior drama that takes place far from the front lines, where in the masterful opening shot, out of stillness heads rise out of the lower edge of a snowy forest, as we see German soldiers on horseback marching Russian prisoners into a small Belarusian village to the stare of onlookers.  After a long offscreen pronouncement, set to a slow 180 degree pan, suggesting anyone aiding or abetting those defying the prevailing German order would be shot, the order is given for the men to be publicly hanged.  
IN THE FOG is an existential parable much like Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE (1998), an anguished requiem for the dead where the experience of watching the film subjectively involves the viewer in a partnership with history, becoming a transforming meeting of the minds that elevates one’s understanding of events.  Told out of sequence, Loznitsa constructs a war film with no war action, a long, slow slog into the psychological descent into the madness of war, shot with cinematic depth by the same guy (Oleg Mutu) who filmed Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (După dealuri) (2012), supposedly only 72 shots in a little over two hours, where comrades turn against comrades, suspecting there is among them a collaborator for the other side, where there is slow pacing, no musical score, and an intense, interior moral dilemma about what to do.  Its release comes at an interesting time in modern Russian history, where a film about Russian “morality” is an ironic choice during the reinstatement of the dictatorial, KGB-like police state reign of Vladimir Putin.  Perhaps not as intricately constructed as Loznitsa’s earlier brutal road movie My Joy (Schastye moe) (2010), which allowed just the briefest sliver of light, in both mood is paramount to character, told in long takes with near documentary precision through mostly empty, snowy landscapes, an existential journey following two or three characters as they make their way behind enemy lines through the natural protection of the dense forests.  The story concerns Sushenya (Vladimir Svirski), whose story remains a shrouded mystery lost in the fog, revealed only near the end in flashback for the audience’s benefit, where no one in the film ever hears it.  This is the kind of history, personal, family, and national, that gets lost during wartime.  Based on a novel by Belarusian writer Vasily Bykov, Sushenya is a local railroad worker for nearly thirty years, ordered by his boss to continue working for the Germans or he’d be killed, so what real choice does he have?  

Sushenya could just as easily be anybody, as all fell victim to circumstances beyond their control, and he is sympathetically portrayed throughout as he makes his way through a hellish landscape that continually leaves him no choice.  Accused of being a German collaborator, two Soviet partisans arrive out of the forest to execute him, one a lifelong friend who takes no pleasure in his duty.  Instead it’s his friend that is shot and severely wounded in an unexpected ambush, where Sushenya is forced to carry him on his back in an absurdist Sisyphus reference as they attempt to make their way to safety.  Despite their partisan loyalties, each man is viewed traveling this isolated journey alone, as that is how they will be judged by history, expressed through extended minimalist sequences of long shots trekking through the wintry forest where man is nearly inconsequential, a mere solitary speck, engulfed in the immense natural landscape and of time immemorial.  Sushenya is continually judged by others, Nazi’s and partisans, even his own family, where during wartime, a full accounting of the truth never comes out until the distance of time passes and people can objectively investigate facts, circumstances and allegations.  But during the imposition of unspeakable violence and the blurry events of war, everything comes down to immediate perceptions, where Sushenya can’t believe why his wife or his lifelong friends would choose to believe the German accounts rather than his own, doubting his pleas of innocence, somehow forgetting everything that they ever knew about him because of an accusation from Nazi criminals and cutthroat murderers.  All that he knows about humanity quickly spins on its ear, where everything that matters is suddenly gone forever, leaving him in a state of abject misery and horror.  This kind of nightmarish journey takes us to the other side of darkness where the end of the world is near, very similar to the coming apocalypse expressed in Béla Tarr’s last film The Turin Horse (2011).  While Tarr visually expresses the external reality, Loznitsa explores the last gasp, the internalized personal anguish of all light going out of the world, and, if not for Loznitsa and this film, all would be forgotten.