Monday, February 25, 2008

Husbands and Wives/Le Corbeau

Husbands and Wives is a perfect combination of the new and the old in Woody Allen's filmmaking, a film that treads very familiar thematic ground even as its style breaks with his past and opens up entirely new possibilities for his art. For Allen, it's a clear case of an old story being told in a new way, and the difference is palpable in every frame of the film. It's one of his loosest, most self-assured works, a compendium of Woody Allen plot points and character traits cast in a new light, as though looked at from an older vantage point as the fond memories of youth. This metatextual element, unusual in Allen's mostly self-contained films, is tipped off right from the very first shot, in which Woody's character, Gabe, watches a TV show about the philosopher who appeared in Crimes and Misdemeanors — in fact, he is watching what was, in the earlier film, a documentary created by the failed filmmaker Cliff Stern, also played by Woody. This moment is thus notable, besides its metafictional appeal, for its subtle note of optimism, suggesting that Cliff had actually managed to get his documentary on TV, so that he was successful after all, at least in the universe represented by this different film. It's a neat gesture, a kind of token extended to one of Woody's more miserable past incarnations, as though to imply that his signature negative outlook had mellowed out a bit and he now allowed for at least the possibility of success and happiness.

To be sure, though, this mellower Woody is otherwise not especially apparent in the film's stormy opener, in which Gabe and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow) are stunned by the announcement that their friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are breaking up their long-standing marriage. The couple announces this split almost casually, smiling as they do so and expecting that their friends will simply take it in stride and they'll all go out to dinner afterwards. But Gabe and Judy are not so serene, and Judy especially seems shaken by their friends' break-up — the obvious subtext is that she's disturbed by the realization that long and seemingly stable marriages can shatter so easily and so calmly. The camerawork in these opening scenes mirrors the tension and emotional excess of this encounter, with the camera swaying frantically back and forth from one character to another, achieving the effect of the 180-degree reaction-shot cut without actually cutting. This is Woody's first film with a handheld camera, and the jittery, edgy cinematography by his longtime collaborator Carlo di Palma is perfectly suited to the film's themes of instability and change. It's a very rough film, jagged and raw both in its emotions and its style of presenting them. I commented, after seeing Jean-Luc Godard's contentious interview with Allen in Meetin' WA, that the two filmmakers have very little common ground and very different ways of thinking about movies, and yet Husbands and Wives is the first Allen film where Godard's influence can be felt, at least on a superficial level. The editing is as rough and elliptical as Breathless, with jump cuts in the middle of many scenes and a camera that hardly ever sits still. The technique is particularly used with images of Mia Farrow, whose most emotional scenes are frequently broken up by cuts and ellipses, in much the same manner as Charlotte Rampling's breakdowns were fragmented in Woody's earlier Stardust Memories.

This isn't the only way in which the film refers back to past Allen films. The central issues, of course, have been thoroughly explored in Allen's oeuvre, especially his dramas: love and fidelity, the changing nature of love over the years, the tension between the intellect and the emotions, sexual frigidity and impotence, the ways in which emotional truths can be buried for years before sudden realizations trigger their unearthing. There's also an element of past Allen films in the character of Rain (Juliette Lewis), one of Gabe's students in a creative writing class, who he thinks is a promising student and is obviously attracted to as well. Her character bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Woody's much younger girlfriend in Manhattan, played by Mariel Hemingway. Woody has always been interested in the idea of the romantic relationship as a professor/student bond, and many of his films have positioned him as the wise figure dispensing advice and philosophy to a younger or simply less experienced woman — though usually losing that woman in the end, presumably once the pupil has exceeded her master. Rain fills that role here, but the crucial difference is that Gabe seems to realize the folly of this pattern, and rather than sleepwalk through the usual routine, at the last moment he steps back and wisely says that he sees where this is going, and he'd rather save them both the heartache. It's a surprisingly mature gesture from Allen, a stark contrast to the miserable and pathetic scene he makes at the end of Manhattan when he loses Hemingway's character for good — it's as though he's recognized his own failings, as a filmmaker and a character, and has acknowledged them here. He even has Rain herself criticize his treatment of women in a novel he was writing, in a very cogent and well-stated critique that might just as easily have come from feminist writings about Woody's films and public life.

It's obvious that Woody has grown accustomed to the sense of loss and loneliness that accompanies the departure of love; with age and maturity, he's come to look at it as simply a part of life, and this film faces both love and loss with an equanimity never before present in his work. Nevertheless, he can't resist including just one sweepingly romantic moment in the film anyway, a loving depiction of the single passionate kiss between Gabe and Rain, set in a rainstorm, during a blackout at her 21st birthday party. Woody has always been fond of rain — probably why he named a character after it — and the scene where a man and a woman are caught in a storm together and bond because of it recurs throughout his filmography (there's one in this film too, when Judy and her new love interest Michael (Liam Neeson) run laughing inside from the rain). Blackouts also hold a special place for Allen, and the one in September is one of the most magical sequences he's crafted, a sepia-tinged moment of candor and warmth set in the flicker of candlelight, with Sam Waterston and Diane Wiest letting out their suppressed love for one another. The similar scene between Allen and Lewis in Husbands and Wives clearly evokes the earlier movie, a blackout in which the moody lighting and romance of the atmosphere charges the air and brings out suppressed truths, resulting in the electric moment of that one kiss, with lightning flashing in the window behind the couple. The crucial difference, of course, is that at the end of this scene the lights come on, and once out of the darkness of the moment, Woody simply steps away.

This is a complex and multi-layered character study, one in which all the characters are given a chance to develop and come to their own conclusions about love, marriage, and sexuality. The film adopts a somewhat "objective" stance towards these separate conclusions, positioning the film as a kind of psychological study, with an offscreen interviewer directly addressing the characters in private sessions, and often providing dispassionate narration for many of the film's events. The narrator even tracks down past lovers, interviewing them to provide information not otherwise known to many of the main characters. This objective distance leaves the film's denouement largely up in the air, as each of the characters strikes his or her own balance on the subjects of love, sex, and romance, finally tamping down many of the more extreme sentiments and emotions briefly allowed free rein during the course of the film and settling on more comfortable domestic arrangements. This is a witty, mordantly funny film, one that finds humor in even the darkest of romantic situations, and one that promises at least a hint of stability and comfort amidst the insanities and incompatibilities of relationships.

Le Corbeau is a fierce, dark, stridently misanthropic film — that is to say, a film entirely characteristic of its director, the notoriously bleak Henri-Georges Clouzot. Made in 1943 at the height of the German occupation of France, and thus the subject of much controversy for its director after the war, Le Corbeau certainly doesn't paint the French bourgeois in a pretty light. In fact, a light is the film's central metaphor, a swinging light bulb that represents the shifting moral boundary lines between good and evil, symbolizing both the internal conflicts within all people and the larger external battles on a societal level. This relativist morality is the festering core of a film built on ugliness, lies, and rampant corruption, as a small provincial town is torn apart by a mysterious letter-writer called the Raven, who's methodically exposing all of the townspeople's darkest secrets to one another.

The focus of much of this antipathy is local doctor Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), who attains a reputation as an abortionist, a womanizer, and possibly a crook through these letters, accusations at least partially bolstered by his obvious disdain for children and his often abrupt manner. As the center of the film, he becomes its de facto hero, but a very unlikeable hero he is, and one not entirely above suspicion either — it's not at all clear just how much of a relationship he has with the wife (Micheline Francey) of the hospital supervisor Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). The film spends much of its running time systematically raising suspicions about virtually everyone in its large cast of characters. At times, it seems like it's going to turn out that everyone in the village is sending these nasty letters to each other. The attention briefly focuses on a puritanical nun (Héléna Manson), but when she too is exonerated by the appearance of a new letter from the Raven, the town is nearly torn apart by the mutual suspicions, anger, and barely suppressed emotions.

As a portrait of the ugliness beneath the bourgeois facade, this film is nearly unmatched. Clouzot maintains the suspense and festering antagonism so well that the ultimate resolution can only come as a disappointment, and the final act sort of defuses much of the moral ambiguity and dark emotions of the rest of the film. In the famous scene of the swaying light bulb, light and dark are represented as not only coexisting, but intimately related, with good shaping evil and vice versa, just as the light areas define the shadows and the darkness delineates the bright spots left untouched. This interplay of good and evil, so potent and pungent throughout the film, is largely thrown out the window for the unconvincing denouement. In fact, Clouzot's films seemed to be plagued by these types of inappropriate endings, like the feel-good resolution of Quai des orfèvres or the ironic O. Henry-esque twist at the end of Wages of Fear. It's as though the dark ideas and human ugliness raised by Clouzot's films can't find an appropriate expression in the final moments, and so he either retreats into a Hollywood-style tying-up of loose ends, or else opts for a non-sequitur with little relation to the rest of the film.

Even with this ending hampering its impact, Le Corbeau is a dark and gritty exposé of bourgeois pettiness, as well as, at the height of the German occupation and despite the outcry against Clouzot's supposed "collaboration," very likely a coded denunciation of the divisive effect of informants. It's a taut suspense film, an engaging mystery in which all the characters are guilty, even the ones who are ultimately cleared of the crime. The stain of guilt never truly leaves any of these characters behind. They are all complicit in the Raven's crimes, because they are all complicit in the network of betrayals, blackmails, blacklisting, and petty gossip that spreads in the wake of these letters. Guilt and innocence, like light/dark and good/evil, thus constitute another of the film's central dichotomies, although in this case Clouzot resolves the dialectic with much greater finality. Good and evil, light and dark, may be ambiguous quantities, subject to change and present in people to greater or lesser degrees. But, Clouzot clarifies, all these people are simply, finally guilty.

No comments: