Thursday, May 29, 2008

Comédie de l'innocence

With the eerie, unsettling Comédie de l'innocence, Chilean-born director Raoul Ruiz approaches a Hitchockian psychological thriller with his light surrealist touch, infusing a narrative mystery with additional, even more inscrutable layers of metaphysical mystery. It's typical of Ruiz's surrealism that it often doesn't seem surreal at all — his surfaces are placid, realist, even mundane, and yet his characters seem to be acting at right angles not only to one another, but to the fabric of reality itself. It's a skewed view on the world, one in which nobody is behaving normally even when they're pretending that everything is going as usual. It is a favorite Ruiz theme for a "normal" person to fall into an absurd situation and then simply, stoically accept it, and in many ways that's exactly what happens here.

Ariane (Isabelle Huppert) is an ordinary bourgeoisie wife, a theater designer, painter, and sculptor who pours herself into her art even as she raises her precocious nine year old son, Camille (Nils Hugon). But when Camille, on his ninth birthday, suddenly begins referring to her by her first name and demanding that she take him to see his "real" mom, Ariane reacts with only moderate concern, and decides to endulge the whim. Furthermore, when they arrive at a destination dictated by her curiously changed son, they eventually encounter a woman named Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), who calls the boy Paul and is vigorously embraced as "mommy" in return. Even then, Ariane does not react with fear or anger or even — as she doubtless would if this wasn't a surrealist film — by calling the police. Rather, she invites Isabella to stay in her home while the three of them figure out what's going on. This stoicism somewhat dulls the otherwise intense suspense of the film, since it's difficult for an audience to get too perturbed by Camille's strange behavior and the possibility of his disappearance when even his mother is oddly sedate about the whole thing. But Ruiz doesn't necessarily even want his audience to get caught up in the suspense. The film's weird, detached tone is a conscious choice, and the effect is to highlight the psychological dissonance thrown up around the ideas of family, motherhood, and childhood by the film's central triangle.

In one of the film's most telling scenes, Camille is confronted with questions by Ariane's psychologist brother, Serge (Charles Berling), and the boy reacts with fear and confusion. He's simultaneously hugged by both of his mother figures, who attach themselves to him from either side, forming a bizarre tableau of motherly smothering. And yet throughout the rest of the film, Camille's real problem is not too much mothering, but too little. The film is a broad and scathing critique of the bourgeoisie family structure and the child-rearing practices of the modern privileged classes. There is no sense of true family ties here. Not only is Camille's disciplinarian father (Denis Podalydès) all but absent throughout the narrative, away on unnamed business, but Ariane is utterly detached from her son's life. Even his birthday celebration is drained of fun or joy, and immediately after the cake she sends Camille off on a walk with the nanny, Hélène (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre), promising to catch up soon, and only eventually arriving much later than she promised. Even Hélène, whose relationship to the family is ambiguous — it's hinted that she might be related to them, and yet she's also sleeping with Serge on the sly — sometimes passes off the task of watching Camille to an unnamed friend. Paternal responsibility has been almost completely abdicated, by the absent father (whose sole words of advice for his son are, "sometimes you have to do what you don't want to") and the inattentive, self-absorbed mother, and even by the nanny forced to stand in for these proper parental figures.

In this atmosphere of uncaring laissez-faire childcare, the other "mother," Isabella, becomes something of a balancing figure, lavishing Camille with motherly attention and forcing Ariane to compensate by at least attempting her own displays of affection and warmth. But the relationship between the real mother and her son is sometimes tainted by a hint of Oedipal feelings, as when Serge finds them cuddling on the staircase and says they look like a pair of "lovebirds." This isn't the only suggestion of incest in the film. Besides the ambiguous relationship between Serge and Hélène (are they related?), the family has an incestual relationship in its past, part of the historical lore passed down through the massive house that Ariane inherited from the generations before her. And this undercurrent finally surfaces in the deeply unsettling ending, in which, after everything has been restored to "normality" and Ariane learns that her husband is returning, she poses for her son's ubiquitous video camera, fluttering her hands seductively through her hair. She's vamping for the camera, and for her husband, and of course for her son as well, and this weird Hollywood starlet moment ends with Ariane staring directly, unnervingly, into the camera.

Ruiz delves into this kind of psychological complexity throughout the film, always leaving things just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple routes through the film's thematic maze. Huppert and Balibar are perfectly cast, the former radiating her usual cool, subdued intensity, and the latter communicating a faintly sinister, manipulative vibe through her all-to-sweet smiles and warm voice. It's a brilliant combination, and the sparks never fail to ignite whenever these two women are on-screen together, even if the overall tone always remains calm and contemplative. There are no fireworks, no histrionics, but the emotion comes across anyway. Their struggle is metaphorically realized within the film by the strategic placement of a drawing of the biblical story of Solomon's judgment, in which the ancient king had to decide which of two competing women was a contested child's true mother. Ruiz takes the time to study the picture, as he does with much of the art strewn throughout the family's mansion, cutting to each of its crucial elements in turn, emphasizing the way the picture echoes the situation within the house.

This drawing remains in the background, and even becomes the subject of a circumspect conversation, during a moody candlelit dinner scene at which Ariane, Isabella, Camille, and Serge form a strange, fractured pseudo-family. This point is underscored by the way Ruiz films the scene, starting at the base of the table with Ariane and Camille to the left and Isabella and Serge to the right, the camera sweeping back and forth so that it angles behind one pair and then the other. This motion calls to mind a scene from earlier in the film, the dinner for Camille's birthday, where Ruiz moved his camera around the dinner table in much the same way (and it's a motion he would repeat around a much more macabre dinner table in his recent masterpiece Ce jour-là). In contrast to the later scene, the birthday party takes place during the day, lit by sunlight rather than candles, and the family pictured is a more conventional one — father, mother, son, and late-arriving uncle — but not necessarily a happier one. The film is not making, as one would think it might be, the conservative argument that the family unit is broken and traditional families are preferable. It's more like Ruiz is saying that families are broken, period, traditional ones just as much as their more unconventional counterparts. The birthday party, when the family is together, is a miserable scene and not much of a model for a happy childhood. In contrast, the relationship between Isabella and Camille provides more of a model for what familial love might be, but even that turns out to be not quite what it seemed.

Such deceptive surfaces are the true core and nature of Comédie de l'innocence, so much so that Ruiz even explicitly makes the truthful/deceptive dialectical nature of filmic images themselves a subject of the film. Camille is constantly walking around with a video camera, using it to document everything he sees. His filming habit at times elicits very different reactions from his mother, who is in one scene driven to tears as he spirals impassively around her with the camera in hand, and in another scene flirts and primps for the camera's steady gaze. The cinema, for Ruiz, is an impassive filter for emotions, equally capable of delighting or upsetting, and often in his films doing both at once. Camille later edits the footage he captures into expressive montages which heavily filter, distort, and process the imagery into a near-abstract blur of sensations, colors, and fragmented images. But these abstract video works later prove to reveal some essential truths about Camille and Isabella. For Ruiz, film tells the essential truth even when it lies by distorting, warping, or exaggerating reality, a maxim that certainly applies to his own films.


Marilyn said...

Ed - Good to see you back! I was wondering if you were just taking a long break or gone for good.

You make this film sound so tantalizing. I'm definitely going to seek it out as soon as possible. Thanks for the recommendation.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, Marilyn. Yup, I'm back now, and hopefully for good -- albeit at a slightly slower pace than before. I was a little burnt out by the massive number of films I was watching and writing about virtually every night.

Ruiz is definitely worth looking into in general, if you haven't already. If you haven't seen any of his films before, this is as good a place as any to start, although it's not quite as visually dazzling or hypnotic as, say, Three Crowns of a Sailor or Ce jour-la, my two favorite Ruizs.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A chapter of my book Film: The Front Line -- 1984 (Arden Press) is devoted to Ruiz. And back in the 70's I wrote an interview piece for Film Quarterly -- "Raul Ruiz at the Holiday Inn."

Charles Berling is one this generation's greatest actors. His performance as Jean-Louis Trintignant's drugaddicted son in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is without peer.