Monday, September 22, 2008

Films I Love #5: The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)

The Aviator's Wife may not be one of Eric Rohmer's most philosophically or thematically deep films, nor is it one of his most frequently cited; it is, nevertheless, one of his most charming films and one of my personal favorites. Its simple story is rigorously divided into structural blocks. François (Philippe Marlaud) and Anne (Marie Rivière) have a troubled relationship, since their schedules rarely intersect — he works all night, she works all day — and because Anne is still getting over her affair with a married pilot, the aviator of the title. Rohmer sets up the drama economically in a handful of early scenes, where François sees Anne with her ex, not realizing that they are only saying goodbye. He confronts her, and the two part on ambiguous terms. Afterwards, as François falls asleep in a café, there is an uncharacteristic iris-in on his face, then seconds later an iris-out as he wakes up again. The unusual device, a silent-era throwback that's rare in modern films and especially notable in comparison to Rohmer's normally unobtrusive cutting, raises the enticing possibility that what follows is simply a fantasy. In any event, the rest of the film, comprising the bulk of its length, is essentially divided into two lengthy dialogues. The first is between François and Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury), a young girl he meets in a park as he's trailing the pilot and his wife, trying to get clues about this man's relationship to Anne. Meury provides a mesmerizing performance, and Rohmer spends seeming eternities in closeup on her expressive face, capturing every nuance of her adorable, charming mannerisms. Her mere presence is sufficient to stop the film in its tracks, to push the ostensible narrative into the background; her effect on the audience mirrors her effect on François, who becomes so engrossed in her that his own troubles and the circumstances in which he ran into her begin to seem remote. Following this interlude, the second long dialogue is a tentative reconciliation between François and Anne at her apartment.

As the images below show, the film's dominant color is green, giving way to deep blues only for the last few nighttime shots. Anne's apartment is imbued with a pale green hue by its floral wallpaper, and the bulk of the film is set either there or in the open air of the park, which provides a leafy backdrop for François and Lucie's rambling, flirtatious conversation. Rohmer, often mistakenly thought of as a filmmaker with a limited visual sense, is actually finely attuned to settings, color, and mise en scène, and he dedicates special care to decorating his characters' living spaces. Anne's apartment is perfectly designed, never cluttered but with just enough detail to suggest the way she has personalized her home: a fishbowl, reproductions of paintings taped to the walls, a vase of yellow flowers breaking up the monotony of green. These personal touches are particularly important in providing telling details about a character who jealously guards her personal space.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Deconstructing Harry

For such an angry, caustic film, Deconstructing Harry is almost shockingly entertaining, turning rage and neurosis into a vaudevillian blend of fantasy and imagination, a series of comic skits that flow into and out of the problems of the "real" world. With this film, Woody Allen confronts head-on the assertions of critics around the time of his 1980 Stardust Memories, which many interpreted as an autobiographical expression of Allen's own antipathy towards his fans and admirers. Although Allen has always maintained that his films are not autobiographical — at least not directly — Deconstructing Harry presents a character who does turn his life into art in this way: Harry Block (Allen), a successful novelist who is continually recycling his own life, and the lives of those close to him, into his books with only the thinnest of disguises laid over the real incidents and people. He is someone who, as he realizes eventually, is more comfortable living in fiction, where he can control and manipulate what happens, than in the chaos and unpredictability of reality. His stories sometimes reflect his psychological state, as in a hilarious short story where an actor (Robin Williams) becomes out of focus with the rest of the world, eventually requiring his wife and kids to wear special glasses in order to see him correctly. More often, though, the stories Harry writes are direct reflections of events in his life, especially his three somewhat tortured marriages and endless affairs — his lovers, wives, and friends show up, in slightly altered form, throughout his novels.

The form of the film incorporates Harry's fictions and Harry's reality on a more or less equal plane, assembling a massive cast to play both the real-life people and their fictional counterparts. The film shifts subtly and seamlessly back and forth between the two states, presenting a collage of incidents that reflect Harry's life both as he sees it and as it really is, often making clear the differences between the two. These differences are sometimes merely comic: an illicit sex scene between Harry stand-in Ken (Richard Benjamin) and Ken's wife's sister Leslie (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) is played for broad comedy, and runs completely off the rails when Leslie's blind grandmother walks in at the very end, asking them to stop fixing martinis and walk her outside. In other cases, Harry's inventions are revealing, as when his novel turns his ex-wife Joan (Kirstie Alley) into the shrewish Jewish zealot Helen (Demi Moore) by incorporating details from the life of his half-sister (Caroline Aaron), who really did become a devout Jew after marrying an Israeli man. The way Harry takes details from his half-sister's life in order to make his ex-wife less sympathetic indicates his profound discomfort with religion, as does the over-the-top short story where he delves into the "dark secrets" in the past of a stereotypical Jewish father, who it turns out is secretly a murdering, philandering cannibal. The film is a prolonged analysis of Harry, using the material of his stories and his life to engage in psychoanalysis, literary critiques, and multi-layered investigations into what makes him tick.

This process of analysis is complicated, of course, by the addition of Allen himself into the mix. If Harry is a novelist who is more comfortable with his fictional characters than the real people they represent, where does that leave Allen, the man who himself created Harry and everybody else in the film? The film ends with Harry receiving a celebratory dream/fantasy recognition from the assembled throngs of his characters, who gather to applaud him and compliment his work. And though Harry's specific life story and cast of characters don't map particularly well onto Allen's own life, it is nevertheless tempting to see this valedictory finale as Allen's version of Fellini's famous denouement to 8 1/2, a parade of familiar faces from fiction and reality alike. This impression is aided by the revolving door cast, who gather all in one place only for the last scenes. The film brings together familiar Allen players like Julie Kavner, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, their appearances inevitably recalling earlier Woody films — Hemingway especially, in her minimal role, is an echo back to one of Woody's most iconic moments in Manhattan, and her shrill, angry character here indicates the gulf between the outlooks of the two films. If earlier Allen films were sometimes quietly nostalgic, warm, and funny in their treatment of the central neurotic character played by Woody himself, Deconstructing Harry eliminates this sympathy and warmth. Harry is revealed for what he is, an egotistical jerk with little capacity for connection to those around him, a serial philanderer who rationalizes his inability to be faithful, and who nevertheless expects love and devotion in return. Harry isn't all that different from Manhattan's perpetually immature Isaac Davis, realizing too late that he loves the girl he rejected — Elisabeth Shue's Fay takes the place of Hemingway's Tracy here — but where Isaac was likable and sympathetic despite his failings, Harry is pretty much an asshole.

There's little to like in Harry, and to the extent that it's a self-portrait, it's one in which the brushstrokes are furiously violent, an unflattering image of a whiny, insecure, horny little misanthrope. In a way, Harry is Woody Allen as depicted by his harshest critics over the years. Allen is taking the vitriol of the press, loading it into a gun, and aiming it at his own head. This is especially apparent in the scene where Harvey Stern (Tobey Maguire), a Woody stand-in by way of a Harry stand-in, invites over an Asian prostitute for a night of fun, and she arrives looking like an Eastern femme fatale from an old movie serial, the Dragon Lady come to life in a bright red kimono and dark purple lipstick. It's hard not to interpret this scene as Allen's response to the media frenzy over his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, a baroque exaggeration of the seediness that Allen's critics saw in his romance with the much younger adopted daughter of his former lover Mia Farrow.

The film reaches its climax with Woody's glorious fantasy of Hell as seen through the eyes of Harry, who takes the opportunity of a story set in the underworld as a perfect chance for some Dantesque settling of grudges with those he hates. The story doesn't quite progress as expected, though, and Harry's self-analysis turns a new corner when he realizes that he no longer wants to condemn his father, who he movingly forgives and frees from Hell — though the old man would rather go to a Chinese restaurant than to Heaven. Harry descends into this vision of Hell, Orpheus-like, in order to rescue his love Fay from the clutches of his friend Larry (Billy Crystal), here reimagined as the Devil himself. Even this aspect of the plotting goes off the rails, though, and Harry must acknowledge that his attempts at controlling life through fiction are doomed to fail. Of course, his response is merely to transform this realization itself into fiction, reigniting the cycle of fantasy and reality that he sought to escape. Allen enters the film obtrusively at this point by literally illustrating Harry's state of mind: as Harry types a sentence about his character's "fragmented" life, the film stutters in a series of jumpcuts, as Woody, Harry, and Harry's character come together in the same cinematic framework.

Monday, September 15, 2008


The title character in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, his American debut after a string of British thrillers, is a woman who is never seen onscreen, not even in a photo. She died before the story even opens, and yet her presence infuses every frame of the film. This invisible ghost hovers over the seemingly doomed love of a naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) who, in contrast to the title character, is seen but never named. This woman, so unprepossessing that she barely has an identity, is quiet, unworldly, slightly clumsy, and painfully, awkwardly shy. She serves as a "paid companion" to an oafish and demanding society matron (Florence Bates) who fancies herself a sophisticate and loves ordering her young charge around. Despite her shrinking nature, this girl falls in love with the handsome, debonair, but deeply troubled widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose wife Rebecca died in a boating accident not so long ago. The couple soon get married and de Winter takes his young bride back to his palatial home by the sea, where the spirit of the departed Rebecca still hangs over everything, smothering the second Mrs. de Winter (the only name she is ever called) with the impossible task of filling the shoes of this glamorous, beautiful, universally popular society lady.

Names are incredibly important in this film, and the script goes to great lengths to avoid giving the heroine herself a name — and also to point out her lack of a name and, consequently, lack of a clearly defined identity. In some scenes, she seems to be barely there, not introduced, not speaking, as invisible as Rebecca. When she first meets her future husband, he's introduced to her, but if he ever learns her name, Hitchcock is careful not to show that scene. Instead, he refers to her only as "my darling" and other pet names, and after their marriage, she's introduced to anyone else only as Mrs. de Winter, a name she shares, not incidentally, with the deceased Rebecca. She has no name of her own, only a name she's inherited from another woman, and she has no identity separate from her husband. When given the opportunity to introduce herself instead of being introduced, she says only that she is "Maxim's wife," self-identifying with a possessive noun that refers back to her husband rather than directly to herself. Maxim himself has an abundance of names — his full moniker is the ostentatious George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter — and Rebecca's ubiquitous name appears as frequently as though she were still alive. Her initials are still on bedsheets, handkerchiefs, note paper, address books, and all manner of other decorations around the house, and the new Mrs. de Winter continually finds herself inheriting these leftovers emblazoned with that bold, stylized "R."

Only the heroine is lacking in names, a fact that resonates on multiple levels: it intensifies her fear that she is stepping in for another woman who Maxim is obviously still preoccupied with; it betrays her lower-class insecurity about inhabiting the role of a society hostess surrounded by servants in this spacious home; and subtextually, it indicates a proto-feminist concern for the loss of female identity attendant to marriage as a general institution. Here, the loss of individual autonomy that often accompanies marriage — especially for the woman who sacrifices her name to take on her husband's instead — is exaggerated by the suspicion that this woman barely possessed her own identity to begin with. Fontaine plays her with a shrinking, hunched quality, always nervous, seemingly never sure quite how she should hold her arms, and in moments of especially great fear practically contorting herself into a pretzel. She looks as though, if she could implode into herself on the spot, she would. Hitch apparently helped wrest this performance from his star by encouraging the off-camera perception that everyone on the set hated her, and the result is a completely unglamorous star turn, shorn of the usual actorly confidence. The effect is heightened by the contrast with Olivier, as grand and stately as ever, towering over his new wife in stature and in self-assurance alike. She is so insecure that she seems to be looking for someone to think and act for her, which is why she puts up with her domineering boss, why she throws herself at a man who mostly seems distant and disinterested, and why when she becomes his wife she allows his servants to manipulate and control her.

This is especially true of the household's chief servant, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was fiercely devoted to the first Mrs. de Winter and resents the intrusion of a second. Anderson gives a wonderfully fiendish performance as the gaunt, sinister housekeeper, always lurking around and padding quietly through the mansion to surprise the lady of the house at inopportune moments. In one of the film's eeriest sequences, Danvers shows the new bride around her predecessor's huge, airy room, which has been sealed off ever since Rebecca's death and maintained in exactly the same condition as the former Mrs. de Winter liked it. The room is beautiful, and Hitchcock films it with light streaming through the tall, overpowering windows, capturing its austere beauty: it looks like a mausoleum, and Danvers' guided tour is like rifling through the bones of the dead. She leads the heroine through Rebecca's nightly routine, describing how she would undress herself while telling stories of glamorous parties, then take a bath, sit by the dressing table to comb her hair, and go to bed. She opens Rebecca's closets full of expensive clothes, inviting the younger girl to feel the plushness of a fur coat, and she even displays the dead woman's underwear, recalling, in a moment of deadpan humor, how it was specially made for her by nuns. The whole scene has a creepy necrophiliac undertone, like digging through a crypt: an intimate, personal violation. The room stands in for Rebecca herself, and Danvers' tour is a way of being with her beloved employer, touching and fondling Rebecca's possessions as though they were an extension of her departed flesh. The unsettling sexuality of it all comes to the fore when Danvers picks up Rebecca's lacy negligee, holding it out and admiring its delicacy and transparency. She places her hand inside it and says with lusty joy, "Look, you can see my hand through it." It's an obvious invitation to imagine Rebecca wearing the gown, to imagine a woman who displays her body so sensuously with such a flimsy barrier simultaneously covering and revealing her nakedness; the hand pressing against the inside of the negligee stands in for Rebecca's naked body.

This perverse but subtly masked sexuality is, of course, a perfect topic for Hitchcock, whose thrillers so often trafficked in dense psycho-sexual layering. The plot of the film is, in many ways, pure melodrama, and could've easily lent itself to overcooked hysterics in other hands, but Hitch truly makes the material his own. This is true not only of the second half, in which the plot unexpectedly morphs into a kind of typical Hitchcockian "wrong man" thriller — and not an especially interesting one either — but even more so of the sedate, subtle first half, in which the dread and suffocation of the heroine steadily increase. Here, Hitch's characteristic suspense is diffuse, building atmosphere not through any particular events but through a generalized aura of fear surrounding the characters. The film evokes the overbearing presence of Rebecca primarily with sheer technical skill: especially by photographing the unnamed new wife in spacious deep-focus compositions that isolate her within the house, which seems to stretch off into the distance for miles. The surroundings loom over the excessively modest new Mrs. de Winter, who is small and insignificant in her new home, her stooped posture and shy manner contributing to her diminishment. Even inanimate objects have more personality than her, as Rebecca's leftover clothes and decorations are given a totemic power that dwarfs the woman who now possesses them. The film itself, though, is as potent and haunting as its ghostly title character.

Films I Love #4: Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant is a masterpiece of silent cinema, taking a simple melodramatic plot and transforming it into a deeply affecting work of art with the sheer force of the poetic, intense visuals that Kirsanoff uses to tell his story. The film follows a pair of sisters who leave the country for the city after their parents are slaughtered in a mysterious axe murder. Unusually for the time, there are no intertitles, so the plot is communicated entirely with imagery. This economical storytelling gives the film a lean, stripped-down aesthetic that makes it seem eminently modern. All the unnecessary exposition is trimmed away, and the opening axe murder is boldly stylized and brutally effective, even as its exact details remain unclear. Kirsanoff's dense, rapid-fire montage is perfectly suited to capturing the insane violence that orphans the two girls. Later, as the film traces the disintegration of the sisters' relationship after a man comes between them, Kirsanoff employs a wide variety of aesthetic tools, from superimposition to expressive closeups to poetic non-narrative shots of the urban surroundings. One of the most striking sequences occurs as the girls mourn their parents, and Kirsanoff quickly fades back and forth between the two sisters, who are facing in different directions. As the two faces are superimposed, they form a Janus-headed image of grief, joined into one image and one person through Kirsanoff's sleight of hand. The film also ventures into near-abstract montage at times, as when a frantic burst of layered imagery suggests the frazzled mental state of one girl as she worries about her missing sister. This is a dazzling masterpiece that is as overwhelming and powerful today as the day it was made, its impact completely undulled by the passage of many decades.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is a kind of silly, twisted follow-up to the Coen brothers' last film, the relentlessly grim Western fable No Country For Old Men. Despite the tonal differences, both films place ordinary (if somewhat dim-witted) folks into a position where they are suddenly poised to have a lot of money, a situation that brings considerable violence into their previously routine lives. But the relationship between the two films is more than just a simplistic dichotomy between light and dark, comedy and tragedy, silly and serious; in their own ways, both films are tragedies, although tragedies of very different types. In No Country, violence enters the lives of the characters through a force of evil, the remorseless assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a truly terrifying individual whose murderous rampage nevertheless adheres to his own warped moral code. There are no such evil characters in Burn After Reading, in which the violence arises neither from evil men nor moral failures, but from a combination of profound stupidity, rampant paranoia, and institutional cluelessness and indifference to consequences.

In other words, it's a movie about America's intelligence system. The rambling plot wanders, sometimes aimlessly, around a loose set of castoffs from the CIA and the State Department, and the people they intersect with when a disc possibly containing secret intelligence information winds up in the hands of the effervescent gym employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt). The setup promises hilarity, and to some extent it delivers, but the Coens keep the humor mostly low-key and subtle, rooted in the nuances of the actors' performances — it's all about the bubbly, earnest, but totally blockheaded stubbornness of Linda, or the head-bobbing, gum-snapping, relentlessly upbeat Chad, two dead-on caricatures of middle American feel-good nothingness. The film mocks them for their unabashed greed and silliness, but it reserves its harshest caricature for Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an uptight, snobbish former CIA man who is ousted from the agency and whose misplaced bank statements trigger the film's plot. Cox is an insufferable prig who says he's spent his entire life fighting against "stupid people," and who takes obvious pleasure in correcting his inferiors for their every tiny mistake, and especially their grammatical foibles. Malkovich turns in a great performance, channeling every ounce of his own innate arrogance and smugness into this character's every phrase; his mannered enunciation of the very word "memoirs" indicates the esteem with which he feels his life story should be greeted.

The plot also pulls in the Treasury Department agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a quirky paranoiac with a voracious sexual appetite. Pfarrer is sleeping with Cox's ice queen wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), but he's also romancing a variety of women who he meets for random encounters through Internet dating services, which is how he also winds up with Linda. The Coens weave the narrative patiently from out of this complicated web of relationships, letting the threads of blackmail, spying, sudden violence, and deceit interact with the parallel narratives involving the characters' various disintegrating marriages, serial unfaithfulness, and bald-faced lies. The personal and the public wind up blending together in interesting ways, reflecting the complete moral confusion of these people who can't seem to figure out what they're doing, what they want, or how to get it.

All of this confusion is, of course, being closely observed by the various intelligence agencies, who are keeping a close eye on everyone involved: they know almost immediately that Cox may have lost some confidential information, they know it may be handed on to the Russians, they know that several federal agents are involved in this mess, that there's rampant infidelity involved ("they all seem to be screwing each other"), and that the body count is slowly rising. But they don't care. J.K. Simmons plays an unnamed senior intelligence officer who receives periodic reports on the progress of this "clusterfuck," while his agents watch closely but never intercede, letting the mess escalate out of control and never getting a real handle on what's going on. "Come back with a report when it, uh... when it makes sense," he tells an underling at one point. Later, he reacts with horror when someone suggests collaborating with the FBI on this case, sputtering, "No, no. God no!" Simmons' deadpan performance delineates a fairly minor character in a film populated by larger-than-life caricatures, but his clueless CIA man nevertheless embodies the film's real satirical point and its primary target.

In this film, the stupidity of individuals — who cheat, steal, manipulate, and even kill to get their own petty desires — is only surpassed by the institutional stupidity of the government, which is near omniscient but so indifferent to life and everything else that it can't be roused to action by even the most horrifying events. The Coens depict the corridors of power from the ground level, opening each scene at the CIA headquarters with a series of quick shots of feet walking through unvarying hallways lined with unmarked doors. This detached perspective emphasizes the anonymity of the walker, who goes to deliver reports that ultimately have no effect — the CIA never steps in until after it's way too late. Simmons' disinterested manner is only penetrated once, late in the film, when he sighs with disappointment after learning that Cox has survived a gunshot wound and merely lapsed into a coma instead of dying; the Agency is peeved only when they're inconvenienced. Otherwise, Simmons seems blithely unconcerned about the whole affair, seemingly dismissing it all when he learns Cox's security level — implying that some supposed "secrets" aren't really worth bothering about, after all. This callous indifference to security and individual lives alike comes together in the pointed satire of the final scene, in which the Coens abruptly cut away from the climax of the mayhem and give the final word to Simmons and his assistant at the CIA. This duo ruminates on what they've learned from this mess, finally deciding that it's close to nothing, and ending with a vain promise to "never do it again" — a schoolboy oath so insincere and perfunctory that the two agents barely even pretend to mean it. It amounts to a disinterested shrug, a disavowal of responsibility and an implicit acknowledgment that the same thing could happen again tomorrow (and probably will) and again nobody would care.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Films I Love #3: Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)

Bonjour Tristesse is, like many of Otto Preminger's films, an extended exercise in toying with the problems of audience identification and tone. The film shifts, in its first ten minutes, from a somber black and white prologue in which Cecile (Jean Seberg) and her father Raymond (David Niven) seem subtly discontented in their upper-crust lifestyle, to a gorgeous Technicolor flashback in which everything is breezy, carefree, and fun for the pair and Raymond's latest fling Elsa (Mylène Demongeot). Preminger injects the color into the film slowly, fading in some blue ocean waves over Cecile's shoulder as she dances, then irising out from the center of the image with a burst of color. The shift to Technicolor highlights the contrast between the two Ceciles we see, one numb and disconnected, the other vibrant and almost relentlessly sunny. The film tracks Cecile's downfall as her father abandons his carefree ways to marry the matriarchal Anne (Deborah Kerr), who immediately assumes a domineering, motherly attitude towards the defiantly flighty Cecile. Preminger's brilliance lies in the way he gets the audience irrevocably on Cecile's side — it's hard not to love Seberg's smiley, unrestrained performance and to sympathize with her desire for freedom — only to pull the rug out as he delves more and more into the selfish, willful, and vengeful aspects of this charming girl's personality. The film remains ambiguous, right up to its final black and white closeup of Seberg's agonized face, as to whether Anne or Cecile is the real victim in this battle of wills.

As always, Preminger's direction is fascinating, his distinctive roving camera framing and reframing the characters in various couplings and trios, emphasizing Anne's intrusion on Cecile's carefree life by placing her in dominant positions within the frame, always looming over the younger girl. And yet Preminger hardly makes her an unredeemed "evil stepmother" character, infusing her with unexpected pathos while Kerr plays her as a complex, well-meaning woman who is simply ill-suited to the morally loose, privileged existence enjoyed by Cecile and Raymond. The film also provides a dazzling showcase for Seberg in her second role, which Preminger conceived as a comeback attempt after she was roundly mocked for her debut in his Saint Joan the year before. The American critics mostly didn't bite this time either, but Seberg's wide-eyed naivete and cheerful bombast made her a curiously effective Joan of Arc, and an even better Cecile. Of course, at least some French critics caught on to what Preminger and Seberg are up to here, and her performance in Bonjour Tristesse directly brought the young actress to the attention of Jean-Luc Godard, who immediately cast her in his own debut feature. Godard picked up on the film's purposeful tonal ambivalence and Seberg's deftness in conveying a character who is at once charming and ruthless. He famously said that Seberg's Patricia in Breathless was a continuation of Cecile's arc: "I could have taken the last shot of Preminger's film and started after dissolving to a title, 'Three Years Later.'"