Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Phantoms of Nabua/A Letter to Uncle Boonmee

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a great sensualist, a director who revels in the sensory and emotional qualities of a particular moment in time and the setting in which it takes place. His feature films are collections of these moments, strung together in such a way as to create a cumulative effect, a slow building-up of emotion and visual beauty. Phantoms of Nabua is a ten-minute short film that documents one such moment, and it's typically evocative and breathtaking. It is divided, roughly, into three segments, with little clear separation between them; rather, they flow into one another, each new section introducing a new wrinkle into the film's treatment of light and darkness. In the film's opening minutes, a village is struck by lightning multiple times, the white-hot strikes looking like fireworks being set off; it's ambiguous whether the streaks of white light are descending from above or spiking up out of the ground. It's frighteningly beautiful, the bright white lines illuminating the dark night, the strikes chaining together and sending out feelers to join with other streaks of lightning. On the soundtrack, the pops and electric sizzles of the lightning even sound like fireworks, making this a natural spectacle, a natural light show.

In the second section of the film, these opening images are projected onto a screen set up in the middle of a field where children are playing soccer at night with a flaming ball. The composition is complex, creating this layering where the images of the children playing are being pasted over the images of lightning. The shadowy silhouettes of the players are set off against the flickering light of the screen, the lightning flashes going off behind them, illuminating their bodies, projecting halos around the players. And the flaming ball rolls back and forth across the field, soaring through the air like a comet with a tail of fire flickering behind it, making whooshing noises with each graceful arc across the darkness.

The interplay of light and dark is gorgeous, as Weerashethakul frequently returns to dark emptiness before reigniting the night with the fireball's glow. He edits the scene into alternating stretches of light and darkness, juxtaposing a near-featureless dark area against a sudden burst of light as the fireball comes flying across the frame. On the soundtrack, the children's laughter and chatter is omnipresent, bringing energy and vibrancy to the isolation of the night. There's this glowing hive of activity and life at the center of the dark void, this small area of red glow, illuminated by the fireball and the sporadic flashes of the lightning on the cinema screen.

In the final segment of the film, the screen catches fire and is burned away, and slowly the game comes to a halt, all the children gathering around to watch the screen burn away, the flashing light of the projector showing through from the other side, the flames eventually shredding the screen until only its bare frame remains, like an empty goal. The metaphor is obvious but layered: the light is both destructive and redemptive, a source of creativity, a document of reality and a potentially abrasive, damaging force. The light both illuminates and eliminates. In the film's final minutes, Weerasethakul cuts in closer to the light of the projector, watching it head-on as, without a screen to project onto, the projector's flashes become abstract, disconnected from reality, occasionally producing wisps of imagery on the smoke wafting in front of the lens. It's darkly beautiful, this image of cinema removed from the tangible world of images: it is cinema projecting into the void, with any hope of communication or understanding removed, a lonely signal going out into the dark night.

There is a searching, hesitant quality to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. It is a film in search of a subject, in search of itself. In the opening minutes, a voiceover repeats the titular epistle twice. The note is from Weerasethakul's own perspective, talking about a relative and the film he wants to make about this man, his Uncle Boonmee, who has apparently been reincarnated in various modern forms. It is a film very much about nostalgia and history, about the past, about the search for links between modernity and the past; this is a near-constant theme in Weerasethakul's work. The voiceover recounts how Weerasethakul wants to make a film about his relative, and how he's been seeking out houses that look like his uncle's residence. Implicit here is the distance between fiction and reality, especially as mediated by the passage of time. As Weerasethakul's camera roves across the interiors of various rural homes, his voiceover laments how his script describes one kind of house, while in the real village of Nabua there are other kinds of houses, and his ancestor likely lived in still another kind.

In one shot after another, Weerasethakul's camera repeats the same stately movement, a graceful arced tracking shot from left to right, tracing various empty interiors, looking over the objects and mementos that may be signs of someone's present life or artifacts of the past. There are photos and documents on the walls, and beautiful views of the jungle out the windows. There are also soldiers, digging in the yard, the rhythmic thunk of their hoes a repetitive and insistent beat on the soundtrack, later joined by the whirring buzz of a fan as one soldier lies on the wooden floor of a house, staring off into space. The voiceover describes how, in the past, there was some kind of military incident here, soldiers who chased away the town's residents as part of some long-ago war.

There's a profound ambiguity in the way the film creates a relationship between the images and the narration: are the soldiers depicted here meant to be the soldiers who forced the townspeople out of their homes in the past, or are they present-day soldiers whose appearance here only evokes the past? Another possibility exists as well, implicit in the metafictional framing device of the narrated letter; the soldiers are actors in the film Weerasethakul is making, since A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is explicitly a preparatory document for his latest feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In much the same way as Jean-Luc Godard would, in the early 80s, prepare video essays that contained the seeds of the feature films to follow, this short seems like an essay abstract for the forthcoming feature, suggesting themes and images that, one suspects, will be further developed in the longer work.

None of which suggests that A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is incomplete in itself, of course. It is, like Weerasethakul's features, elliptical and suggestive more than it is definitive, but that's the essential nature of his cinema, which seldom narrows its scope to a single meaning or a single narrative. His cinema is open-ended in all the best ways. Here, the slippage between past and present, between fictional artifice and the reality of the film-making process — Weerasethakul even mentions in the narration that he got British funding to make the film, bringing external economic realities into the picture, another gesture that seems to have been derived from Godard — resonates in interesting ways with the themes of memory and nostalgia. The pictures of ancestors, the rural homes that could represent any time in the last few decades or more, the soldiers who look much like soldiers do in any era. Everything here adds up to a powerful sense of timelessness. Time is suspended by Weerasethakul's weightless camera as it drifts through these mostly empty scenes, ruminating on absence — the absence of the past in relation to the present, the absence of Nabua's villagers, forced away from their homes, the absence of the titular uncle, long dead and sought in resurrected form in other people the filmmaker might meet.

Contributing to this sense of timelessness is the sumptuousness of the images. Weerasethakul's imagery encourages deep contemplation, encourages patience and quiet. As his camera drifts along, there is no rush, no urgency or narrative momentum, only the languid examination of wooden floors and walls, faded and aged photographs, the lush greenery seen outside, the pink haze of a mosquito net erected around a bed, the smoke billowing out of a furnace of some kind. Towards the end of the film, Weerasethakul's camera peers up at the tree branches swaying in the breeze, and above them the clouds drifting lazily by through a pale blue sky, shot from the perspective of someone lying on the ground. As this gaze drifts along, a cloud of insects hovers just below the tree canopy, buzzing in swarms, this shifting mass of dust motes dancing black against the blue of the sky. In this eerily quiet place, Weerasethakul summons the ghosts of history and ancestral memory to drift, silently and invisibly, through the splendor of the present.

[Note: Both of these films are available to watch online, Phantoms of Nabua for free and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee for just $1.]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Graduate First...

Maurice Pialat's Graduate First... is an incisive portrait of small town life for a group of young friends waiting to take the bac, the test that's necessary to get a degree and, in theory at least, greater job opportunities. In practice, this last ritual of youth seems like a formality, increasingly meaningless in an atmosphere where there are few jobs, few real opportunities, for these kids who have no idea what comes next. As usual, Pialat's offhand realism gives the impression of real intimacy with these characters; the cast is large, but each of these young people comes across as complex and vibrant, each coping in his or her own way with the frightening onset of supposed maturity, the end of youth marked by a portentous test, after which no one's quite sure what to do next.

Élisabeth (Sabine Haudepin) is well-known for going around with all the guys, but she finally settles down when she meets Philippe (Philippe Marlaud), who becomes her first "real" boyfriend. Bernard (Bernard Tronczak) is similarly promiscuous; he loves all the girls and sleeps with all of them, never quite letting go even after he's broken up with them. There's also Bernard's best friend Patrick (Patrick Lepcynski), who's always trying to smooth things over for his friend, and who's never quite able to get a girl of his own, and Patrick's sister Valérie (Valérie Chassigneux), who wants to be a model. There's also Agnès (Agnès Makowiak), one of Bernard's former girlfriends who clearly still loves him, and who he still feels real affection for, even though she's marrying Rocky (Patrick Playez) instead. It's the kind of circle of friends where everyone has slept with everyone and remains friends afterward. Pialat's observational style, lingering around the edges of these friendships and love affairs and loose groupings, captures the uncertainty of youth, the sense that these young people are making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, and yet they have no real guidance, no real idea of how to proceed.

Couples break up and reform, the girls move from guy to guy, and at times the whole group seems like one big amorphous pile — literally in a scene where they rent out a hotel room to smoke joints, and they all lie on the beds, tangled up together, a few couples forming within the general crush of bodies but mostly just existing as a group of friends, all intimate with each other. Pialat captures snatches of the individual stories playing out here — Élisabeth's uncertainty about whether she wants the safe, comfortable existence the likable Philippe offers her; a café owner's (Christian Bouillette) lecherous pursuit of the young girls; Agnès' unhappiness in her marriage and longing for the perpetually unfaithful Bernard; Patrick's desire to move to Paris to be on his own; Philippe's jealousy of Élisabeth's semi-innocent flirtations with other men — and moves deftly from one story to the next within this milieu. The kids have the example of their parents to look to, none of whom seem too happy, or too unhappy either, but the younger generation isn't sure they want this preordained path to maturity. They see in front of them only boring jobs and boring marriages, even if they do pass the bac and get their degrees.

Pialat is a profound chronicler of working class life. These struggles, these uncertainties, seem real and potent. There is no exaggeration, no melodrama, only the quiet realization that life, which seems so limitless and fun as a child, is somewhat tougher and sadder once one progresses into adulthood. No wonder these kids — and they still seem like kids, all so young and fresh-faced — want to prolong their immaturity as long as possible. Love is exciting, of course, and Pialat captures beautifully the fresh wonder of love, the breathless exchanges of kisses, the wonder of being close to another person. He also captures, with equal candor, the way such exchanges quickly become routine, the way these young people are constantly searching for something new once the spark dies down. There is nothing sadder than the way Pialat subtly, without any explicit words, depicts the settling of Élisabeth and Philippe's initially fervent relationship into something much calmer and tamer. They love each other, and she's proud that he's the first guy she's ever wanted to take home to meet her parents — but then she seems to be annoyed by the fact that her mother (Annick Alane) takes so completely to Philippe, who's eager to please and begins doing chores around the house. Élisabeth wanted Philippe to be accepted but didn't want to feel like her mother preferred him to her own daughter, treating him as though he was Élisabeth's brother rather than her boyfriend. It's a paradox that Pialat never makes explicit but portrays entirely through the subtlety of the way Élisabeth looks at Philippe, initially with desire but soon enough with a kind of subdued affection, occasionally tinged with annoyance.

Despite the sadness of many of these stories, Pialat's sense of humor is apparent throughout, and there's charm and joy in these characters as well as trepidation and insecurity. They like to have fun, and Pialat's camera has fun watching them, whether it's the two girls taking turns sliding down a banister in the background of one shot, or the nearly sexual enthusiasm with which Agnès devours a pastry, or the clamor of conversation and joking that takes over the soundtrack whenever the whole crowd gets together. The character of the aging café owner is another rich vein of humor, as his out-of-touch attempts to fit in with the younger crowd only make him seem so awkward and strange. At one point, he picks up two girls and buys them lunch, and is nonplussed when the whole group of friends joins them without even asking, and he's more or less forced into paying for the whole table. While the girls dance, he watches anxiously, eyeing their asses as they shake and shimmy, and his eyes are all but popping from his head with cartoonish excitement. When he joins in, comically trying to be hip and dance along, it's even funnier. Later, he goes shopping and trails along behind a middle-aged woman with a prodigious rear in tight jeans, and again he's hypnotized, so much so that he grabs a woman in a wheelchair to push along instead of his shopping cart. It's the kind of broad humor that occasionally bursts out of the naturalistic surface of Pialat's film, surprising in its willfully goofy comedy.

One also gets the sense of Pialat winking at his characters in the scene where Bernard seduces a sweet churchgoing girl (Frédérique Cerbonnet) and is thrilled when she takes off her sensible clothes to reveal a one-piece with a tiger's face stretched across her torso. It couldn't be a more on-the-nose metaphor: the girl who's sweet and innocent on the exterior but a tiger in the bedroom, the girl who's demure when Bernard meets her on the beach but asks him if he only fucks young girls as soon as she gets him back to her place. Pialat trains his camera for a moment on the girl's torso with the tiger's face snarling, its eyes on her breasts, its teeth bared on her hips, threatening to devour her mate. There's something pure and joyous about this moment, about this slightly absurd touch: it's whimsical and sexy and silly all at once.

Pialat's very first feature, L'enfance nue, had been about a young boy being passed from foster home to foster home, all too aware of how limited his life was. Graduate First..., with its title's ellipses referring obliquely to Yasujiro Ozu's early films about youth life, seems like a sequel to Pialat's debut, capturing these young people slightly later in life than the protagonist of L'enfance nue, but every bit as uncertain about what comes next. It's a question that Pialat answered many times over in his other films, of course. What comes next? Betrayal and disaffection (Police). Cyclical infidelity and romantic questing (Loulou). Mortality (The Mouth Agape). For the characters of Graduate First..., perched on the cusp of adulthood, it seems like everything that comes next is sad and disappointing, the end of the playfulness and freedom they'd enjoyed in youth. Still, Pialat leaves hope alive by the end of the film, the dim possibility that at least some of these characters can prolong their happiness, can find something beyond adolescence worth celebrating.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Conversations #17: "Minor" Hitchcock

My latest conversation with Jason Bellamy is a discussion about two Hitchcock films that are often considered, rightly or wrongly, to be "minor" entries in the great director's career: To Catch a Thief and Rope. In talking about these two very different films, we get to deal with Hitchcock's oft-overlooked range, his humor, his use of actors and stars, his treatment of sexuality, and of course his aesthetics. We also touch on what it means for a film to be deemed "minor," and how these particular films might be enjoyed on deeper levels.

As usual, our conversation is only the beginning; head on over to the House Next Door to read the discussion and join in with your own thoughts in the comment section.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Descent

Bleak, creepy and, once its true horror premise is belatedly revealed after a lengthy and patient build-up, absolutely brutal, The Descent is as good as minimal, no-frills horror gets. A group of friends, all young women, meet up for yearly adventures in order to bond despite being spread out across the world, dealing with individual lives and individual tragedies. Their latest trip together is a descent into an unexplored cave system, spelunking and crawling through the tight tunnels. The structure's strictly traditional: some set-up, in which the women's chatter and banter at their staging cabin introduces their relationships and personalities, and then it's off into the caves, where the claustrophobia quickly becomes unbearable. The darkness, the constriction, is intense, and these women, crawling through the caves, often crawl right up to the camera, the lights on their heads creating blinding flashes within the darkness. The frame becomes a series of holes, small irregular patches of light chopped out of the blackness that otherwise surrounds the explorers everywhere. It's nearly overwhelming in the way it forces the audience to feel what the characters feel, to be trapped and lost along with them.

And that's all before, after all this build-up towards a claustrophobic but rather conventional story of being lost and trapped in the dark, all hell breaks loose and things start to get really ugly. Director Neil Marshall is excellent at showing just enough to suggest the horror happening in the dark, without actually showing more than a brief burst of motion here, a geyser of blood there, a frenzied struggle thrashing around in the dark. The editing is brisk and occasionally confusing in its rapid pacing and dizzying shifts in perspective, but there's no denying that Marshall still locates numerous striking, horrifying images within this darkness and confusion, honing in on the bracing moments of anguish and devastation that are splattered throughout the film. It's a visceral film, all about capturing the in-your-face sensations of being surrounded by darkness, hemmed in on all sides and assaulted by mutated monsters intent on devouring any soft flesh that gets in their way.

Before this, though, there's an introduction in which the trauma that will linger over the rest of the film is introduced. In one brief moment, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) loses both her husband and her daughter and, in a subtle exchange of glances and gestures that she misses but that isn't lost on the audience, Marshall also establishes the unspoken origin of a slow-burning tension that develops between Sarah and her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and will eventually boil over completely at the harrowing climax. The storytelling is simple, even simplistic, but that's all that's required here: Marshall sets up, very quickly and economically, the minimal conflicts that will serve as a subtextual counterpoint to the more physical horror that explodes in the film's second half.

The rest of the women — Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) — are clustered around this central trauma, creating a realistic group of friends with a naturalistic sense of camaraderie. They mock each other in the way real friends do, goofing around, chatting amiably with rapid-fire patter; one recalls the banter of the women in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, albeit without the reflexive cultural namedropping. The film is raw and stripped-down, eventually sending these cheerful, confident women through the grinder. Marshall captures certain powerful images that appear as though glimpsed in passing in the flickering flame of torchlight: a lake of blood from which the heroine emerges glistening and wet, with little nuggets of gristle and bone scattered along her forearms; the little bubbles of blood that spurt out when a blade cuts into flesh; a white, animalistic naked body caught for a second in the glow of a lamp, like an animal frozen in the headlights; the women's frightened faces clustered together in the green haze of a light; a twisted closeup of a mole-like mutant's snarling face, ooze dripping down its rubbery chin.

Once the monsters are introduced, the claustrophobic terror of crawling through tight spaces, being constricted on all sides, is replaced by the bloody, harsh violence of the women's fight against these creatures. They're separated from one another and forced to fend off the monsters' attacks, and as the formula dictates in a movie like this, attrition begins wearing away at the group, quickly dwindling their numbers. It's obvious from the start who the last two standing have to be, the two friends opposed against each other in subtle ways, their friendship strained by the shared trauma of the opening scenes and the subsequent events. The last two women alive become gritty action heroes, wading through blood, armed with blades that they'd once used for climbing and that they now plunge ferociously into the warped bodies of their attackers. Marshall's direction becomes frenzied and over-the-top, depicting the women with their faces and bodies smeared with blood, striking melodramatic action poses as they fight off waves of the monsters. In many ways, it's a jarring disconnect in tone and verisimilitude, a startling left turn from the first half's naturalistic depiction of underground claustrophobia and fear. These are ordinary women, if especially athletic and adventurous ones, and one of them makes a point, early on, of saying that she's not Tomb Raider — which makes the film's late transformation into an action movie adventure not entirely convincing.

Which isn't to say that it isn't peculiarly satisfying regardless. The film's bloody, gory denouement is, despite its out-of-nowhere action movie trappings and jittery editing, a rather exhilarating and horrifying ride. The metaphorical emotional and moral descent that Marshall doubtless intends as a parallel to the physical, literal descent, is never handled as well or developed as fully as the director probably intends, but even that hardly matters. The film's aims and successes are relatively modest, but within its area it excels: it is a movie that shocks the senses and provokes a profound sympathy for its generic characters, who one by one are consumed by this giant hole in the ground and its monstrous denizens.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

La nuit du carrefour

Jean Renoir's La nuit du carrefour is a rough, gritty film noir, set, as its title suggests, in a seeming perpetual night at a sleepy rural crossroads, a small settlement with just three houses and a gas station. This way station is always bathed in fog, isolated in the middle of the looming woods, where mysterious figures skulk through the dark on strange errands. A man shows up dead here, a jeweler, his body left in a stolen car in the garage of the Dutch immigrant Andersen (Georges Koudria), who insists that he's innocent. The French police suspect otherwise, but have nothing to prove it, and so they send the wily inspector Maigret (Renoir's brother Pierre) to investigate. Maigret is a great cinema detective in the traditional mold, clever and intelligent, able to piece together the facts from minimal evidence, observing every small detail and making deductions in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. In trying to make sense of this crime, he's confronted with no lack of suspects, but rather too many: Andersen's seductive sister Else (Winna Winifried), a true femme fatale; the gas station owner Oscar (Dignimont); Jojo (Michel Duran), the gas station attendant who flirts with Oscar's wife when no one (except the audience) is looking; the bourgeois Michonnet (Jean Gehret). All these people act suspiciously, creeping around, dropping knowing comments; they all seem to have some secret, to be willfully drawing suspicion to themselves, wandering through the foggy nights with guns, poisoning bottles of beer, smuggling contraband. Maigret seems to have stumbled into a confluence of odd events and shady characters.

Renoir builds this atmosphere brilliantly. His storytelling is extremely elliptical, marked by diversions that give the editing an abrupt, choppy rhythm (and it doesn't help that one reel of the film was lost outright, though such accidents seem appropriate for a film that already must have been especially loose and rough). When Andersen is first brought in for questioning, Renoir cuts away periodically to a curb-level shot of a local newsstand, capturing the passage of time through the transition from early edition to afternoon edition to evening edition to the evening paper getting swept away the next morning. Later, he frequently cuts away to some seemingly random event, some of the area's residents doing some inscrutable action, acting strangely. The night, and the fog hanging low over the tree-lined dirt roads, also serve as punctuation. At one point, in one of the most surreal interjections, Else is seen lying in her room, lazily smoking a cigarette, as a turtle crawls slowly along the bed next to her; it's baffling but evocative. The missing reel can only explain so much; at some point it becomes obvious that Renoir just doesn't seem especially concerned with narrative clarity. It's seldom clear who's shooting at whom until the obligatory parlor scene at the end, when the detective explains the film's events with such coherence and detail that one wonders how he managed to get all that out of this strange string of events.

That's part of the fun, of course, and Pierre Renoir plays the inspector with such charm and wit that his investigation, elliptical and aimless as it is, is seldom anything but entertaining to watch. Maigret always seems to have a little smirk on his lips, even when they're wrapped around a pipe. He's ahead of everyone else, and he knows it very well. Renoir lets the audience in on his deductions by drawing attention to the relevant objects at precisely the moment that Maigret notices them: a box of cigarettes that should be too expensive for its owner to afford regularly, a spare tire that doesn't match the truck that takes it. But the mystery isn't the point here. Instead, it's Renoir's power of observation that's being showcased. He's as interested in the details that reveal something about human behavior as the ones that reveal something about the mystery. This milieu is wonderfully detailed, with so much activity always going on in the fringes. It's rare that Renoir puts some action in the foreground and nothing else. The frame is always bustling, packed with nuances, like the way that, when Maigret calls the police station, the workers at the gas station go about their business all around him, while his boss at the station is surrounded by cleaning people going about their business behind him. Renoir's compositions are striking but somehow don't seem staged. There's messiness and imprecision in the way that he contrasts foreground and background, sometimes making the focus of the shot something other than what one would expect. When Maigret meets Else for the first time, the inspector and the Andersens are all in the blurry, out-of-focus background of the shot, while in the foreground, in crisp focus, a pile of furniture partially obscures the introduction. Renoir has this feel for making what might be considered "wrong" seem right: it feels real and unscripted, a casual introduction that will soon acquire a more pointed, artificial feel as Else begins her kittenish seduction of the inspector.

This is a film where setting and geography are very important. The crossroads, this small locale with a limited set of characters and places, is the site of most of the film's actions, and the denouement depends on the movement of characters between the area's three houses and the gas station. Earlier, the inspector's first visit to the Andersens' home is marked by his methodical examination of the drawing room, walking around the space as Else watches and describes some of the objects he sees; he stops by a music box, a record player, a box of cigarettes on the mantel, a tub of water in the next room. Renoir's camera motion and editing give the sequence the feel of an arc, tracing a curved line as the inspector circles the young woman, using the room and its objects to gauge her.

Else, of course, turns out to be crucial to the plot. She's a femme fatale in the classic sense, a treacherous woman with a dark past, and she's characterized as using sex to get her way. She tries it with the inspector, too, and nearly succeeds, and Renoir's presentation of her makes her so irresistible that it's not hard to see why: the light glistens off the buttons on her shirt, making her arms sparkle, and her bare leg, with a high stocking, is constantly creeping out into the open through the slit up the side of her dress. In the true noir tradition, she's the cause of all the problems for the men, trapping and corrupting men through her sexuality; the denouement is cleverly ambiguous, too, about whether she's really reformed in the end or not, as the inspector pushes her off in the right direction but not before her sly smile and instinctively sexy posture suggest that she's still got other ideas. It's typically sexist, to the extent that the femme fatale archetype is always about the dangerousness of female sexuality, but at the same time Else is such a compelling example of the form that she makes such concerns moot. Despite her few moments of weepy contrition, she enjoys being dangerous and destructive, and we enjoy watching her.

What's most refreshing about the film, though, is that Renoir approaches it all with such a wryly comic sensibility. Not that he doesn't take the mystery seriously, but that he's observing these noirish twists and turns with a slightly detached sense of irony. This comedic perspective is apparent in Maigret's slightly bumbling assistant Lucas (Georges Térof), who at one point has an entirely mimed and very funny interplay with Else when he believes that Andersen has poisoned a pot of tea; nothing is said, and the moment isn't emphasized, but is instead allowed to play out entirely in gestures in an offhand way. Later, a doctor (Max Dalban) shows up and keeps repeating the same laconic phrase ("Where is the patient?") over and over again to anyone who will listen, with the same drawling and intrinsically funny voice, and encounters only brush-offs and insults despite the fact that a man is badly wounded somewhere. Renoir also delights in the sarcastic, standoffish Jojo, who radiates thuggish charm and in free moments pinches the bottom of his boss' wife. These people may all turn out to be criminals and murderers of various stripes, but Renoir has some low-key affection for them too, mingled with satirical mockery. This film is smart, silly, funny, and exciting in roughly equal measures, using a mysterious murder and its aftermath as a way of closely examining this societal microcosm, pulling apart the seams to observe what's underneath.

Friday, May 7, 2010

William Lubtchansky, 1937-2010

The great cinematographer William Lubtchansky has passed away at the age of 72. He has had a long and fertile career working with Godard, Rivette, Straub/Huillet, Garrel, Varda, Otar Iosseliani, and countless others. In particular, Lubtchansky worked on multiple films for Godard and Rivette, including some of the former's most radical, adventurous work. Lubtchansky was the cinematographer for many of Godard's late 70s forays into video, and for the elegant 1990 masterpiece Nouvelle vague. He collaborated with Rivette over the course of several decades, shooting many of the great director's most enduring works, including almost all the films Rivette has made in recent years.

Below is a small tribute to some of the images left behind by this remarkable cinematographer, all from his work with Godard and Rivette, the two directors most closely associated (in my mind, anyway) with this genius behind the camera. Admire, especially, the muted but somehow eerily beautiful quality of light in these images, which are never flashy or glossy but always striking in more subtle ways.

Numéro deux (Godard, 1975)

Duelle (Rivette, 1976)

Noroît (Rivette, 1976)

Ici et ailleurs (Godard, 1976)

Comment ça va? (Godard, 1978)

Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Godard, 1980)

Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981)

Merry-Go-Round (Rivette, 1981)

Love on the Ground (Rivette, 1984)

Nouvelle vague (Godard, 1990)

La belle noiseuse (Rivette, 1991)

Joan the Maid I: The Battles (Rivette, 1994)

Secret défense (Rivette, 1998)

The History of Marie and Julien (Rivette, 2003)

Don't Touch the Axe (Rivette, 2007)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Sign of Leo

Eric Rohmer's debut film, The Sign of Leo, is very different from the films Rohmer would later become known for. The director who would soon enough be acclaimed for his philosophical examinations of love and morality, with protagonists constantly talking, talking, talking, debuted with a film that contains only traces of his later style. His protagonist, the transplanted American Pierre Wesselrin (Jess Hahn), is not prone to self-analysis and philosophical inquiry as later Rohmer heroes and heroines would almost invariably be. Pierre is blustery and boisterous, a hard-living man always on the edge of poverty, relying on the generosity of his friends to keep him afloat as he stumbles through life, drinking and partying. When he learns that he's acquired an inheritance from a rich aunt, he arranges a lavish party to celebrate, liberally borrowing money and uncaring that he's getting kicked out of his apartment, thinking he's wonderfully lucky. But the inheritance doesn't come through after all, and Pierre finds himself suddenly adrift in Paris, without a home, with all his old friends either away or dodging him, as his constant need for money begins to wear on them.

The film is aesthetically quite distinct from Rohmer's later work. Its rough, realistic portrait of Paris' streets seems descended from the work of Rohmer's idol Jean Renoir, particularly the downtrodden hero, who's a more melancholy variant on Renoir's Boudu. Much of the film is dedicated to following Pierre as he wanders around Paris, trying to find friends, moving from one hotel to the next, gradually losing or squandering all his possessions, becoming increasingly desperate from one luckless day to the next. Unlike in later films, when Rohmer would forsake non-diegetic music, much of these wanderings are set to a constant soundtrack of violin music, a mournful accompaniment to Pierre's desperation. For a director who would later turn his attention almost exclusively to the materially comfortable middle and upper classes and their romantic travails, Rohmer here has a sharp eye for the details of poverty and deprivation. The mostly dialogue-free scenes of Pierre on the streets are very perceptively observed: Pierre watching as a pair of bums are humiliated while begging at a café; Pierre listening in on the casual chatter of people who don't have to worry about food or money in any real way; Pierre trying to shoplift from a market and getting beaten up. It's harrowing and stark, and has few parallels in Rohmer's later work; the ostentatious mood-setting music is the opposite of what Rohmer would strive for in later films, while the near-total lack of dialogue is a stark contrast to Rohmer's later commitment to probing character through what's said, and not said, in the midst of their inevitable searches for love.

Love, of course, is far from Pierre's mind, and his girlfriend Cathy (Jill Olivier) disappears from the film without ceremony after the opening party segment. The film shows how luxuries like love are stripped away when life is reduced to a certain baseline level, where food, money and shelter are the primary concerns. Pierre's disintegration is heartrending, and to some extent it's so affecting precisely because it's contrasted against the usual Rohmerian milieu glimpsed at the beginning of the film, in which love affairs are the most important problems facing these characters. The party scene provides the foundation for the rest of the film, for Pierre's fall. He's a musician, playing the violin at the party but unable to complete his composition, and the piece he plays here will be repeated throughout the film, a motif that continually evokes the moment when Pierre thought he was on top of the world, before it all came crashing down on him. The music, though uncharacteristically direct in its emotional shadings for Rohmer, is used inventively, appearing sporadically in the diegesis as well as separately on the soundtrack. At the party, Rohmer's New Wave colleague Jean-Luc Godard makes an appearance as a silent partygoer who camps out next to the record player, obsessively looping a record of classical music so it keeps playing the same segment over and over again; his careful, ritualistic gestures have the quality of comic mime. Later, music will appear on radios, or played by bums on the street, and then be taken up on the soundtrack as Pierre makes his lonely treks around Paris.

The soundtrack is also notable for the way it makes dialogue an incidental element, fading in and out as Pierre wanders silently by groups of chatting friends and young people out enjoying the summer weather. Trapped in his misery and isolation, to Pierre these people sound shallow and shrill in their happiness. At one point, he mocks a pair of young girls derisively, mimicking their excited talk with chirping noises. Several times, Pierre sits on a bench and listens to the unconcerned talk of the people nearby, who can afford to be cavalier about money and food, who have petty troubles like bosses, medical benefits, travel expenses, where to go for vacation. He passes two lovers by the riverside who are kissing and feeding one another, and it looks decadent, sensual, lurid to the starved Pierre.

Finally, after some time on the streets, Pierre takes up with another bum (Jean Le Poulain), whose comic antics bring some life back into the film but also further Pierre's humiliation, making him a street performer, an unwilling sidekick in the bum's theatrical begging routine. The bum wheels Pierre through the streets in a wheelbarrow and performs opera in haphazard drag, and his revelry is like an absurd parody of Pierre's enthusiasm at the beginning of the film, his celebration and sense of play. Again, the film seems to be nodding to Michel Simon as Boudu, the bold comic type, the clown, outrageous and confrontational, shameless in his degeneracy.

The film goes through several distinct modes, then, the styles of its disparate sections deliberately clashing against one another: there's the broad introductory party, then the increasingly stark and neorealist segment of Pierre wandering the streets, which gives way to a more comic sensibility when the performing bum is introduced. This sets the stage for the rather pat and unconvincing ending, in which Pierre is abruptly whisked away from his desolate life on the streets by the return of his friends Jean-François (Van Doude) and Dominique (Michèle Girardon who, interestingly, bridges the gap between the French New Wave and their American hero Howard Hawks; a few years later Girardon would appear in Hawks' Hatari!). The film's ending suggests that the poverty and desperation of the middle section could be overcome by luck, by stumbling unwittingly into fortune, and it has the effect of making Pierre's bleak period seem like merely a bad dream, forgotten in the morning. Seen as an introduction to the rest of Rohmer's career, it's as though he's dispensing with the treatment of the lower classes by having his hero descend into poverty only to be rescued from it as in a fairy tale; from then on, there'd be little enough trace of class consciousness in Rohmer's films. Not that there needed to be, of course; there have been few better documenters of romantic questing and moral/philosophical introspection than Rohmer, who truly found his subject once he began probing the inner lives of the middle class. This first film, then, is interesting as an anomaly, as a sign of what might've been, in which Rohmer is still working through the influence of Renoir, perhaps grappling a bit with neorealism as well. What's present already, in this first film, is the director's strong eye for detail, his feel for building character through setting and gesture, and above all, his deep love of people, with all their foibles and troubles, all their failings and idiosyncrasies.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans

It's been literally decades since Werner Herzog has made a truly satisfying fictional film. It seems obvious that, since at least the late 1980s, the director's interest has increasingly turned towards documentary and pseudo-documentary, while his fiction features have become less and less frequent, and more and more uneven. The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans is, then, an unexpected revitalization of Herzog's instincts for fiction, a non-remake of the sex-drugs-and-violence-packed 1992 Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. Herzog's supposed remake, made with absolutely no knowledge of Ferrara's original and with only the most tenuous of connections — there's a lieutenant! and he's bad! — takes the basic premise of a corrupt cop and spins it out into a ludicrous (a)morality tale about the delicate balance between good and evil that exists within this addled New Orleans cop. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is dirty in nearly every way. He's a drug addict who steals and snorts prodigious amounts of drugs, balancing heroin and coke and prescription painkillers. He sleeps with (and provides drugs to) the prostitute Frankie (Eva Mendes) and intimidates and rips off her clients whenever he encounters them. He stalks drunken and drugged-up kids coming out of clubs, holding them up for their stashes. He's an outrageous and lunatic figure, representing a wackier and goofier variation on Harvey Keitel's drugged-up psychopath in Ferrara's original film.

Herzog's first ingenious move was casting Nicolas Cage in this part and fully exploiting the actor's tendency towards over-the-top melodramatics. Cage's performance is something truly strange and unique, the work of an actor pouring all of his seemingly worst qualities into a character and really making him come alive. McDonagh's collapse, his moral degradation, is eloquently conveyed in every aspect of Cage's performance, from his permanent crooked slouch (evidence of the on-the-job injury that set him off on his painkiller addiction) to his twitchy mannerisms to the tortured cadences of his speech, shifting from drawled mumbling to coked-up hyperactivity with a moment's notice. For such a bizarre, purposefully overblown performance, Cage never forsakes the subtleties that suggest his character as fully as the more obvious gestures do. It'd be tempting to call this a "bad" performance, and it often seems like one in its superficial aspects. But Cage's oddball speech rhythms and over-emphasized facial tics only contribute to the unease generated by the character of McDonagh, by his unpredictable vacillations between hero cop, drug dropout and borderline psycho. It is, in its weird way, a disarmingly subtle performance.

Of course, the obvious gestures get most of the attention here, and with good reason. The film rolls out one nutty premise after another, right from the opening in which — after a few moody, blood-red-lit shots of a snake winding through a flooded jail cell — McDonagh and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) take bets about how long it will take for the rising water to drown a trapped prisoner. This comes only a few minutes after an onscreen title announces that the film takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the cops' irreverent attitude towards their responsibilities thus suggests a satirical perspective on the response of various US institutions and authorities to this tragedy. Of course, such social consciousness is not common in Herzog, and the remainder of the film addresses such issues only obliquely, in the form of the not-so-subtle markers of race and class that are constantly defining and limiting these characters. The incident that triggers the plot is the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, apparently a drug crime, and one of the film's looniest contrivances — and that's really saying something — is the fact that the police immediately make this crime a high priority. Herzog underlines the absurdity of it all, announcing the film's undeniable status as fantasy: the police captain tells his men that this crime will be their big concern and that any amount of overtime is justified, as if the police always dedicate such attention to the murders of black illegal immigrants who were tangentially involved in the drug trade.

Race is continually an unsettling presence in this film, particularly in a scene where McDonagh is confronted by a relative of the murdered family, who delivers a completely unfettered expression of grief that's nearly embarrassing in its nakedness and uncontrolled despair. Her performance is as unhinged as Cage's, and the meeting between them is a vortex for all of the film's ungainly and often ugly emotions: a black woman's grief and a white cop's frazzled guilt and half-functioning desire to do good. The caricaturing of this women makes the scene especially uncomfortable, but at the same time her pain and anger are palpable; like many things in this film, it's a potent combination of the awkwardly stylized and the startlingly real.

More often, McDonagh's negative impulses win out, in one nutty scene after another. High on drugs on a stakeout, he hallucinates a pair of blues-crooning iguanas, who Herzog films from a skewed perspective with their gaping lizard jaws pressed up to the lens. The emphasis on cold reptilian blankness, as a parallel to McDonagh's white-hot messiness, is repeated in the scene when McDonagh tries to bully a favor out of a hard-nosed traffic cop; the scene takes place at an accident site where a car has hit an alligator and flipped over, and at the end of the scene Herzog pans away to the roadside where a second alligator is roaming along the grass. Later, McDonagh sees a dead mobster's "soul" breakdancing, dressed like the dead man but younger, with a spiky mohawk. It'd be an empty surrealist moment if not for its context, if the criminal hadn't just moments earlier delivered a bitter speech about how he was growing old and had sacrificed the dubious thieves' morality that had once been a point of honor for him. In this context, the mobster's soul dancing after his death becomes disarmingly poignant, one last burst from the youthful, hopeful spirit that still obviously lingered somewhere within this hateful, greedy, violent man. It's a sign, perhaps, of what's to come for McDonagh himself, who maintains hints of decency within his overall corruption.

Herzog's woozy, off-kilter cinematography is a perfect complement to McDonagh's increasing descent into lunacy and corruption. The camera occasionally takes on McDonagh's subjective perspective explicitly — as when it captures his iguana hallucinations — but more often it's maintaining a delicate balance between cool mediating distance and uncomfortable intimacy. When McDonagh accosts a pair of teens coming out of a club, Herzog opts for the latter, pushing into an unsettlingly sexualized closeup as the young girl, grasping instantly that McDonagh's up to no good, adopts a confrontational, seductive manner, finally blowing crack smoke directly into his mouth while kissing him. It's yet another example of how hyper-stylized everything is here, how heightened the film's reality is; every situation McDonagh encounters is blown up to epic proportions by the intensity of the filmmaking and the over-the-top performances. Even the casting conspires to make this a skewed Herzogian vision of New Orleans. McDonagh's bookie (Brad Dourif) and the property room clerk (Michael Shannon) who steals evidence for him are both played by favorite Herzogian actors, actors very well-suited to the bombast and allegorical heft of this story.

The resulting film is a delirious, oddball journey unlike anything else — which would be par for the course for Herzog except that it's also surprisingly unlike any other Herzog film as well. McDonagh has hints of the driven Herzogian lunatic/hero in his personality, but in other ways this feels very distinct from the typical Herzog film. Still, the director's personality infuses the film in more subtle ways, particularly in the ironic ending: in a very rapid series of scenes, everything is resolved for McDonagh in the most unrealistic ways, as sheer luck steers the disintegrating cop away from what had seemed to be a collision course with utter disaster. It would seem to be the opposite of Herzog's nihilism and pessimism, an ode to traditional values — marriage, family, sobriety, honor — as holding back the void. However, the extreme unreality of this denouement undermines the seeming optimism and good cheer: it becomes a parody of a happy ending, barely containing the dark energy at the story's core. Herzog reinforces this impression by looping back to a virtual repeat of an earlier scene of depravity, revealing that even in his moment of triumph and seeming redemption, McDonagh is unable to truly reform. The film ends on a darker note that's more in keeping with Herzog's skeptical view of the universe, with a metaphysical final shot that positions McDonagh in relation to the primitive depths of the ocean. For Herzog, man is only one more violent, instinct-driven animal, and in that respect at least the wild, uncontrollable McDonagh winds up being very like a Herzogian hero after all.