Monday, April 30, 2012


Editing is the key to the cinema of Alain Resnais, the crux of his work. Through the cut, the filmmaker controls the flow of space and time, controlling what's seen and not seen, where a scene starts and where it ends, and few other directors have made this truism so explicit in their art. For Resnais, this process has often been a cinematic analogue for the workings of memory, for the self-editing capacity of the human mind. This is especially apparent in Providence, his first English-language film, in which the dying writer Clive Langham (John Gielgud), suffering in agony from the cancer tearing him apart, constructs an elaborate and surrealistic narrative involving his relatives. Clive is reconstructing his past, casting his son Claude (Dirk Bogarde), his bastard son Kevin (David Warner), and Claude's wife Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) in a strange drama of adultery and psychological abuse, imagining them suffering emotionally as he's suffering physically, imagining them as cruel and petty and vile.

And it's editing that allows him to do this. The film's opening is a disorienting flow of seemingly disconnected scenes and images, gradually taking shape as Clive's voiceover intrudes, commenting on the action, shaping it into the form that he wants to. There's an obvious connection between Clive's narrative direction and the role of the filmmaker. Clive begins speaking over the images, banishing certain images and characters from view, expressing his appreciation for other moments, waffling over what he wants to see next. He frequently loses control of the narrative — Kevin enters a room instead of Claude, a door is sometimes located down a long stairway and sometimes on level ground, a soccer player described as Kevin's brother sometimes jogs into the scene without warning or purpose — and has to start again, to shift the scene, his words demanding a cut, a change of scene, a restructuring of the images. He sometimes speaks from off camera, giving directions to the "actors" in this narrative, suggesting lines that they then repeat; in one hilariously disjunctive moment, Sonia opens her mouth to speak and it's Clive's dubbed voice that comes out, a reminder that the characters in a film are simply giving voice to ideas and words decided upon by a screenwriter (British playwright David Mercer in this case) and a director (Resnais).

Indeed, at some points Clive, through his imagined characters, sometimes seems to be directly parroting the voice of Mercer and/or Resnais. In one of the most telling moments, Clive says, monologuing over a love scene between Claude and his mistress Helen (Elaine Stritch), "It's been said about my work that the search for style has often resulted in a lack of feeling... However, I'd put it another way, I'd say that style is feeling, in its most elegant and economical expression." That's a pretty apt summary of Resnais' work, which is far more emotional than it's often given credit for, the emotion arising from the rigorous application of formal structures. The style of this film is ravishing, too, with an understated elegance that sometimes gives way to bursts of surreal but subtle stylization. In particular, there's a certain veranda where the characters sometimes meet and talk, the background changing from one patently artificial matte painting to another depending on the mood and context of their talk: a gorgeous, perpetually sunny seaside with painted waves for evocations of childhood pastoral perfection, and a gloomy, cloudy backdrop of grim little houses stretching off into the distance when childhood memories are far from the mind.

It gradually becomes clear over the course of the film that Clive's impressions of his family are not to be taken at face value. His narrative at times seems to tear apart as the characters stop playing their parts, instead voicing complaints and recriminations addressed, not at each other, but at Clive; it's as though the author's creations are refusing to play their parts, turning on their creator to express the bitter, unhappy feelings haunting this bitter dying man. He seems to be projecting his own failings and his own guilt onto his relatives, creating a narrative that contains, coded within it, the real anguish he feels over his cruelty towards his wife and son, his guilt about his wife's suicide, his regrets about the philandering he did while she was still alive. His wife appears several times, trapped in a concentration camp guarded by soldiers who are rounding up civilians and killing them, and his wife is also echoed in Sonia and Helen, both of them physically similar to the woman Clive loved, both of them suggesting the Freudian resonance between wives and mothers, lovers and mothers.

That imagery of war, terrorism, and concentration camps haunts the film, appearing as psychic tears in the story Clive is constructing, a war felt in the gunfire and explosions that pop and crack in the background of the soundtrack, only occasionally commented on by the characters, who mostly seem to have internalized and grown accustomed to this constant state of violence and breakdown. It's a potent metaphor for the way in which a lifetime of cruelty towards others gradually begins to seem like background noise, the scars healed over, the emotions flatlined to a constant dull throb of misery. Clive is a man trapped by his past and his own miserable persona, so that even his deathbed fantasy is dripping with spite for the people in his life. The film's final twenty minutes, which represent an abrupt shift in tone, suggest that Clive's entire narrative is populated with twisted versions of his family who represent only reflections and projections of himself, nothing like the mostly happy, well-adjusted people who appear at the end of the movie, representing perhaps the reality of Clive's family or maybe only his more optimistic vision of them, with his bile replaced by genuine, if still rather cranky, love.

This is yet another complex, provocative masterpiece from Resnais, another in the long and pretty much unbroken chain of deliberately constructed, fascinating experiments that he'd been making since the start of his feature film career. The film's structure provides both a clever metaphor for the workings of the cinema and a stunning examination of death and memory: "feeling, in its most elegant and economical expression," an enthralling film in which its style and its formal framework lead the way to its potent insights about the mind and the creative process.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Four Maurice Pialat shorts, 1951-1958

The early work of a director is often an instructive glimpse into the development of the sensibility that would go on to inform his or her mature works, suggesting the auteur's concerns and style in nascent form. With the early shorts and documentaries of the French master Maurice Pialat, it's more the case that these experiments and sketches suggest various paths not traveled in his later work. These rough amateur works only rarely display traces of the emotionally explosive, improvisational sensibility that would characterize Pialat's later work. There's a diversity of styles and concerns on display here, suggesting a young filmmaker trying out anything he could think of while trying to discover his own style.

Pialat's first film was the 8-minute short Isabelle aux Dombes, shot in 1951 when the director was 26 years old. The film is an entirely silent montage of documentary footage, ragged experimental techniques — mainly some negative-image inserts — and symbolic psychodrama that's surprisingly not too different from the work that Stan Brakhage would begin making just a year or two later. A car speeds through the countryside. A horse chews amiably in closeup while a thick carpet of flies crawls and flutters all over its face, even clustering around its eyes. A bird flies backward, the image reversed, and then Pialat cuts abruptly to an image of a dead bird hanging from a power line.

Images of death proliferate throughout the film, and what started as a loose documentary soon becomes an eerie psuedo-horror piece that's obsessed with death and decay. The woman seen as a car passenger at the beginning of the film is soon stalked by a mysterious man, chasing her in negative-image, and then she reappears as an avatar of death in a black robe, her figure reflected in a wavering pool of water. In blurry, creepy images, her eyes are scarred over by tissue that blinds her, her lips moving silently, repeating some incantation. By the end of the film, she resembles Charon, rowing across the river Styx, an avatar of death. The film is vague and mysterious in its meaning, simply evoking a creepy atmosphere through the grim, stark images and the way Pialat jams them together through his choppy editing.

Maurice Pialat's second film was the relatively straightforward documentary Congrès eucharistique diocésain, very different in tone and style from his bleak, jarring first film. The film consists entirely of documentary footage shot at a small-town religious festival, with occasional cutaways to observe the rolling hills and flowers of the surrounding country. Pialat's montage is loose and free-associative, mixing together snippets of various ceremonies and sacraments with these natural interludes as well as more off-the-cuff moments in which people stand around, chatting and laughing. These latter images are the most suggestive of later Pialat, already reflecting his interest in what happens outside the officially sanctioned moments, when ostensibly nothing is happening and people are just exchanging idle pleasantries and gossip.

The editing too is striking, with the same choppy fast pace and free-associative rhythms that characterized Isabelle aux Dombes, though not used to the same disorienting effect. The repetitions and cuts here are gentler, just creating a unified portrait of events and little moments going on at various points during this ceremony.

The biggest surprise of Maurice Pialat's early work is the 1957 short Drôles de bobines, a goofy tribute to silent comedy, complete with old-timey jazz score, intertitles, and slightly sped-up movement. It's quite possibly the last thing one would expect from Pialat, a thoroughly silly romp with plenty of broad physical comedy, and lots of people running around, throwing themselves in front of cars, performing pratfalls. It features an ever-expanding cast of stereotypes and caricatures: a hapless old lady, a foppish upper-class snob, an Arab dignitary with a turban, a priest. It starts out pretty dire and boring, but the more manic and crowded it becomes, the more it starts to display a weirdly warped sense of humor that has the old lady fencing with a painter, the Arab spitting his drink in the old lady's face, the priest getting stabbed in the ass while delivering a sermon, and multiple people continually coming close to running off the roof of a building in the course of their frenetic racing about.

It's nonsensical and slight, but it winds up being a pretty lively and clever tribute to silent-era comedy, Pialat nodding to an influence that doesn't especially show up in his later work but nonetheless must have been an important point of reference in his early love of the cinema, much as it was for the filmmaker-critics of the somewhat younger Cahiers du cinema generation.

L'ombre familière is the first really interesting film that Maurice Pialat made in his early career. This creepy, strikingly composed short is a ghost story without an actual ghost, an eerie film about death, love and creativity set to a droning sci-fi score. The wife (Sophie Marin) of the painter Robert (Jacques Portet) is deeply shaken up by a visit from Robert's filmmaker friend Alexandre (Jean-loup Reinhold), who stays in their country home for a day, wanders around a deserted pool in the forest with the couple, and then returns to the city to commit suicide.

The short's narrative is conveyed through voiceover rather than dialogue, which was also a common trick of the early French New Wave shorts to get around the inability of these young filmmakers to shoot with synchronized sound. With its rambling, poetic narration and elliptical, at times almost abstract, narrative, this short recalls the work of Alain Resnais or the early shorts of Jean-Luc Godard, and though it's very different from the work Pialat would go on to do, it's very compelling in its own right. Perhaps most interesting is the implication that filmmaking, and creativity in general, is a dangerous act that can involve probing to the core of emotions better left undisturbed — an apt description for Pialat's own intense, draining process in his mature work.

The film is replete with images of reflections: Robert and Alexandre facing one another from opposite sides of a glass divider, one reciting lines and one directing, two aspects of the creative process cut off from one another and yet joined together, overlaid, within the glass, which serves like a projection screen on which their images, their shadows, can interact. Thus film both divides and brings together, cuts people apart and creates something new from their combination. But at the same time there's an element of willful erasure in creativity, as well. At the end of the film, the wife's voiceover discusses creating a film set in the abandoned pool, not as a way of remembering the friend they'd spent a day with there, but as a way of forgetting him, of transmuting whatever passed between them, the strange love triangle and the recrimination over his death, into an artistic statement that's ultimately separated from the real intensity of those memories.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

La femme infidèle

It is already apparent from the first few moments of Claude Chabrol's La femme infidèle that this film will be concerned with domesticity and the illusion of the happy home. The film opens at the lavish country estate of the Desvallées family, Charles (Michel Bouquet), his wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran), and their son Michel (Stéphane di Napoli). They're enjoying an idyllic, relaxing day at home, sitting on the sunny lawn, enjoying one another's company. They come together around a table in an almost parodic, self-conscious tableau of domestic tranquility and shared love, and then Chabrol blurs the image, erasing this happy family into an indistinct smear as the credits roll and the suggestive title appears, announcing right up front that this seeming peace and perfection is all a lie.

Chabrol is, in his usual stoical, subtle way, examining the fault lines and secrets of this ideal family. Even if the title didn't telegraph much of the film's plot up front, it would be obvious early on that something is amiss here: the family seems somehow too happy, everything too smooth and frictionless, their smiles too sweet and their chatter too banal. A bedroom scene reveals the sexless detachment between the couple, a disjunction between the smoldering sensuality of Hélène and the staid, lazy comfort of Charles, who seems to be taking his wife for granted, slipping easily into middle-aged boredom. As he himself admits, he's set in his ways, unwilling to change, not interested in exercising to get rid of his middle-aged paunch, a sign of his complacency. Chabrol pans from Charles lying in bed in pajamas, the covers pulled up over him, across the room to Hélène, framed by a doorway, doing her nails in a very short nightie, her long legs curled up and extended sensually, a very provocative and sexy image. Back across the room, Charles gets out of bed and turns on a record of pleasant classical music, then gets back under the covers. When Hélène joins him, she doesn't get under the sheets but stretches her body out on the bed, in a pose that all too obviously offers sex, though Charles, tightly repressed beneath the covers, barely seems interested. In this rigorously composed sequence, Chabrol has laid out, through body language and his clinically precise camera movements, the essential dysfunction of this marriage, which is superficially happy, all smiles and sunny days, but totally devoid of passion.

It's no surprise, then, that Hélène is spending many of her days in Paris with a lover, Victor (Maurice Ronet). While it's always sunny and edenic at her home with Charles, she goes to see her lover in the rainy city, walking through a downpour, then reclining in a postcoital bed with an unreadable expression on her face. The film's title would suggest that this is going to be a study of an adulterous woman, but Chabrol doesn't explore Hélène's reasons for her affair, doesn't delve into what she feels for this man she visits during the week. There's obviously passion between them, in a way that there just isn't with Charles, and that's it. More than her adultery and her psychology, the film is about the nature of marriage and the nuclear family, the nature of happiness, even. Because a pivotal event over halfway through the film disrupts the family's happiness and reveals just how illusory their contentment and stability are; on the surface, nothing happens, but the familial interplay has been unbalanced, its illusion of perfection fading away into affectless going-through-the-motions and awkwardness.

Chabrol makes this discomfort felt especially in a strange evening where tensions arise over Michel's jigsaw puzzle, which is missing a piece. The boy's constant complaining about the puzzle irritates his parents, and they all begin sniping at each other, letting all their long-suppressed feelings come to the surface. In one telling moment, the boy accuses his father of hiding the puzzle piece, which is a nonsensical accusation that points to something else entirely: Charles has not hidden the puzzle piece, but he has hidden something else, a body, and in doing so he's also undone the secret foundation that this happy home had been built upon. The missing puzzle piece is both a corpse and the family's very happiness.

Interestingly, the way the family falls apart like this after Hélène's affair ends suggests that what was holding this family together all along was the wife and mother's ability to find pleasure outside the home; without Victor, she just lounges around the house, her face blank, not even bothering to get dressed. Everyone else has a reason to go out — Michel to school and Charles to work — but she had only her affair, because otherwise she's just a housewife in a sumptuous bourgeois house where all the work is done by maids and servants, her very comfort and her security leading to her boredom and disaffection.

The film's ending is perhaps its most interesting part, so rich in subtext that it elevates the film to a whole other level. Hélène finally discovers a shocking truth about her husband, but rather than confront him or get angry with him, she burns the evidence of what he did, and then walks towards him in a remarkable shot, Chabrol's camera tracking with her, observing the strange, secret smile that keeps threatening to flicker across her lips, her love for her husband reignited in the most surprising way. The film's final shot is even better, and even more mysterious: what might be a point-of-view shot from Charles' perspective of his wife and son, until the camera begins gliding and tracking to the side, nudging in closer towards the mother and son standing together in their garden, the camera gradually passing behind some bushes so that the family is obscured by the branches, glimpsed through the latticework of foliage. The shot's meaning is ambiguous and complex, loaded with emotional intensity and narrative suggestion, making it a perfect ending to a very thought-provoking film.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Easy Virtue

[This post is a teaser for the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]

Although Alfred Hitchcock would come to be known primarily as the master of suspense, he would not truly earn this reputation until the second half of the 1930s. Before then, and certainly in his formative years during the silent era, Hitchcock's material often tended more towards melodrama than thrillers. His sixth completed feature, Easy Virtue, is a romantic melodrama based on a Noel Coward play, the story of the divorced woman Larita (Isabel Jeans), who travels to Europe to escape the scandal of her broken marriage. Hitchcock does what he can with this rather lame material, but it's mostly a pretty slack, intermittent (not to mention incredibly sexist) drama in which the young director is still experimenting and finding his style.

Despite its brevity, the film could not exactly be called tight, and its pacing is wildly unbalanced. It takes nearly twenty minutes to get past the introductory courtroom sequence that essentially serves as set-up for the plot that consumes the remaining hour. Thankfully, Hitchcock crams this sequence with visual experimentation, flashes of his characteristic biting humor, and technical flourishes that help to spice up the rote courtroom dramatics. He seems to have purposefully elongated this segment because it's the part of the film that gives him the most opportunity to play, to indulge some genre flourishes, including even a brief turn to violence with a gun. Even at this early point in his career, it's already clear where Hitchcock's interests lie: far more with the courtroom theatrics and the blend of humor and violence that he finds there than with the somewhat routine melodrama that comprises the bulk of the film after this prelude.

The second shot of the film (after a newspaper clipping) already indicates Hitchcock's playful sensibility, with an extreme closeup of a fuzzy white ball that's soon revealed, humorously, as the top of a judge's white wig, slowly curving up as he raises his head. Hitchcock then inserts several point-of-view shots from the judge's perspective as he looks around the courtroom, seeing everything as a blur until he holds up his monocle to bring a little circle within the frame into focus. Later in the sequence, at the climax of Larita's account of her husband's run-in with her artist friend — related through flashbacks — a policeman calmly strolls up to Larita and begins taking notes while her husband rolls around on the floor, apparently suffering from a gunshot wound, while the cop studiously ignores the man's thrashing. Hitchcock's deadpan humor is very apparent at moments like this, infusing the scene with a faint air of the surreal.

Hitchcock also enhances the drama of the courtroom scenes, as in the sequence where he fades between alternating profiles of Larita and the lawyer, each facing in different directions as he interrogates her, or the shot of a watch dissolving into a clock's pendulum to indicate the passage of time. Soon enough, though, this section is over and Hitchcock has to move on to the real meat of the film, as Larita flees her ugly, scandalous divorce and goes abroad under an assumed name. Once there, she meets the young, wealthy John (Robin Irvine), who immediately falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. John's stuffy upper class family isn't too happy with this unknown foreigner's intrusion in their sprawling mansion, and his witchy mother (Violet Farebrother) is especially suspicious. The film mostly slows to a halt at this point, and Hitchcock seems rather unengaged by the love story with its personality vacuum of a male lead.

That's why he leaps at the opportunity to mock the lovers at their most romantic moment, when John proposes to Larita in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. As Larita and John kiss, the horse pulling their carriage nuzzles with a horse attached to another carriage, with Hitchcock playfully cutting from the lovers to the horses as though he finds the two images equally romantic. The scene's romance is further compromised as, behind the lovers, a car pulls up, the driver angrily honking the horn because the stopped carriages are blocking the road. This pivotal romantic moment is undercut by Hitchcock's wicked sense of humor. He follows it by showing Larita's phone call to John not directly, but through the delighted reactions of a phone operator who's listening in, a clever way of showing Larita's acceptance of the proposal.

Throughout the rest of the film, there are only periodic moments when Hitchcock's budding formal ingenuity redeems the film, as in the scene where John's mother finally discovers the truth about Larita's past. Hitchcock alternates between a bracing closeup of the woman abrasively yelling at Larita, and a somewhat aloof shot of Larita, holding herself straight as a board, her posture stiff and unflinching, her face stoic against her mother-in-law's onslaughts. Hitchcock suggests the differences in the two women's temperaments not only with their demeanor but with their respective distances from the camera.

The end of the film, after much aimless meandering and emotional flatness, finally generates some real poignancy from Larita's plight, as she sadly bows out — though not before there's an unexpected spark of lesbian subtext with Sarah (Enid Stamp-Taylor), the more class-appropriate woman who's poised to step in once Larita lets John go. At the film's finale, as the score builds up to a frenzied, bombastic climax, Larita speaks in the sublimely melodramatic final title card, "Shoot! There's nothing left to kill," as she faces the tabloid photographers eager to catch a glimpse of this notorious woman. That's an unexpectedly lurid and grandiose conclusion to a film that, with the exception of Hitchcock's occasional flashes of technical or aesthetic interest, is too often restrained and lackluster when it really demands the go-for-broke emotional intensity of that last line.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Seven Chances

Seven Chances was, unlike his previous features, not a project of Buster Keaton's own choosing. It was selected by producer Joseph M. Schenck, based on a hit Broadway show, and this goofy romantic comedy is not especially well-suited to Keaton's talents. The story is very familiar, because it's been made and remade countless times since then: the lawyer Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) learns that he is set to inherit seven million dollars from his grandfather, but only on the condition that he gets married by seven o'clock on his twenty-seventh birthday, which happens to be precisely the day he receives this news. He immediately proposes to his longtime girlfriend Mary (Ruth Dwyer) — who he'd endlessly, shyly dithered in confessing his love to in the prologue, filmed with a very early Technicolor process — but she's understandably peeved when he admits that he's only proposing because of the inheritance. As a result, he has to scurry around, proposing to any girl he vaguely knows or runs into on the streets, desperate to find someone to marry by the deadline so he can receive his badly needed inheritance.

Much of the comedy in the first half of the film is fairly limited, and doesn't play at all to the physical, formally inventive strengths of Keaton. He does manage to liven up Jimmie's series of proposals and rejections with some clever visual gags, like having him toss up a note to one girl and getting a "no" response when a shower of shredded paper falls back down on his head. In another shot, he proposes to one girl on the way up a staircase, and another on the way down. Best of all is the scene where his friend (T. Roy Barnes) proposes to one girl on Jimmie's behalf, pointing over to where he thinks Jimmie is standing, except that Jimmie has wandered away, leaving behind the wrinkled old lawyer (Snitz Edwards) to smile sweetly and shyly at the girl.

Several of the proposal gags revolve around comic misunderstandings, some of them wildly inappropriate and racist: Jimmie thinks about proposing to a Jewish girl and a black maid until the former holds up a Hebrew newspaper, revealing her heritage, and the latter turns towards him, revealing her black face. There are also some unfortunate blackface shenanigans involving a dopey manservant who doggedly pursues Jimmie with the news that Mary wants to marry him after all. In another scene, Jimmie sees a woman on a poster at a stage show and sneaks into the backstage area, hoping to propose to her. While he's inside, a crate is removed from the front of the theater, revealing that the "woman" is actually Julian Eltinge, a then-famous female impersonator, so that when Keaton wanders out of the theater a moment later, looking baffled and put off, with his hat smashed around his neck, that would have been all audiences at the time would have needed to know to get the joke.

The film picks up its pace in its final twenty minutes, when Jimmie's friends place an ad in the newspaper announcing the situation and asking a bride to step forward. Understandably, more than one bride shows up, and for the remainder of the film Jimmie's on the run from a swarm of angry women in bridal veils, an army that stampedes through the streets like a massive human wave, crushing everything in its path. This is when Keaton's brand of wild physical comedy really pays off with this material, and the whole rest of the film keeps up a frenzied, manic pace that hardly lets up for a second. This elongated chase sequence is packed with great gags, like the scene where the woman stop by a brick wall and begin stripping it of bricks to throw at the runaway groom; when the women move on, the wall has entirely disappeared. They also race across a rugby match, with Keaton vaulting athletically over the line of players and the women simply crushing them flat, leaving behind a field littered with bodies, the medics bringing out stretchers to pick up the flattened athletes.

Keaton shows off his athleticism and daring throughout this chase, grabbing onto a crane and flying through the air, hanging above the women. The best sequence, though, is his half-controlled slide down a massive hill with huge rocks tumbling down after him. He dodges and ducks, racing back and forth across the slope, as the rocks careen by all around him, and even if they're very obviously not real boulders, the kineticism of the sequence is viscerally exciting in the way that Keaton's best action/comedy always is.

Keaton himself thought Seven Chances was one of his weakest features, and it's certainly not one of his strongest as a whole, but it's still fairly charming and eventually builds to that looney extended chase sequence, which makes the film worthwhile in itself. If the rest of the film doesn't have the density or consistent brilliance of Keaton's best work, it's only because that's such a high standard to uphold.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Certified Copy

There is a small, unobtrusive scene in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy that provides a neat synecdoche for this puzzling, ambiguous, enthralling film. The writer James (William Shimell) is standing in an Italian plaza, watching an older French couple who seem to be arguing, the man yelling at the woman, who just stands there taking his abuse. Kiarostami shoots the scene from James' perspective, with the man facing away from him. From James' point of view, the woman is mostly obscured by the man's back, but when the man turns to present his profile to James instead, the scene changes, and it turns out that he's actually yelling into a phone, that he's not even angry, really, but is yelling to make himself heard over a noisy connection. From one perspective, the scene looks like one thing, but with nothing but a 90-degree turn, what had seemed like marital discord is transformed into a simple phone conversation. It's a very modern kind of joke — a public altercation between spouses becomes "can you hear me now?" — but it's also a wonderful encapsulation of the themes lurking at the core of this very slippery film.

This is not the film's only unhappy marriage that might not be what it seems. Certified Copy — the film, that is; it's also the title of James' book, an essay about how copies are as valid and important as originals — takes the form of a meeting between James and a woman, sometimes credited as Elle (a name or simply a nameless "she"), played by Juliette Binoche. In the opening scenes, she attends a talk James is giving about his book but, distracted by her son Julien (Adrian Moore), she walks out after a few minutes, leaving behind her number to arrange a meeting with James. They meet, and she gets James to sign some books, and they talk about and debate some of the ideas in his book — interestingly, he seems unconvinced by his own thesis, as though his reflex is to think that authenticity matters, and he's forced himself to think otherwise for intellectual reasons.

A funny thing happens midway through the movie, though, at a small café where James steps outside to take a phone call. While he's away, the café's proprietress mistakes him for Elle's husband, and Elle goes along with the mistake, and when James returns, so does he. This goes on for a while, and then, though the precise moment is hard to pin down, at some point the ruse stops being a ruse, and they no longer seem like strangers role-playing a married couple, but like an actual married couple, unhappy, possibly separated or considering divorce. The most telling clue to this transformation is the moment when the British James, previously described as speaking only English, seamlessly switches to French as though he's always spoken it, and for the remainder of the movie the couple switches languages without warning, sometimes both speaking English, sometimes both in French, sometimes talking past each other in different languages, a perfect symbol for their disconnection.

Some interpretations of the film have tried to argue for one possibility or the other, to determine if the couple are strangers role-playing a marriage, or spouses role-playing being strangers. In other words, which half of the movie is "fake" and which is "real"? Which relationship between these two people is authentic? Is the first half of the film when they're acting, or the second half? This is, perhaps, both central to the film's point and somewhat beside it, because of course both halves of the film are equally real and equally fake. Neither argument is entirely persuasive, or rather, both arguments are persuasive at different times. In the first half of the film, they genuinely seem like strangers, their interactions hesitant and slightly awkward, and in the second half of the film they perfectly inhabit the role of a bitter couple who's been together for fifteen years and has fifteen years worth of memories, recriminations and regrets. Both possibilities are thus convincing at one time or another, because Binoche and Shimell are excellent actors who are naturalistic and compelling whether they're portraying strangers meeting for the first time or a longtime couple. In that sense, none of this is "authentic" — it's acting, a performance — and yet all of it is, because when a viewer is watching a movie, he or she is always aware on some level that it's not "real," and yet movies are still capable of sweeping audiences up in emotional narratives, producing empathetic reactions from the fakery of actors.

This has often been a focus of Kiarostami's work, and though on its surface Certified Copy does not deal with the documentary/fiction dichotomy that has so often been playfully tweaked and subverted in the director's oeuvre, these concerns are still implicit in the film's thematic subtext. In Shirin, Kiarostami's previous feature, he'd filmed the faces of women (including Binoche) seemingly watching a movie — except it gradually becomes clear, partly cued by Binoche's very presence, that they're not ordinary theatergoers but actresses, and all their emotional reactions are in fact performative. In the same way, Certified Copy seems designed to call attention to its own status as art, as opposed to reality.

In a way, the film is a proof of James theorem, even if James himself doesn't entirely believe in the idea: what's authentic or original doesn't matter nearly as much as one's experience. One of the things the film is about is the nature of art's meaning for different spectators, and at several points Kiarostami breaks the fourth wall, or seems to break it, in order to invite the audience to consider the film and their reactions to it. In all cases, these moments are justified within the film by being shot from the perspective of another character, so that the fourth wall is not actually being broken — and yet the subjective feeling of these shots is as though the fourth wall really has been momentarily shattered. Early on, at James' talk, his Italian translator turns to the camera and winks; he's actually looking at Elle's son, who's restlessly waiting at the side of the room, but it seems like he's literally winking at the film's audience. Later, Binoche's character gestures at the camera, waving it forward, inviting the audience to come closer; it's a gesture of intimacy, an invitation to engage more intensely with the film, and after she gestures a few times, the camera does begin tracking forward, while James, who she was actually summoning, steps into the frame. The most obtrusive of these breaks is Binoche's actual closeup wave to the camera, intended for some acquaintances but again actually directed at the film's audience.

These metafictional-but-not-actually-metafictional moments are indicative of Kiarostami's playfulness, which extends as well to the puzzle-but-not-a-puzzle narrative. Kiarostami teases the viewer by having Julien act coy about his surname, which annoys Elle, suggesting some anxiety about paternity and fathers, and lending some credence to the idea that James and Elle are in fact married or at least somehow involved. But it's equally possible that Elle has been married to someone like James, and that their falling into the routine of an unhappy marriage is an echo, a copy, of an earlier relationship. There's an element of familiarity in much of their dialogue, but not necessarily the familiarity of their specific marriage so much as the familiar patterns of discontent and alienation that afflict many couples.

Certainly, the film is visually teeming with copies, reflections, echoes. As James and Elle begin acting like a married couple, they're walking through a town with a shrine that has particular resonance for newlyweds, so the streets are often packed with brides in wedding gowns and men in tuxedos. Weddings are everywhere, and so are mirrors, images in glass, visual copies, a further layer of reality and reflection, original and facsimile. At one point, Elle takes James to see a painting in a museum that had long been displayed as an authentic piece of ancient Roman art but was eventually revealed as a forgery. The museum chose to continue displaying it, though, claiming that the fake is as beautiful as the original; certainly, the painting had been genuinely admired for so long that it would have been a supreme hypocrisy to suddenly claim that it was without value simply because it wasn't painted when, or by whom, historians had originally thought it was. In one shot, Elle gazes up at the painting, her sensually low-cut dress echoing the bared breast of the woman in the painting, her face reflected in the glass display case like The Woman in the Window of Fritz Lang.

Lang's film — which is, after all, about an imagined, false narrative inspired by art — is just one of many cinematic references that come to mind here. Appropriately, given the obsession with originality, influence, and copies throughout Certified Copy, Kiarostami is drawing from the rich history of European art cinema. Resnais, Antonioni, Rossellini, and others reverberate through the subtext of Kiarostami's moving, ambiguous examination of marriage, art and spectatorship. In the end, it's a film about its own status as a film, its own artifice, its existence as a copy of a reality in which actors are pretending to be people who are themselves pretending. In that respect, the last shot is vitally important and extraordinarily clever: James, looking in a bathroom mirror, stares directly at the camera — seeing a reflection of himself in the audience? — and then walks out of the frame, leaving behind a view out the window at a church whose bells are chiming. The credits then begin to scroll, crucially, not across the entirety of the frame but only within the frame of the window. It's as though the bathroom has become a theater, and the window is a screen on which the world itself plays like a movie.

Friday, April 20, 2012

School Daze

Spike Lee's second feature, School Daze, is a fictionalized reflection of the director's experiences at the historically black Morehouse College, here renamed Mission College. It's a loose-limbed musical satire of various attitudes and types within the black community, especially the conflicts between the politically conscious, radicalized students led by Dap (Laurence Fishburne) and the party animal fraternity Gamma Phi Gamma, led by Julian (Giancarlo Esposito, a weak link in a generally good cast). Dap (and presumably Lee as well) is disgusted by the whole Greek system, which he sees as a repudiation of his own radical activism, a way of involving young black students in inconsequential showmanship rather than something that truly matters. This point is driven home early on when Julian's Gamma Dogs interrupt a rally that Dap is giving to convince the university to divest its holdings in South Africa, since ironically Mission has been lagging behind white colleges in sending that anti-apartheid message. The Gamma Dogs, including Dap's cousin Half Pint (Lee), barge onto the scene, distracting from Dap's oratory with their goofy, ridiculous antics and pointless histrionics.

For Dap, and for Lee, the Gamma Dogs represent the subjugation of black male identity, particularly by the military. The Gamma Dog initiation rites, like those of many fraternities, involve the pledges acting in emasculating ways, but there's an especially degrading component to the way Julian has the pledges act like dogs, dragged around on chains by the accepted frat members, barking, eating dog food from dog bowls, and engaging in militaristic rituals. This imagery resonates with the history of slavery, putting black men in chains and teaching them to obey authority, to willfully humiliate themselves in public. Later, during a sex scene between Julian and his girlfriend Jane (Tisha Campbell), she licks his fraternity brand; he's willingly branded himself the way slaves were once branded by their masters. The Gamma Dogs' chain of command and the military discipline they impose on pledges also suggests a connection with the military, as though they're preparing these young black men for a life of obeying orders, submitting to their superiors, and sacrificing their self-respect in order to be accepted into society.

The conflict between Dap and Julian extends to their respective girlfriends, Rachel (Kyme) and Jane. Jane is a member of the Gamma Rays, the organization of the Gamma fraternity's girlfriends, and they're very different from Rachel and her friends. Lee stages a musical number set in a hair salon, dramatizing the conflict between the glammed-up Gamma Rays and the politically conscious, Afrocentric women associated with Dap's activist crew. The Gamma Rays are seen as the women who want to be white, with generally lighter skin, poofed-up hair and even, in at least one case, blue contact lens. They're contrasted against the women who have darker skin and who don't try to hide or change their nappy hair. Lee stages this conflict between different conceptions of racial identity like something out of West Side Story, a break in the reality of the film that recasts this battle of ideas in frenzied choreography.

This is the only musical number in the film that really breaks the diegesis. The rest of the film's music is posed as actual performances as a part of frat rituals, parties and school rallies. Some of the music is wince-inducingly saccharine, which might be intentional, especially as juxtaposed against the soulful gospel number that accompanies the opening credits' black-and-white photos from the history of civil rights. At one point, Lee cuts between Dap and Rachel having sex and a lame song being performed at the Gammas' party, drawing an implicit contrast between this whitewashed music and the passionate relationship of this couple who shun the Gammas' frivolity. Other performances, like the chants incorporated into the Gamma Dog initiations, are grating and annoying by design. The point is, much of the music in the film seems intended more to deliver an idea or underscore a polemical distinction than to simply exist as good music. As interesting as the film is in terms of the ideas it's exploring and the racial hot buttons it's fearlessly pushing, it kind of fails as a musical because the music is so secondary to the politics.

Even if a lot of the musical numbers are unsatisfying — a dance party towards the end of the film seems to drag along forever with little purpose or effect — the film remains an interesting early sign of Lee's preoccupations and the brash style he's crafted to explore the sensitive areas of race and intra-race politics. What's interesting about the film is that, though Lee is unquestionably on Dap's side in this debate between African identity politics and frat bro ignorance, he doesn't entirely let Dap off the hook. Dap's arguments with Rachel push him to think about his approach to women and to question his own judgmental tendencies, like his distrust of lighter-skinned black people, a form of racism as insidious as when the judgment flows in the opposite direction. Even more provocatively, there's a scene where some local men (led by Samuel L. Jackson in an early role) confront Dap and his friends, revealing that they see Dap much as Dap himself sees the Gammas: as wannabes, trying to be something they're not by educating themselves. It's the extreme version of Dap's ideology, as regressive as the Gammas' desire to assimilate and ignore their heritage, and Lee's inclusion of this scene complicates the simple dichotomy that exists in the on-campus scenes.

The film ends with a jarring, fourth-wall-breaking sequence that abruptly all but dispenses with the narrative in favor of a literal "wake up" call, with Dap running around the campus, screaming for everyone to "wake up." This summons is directly addressed to the audience far more than it is to the film's characters, who seem to suddenly and passively accept Dap's wisdom after rejecting him throughout the film. It's not a narratively believable or satisfying ending — Julian's sudden reawakening in the finale is especially unconvincing — but it doesn't seem like it's meant to be: after the Gamma Dogs' antics reach a truly despicable climax that reveals their abysmal attitude towards women, some kind of "wake up" call was obviously needed. Dap's turn to the camera explicitly implicates the audience in the behavior they've just seen, forcing those watching to think about which roles they'd inhabit, which side they'd choose.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Sleeping Beauty

Catherine Breillat understands very well the appeal and the power of fairy tales and children's stories, their ability to reflect and create dreams and nightmares, to provide ideal images or give shape to primal fears. The Sleeping Beauty is her second film in a row, following Bluebeard, to deal with children's stories and fables, deconstructing these ancient tales and the lingering influence they have on children's ideas about the world, as well as what these stories can teach about growing up, love, sexuality and the differences between boys and girls. One senses that Breillat has found, in these sensual, magical films, the perfect form for expressing her provocative ideas about girlhood and womanhood.

The Sleeping Beauty is, if anything, even richer and stranger than its predecessor, following the little princess Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) into a dream world where she must stay for a hundred years, cursed by a witch to die but instead left in this in-between state by the intervention of three more benevolent witches. When she wakes up, they promise, she'll be 16 instead of 6, having passed through the troubling transition stage from girlhood to womanhood in her sleep. Like Bluebeard, the story is taken from one of Charles Perrault's folk tales, though here Breillat blends it with Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen and renders it as a surrealist dream. Anastasia wanders from one strange scene to another, encountering a train station populated with mannequins, a wicked jailer covered in boils (who, strangely, forces her to bowl with skulls), and a band of pirates led by a little gypsy girl (Luna Charpentier). At one point, Anastasia is taken in by a farmer woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) and her son Peter (Kérian Mayan), with whom she lives happily until Peter disappears. She spends the rest of her dream life chasing after him; in his absence, he has become her ideal man, her dream man who she'll always be chasing after.

For Breillat, childhood is an idyllic, pre-sexual Eden in which boys and girls can happily interact, and gender identity is fluid. Anastasia is a princess who wants to be a knight, and who reads about hermaphrodites in the dictionary as a bedtime story before going to sleep. When she stays with Peter and his mom, Peter and Anastasia are instantly happy together, rough-housing and playing, sleeping in one bed, curled up with their heads close together. It's the onset of sexual maturity that opens a gulf between them, as Peter enters puberty, symbolized by the sight of the lovely, chilly Snow Queen in a silvery gown like a wedding dress, followed by a snowflake drifting into his eye, changing his way of looking at the world. From that point on, he's cruel to Anastasia, and they now sleep in separate beds like a married couple in an old Hollywood movie, their perfect union and genderless play forever altered by the dawning of sexuality and the realization that childhood is moving towards its end.

The film's style is both magical and direct, with crisp cinematography that makes these glistening fairy tale locales seem quotidian and grounded, even when they're populated by albino princes and princesses who invite Anastasia for a tea party that's more Alice in Wonderland than Perrault. In one stunning sequence, Anastasia rides a reindeer into the arctic wilds to find an old crone who controls the winds, and the snowy landscapes stretch across the screen, the Northern Lights explosively filling the sky, with the princess a fuzzy little smear in her pink coat, lost and alone in this beautiful but deadly land. The film is richly symbolic, loaded with heavy psychosexual meanings encoded in every object, every image. When Peter shows Anastasia a queen bee, folded in his hand, he tells her that it's so weighted down that it can't move, causing Anastasia, a princess who may grow into a queen, to cry out that she doesn't ever want to be like that.

The film is all about the trauma of moving from childhood's dreams and fantasies into the much less fantastic reality of adulthood. The pivotal moment comes when Anastasia wakes up at the age of 16 (now played by Julia Artamonov) into the modern era. Before this, the film had been an anachronistic mash-up of all times and no time at all, with old-fashioned costumes side by side with more modern objects and decorations, giving the surreal dream the timeless quality of a fairy tale. When Anastasia wakes up, she's in the modern world, her dress and corset and princess' demeanor now the anachronisms in a world of cars and TV and boarding schools. And she finds waiting for her, not Peter, but his descendant Johan (David Chausse), who nevertheless bears enough resemblance to her dream man that she's instantly drawn to him.

Breillat cleverly deconstructs and subverts this "happily ever after" ending by daring to ask what comes next after the sleeping princess wakes up from her curse into the arms of the waiting prince. What comes next is disillusionment: he's too eager, she's shy and virginal, reluctant to give up her virtue so quickly to a man she's just met, while he keeps trying to get away with more and more in their playful flirting. Pushed away, he hangs out with another, more accessible girl, dressed in modern clothes, making out with her while an erotic movie plays on the TV. Meanwhile, Anastasia is reunited with the little gypsy bandit girl, now grown up (and played as a woman by Rhizlaine El Cohen), and she has an erotic encounter with her that's far more sensual and satisfying than her hesitant teenage games with Johan. When she finally does go to bed with Johan, it's painful for her — Breillat cuts to them in mid-act, with Anastasia screaming, seemingly not in pleasure — while Johan is confused and hurt to find that she doesn't want him for himself but as an echo of an ideal dream man whose image she'd had in her head since childhood.

Obviously, the fairy tales that kids learn only set them up for various forms of disappointment, creating impossible romantic ideals to which the reality can never live up. After she has sex with Johan, Anastasia finally sheds her white, lacy princess' dress and the corset that had left painful-looking pink stripes across her back, for a more modern black skirt and stockings, cutting her long hair as well. The dream is over, childhood is over, and she's shed the illusion that she's a special princess, accepting that she's just another girl, in just another complex, painful, confusing, up-and-down relationship with just another boy.

In the film's final image, Johan and Anastasia lay in bed together, their heads outside the frame, red claw marks across his bare torso and tears in her black stockings; they're hurting one another, settling into a familiar kind of damaging relationship. He asks her, "Do you love me as before?" "As before," she agrees, before adding, "but this is after." This is their happily ever after, an acceptance that childhood is over, that the dreams of youth were only dreams, that they are not special or unique, not princes and princesses but common lovers, damaged by their expectations about one another and the ways in which they've so quickly disappointed one another. The fairy tale is over, but its impact on the real waking world lingers.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bluebeard (2009)

Catherine Breillat's films have often been concerned with childhood and innocence, especially the loss of girlish innocence, often with the implied or explicit double meaning of the loss of virginity. Her take on the classic tale of Bluebeard is one of her most direct and fascinating inquiries into childhood and the ways in which societal ideas about love, sex and marriage are passed on to young girls. The film operates on two levels, constantly switching back and forth between two parallel stories. In one, two little girls (Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti) — the younger one named Catherine, suggesting an autobiographical stand-in for the director — play in the attic and read the story of Bluebeard, with the younger one relishing her older sister's fear of the story's gruesome details and violence. This material alternates with a sensual, visually beautiful adaptation of Charles Perrault's Bluebeard itself, with the titular great lord (Dominique Thomas) taking his newest child-bride, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) into his castle.

The alternation of the two stories suggests that the Bluebeard legend is part of the mythology by which young girls learn about adulthood. The other story mentioned by the girls, who intersperse their readings from the book with playful chatter about marriage and other matters, is The Little Mermaid, and together these two stories represent the two extremes of girlish indoctrination into love and sexuality: on the one hand, the swooning, tragic romanticism of a girl willing to give up everything for her great love, and on the other hand a girl terrified of her man, terrified, subtextually, of the violence represented by sex. The girls talk a great deal about love and marriage, but it's clear that they really understand nothing, they're too young, they've picked up bits and pieces out of context but much of what they've learned is myth and legend, filling them with equal parts unrealistic romanticism and uncomprehending terror.

Within both stories here, it's the younger of two sisters who is bolder and stronger. Just as Catherine lacks her older sister's fear, Marie-Catherine doesn't tremble before Bluebeard like her older sister Anne (Daphné Baiwir) or the other girls, but is actually strangely drawn to him. Indeed, Breillat's Bluebeard isn't a terrifying figure so much as a tragic one, a sad and withdrawn mountain of a man, looking especially tremendous next to his tiny child bride, who looks up at him with wide eyes and a mischievous smile, and is unafraid to assert her own way when she moves into his castle. There's a class component to their relationship: Marie-Catherine and Anne had lost their father and been left to poverty, and Bluebeard's marriage proposal is a form of rescue, one that the irrepressible Marie-Catherine, who refuses to feel sorry for herself, eagerly leaps at. She revels in her lavish new home and her freedom, setting aside a tiny room for herself, a room so small that her massive husband cannot even enter — the sexual symbolism is unmissable and delivered with winking bravado.

And yet Marie-Catherine finds herself liking this seemingly gentle giant who towers over her, dwarfing her tiny form, looking at her with kindness and admiration and more than a little incomprehension. In other words, he's a typical man, baffled and intrigued and amused by the ways of women. He's also something of a god for her, a subtext that's made strikingly clear in the test he sets for her, giving her a key to a basement room and then forbidding her from entering it; it's as though she's Eve in Eden, being tested by God, ordered not to eat from the readily accessible tree of knowledge. Breillat seems to be suggesting that the Bluebeard tale, far from being a mere gory fable of male violence, is a reflection of all marriages, all of them repeating this paternalist power struggle that originated with the relationship between God and Eve. This tragic Bluebeard is just as trapped by expectations and roles as his young wife, forced to repeat a violent ritual over and over again rather than break free of the cycle.

This theme of repetition is realized formally in the scene where Bluebeard traps Marie-Catherine in a tower but must ascend and descend several times as she tricks him with delaying tactics. Breillat repeats the same image of Bluebeard going up or down the stairs several times in succession, conveying the impression that there are far more steps than there actually are, and enforcing the sense of being trapped by a cycle, forced to mechanically repeat the same actions and embody the same stereotypes over and over again. With this in mind, the curiously ambiguous final image becomes, not a victory, but a simple reversal of the cycle, the violence of this relationship reconfigured but not eliminated.

Religious hypocrisy plays a big part in perpetuating the helplessness of women and the dominance of men in this film. Towards the beginning of the film, Marie-Catherine and Anne are housed in a religious school where they're dressed in form-erasing robes and nun-like habits, until the girls are told that their father has died. The Mother Superior tells them not to be sad, not to grieve, but to rejoice: "He is in the Kingdom of Heaven," she says, and Breillat immediately cuts to a shot of the girls, shocked and upset, their faces wet with tears, not the least comforted by these empty words. The irony is then made even more bitter by the nun's announcement that the girls must leave: "this is a private college, not, alas, a charity." This woman is pious and unworldly when it comes to grief, suggesting that the girls think abstractly of Heaven rather than deal with the actual physical death of their father, but she then becomes coolly businesslike because the girls' family can no longer afford their tuition.

Breillat is depicting a societal structure that seems stacked against women in every way. After their father's death, the girls and their mother are left to poverty, their possessions taken away to pay off debts. They're totally abandoned and cast out, and the girls' mother tells them that their only hope is the convent, since they have no means and no one will want to marry a girl without a dowry. Anne reacts badly, getting angry at her father for dying and her mother for dressing them in mourning black, but the younger, tougher Marie-Catherine more appropriately strikes out at the representatives of the societal forces that are essentially punishing these women for losing their man. Marie-Catherine vows to strangle the compassionless Mother Superior and shouts curses at the men who dispassionately remove the family's possessions from their home; she understands that it's not the fault of her father or mother, but of the societal rules that govern their opportunities. She understands that justice is for the rich, not the poor, so she simply vows to be rich.

It seems that starting with The Last Mistress, Breillat has become a much more complex filmmaker than ever before, discarding the porny provocations and didactic tone of much of her earlier work in favor of rich layers of subtext and suggestion. Her Bluebeard is concise, not even an hour and a half long, but it's packed with elegant intimations of multiple deeper meanings. Her images have a fairy tale's beauty, capturing the looming majesty of Bluebeard's castle, the sumptuousness of the elegant clothes and jewels, the lush greenery and rocky shores of the surrounding countryside.

Breillat is also very sensitive to the nuances of the actors' performances, inching in for astonishing frame-filling closeups in which every twitching smile, every sisterly eye-roll or naïve stare, is sublimely rendered. Breillat seems particularly bewitched by the young actresses playing the two younger sisters, and Créton especially has a distinctive, mischievous face that perfectly conveys the mix of fragility and self-assurance in this young girl. Ravishingly beautiful, infused with melancholy and metatextual playfulness, Breillat's Bluebeard is one of the director's finest films, a work of great density and emotion that provokes far more thought than the director's more overtly provocative earlier films.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Rape of the Vampire

Jean Rollin's first feature, The Rape of the Vampire, establishes virtually all of the templates for this trash auteur's distinctive approach to no-budget sexploitation horror. Surreally dreamlike and strange, with a plot that never makes a shred of sense, Rollin's film wanders dreamily from one set piece to another, the connections between them as ephemeral as the neural pathways linking one moment to another in a dream. This debut was shot in black-and-white, and though a bright, garish color sensibility is integral to the director's later work, the color is hardly missed here, as he crafts an equally potent, moody aesthetic in stark sun and shadow.

The film is actually split into two unequal parts, and though the story, such as it is, continues more or less seamlessly from one part to another, they're definitively split apart and there's even a second credits sequence that runs before the second part begins. The bridge between the two parts of the film is like crossing from the real world, where a rational explanation, however unlikely, is still possible, to the truly unhinged world of the surreal, the nightmarish, the supernatural, where rationality is utterly banished and the semblance of a plot is all but entirely erased.

In the first third of the film, the psychoanalyst Thomas (Bernard Letrou) and his friends visit a remote village supposedly haunted by four vampire sisters. Thomas doesn't believe the sisters are actually vampires, he thinks they've just been manipulated into thinking they are, and he seeks to cure them of their delusion. He even seems to be right: the sisters worship before a pagan altar and are given orders by their god, who turns out to be an old man from the village, hiding behind the altar, delivering instructions to the women for his own mysterious purposes. This segment ends with virtually everyone dead, climaxing at the bleak-looking beach, with wooden posts like prison bars, that Rollin would return to again and again in his oeuvre. That beach is a conduit into the unknown, and as the film transitions into the second segment that constitutes its final two-thirds, the rational explanations and pseudo-scientific jargon of the first part are jettisoned in favor of an enthusiastic embrace of the supernatural.

This shift is announced especially by the arrival of the Queen of the Vampires (Jacqueline Sieger), a campy and outrageous figure who's constantly baring her fangs and laughing sinisterly, often without any context whatsoever: Rollin seems to love cutting to her in mid-cackle. The Queen's plans are typically hazy, but there's lots of grave-robbing, hypnotized girls hooked up to tanks of blood from which the vampires drink through long straws, sinister operations and rituals, a vampire priest holding an upside-down cross, and so on. The film's imagery is wild and weird, climaxing with a very chintzy vampire wedding that looks like the vampires are actually staging an amateur play: it's set on a stage with a huge and clumsily constructed bat in the background, its wings seemingly made from bedsheets.

There's a strong element of theatricality in Rollin, certainly, a sense that these vampires are performing for someone, maybe just for one another. The vampires even repeat the trick that the old man had pulled in the first part of the film, setting up an altar that seems to be speaking to some vampire supplicants, but actually houses a tape recorder playing back a loop of the Queen's voice. The supernatural is very ordinary in Rollin's world, the artifice paper-thin. There's little boundary between the real and the unreal, and the rough, clumsy low-budget aesthetic lays bare the artificiality of it all. There's a raw, one-take feel to much of the film: if a statue falls off a shelf and nearly hits the vampire queen in the head as she descends on a reclining victim, no matter, it's good enough, and Rollin leaves in this unscripted accident. The blood wedding, with its amateur drama club feel, is another good example; the vampires for some reason feel the need to stage their rituals with shoddy dramatics and awkwardly constructed props, performing for an audience of other vampires, who sit playing bongos in the theater seats and storm the stage for an impromptu celebration at the climax of this "play."

That's the essence of Rollin right there, the real and the unreal, the theatrical and the seemingly unstudied, the supernatural and the ordinary, colliding within his utterly idiosyncratic cinema. He presents a fractured and nonsensical dream world that leaps without warning from one thing to another at the speed of thought, giving the impression of a film edited according to the momentary whims of the dreamer. Action can jump suddenly from one location to another without warning or narrative justification, and the connections between scenes are often, let's say, mysterious. Even the seedy eroticism that always characterizes Rollin's work follows this (il)logic: women are rarely seen taking their clothes off in this film, instead leaping effortlessly from clothed to naked in between shots. All of this combines to make Rollin a true poet of trash, locating a strange kind of unsettling poetry and even beauty in his outrageous dream world.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Draughtsman's Contract

The nature of power, as played out through a sexual and economic game of class, property and inheritance, is the somewhat obscured subject of Peter Greenaway's masterfully baffling, frequently hilarious 1982 film The Draughtsman's Contract. This is a film in which surface appearances are very much set off against the reality underneath, a reality that can never quite be seen directly, head on, but only glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye: truth, like the living statue that mysteriously moves around the grounds of a rural mansion, rude and naked but mostly unseen by the mannered aristocrats who inhabit this estate circa 1600s England, is so elusive that one is never quite sure if one has actually glimpsed the truth or merely a figment of the imagination. Right from the beginning, Greenaway is hinting at the disconnect between presentation and truth, as during the credits he cuts away to a high society party at which the bewigged, heavily made up guests tell charmingly scatalogical and urinary anecdotes that seem to be very much at odds with their elaborately sophisticated appearances and the bemused titters with which they relate these stories of bodily function. Rarely again in the film do they ever seem to have their guards down so thoroughly, do they ever acknowledge the workings of the body so directly, but even here, their language is so ornate, their refinement so complete, that they manage to make these bawdy tales of diarrhea and peeing vigorously in buckets sound like delightful chatter over tea.

Language is very important to this film, which boasts a marvelously clever script by Greenaway in which every word, every circumspect and torturously polite turn of phrase, disguises some secondary meaning, often a naughty bit of sexual double entendre — lots of appreciative banter about fruit, ripeness, fecundity, and "the maturing delights of her country garden" — or a sly insinuation about someone or other's reputation, or a threat so carefully hidden in banal chit-chat and freighted symbols that its more sinister meaning might utterly pass over the head of the one being threatened. There's a very complex game being played here, hidden away beneath all the ostentatious politeness. The artist Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) is invited by Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) to undertake twelve drawings of her husband's lovely country estate, which, she implies, her husband prizes as his property even over his own wife. After much persuasion, the two sign a contract that, in typically circumspect language, promises both sexual and economic remuneration for Mr. Neville's artistic services, and the arrogant young artist installs himself at the Herberts' estate, in Mr. Herbert's absence, for a period of twelve days to complete the drawings, earn his pay, and help himself to the sexual favors of the lady of the house.

Though Neville believes himself to be the one in control, the one benefiting the most from this arrangement, the reality proves to be quite different from the appearance. There is definitely an uneven balance of power here, but contrary to Neville's confidence in his own prowess, both artistic and sexual, he is not the one with the power. He is lower-class, despite his finery and his polite manners, and none of the aristocrats ever truly accept him into their class even as they welcome him into their homes. And it turns out that they are playing a game at a far higher level than he had imagined, a game that increasingly entangles him helplessly because, not being of their class, he is utterly unequipped to engage in these games involving property and parentage. Very suggestive in this regard is the scene where Mrs. Herbert's daughter, Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert) explains to Neville the identity of a young boy who wanders the grounds under the care of a tutor. He's an orphan, she says, whose father died and mother converted to Catholicism, so he needed to be cared for by relatives here. "An orphan, madame," Neville sputters, "because his mother became a Catholic?" Indeed, and Neville, with his Scottish sympathies and incomprehension of the aristocrats' religious bigotry, simply proves again and again that he does not belong here, that he is not truly a part of this milieu.

No, he is simply a tool to be used, and his drawings increasingly begin to seem like they are meant to play an important part in an elaborate plot being concocted, possibly by everyone except Neville, behind the scenes. There is considerable debate within the film, amongst the aristocrats who are privy to the drawings' contents, about precisely what kind of an "allegory" Mr. Neville is attempting to convey with these seemingly symbol-laden depictions, and one suspects that Greenaway is trying to excite the same debate regarding the film as a whole. Neville, for his part, continually insists that he simply draws what he sees, that he's merely an objective documentarian of reality, but Greenaway is undermining that artistic innocence, that naïve understanding of how art works. No drawing, no piece of art, can (or maybe should) passively document the world as it is, no matter how mechanical and purely visual Neville tries to make his art with his rigidly selected views, his viewing grid that breaks each scene into carefully composed rectangles, his totalitarian insistence that his views be uninterrupted, everything laid out exactly as he demands.

Like Mr. Herbert, who'd shaped his land into a structured, carefully manicured and maintained geometric layout in order to tame nature itself, Neville believes that he can control the world, that he can dictate what he sees and doesn't see, and thus what will appear or not appear in his drawings. But circumstances and the subtle interventions of various unknown conspirators shatter this illusion: his work is not merely innocent documentation, and his static, controlled views are increasingly disrupted by changes mysteriously wrought from one sitting to one another, clues planted, bits of evidence suggesting various covert conspiracies and activities, details pointing to murder or adultery. In other words, the carefully laid out gardens, so meticulously planned by Mr. Herbert and so thoroughly documented by Mr. Neville, are disordered and littered with evidence that the placid surface of things in only a thin, all too easily broken barrier separating polite society from all the messiness, dishonesty and ugliness of life, which keeps impolitely depositing obstructions into Neville's view, forcing him to make concessions to change and impermanence and imperfection rather than being able to craft, uninterrupted, a static, lifeless, unpopulated vision of the estate's grounds, blissfully undisturbed by any actual evidence of life or humanity.

The film is formally laid out in such a way as to both superficially confirm Neville's seeming mastery and subtly undermine it. Greenaway sticks almost entirely to static, carefully composed shots, often shot at least in part through the viewing grid that Neville uses to impose geometric order on what he sees so he can render it in his drawings. And yet Greenaway undercuts this rigidity at every turn, constantly having Neville's view obscured or interrupted by intrusive figures walking across his field of view, marring the unmoving beauty of the landscape. At one point, the director holds a shot of an unpopulated landscape long enough for the sun to be hidden by clouds and then break free, so that a long dark shadow passes across the green grass and then vanishes again, even the sky itself introducing movement and change into what Neville would like to freeze and order. When a thick gray fog rolls across the estate, Neville is unable to work, pacing impatiently back and forth while he waits for his view to clear again; if sinister aristocratic conspiracies don't undercut his dominion, then the elements conspire to remind him of his helplessness. Michael Nyman's enthralling score, appropriately enough, embodies the same dichotomy, combining courtly elegance with a propulsive, lively quality that suggests all the skullduggery and mystery lurking within the film's surface depiction of aristocratic refinement.

Greenaway's love of lists, as seen in his early avant-garde shorts and his exhaustive, exhausting first feature The Falls, persists here in the narration that meticulously describes the conditions for each of the twelve drawings. So perhaps, to some extent, Greenaway is poking fun at his own pretensions to artistic control, his own fussy obsessive-compulsiveness about naming things, about grouping objects and people, sights and sounds, into categories and descriptions, creating order through art. Key to the film is the question of the artist's responsibility to do more — as Greenaway, certainly, always has — than simply document and observe.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Persian Series 1-3/Chinese Series

Stan Brakhage's painted films are extraordinarily difficult to write about. These films, more even than Brakhage's films utilizing primarily photographic images, create their own purely visual and abstract language that can not be translated easily into words. The Persian Series, an 18-film series of hand-painted, optically printed works, represents Brakhage at his most resolutely abstract, dealing purely with color, rhythm and form(lessness). The first three films in the series capture different moods, different sensations, while each maintaining a similar palette of bright, thickly clumped paints. Persian #1 is stuttery and hesitant, interspersing bursts of colorful painted hysteria with black-leader pauses, and ending with a few glimpses of blurry color forms that reveal the abstracted photographic foundation that is elsewhere either absent or all but entirely obscured by the dense layers of paint laid atop it. Persian #2 is slow and sensuous, an elegant dance of colors swirling around. Persian #3 is fast and frenetic, introducing more deep blacks and sharp-edged fractal patterns within the rapidly boiling stew of images.

These films are intense and sensually satisfying, suggesting a surprising range of emotions and sensations with their abstract paint blots. Persian #2 opens with an extraordinary sequence that gives the impression of a series of zooms in or out, the "camera" seeming to move forward and then backward. This sequence (achieved via optical printing) creates the impression of entering a tunnel, hurtling down into a wormhole carved out of black space, every color of the spectrum stretched and speed-blurred as the viewer descends towards the center of the whirlpool, only to start pulling away, zooming backwards, rejected by the black hole and its intense swirl of colors. Later in this segment, the images slow down subtly and change to a steady rhythmic beat so that it looks like a rapidly edited montage of still photographs, each seemingly random spill of paint briefly frozen in time, captured in a flash, then flickering away to be replaced by another.

This steady pulsing is entirely unlike the frenzied montage of Persian #3, which starts fast and gradually accelerates to a mad pace that's dizzying and disorienting and utterly hypnotizing. The faster the images fly by, the deeper the viewer is encouraged to stare, the more trapped one feels by the overwhelming density of the montage. The mind nearly shuts down, short-circuited by the tremendous beauty and exhilaration of this sequence. Many of the strangely haunting fractal images embedded within this section subliminally suggest the shape of skulls, with circular forms as eye sockets and nostrils. Mortality is a common subject for Brakhage, who tends to view death as natural, part of a cycle that links birth (Window Water Baby Moving) and death (The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes). Here, these hints of death's head skulls are not integrated into the natural world, but provide a context-free evocation of what's hidden beneath the skin, and what is, here, hidden within the constantly shifting, unstable chaos of Brakhage's painted frames.

Such representational associations are perhaps unavoidable even with Brakhage's most abstract work: these meticulously painted frames are like Rorschach ink blots, evoking many concrete forms that may or may not have been intended as associations by Brakhage himself. But whatever can be seen within the chaos of these images is secondary to the visceral, emotional, sensual appeal of the images for their own sake.

It is impossible to watch Stan Brakhage's final film, the two-minute Chinese Series, without thinking about the circumstances in which it was made. As the title suggests, the film was to have been part of a lengthy series of the kind that Brakhage had made before with the Persian Series, the Arabic Series and other serials. He completed only two minutes of the projected series before his death. The film consists entirely of white scratches on a black field: Brakhage carved these marks directly into the emulsion of a filmstrip by wetting the film with his own saliva and scratching with his fingernail. It was perhaps the only method of creation still available to the ailing filmmaker, a process of production founded from the interaction of the filmmaker's own body with the filmstrip.

It is as direct and personal a film as Brakhage ever made, perhaps the ideal of total sympathetic alignment of film and maker that Brakhage had always worked towards. Personal engagement is one of the keystones of Brakhage's art, whether he was using a handheld camera as an extension of his body or foregoing photography altogether to experiment with pasting objects directly onto the filmstrip (as in works like Mothlight) or hand-painting on film. He also often scratched and clawed at the film, as he does here, but rarely so singlemindedly, rarely as the only means of expression through which he acted upon his chosen method. Here, constrained by physical limitations, but also enlivened by aesthetic impulse — he planned to make the entire Chinese Series, however long it would have been, using only these emulsion scratchings — he pares his art down to its bare essence, and it's startling how much of the unmistakeable beauty and mystery of Brakhage's art remains intact in this skeletal form.

The images resulting from this literally hands-on process are as minimal and stark as one would expect: abstract hieroglyphics stuttering across the frame, seeming to spell out words in some indecipherable language. It's calligraphic and graceful. This not-quite-language is a poignant metaphor for Brakhage in the last days of his life, painstakingly (and maybe painfully) scratching out his last communication to the world, the very last images he'd create. There's a simple beauty to these curved white lines, their edges slightly frayed, sometimes densely hatched, sometimes forming just a few scattered, delicate tears in the surface of the film emulsion.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

M (1951)

Fritz Lang's M is such an enduring classic that it's hard to imagine a Hollywood remake of it, but that's exactly what director Joseph Losey did, twenty years after Lang's original film about the hunt for a child killer. Losey's remake of M, made under the aegis of the original film's producer Seymour Nebenzal, is extremely faithful to its source, following more or less the same script and at times even recreating scenes virtually shot for shot. It would be easy to dismiss the film as an inferior copy of a classic, and many have: the remake was a flop at release and doesn't have much of a reputation even now. But, though it unquestionably does not match the power of the Lang film, it's still a compelling noir in its own right, transplanting Lang's richly ambiguous social parable to 1950s Hollywood at the height of Red hysteria, which is clearly a prominent subtext here.

For Lang, the film was an anti-death-penalty treatise, a somber and timely warning of the dangers of widespread fear and paranoia, and, of course, a plea to watch out for one's children. For Losey, it's a psychosexual thriller and a parable for the McCarthyite anti-Communism that would soon drive the director out of the United States for the remainder of his career. At one point, in a scene that also appears in Lang's film, two witnesses are arguing over whether a kid's dress was red or blue. Losey adds a key detail: the witness who insists the dress was blue angrily asks the other, "what are you, a Communist?" That loaded question, which was already being casually tossed around at the least pretext in the US of this era, hangs over the film, with Losey subtly reinterpreting Lang's persecution parable, replacing 1930s Germany with 1950s Hollywood to suggest a link between the rise of the Nazi party and the rise of McCarthy. The change in context resonates throughout the early scenes, as random innocent people are persecuted in the streets by a public worked up into hysteria by the child killings.

Losey also subtly changes the film's meaning by making the motive for the child murders implicitly sexual; the film is loaded with sexually charged symbols in a way that Lang's original wasn't. The opening credits show the killer (David Wayne), seen only from behind, approaching little girls, luring one with a string toy that he suggestively pulls and teases with his hands, the framing often hiding the toy altogether so that it's not clear what he's doing, just that he's walking up to a little girl with his hands pumping around at his hips. Another shot shows him turning on a water fountain for a girl, who bends over to drink, her head obscured by the mysterious stranger standing in front of her. Already, Losey, dodging the censors, is suggesting a transgressive sexual component to the murders, a creepy subtext that distances Wayne's killer from the more famous portrayal by Peter Lorre.

Indeed, Wayne plays killer Martin Harrow with a bland-faced intensity and mommy-fixated sexual dysfunction that prefigures Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho more than it looks back to Lorre. Most chilling of all is the scene of the killer sitting in the dark, his face shrouded in shadow, tightly grasping the dangling cord of the lamp hanging above him, wrapping it around his fist, breathing heavily and pulling his hand further and further up the cord. It's such an obviously sexual scene that one wonders how Losey got away with it, especially when the killer "climaxes" by finally pulling the cord and putting out the light. (That the cord is later revealed to be a shoelace taken from the shoes he collects as fetish objects from his victims only confirms the sexual metaphor.) This is immediately followed by a scene where he goes over to his desk, still panting breathlessly, and begins molding a clay sculpture of a child, wrapping a cord around its neck and squeezing to pop its head off, while Losey prominently highlights the photograph of a matronly older women behind the sculpture, a mise en scène detail that suggests the killer is a sexually frustrated mama's boy.

Such scenes proliferate throughout Losey's remake, suggesting that the killer instinctively makes a connection between masturbation and strangulation; at one point, he finds a wounded bird and picks it up between his fists, its head popping out between his fingers as he squeezes it, before letting it go and sobbing with guilt. His final confessional speech is significantly different from Lorre's version of the scene, too, as he talks about a childhood dominated by his mother's tyrannical insistence that all men are evil and need to be punished — a speech comically punctuated by his aside that she's "a good woman."

In this way, Losey makes the material his own even while largely sticking to the template of the original film. He can't match the overwhelming formal beauty of Lang's film, but he has his own minimalist, low-budget aesthetic that gives his take on this material a rough, shot-on-the-streets realism very different from the shadowy expressionism of Lang's M. Losey shot a lot of footage on the streets of Los Angeles, and staged the climactic search for the killer in the instantly recognizable Bradbury Building, an iconic location for many movies, its angular staircases and multiple levels used well in the scenes of the city's criminal underworld tracking Harrow. Losey's austere aesthetic — only occasionally broken by diversions like the Hitchcockian cut from a mother worrying at home to a screaming, cackling clown — puts the emphasis on Wayne's increasingly unhinged performance and the slightly comic efforts of the police and criminals to catch him. Losey dared to remake a classic, and though the remake is not on the same level as Lang's masterpiece, it should be remembered as a noir classic in its own right, with its substantial differences from its source marking it as a worthy extension of Lang's themes.