Monday, December 17, 2012


Fascination is a very apt title for a Jean Rollin film. Rollin's ethereal horror oeuvre revolves around the idea of fascination: fixation, obsession, fetishism, the irresistible allure of danger and death, great beauty tangled up with supernatural horror. His cinema repeatedly examines the fascination of the director and, often, his protagonists, with the strange, unsettling, eerie occurrences that haunt his movies. From film to film, Rollin wove together increasingly familiar images and themes that constitute the subject of his fascination: beautiful women naked or dressed only in diaphanous see-through gowns, gothic rural settings, vampirism, seduction, ruined castles lit by candles, secret societies that seem to flicker on the edges of the material world, trapped between states, their exact nature uncertain.

Fascination embodies so many of these fixations that it feels like an ultimate statement of the director's vision; perhaps not his best film but definitely one of his most characteristic, which is why it's also become, within this unusual auteur's cult, one of his most iconic works. The story is, in the usual Rollin fashion, extremely simple, a bare sketch of a scenario used to set up the dreamy, vaguely menacing atmosphere that is the film's true substance. The thief Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) betrays the rest of his criminal gang and flees their revenge, arriving at a nearly empty rural estate where the only residents are a pair of girls, Eva (Brigitte Lehaie) and Elisabeth (Franca Maï). Marc holds the girls prisoner while fending off his gang's attacks, but it soon becomes clear that if this is a hostage situation, who's the hostage and who's the captor might be the reverse of what Marc thinks.

Certainly, Marc believes that he's the one in control here, but a driving theme of the film is the exploration of power's relationship to gender and sexuality. Marc is a sneering, arrogant jerk, dominating these two girls from his position of power, waving his phallic gun around as a symbol of his sexual and physical dominion over them. Eva and Elisabeth sometimes play their expected roles, cowering in fear before him, but soon their show of fear and submissiveness gives way to a much more playful, mocking attitude, skewering his belief in his dominance, suggesting that they're really the ones in control. While taunting him with the prospect of sex, they actually go to bed together, in a scene of sumptuous softcore eroticism that could've come directly out of one of Rollin's adult productions. When Eva does give in to Marc, she's quite open about her motives: she wants to keep him there until nightfall, using her sexuality to lure him into what increasingly seems like a deadly trap.

There's clearly something sinister going on here, even if the hapless, arrogant Marc laughs off all the premonitions and warnings about the fate awaiting him once midnight strikes. Elisabeth, who seems slightly less unhinged than her compatriot, warns Marc that he should flee, that something horrible is in store for him that night. Anyone who enters the orbit of these girls is trapped within "the universe of madness and death," she says, clutching the gun she's stolen from their guest. Later, the girls are joined by more members of what seems to be a blood-drinking, Satan-worshipping club of wealthy bourgeois women, but Marc still doesn't catch on. The audience is a few steps ahead of him anyway, having been warned more explicitly by the gorgeously morbid prologue in which these women daintily drank ox blood from goblets while standing in a slaughterhouse, their frilly dresses dragging in the bits of cartilage and bloody flesh strewn across the reddened floor. The leader of this club, Hélène (Fanny Magier), warns Marc, "Beware, death sometimes takes the form of seduction," but even then he treats this night like a game, so secure in his masculine superiority that it never occurs to him that he's not in control, that he's become the prey rather than the predator.

The film's most enticing predator is undoubtedly Eva, who is especially terrifying in a sequence where she methodically, ruthlessly kills the members of Marc's gang, stabbing one man in the side during sex and then prowling after the others with a black robe billowing around her naked body, a scythe held threateningly in front of her. She's a sexy, seductive grim reaper, blonde death with a vicious blade that easily outdoes Marc's puny gun as far as penetrative phallic imagery goes. Rollin had first featured Lahaie in one of his bills-paying adult film productions, then given her a small but unforgettably intense role in his moody zombie classic The Grapes of Death.

Here, she magnifies and extends the sexy insanity of her part in that film, killing with her mouth locked in a horrible/alluring rictus grin, baring her teeth and smiling as she slashes throats with her reaper's blade. There's something feral about her, an animalistic quality that somehow only makes her more appealing, and more unsettling. Rollin captures her in evocative closeups in the moments before the kill, her eyes above the blade, her lips below it. Rollin seems to be asking, which is more dangerous, the scythe or the girl who wields it? Her alluring lips, her piercing eyes, they're as deadly as a knife to the guts, and with her, one leads to the other — her beauty and sexuality are lures into death and oblivion.

The strange attractiveness of death and perversion are at the core of this film, which perfectly captures the fascination that these beautiful, deadly women hold for their victims. Rollin makes the girls and their surroundings ravishing: the mansion, lit by candelabra, is lavishly decked out with fancy furniture and paintings, the surfaces of which Rollin's camera frequently probes whenever it's not being distracted by the lovely anti-heroines. Sensual and chilling in equal measures, Fascination is a nearly comprehensive catalogue of Rollin's obsessions and themes, exploring the appeal of the macabre and the impotency of male power through this hypnotically languid horror tale.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Unknown Pleasures

Jia Zhangke's third feature, Unknown Pleasures, is a naturalistic, nearly documentary-like examination of the lives of a group of teens and twenty-somethings in a poor city in northern China. Jia's aesthetic is sparse and gentle. Shooting with digital video, which gives the film a rough, shot-on-the-fly quality, he documents the emptiness and stagnation that constitute life for this aimless generation, who seem to have few opportunities and little hope despite China's prodigious leaps into the modern international economy. These young people, like friends Bin Bin (Wei Wei Zhao) and Xiao Ji (Qiong Wu), have recently finished school but they have no jobs and no prospects, so they simply drift around shiftlessly, spend dreary afternoons in front of the TV, and pursue dull and passionless relationships with girls. Xiao Ji lazily chases after the dancer Qiao Qiao (Tao Zhao) but doesn't seem to know what to do with her once he's got her, while Bin Bin spends quietly boring afternoons with his studious girlfriend (Qing Feng Zhou), the only character in the film who seems to have some ambition and some potential.

For Bin Bin and other young men like him, "there's no fucking future."
Bin Bin calls the World Trade Organization a scam, and when his shy, smart girlfriend says she's going to be studying international trade, he can't even imagine what that means — selling rabbits to Ukraine, he guesses. China is modernizing and involving itself in the international economy, jumping into the future, but young people like Bin Bin and Xiao Ji are being left behind, with no hope of profiting from the country's modernization. Factories are laying people off and cutting wages — when they're not being blown up by domestic terrorists dissatisfied with limited economic opportunities — and at times it seems as though the only real money flowing through this city is in its vibrant, flourishing criminal underworld. The aimless lives of these youths, their imaginations fired by American crime movies and pop culture, occasionally intersect with the fringes of that underworld, as they cross paths with loan sharks, petty thugs, DVD bootleggers and massage therapists who are actually prostitutes.

TV and pop culture are omnipresent here, engulfing the lives of these aimless youths. American pop culture seeps into their lives in the form of tough-guy movies like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club — "hit me," Xiao Ji says to the gangster Qiao San (Zhubin Li), copping his attitude and his lines from the latter movie. Xiao Ji especially seems to have adopted his pose and his attitude from American crime movies, and he speaks gushingly of Pulp Fiction, saying he wants to be an American bank robber, a romantic criminal like the couple who stick up the diner in Tarantino's movie. This American culture is probably even more accessible to them than their own: when Bin Bin visits a DVD bootlegger towards the end of the film, he asks for copies of Jia's previous films Xiao Wu and Platform, but the guy only has Pulp Fiction.

In a diner with Qiao Qiao, Xiao Ji sticks his finger out like a gun, shouting "freeze," and Jia's camera swings wildly to follow his threateningly pointed finger, before cutting to Xiao Ji and Qiao Qiao dancing in a club, waving their hands in front of their faces like Uma Thurman and John Travolta in the famous dance sequence, an effect heightened by Qiao Qiao wearing a wig as a deliberate tribute to Thurman's black Anna Karina wig. (There's layers of homage here: a Chinese tribute to an American movie that was itself deeply indebted to the French New Wave.)

These sad, quiet young people are always sitting in front of the TV, its flickering glow casting blue light on their faces as they sit stoically and silently, watching in pairs in their living rooms or in crowds in public places. The TV is omnipresent, showing a mix of Chinese cartoons and music videos, and news stories about Chinese/American relations, the WTO, Falun Gong, and in one notable scene, the announcement that Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 Olympics. When the announcement is made, everyone clustered around the TV cheers and applauds — except for Bin Bin and Xiao Ji, standing stoically in the back of the crowd — as Jia's camera pans away from the revelers, arcing over to a nearby street where fireworks sizzle and spark on the pavement, a few kids watching, rapt, as the sparks fly.

For all the patriotic national pride expressed by the other people in that scene, all of this news, good and bad, seems so remote from the actual lives and experiences of these young people. Trade deals, prestigious international events, monks setting themselves on fire, terrorists amiably bragging about their guns on TV: it's all related by the glowing box that's perpetually tucked into a corner of the frame. Pop culture and commercialism define these youths, who escape their humdrum lives by singing Chinese pop tunes — like the one from which the film takes its name — and attending glitzy events sponsored by the Monkey King, which is both a cartoon and a brand of liquor. Qiao Qiao dances and sings in these corporate-sponsored events, shilling liquor that she can't even stomach when she tries to drink a few sips, while her agent/boyfriend Qiao San manages her career (and her affections) with an authoritarian hand.

At times, Xiao Ji seems to have stumbled into a gangster movie, pursuing his love of Qiao Qiao even though the possessive, gun-toting Qiao San tries to intimidate him with his gang of thugs. Though the film's mood is predominantly quiet and pensive, prone to languid tracking shots and long static sequences in which no one says a word, there's a constant aura of repressed violence just below the surface. The characters talk about guns and robberies in ways informed by the American movies they've seen — presumably the same way they learned to smoke with cigarettes dangling coolly from their lips — but life isn't as glamorous or as cool as the movies. The gangster ultimately dies, offscreen, in a thoroughly undramatic fashion, and the main characters' attempt to re-enact their fantasies of being movie bad guys is inept and doomed to failure. Meanwhile, the real violence percolates in the background, in the form of domestic terrorism committed by frustrated unemployed men and bursts of fanatical religious extremism.

This is a film about deep-seated frustration and attempts to escape that only make things worse. Poignant and quietly affecting, the film's low-key, documentary-like aesthetic is a rebuttal to the kind of noisy, kinetic culture that the teens in the film consume. While they imagine they're living in a Tarantino movie or a Hong Kong gangster flick, the movie of their lives is not explosive or exciting or violent but quietly sad, a movie not of violent tragedy but of a soft, slow decline.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Merci pour le chocolat

Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat cleverly wreaks havoc with the underpinnings of the bourgeois family, disrupting its stability at every turn, eating away at its foundations until the family seems to be propped up only by lies, jealousy, suspicion and violence. The film opens with a wedding, as the chocolate heiress Marie-Clarie (Isabelle Huppert) and the virtuoso pianist André (Jacques Dutronc) get married — though they've actually been married before, and are now getting remarried after the death of André's second wife. During the ceremony, Marie-Claire even quips that they're using the same rings as they had the first time around. The gossipy chatter of the guests — with Chabrol's camera, predatory as ever, endlessly circling around them — only further undercuts this institution, this ceremony, that is ordinarily seen as the bedrock of bourgeois respectability. The rest of the film will further disrupt family structures, calling into question the foundations of paternity and inheritance: in this film, parentage is always vague and uncertain, shrouded in multiple deceits.

The plot is built around a long-ago confusion regarding André's child with his second wife, Lisbeth: there had been a momentary switch when André had been shown a baby girl as his own, rather than the son who was, apparently, actually his. Now the girl, Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), is grown up and coincidentally also training as a pianist, and when she finally hears the story, she decides to visit André. As she ingratiates herself into André's home and begins taking piano lessons from him, she gets tangled up in a strange chamber mystery as she witnesses the odd behavior of Marie-Claire, who's outwardly solicitous and pleasant but seems to be masking a deeper chilliness and some odd behavior involving the hot chocolate she makes every day. Multiple suspicions arise, mostly revolving around the death of André's second wife, who'd died in a car crash, her system full of alcohol and sleeping pills.

It's obvious, of course, what happened, though Chabrol is typically indirect. Even when Marie-Claire thinks back to the night Lisbeth (Lydia Andrei) died — the flashback is triggered by Marie-Claire's expressionless face dissolving into a scene of the family clustered around André's piano — there's no decisive indication of foul play. Instead, Chabrol's camera subtly insinuates by showing Lisbeth by the piano, walking away to go out, passing Marie-Claire, who watches the car pull away out the window and then walks over to the piano, the camera drifting over with her to watch her take the place previously occupied by André's wife.

It's that stalking, insistent camera that makes all of Chabrol's thrillers so distinctive. The camera circles around the characters, probing their relationships with its ever-so-slow turns, its persistent and incremental process of tracking around them, getting closer and closer without quite ever penetrating the surface. At one point, Marie-Claire enters a room in which Lisbeth's photographs are displayed. The camera lags behind her as she walks past it into the room, staring at a point offscreen, and then the camera tracks through the empty space, finding her face again in the blurry blankness, and continues past her to reveal the photo she's staring at, a head-on self-portrait of Lisbeth resting her face in her hands. Downstairs, Chabrol's camera begins circling again, as André and Jeanne listen to a piano recording together, Jeanne resting her face in her hands exactly as Lisbeth had — the girl has seen the photo, and is obviously evoking the dead woman's pose, which suggests that in a way Jeanne is as calculating, as manipulative, as Marie-Claire herself.

But they both hide it so well. Huppert and Mouglalis deliver subtle, subdued performances, each of them presenting a lovely, friendly exterior that perhaps masks something more calculating: in Marie-Claire's case, a truly sociopathic indifference that reveals itself, chillingly, in the final scenes, and in Jeanne's case a perhaps more benign penchant for selfish scheming. After all, as soon as she hears of the mix-up with André, knowing that he's a famous pianist, she seizes the opportunity to sneak into his life, to earn his help. Chabrol, by linking these women, seems to be suggesting that the sinister evil of Marie-Claire is only the most blatant manifestation of this kind of bourgeois self-interest. At root, it's about an insistence that surfaces are all that's important: "keeping up appearances is all that counts," Marie-Claire tells the board of the chocolate company she's inherited. She's talking about chocolate packaging, but she could just as well be talking about a broader bourgeois philosophy of life, a deep-seated belief that appearance is all that matters, even if the truth has little relation to the appearance.

That ties back into all the confusion over parentage: even beyond the baby mix-up, Jeanne eventually learns that she was conceived through a sperm donation from an anonymous man, while Marie-Claire reveals that she was adopted, which means that the chocolate fortune she's inherited is not her biological right after all. Considering how important biology generally is in the ancient roots of inheritance, these biological disconnects muddy the waters, slyly chipping away at the ways in which wealth and prestige are passed down through bourgeois families. Marie-Claire, especially, is an infiltrator, an adoptee who's taken on a bourgeois mantle but is essentially in disguise, a pretender. At the end of the film, she has a startling scene — remarkably honest and direct after all this shiftiness — in which she confesses that the happy homemaker guise she presents to the world is just that, a mask, a façade. "I have a knack for doing wrong," she says mildly, her face blank, when she's finally been caught in her deceits and schemes. "Instead of loving, I say 'I love you,' and people believe me."

This is a sharp, smart, low-key thriller that revolves around all these mostly unstated tensions about family. It has a typically chilly Chabrolian tone that is periodically broken by bursts of genuine emotion, like the lengthy final shot of a wet-eyed Marie-Claire, or the scene in which André's son Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) remembers his mother's death in a sloppy outburst of raw feeling. As usual for Chabrol, the biggest secret here is not anything to do with the plot, but rather a bigger secret, maybe even the biggest secret, which is the essential flimsiness and silliness of bourgeois conventions, which can hide so much.