Thursday, May 29, 2008

Comédie de l'innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pierrot le fou

Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou is a road movie, but one in which the characters move, not through any physical geography, but across the well-traveled terrain of Godard's own cinematic corpus, revisiting key themes and familiar scenarios from the nine feature films that Godard made in the five years preceding Pierrot. The film's pivotal placement at a turning point in Godard's career — after his most successful Nouvelle Vague hits but still before his increasingly radical Maoist period — makes it particularly ripe for analysis in terms of Godard's filmography as a whole. It features two of Godard's finest actors and his most iconic figures, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, the latter appearing in her penultimate role in a Godard film, with their divorce still looming ahead. Godard is also revisiting one of his key concerns from his pre-Maoist period, namely the nature of romance and the adversarial relationships that society sets up between man and woman. Not least of the film's echoes of earlier Godard ventures is the way its plot and denouement mirror the feminine betrayal at the core of Godard's first feature Breathless, in which Belmondo was also led to his death by romance and female duplicity. What's different here, and what may help Godard avoid the charges of misogyny that (often justifiably) have been brought against his films, is the extent to which Pierrot interrogates and examines this archetypal relationship.

At the start of the film, Ferdinand (Belmondo) is a discontented bourgeoisie, married to an heiress and himself unemployed after an unsuccessful career in television. He goes to a party where, in a brilliant parody of both TV advertising and Godard's own earlier commercial work, all the characters speak in lingo apparently stolen from ads, extolling the virtues of cars, naked women, and deodorants with the same antiseptic language. Ferdinand wanders through the party, and as he moves from one room to the next Godard arbitrarily applies garish color filters to delineate one space and set of characters from the next. The arbitrariness of the color-switching underlines the extent to which these people are, despite superficial differences in favored topics, all the same; their language, the language of corporate culture, erases all distinctions. The filters also inevitably bring to mind Godard's one big-budget production, Contempt, in which the producers demanded more nude scenes for star Brigitte Bardot, and Godard famously obliged with a lengthy bedroom scene, during which color filters similarly rotated at random across Bardot's bare butt. The device's recurrence here is a subtle in-joke, a reminder that Godard too had sold out and spoken with the language of commerce — and also a reminder of how a device of commercial necessity had been transformed into art.

In any event, Ferdinand soon leaves the party and returns home, where he encounters the evening's babysitter, Marianne (Karina), who is by chance also his ex-lover. The duo set off on an absurdist road trip that seems ill-fated from the start, triggered as it is by Marianne's never-explained murder of a man in her apartment and their flight from a gang of gun-runners looking for the money and weapons she'd been stashing for them. This sequence plays out with Godard's typical wit and obscurity, the actual visuals reminiscent of a slapstick Keystone Kops routine, with the lovers dashing in circles, grabbing the blatantly fake prop guns, and running in and out of cars. Godard fragments the scene, repeating key moments again and again, destroying the moment-to-moment coherence in favor of a vague sensation of danger, hilarity, and action. The voiceover track, meanwhile, further exacerbates the confusion, as Belmondo and Karina take turns narrating the events, sometimes finishing each other's sentences in a contradictory manner and sometimes looping back to something already said. Repetition is a key component of Godard's aesthetic, and it comes into its own in this film, a central element in the film's deconstruction of the road movie's place-to-place narrative.

Indeed, this film doesn't follow a trajectory from place to place so much as from idea to idea. Places are mentioned, but only rarely as concrete markers of locations. More often places and their names are representative of abstract ideas: America, Vietnam, the Riviera (which, as Godard points out, contains the word vie for "life"), Las Vegas. Oftentimes, when Ferdinand and Marianne are traveling, they seem to be moving from one Godard film to the next. Pierrot is littered with remnants of earlier films, especially Le Petit Soldat (a bathroom torture sequence and constant references to the Algerian War), A Woman is a Woman (a few ragtag musical numbers with Karina at her most charming), and variations on Godard's oft-reused trope of enumerating a lover's body parts to declare one's love, first seen in the previously mentioned opening of Contempt. Pierrot also looks forward in interesting ways to the next half-decade of Godard's work, already containing hints of the apocalyptic road movie vibe of Week-end in the staged car crash where Marianne and Ferdinand fake their deaths. More broadly, the theatrical undercurrent of the film, its brilliant use of color and blatantly manufactured settings, is the first suggestion of the Brechtian agitprop theater that Godard would incorporate into his work more and more with films like Made In U.S.A. and La Chinoise. And if the landscape of Pierrot is a microcosm of Godard's films, it's also a pastiche of world literature and pop culture, as the characters themselves sometimes make explicit. When Marianne gets bored of staying in one place for too long, languishing in a seaside hideaway surrounded by friendly animals, she suggests that they ditch this Jules Verne scene and get back to the gangster novel they'd been living earlier.

It's typical of Godard's concern with language that he has taken the tenuous relationship between words and things to its extreme, ignoring the "thing" altogether in favor of the word and the meanings it has taken on. Marianne and Ferdinand both distrust language, but nevertheless acknowledge that it is the only way to communicate, even imperfectly, and so they continuously attempt to understand each other despite the seeming impossibility of it. In fact, for perhaps the first time in these earlier films, Godard seems to be actually interested in teasing out the why of male/female relationships, rather than simply presenting their tortured façades. He occasionally seems to be falling into typically sexist dichotomies — Marianne speaks in terms of feelings, Ferdinand of ideas and art — but here he does so primarily to disrupt and question such bipolar divisions. In one key exchange, Ferdinand and Marianne position themselves along the emotion/thinking divide as they discuss what they like in life, but the actual words they use to describe their supposedly different outlooks turn out to be quite similar. This seeming verbal agreement of course doesn't stop them from reiterating their incompatibility and lack of understanding, but the question has nevertheless been broached. Are male/female disjunctions primarily a result of social strictures that enforce such separateness? Does language help or hinder attempts to eradicate these divisions? Why don't Marianne and Ferdinand understand each other if they seem to be speaking similar words? As usual, Godard doesn't answer any of these questions, he simply leaves them hanging in the air as just one element in this sprawling film.

Ultimately, what all this adds up to is the same thing that nearly every other Godard film adds up to: a dense knot of questions, inquiries, and ideas, tied around a much looser core of plot points and character sketches. It's the perfect summation for his early 60s oeuvre, not only because it draws so many of those earlier films into its orbit, but because it is the epitome of his filmmaking at that time. It's clear, in the sure, sharp aesthetic of the film — its jaw-dropping widescreen vistas, its crisp primary colors — that Godard's filmmaking had reached a new pinnacle and a new stage. Here, he trades in the ragged and jumpy aesthetic of the earlier films, with their endearingly stitched-together quality, and on his first color feature since Contempt, proves himself a master not only of the use of color but of the widescreen frame. In one particularly brilliant shot, he maintains a long view of Ferdinand frantically running along a beach, quickly panning back to accentuate the urgency and then, as though to undermine this atmosphere, executes a leisurely pan to the left, meandering away in the opposite direction from Ferdinand's racing form. As the camera pans up and left across the fluffy clouds and pale blue sky, it eventually reveals Marianne standing on a balcony, held at gunpoint, thereby further accentuating the urgency of the shot and linking the lovers across the expanse of sky. The way in which Godard toys with emotions and meanings in this shot, simply through the movement of the camera, is carried out throughout the film. Despite his continuing (and sometimes overriding) interest in words and ideas, Godard is also among the most visual and sensual of filmmakers, and it is this dichotomy of ideas and sensations that exists at the core of Godard's filmmaking.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man, the first of Marvel Comics' superhero properties to be adapted to the screen through their new in-house production apparatus rather than through licensing, is a strong start for the company's ambitious new effort at cinematic universe-building. Not just economically, although that should be rather obvious from the film's blockbuster performance for the past few weeks, but creatively, in terms of successfully translating a complicated character with a long history into an equally complicated and compelling onscreen hero. The film isn't entirely successful, to be sure — it's especially marred by a silly and over-the-top final battle scene — but it does succeed in the kind of grounded, patient storytelling that Marvel seems to be adapting as the new standard for their film productions.

In particular, Marvel and director Jon Favreau have learned a lot of lessons from Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which became a new model for superhero filmmaking by keeping its title character in the developmental stages for the entire first half of the film. It signaled a new kind of superhero movie. While older superhero films tended to view the origin story as a bothersome hurdle to jump as fast as possible in order to get to the "good stuff," these new tights-and-capes films are taking a more leisurely, painstaking approach to superhero origins, which inevitably gives the films a more grounded, realistic feel. Just as in Nolan's film we saw millionaire Bruce Wayne slowly accumulate the experience, fighting skill, and technology that would enable him to take on the mantle of Batman, in Iron Man we see Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) building the eponymous suit of armor not just once, but twice. These scenes are grounded in realism and, importantly, in physical process, even if the actual physics and mechanics behind the suit's operation are obscure and fantastic. Even if they could never be real, these scenes still feel real, and that's the crucial touch that brings both Nolan's Batman and Favreau's Iron Man to convincing life. These are both heroes who essentially make themselves through ingenuity and technological progress, rather than with super powers, and it's admirable that both of these films spend considerable time in the workshop with their heroes. In terms of the ratio of screen time given to making the armor suit as opposed to actually using it, Iron Man is a film more about building than about fighting, even if the wanton destruction of the typical urban battle scene at the end tends to obscure that point.

Meanwhile, since Stark spends so much of the film out of his armor, Downey is a very welcome presence here as the man beneath the iron mask. Stark is a great, complicated character: a compulsive womanizer who can even be downright nasty towards his conquests, a budding alcoholic, and yet also a businessman with a conscience, who when he learns of evils committed in his name, decides to actually do something about it. Downey is a surprisingly perfect fit for the role, bringing a sarcastic wit and easygoing screen presence to the conflicted would-be hero. The film shines especially in its humor, an essential aspect of superhero comics that doesn't often translate so well to the screen. But Downey seems equally comfortable with his character's verbal sparring (especially with his perky assistant Pepper Potts, admirably embodied by Gwyneth Paltrow despite her underwritten role) and the film's occasional deadpan physical humor, like a recurring gag with a puppyish robot in Stark's studio, or some painful-looking snags in the development of his suit's propulsion units.

Of course, the film isn't without its own snags, most notably on the villain front. Many have pointed out how the film's Afghani warlords are essentially stock Hollywood "darkies," fitting the evil dark-skinned mold perhaps too perfectly. But it's worth pointing out that not only are these evil terrorists depicted as terrorizing their own (also dark-skinned) innocent civilians, they're shown to be doing so with American-made weapons, supplied directly from American companies. Moreover, these villains don't wind up dying in an explosive final dust-up with Iron Man, but rather die off-screen, eliminated by American political expediency once their purpose had been served. The real villain here isn't the dark other or the stock Arab terrorist, but the American weapons manufacturers who supply these evil men, and the American political complacency that allows such atrocities to occur routinely as long as US interests are protected. This bit of real-world political mirroring goes some way towards defusing the accusations of stock racism, and it's important to remember that even though the film's political message is sometimes obscured and confused, it always remains basically an anti-war polemic about a weapons manufacturer who decides not to make weapons anymore.

I have more reservations about Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) as a villain, though in that case not because of any problematic racial elements. He's simply a boring enemy, as melodramatic as a soap opera's evil twin brother, and almost as unlikely. He's especially unconvincing in the inevitable final showdown with Iron Man, which eschews the slightly more restrained and realistic battle scenes of earlier in the film for a full-on superhero urban destruction scenario, complete with cars hurtling through the air, buildings recklessly smashed, and iron suits flying everywhere. And what to say about the ridiculous processed voice that Stane has when he's encased in his own armored suit? When a film has to remind us of who the villain is by making his voice sound evil, things are not looking good. It's the only time when the film reminds us of the over-the-top silliness that superhero flicks too often descend to, like the similarly ridiculous Batmobile chase sequence that Nolan unnecessarily shoehorned into Batman Begins. These moments sabotage the tone of these films, which otherwise walk a tight rope between realism and fantasy.

For the most part, though, Iron Man is an auspicious debut for Marvel's in-house film productions. It sets the stage for many things to come in the Marvel film universe, especially in terms of the introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a surprising cameo after the credits, one that will have special relevance for fans of Marvel's Ultimate line, and one that also foreshadows the already-planned Avengers movie for the future. More importantly, it's a fine movie on its own merits, capturing the excitement and adventure of the best superhero tales, bringing both Iron Man and Tony Stark to vivid life. The film's overall tone is perhaps best encapsulated in the scene when Stark first takes his second, slickly designed suit out for a test flight; the joy and excitement on Downey's face, seen inside the suit surrounded by computerized readings, is inevitably passed on to the audience.