Friday, April 29, 2011

The Conversations #25: Wong Kar Wai

Jason Bellamy and I have completed the latest installment of The Conversations, a discussion of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, and it has now been posted at The House Next Door. It isn't a full overview of every single Wong film (as much as we would have loved to do it, that would have been pretty overwhelming, to write and to read) but a selected overview of his career based on five films. Over the course of our conversation, we talk in depth about Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). Focusing on these films allows us to examine Wong at different points in his career, considering how he's developed even while crafting a coherent cinematic universe that's always unmistakably his. We talk about his distinctive aesthetics, his thematic preoccupations, his actors, and the continuities between his films. I'm especially happy with how this conversation turned out, so take a look and as always, join the conversation in the comment section at the House, where we invite additional commentary about Wong in general, about the films we talked about or the ones didn't.

And next month, toward the end of May, be on the lookout for the next Conversation, covering the work of Terrence Malick in preparation for his forthcoming film The Tree of Life. That piece will be a two-parter, with the first part a career overview of Malick's first four films and the second part a discussion of his latest work.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, April 28, 2011

High Plains Drifter

Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter is a rotten, ugly, disgusting movie, a descent into Hell in every way. It is a disturbing moral vacuum of a movie, a vision of complete societal breakdown that wallows in non-stop muck and grime for most of its running time. It doesn't start that way, though, as the opening sequence introduces Eastwood's unnamed drifter in a way that quite consciously recalls the spaghetti Westerns he made with Sergio Leone in the 60s, the films that established Eastwood as a Western icon. The opening is slow and methodical, as the drifter — he's credited as "the stranger," and remains one throughout the movie — rides over lush green countryside into the town of Lago, entering the town through a cemetery, the gravestones of which are highlighted in the foreground of the shot as the horse stomps between them, a staggeringly obvious premonition of what's to come. The setting itself is unique, a seaside town (shot in California) that surreally looks like a ramshackle Western way-station on the edge of a beach. The music sets the tone, too, an eerie whining drone that evokes Ennio Morricone's Leone soundtracks with more of a sinister edge; one isn't sure if a flying saucer is going to land or if a lot of people are simply about to die or, perhaps, if a ghost is riding into town.

Once the stranger enters the town, Eastwood puts the emphasis on the repetitive sounds of the town, as everyone simply stares silently as the rider passes by. There's no dialogue, only the rhythmic chuff, chuff, chuff of the horse's hooves kicking up dust on the dry road and then, when the stranger dismounts, the clang of his spurs and the hollow reverberation of his boots on the wooden planks of the saloon's front steps. After this evocative opening, which so thoroughly sets the scene and suggests that this film is a self-conscious response to Eastwood's spaghetti Western background, the film's story kicks into action and it becomes clear that, if this is a response to the spaghetti Western, it's strictly in negative terms. It's as though Eastwood set out not only to deconstruct his screen persona, but to drag it through the mud and totally destroy it, to tear it into shreds.

This stranger is recruited by the people of Lago to defend against a trio of outlaws who are returning to exact vengeance on the townspeople for sending them to jail, a familiar setup derived from multiple Western antecedents. Throughout the film, flashbacks and contrived dialogue scenes fill in the details of the town's past, suggesting that it's an utterly corrupt place with some very dark secrets. Eastwood's stranger appears to nudge this vile place a few steps closer to the abyss, acting as a kind of moral arbiter and judge of these disgusting, cowardly people, even though this stranger is equally monstrous. In particular, the film's attitude about rape is absolutely unforgivable and horrifying, as several scenes suggest that not just one but two women are forced into sex with Eastwood's character and wind up enjoying the rape and even in some ways actively pursuing the drifter. It's played, more or less, for laughs, as when one of the women returns to, quite understandably, take a few shots at the drifter for what he did. The stranger asks why it took her so long to get upset, to which the stranger's midget sidekick (Billy Curtis) replies that maybe she was just upset that he hadn't come back for more, which is a pretty appalling laugh line by any measure. Eastwood's character is portrayed as such a smirking badass that these women, though initially resistant, come to enjoy his attentions even when he forces himself on them. It's despicable, and makes it especially hard to take too seriously the film's moralist judgment of the other characters for their various hypocrisies and sins.

Indeed, by the end of the film the whole town has descended, quite literally, into Hell. Eastwood's drifter, using his position of power as their only defender to take control, reorganizes the town, orders all the buildings painted red, and paints over the town's name on the sign outside town with the inscription, "Hell." Yeah, it's not a very subtle movie. There's a kind of awful impact to many of the film's images, particularly when Eastwood exploits the slightly surreal setting of this beachside Western town. In one scene early on, Eastwood strides through the town and the camera tracks along with him, the bright blue of the sea shining through the glass whiskey bottle that the stranger is taking swigs from. Later, the town becomes truly hellish, with all those red buildings and flames everywhere, with the stranger himself as a kind of devil pronouncing his verdict on nearly everyone in the town. It's almost beautiful in its horrible way, especially when Eastwood's familiar silhouette is framed in black against the bright orange flames.

The film betrays a sadistic, nasty-minded sensibility, assaulting the audience with horrific images like a lengthy flashback (repeated several times) of a man being whipped to death in the center of the town. Each time the scene recurs, it goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time, with an emphasis on the sound of the whips thumping into flesh, while streaks of bright red movie blood run across the dying man's face and torso. The townspeople all look on, passively allowing this horror to happen, and Eastwood's aesthetic forces the audience into a similar passivity, forced to endure the sounds of the whips drawing blood for what seems like an endless span of time. Eastwood wants to rub the audience's faces in the violence, like a cinematic punishment, but he repeats the whipping sequence so many times, and lets it run for so long, that it goes beyond grating into simply boring.

Eastwood's character, though a sociopathic monster and a rapist, is the film's moral center, which says a lot about what a morally bankrupt movie this is. He's meant to be the voice of conscience who rides into town and exacts vengeance on these people who once stood by and watched while a man was killed. The revenge theme provides a justification for everything that happens subsequently, especially since the finale draws an explicit link between the unnamed drifter and the dead man, even suggesting, as the stranger fades away into a hazy mirage in the desert, that he's the reincarnation of the noble murdered man. The film keeps implying that, while what the stranger does is despicable, in some ways these people deserve what they get, that they were asking for it. That's precisely the film's attitude about rape, for sure, and what the stranger does to the town as a whole is akin to rape as well, the violation of the community as an entity. The stranger comes into town and rapes, not only the women, but the town as a whole, and the film suggests that maybe this is alright. The filmmaking frames most of the stranger's behavior as a big joke, with Eastwood's self-satisfied smirk as the rimshot following the punchline. Eastwood encourages the audience to laugh along with the stranger as he humiliates, punishes and torments the townspeople in revenge for their own horrible deeds.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Passing Fancy

Passing Fancy is an early silent comedy by Yasujiro Ozu. Although many of Ozu's silent films are quite different from his later works, in Passing Fancy Ozu's mature style already seems to be almost fully developed. The film is a charming family comedy about the single dad Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), his son Tomio (Tomio Aoki), and his friend Jiro (Den Obinata), and the tension that enters their simple lives when they meet the homeless and unemployed young woman Harue (Nobuko Fushimi). The middle-aged Kihachi immediately likes the much younger woman, helping her get a job and a place to stay at a neighborhood restaurant while courting her in his goofy but charming way. Harue, though, thinks of Kihachi as an uncle and prefers the younger Jiro, who makes sure to keep her at arm's length, though one suspects that despite his insistence that he doesn't like her, he's only pushing her away out of loyalty to his good friend.

The film is mostly shot from Ozu's familiar low vantage point, his aesthetic already well-established by this time. In his films with children, the low camera placement seems to take on an additional purpose, as the low-to-the-ground framings are perfectly suited to a child's proportions — Tomio fits comfortably within the frame no matter how low the camera is placed — while the adults seem to tower outside the frame, their legs entering the frame before the rest of their body begins to appear in view. The compositions of the film are as meticulous and deliberate as later Ozu, with a constant awareness of how objects and people are arranged within the static frames; there is no camera movement, an aesthetic choice that would be totally codified in Ozu's late color films. As in his later work, striking use is made of bottles and other household objects positioned to counterbalance the actors within the frame; often the actors are placed into the background with some domestic object highlighted in the foreground. Ozu also periodically inserts static shots of the surrounding buildings and water towers to establish the setting, early examples of the "pillow shots" that would become such a powerful aesthetic devise in the director's postwar oeuvre.

Though there are elements of drama and melancholy in Passing Fancy, the film is largely a comedy, not so much in terms of broad slapstick as in its gentle but pervasive comic tone. Even at the height of the film's downtrodden section, when Tomio falls ill and Kihachi worries that the boy might die, Ozu breaks the tragic mood with a comic series of intertitles when Tomio's teacher asks Kihachi how the kid got sick, causing Kihachi to respond that "he ate fifty sen worth of sweets all at once," then enumerating all of the different flavors of candy the boy had eaten. Obviously, the illness isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but Kihachi's worries are heartrending anyway. Similarly, there's a strain of comedy running through the film centering on economic concerns in Depression era Japan, a concept introduced in the most humorous possible way in the film's opening scenes. At a theatrical performance, several men in the audience see a coin purse sitting on the ground and discretely peek inside, realizing that it's empty and then discarding it, only to have another man pick it up in the hopes of finding something inside. Ozu milks this gag for its gestural comedy, and also for its suggestion of poverty so extreme and common that none of these men think twice about trying to scrounge for money anywhere they might find a few coins. The physical comedy is then extended with a sequence where several men get up and dance around as though they have bugs crawling around in their clothes, another sign of the squalor of this neighborhood.

That economic hardship defines the film in many ways. Kihachi is embarrassed by his lack of financial security, by his inability to give his child everything he'd like to, and his desire for more leads him to extravagantly give the boy a coin, which Tomio then uses to gorge on candy since he's not used to having any money at all. More seriously, Kihachi proves incapable of paying the doctor who cares for his son, and scraping together the money for the medical bills proves to be an exceedingly difficult task. It quite literally takes the efforts of nearly everyone he knows to pay the doctor, with his community of friends and neighbors coming together to help him and his son.

Ozu often seems constrained by the stylistic conventions of the silent cinema; Japan was slow to switch to sound, and though Ozu often gets by here through gestural acting within the frame, this is a rather dialogue-heavy film with a lot of information and emotion conveyed through the text. In the scene where Harue and Jiro argue over her lack of romantic feelings for Kihachi, Ozu unleashes an uncharacteristic barrage of dialogue intertitles, alternating between static, repetitive images of Harue and Jiro, with more or less the same closeup of each repeated over and over again in between titles. It's one of the moments when the limitations of silent style for Ozu become obvious, as his visual sensibility must be subsumed to the necessity of staging a lengthy and emotionally complex conversation entirely in text.

Such glitches aside, Passing Fancy is a warm and gently funny work. The film's story is minimal, which allows Ozu to develop his characters and to use his slow, observational visual sensibility to create a portrait of an era and a neighborhood. The rich sense of community, the half-comic depiction of economic woes, the emotional nuance of the characters as they make the best of their limited circumstances, it all adds up to a lovely film that's very much attuned to the social milieu in which it is set.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Inexhaustible Documents: The Record Club

As the title says, I've started a new project, called Inexhaustible Documents, a Record Club organized among a number of bloggers who normally write primarily about film, but who also have some interest in music. If you remember the way the film club TOERIFC worked, the Record Club is going to work along similar lines. Each month, one member of the club will pick an album to recommend to everyone else. Over the subsequent few weeks, everyone will listen to the album, and then return to the site of the person who selected the album for a discussion about the music. The vibe should be relaxed and conversational, an online version of friends casually trading recommendations and commenting on them, and in that spirit the membership of the Record Club is appropriately fluid and open. There are already a number of active members (Jake Cole, Dennis Cozzalio, Marilyn Ferdinand, Carson Lund, Drew McIntosh, Kevin Olson, Troy Olson) who have committed to participating in the club, and a few others who may join in from time to time, but the monthly discussions will be open to anyone who's listened to that month's album and wishes to participate. Those who are interested in picking albums and hosting discussions will also be able to do so down the line.

Each month, there will be an announcement towards the beginning of the month in several places: here, at the new Inexhaustible Documents blog, and at that month's host blog. For the first month of the Club, I've selected the introductory album, and the discussion will be hosted here at Only the Cinema starting on May 23. Information on the selected album is below. There's also a small banner if you wish to promote the Record Club.

The first pick for the club is:

The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)

It's spring, a great season for listening to reggae, and this is one of the greatest reggae albums of all time.

If you're interested in participating in the club, take a listen (or, better yet, a few listens) to the Congos' debut — for the first time or the thousandth — and come back here on May 23 for a discussion of the album.

If you'd like to promote the Record Club, you can display the banner below by pasting the code onto your own blog.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Love On the Run

Love On the Run is the final installment in François Truffaut's series of Antoine Doinel films. For this goodbye to his most famous character, and to the series that he inaugurated with his debut feature, Truffaut offered a recapitulation of everything that had come before, a self-conscious trawl through the highlights of Antoine's onscreen life. The film is littered with snippets of other films, scenes from the previous Doinel adventures that keep bubbling up from the thoughts of various characters. These scenes from other movies are presented as memories, an appropriate metaphor since they are memories, presumably, for the audience as well, memories of other movies seen, memories of this character's previous screen adventures, of what he and the rest of the cast looked like nine years ago, or eleven years, or seventeen, or a full twenty years ago, when the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud and the character he played were both only fourteen, a rebellious kid struggling with quarrelsome, inconsistent parents and the strict discipline of school. These films have always been about constantly building on the foundation of the past, and the previous films in the series already contained echoes of the earlier works, references to Antoine's previous adventures and to the audience's memory of his earlier screen incarnations. Here, the device is taken to its logical conclusion, the subtle echoes and parallels replaced by literal — and liberal — quotation.

When Truffaut last checked in with Antoine, in 1970's Bed & Board, he was married to Christine (Claude Jade), and that film ended, after some marital difficulties and infidelity, with the couple's moving reconciliation. It's thus purposefully jarring that Love On the Run opens with Antoine waking up with another woman, Sabine (Dorothée), who has the same slender, nice girl prettiness as Christine. The opening scene, in which the couple playfully banter and spar, until Sabine finally turns off the light and tackles Antoine, suggests that Antoine still hasn't changed, that he's still unsettled, flighty, always looking for something different and winding up with variations on the familiar. He's never quite grown up, and throughout the film he's being dissected, analyzed, his routines and follies mocked and prodded. Everyone has his number down by now: that he's a hopeless romantic until the moment when he gets what he thinks he wants, that he's still haunted by his past and especially by his unhappy childhood, that he has a rather pessimistic view of love and relationships. When the film opens, he's on the verge of getting divorced from Christine, he's embroiled in his latest in a long line of passionate affairs with Sabine, and he's ripe for a reappraisal of his life so far.

The film thus takes Antoine, and those around him, on a trip back through his life as it has unfolded on screen. Characters from Antoine's past return, revisiting earlier moments in his life. Most notably, Antoine again meets his first love Colette (Marie-France Pisier), the girl from the short Antoine and Colette, in many ways the template for all of Antoine's later romantic adventures even though she always resisted his amorous advances. She's now a lawyer, divorced like Antoine, and also mourning the death of her child. Her reunion with Antoine allows her, through reading his autobiographical novel, to reminisce about their pasts and to think about where their lives are headed now. Colette's story in this film parallels Antoine's, to the extent that she becomes a costar with him, two people with a shared past headed along similar trajectories. Just as Antoine struggles in his relationship with Sabine, unable to convey to the girl just how much he loves her, Colette has an on/off romance with the book store owner Xavier (Daniel Mesquich) who, it turns out, is Sabine's brother. Her story and Antoine's thus come together, as both of them are trying to shrug off their pasts and move forward with a new love. As Antoine tries to come to terms with his immaturity and his hang-ups, Colette is still haunted by the death of her child (a detail that's foreshadowed early on but isn't revealed until late in the film) and her uncertainty about her feelings for her lover. This film, mirroring Truffaut's second Antoine story, is about Antoine and Colette, but this time it's not about their failed romance, but about their parallel romances with other people.

This film is refreshing in that it abandons the cheesy humor of the last two Antoine Doinel installments, Stolen Kisses and Bed & Board, focusing instead on the pathos and emotion of Antoine the perpetual man-child, always just on the cusp of adulthood, always learning lessons that, one suspects, he may forget just as quickly. Love On the Run is moving because it provides a cathartic final look at Antoine's life, his mistakes and mishaps, and because it gives him a chance to correct some of those failings. At one point, Antoine runs into Lucien (Julien Bertheau), the man he saw kissing his mother in The 400 Blows, and apparently the man who went on to become her longtime lover. Lucien provides Antoine with a softer, more sympathetic view of his mother, conveying to the touched young man that even if she was never quite able to show it, she did love Antoine. Lucien takes Antoine to his mother's grave, and her face, preserved as she had looked in The 400 Blows, is briefly superimposed into the film, a ghostly projection from the cinematic past providing some closure to Antoine's unhappy childhood.

And also, of course, to Truffaut's, since Antoine's troubled childhood was so thoroughly autobiographical for the director. This is an especially autobiographical film for Truffaut, as evidenced by the liberal quotations from his own previous work, not just the Doinel films but Day For Night (which is evoked by a flashback of Antoine's affair with a woman played by Dani, with situations and dialogue derived from the earlier movie) and Une belle fille comme moi, which Truffaut lightly mocks by having his characters comment on it. He also nods to his fellow New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer by having Christine and Dani's Liliane draw sketches for Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, thus acknowledging the more adventurous, experimental path traveled by some of Truffaut's New Wave contemporaries while he went on to make mainstream thrillers and comedies and love stories.

Love On the Run, of course, is stuck in the past, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. The film's relentless quotation is often moving, though at times Truffaut goes overboard, especially when he excerpts such long scenes from his previous films that one nearly forgets the surrounding present-day material that prompted these flashbacks. The story of Love On the Run itself is minimal, and the flashbacks often overpower the new material. But Truffaut makes interesting use of his structure, inserting several flashbacks to scenes that didn't exist in the previous films, scenes that might be excerpted from some never-made film that fills in the blanks in between Bed & Board and Love On the Run, like Antoine's affair with Liliane, and the death of Colette's child, and the start of Antoine's romance with Sabine.

The film's final act is especially moving and charming, built on a playful foundation of coincidences and contrivances, like Colette's meeting with Christine, which provides the impetus for one of the film's very best scenes. It's wonderful to see these two women who Antoine loved so intensely converge at the apartment of Antoine's latest love. The two women sit on a bench together and talk, sharing stories of heartache and humor, commiserating about the man they both knew at very different times in his life and in very different ways, laughing about his follies and his idiosyncrasies. It's a delightful and oddly emotional scene, a wry look at Antoine from outside his own self-involved bubble, and the women laugh together, intervene one last time in Antoine's latest romantic folly, and then move on to their own lives without him. This sets up the romantic finale, in which Sabine and Antoine, after reconciling — the way Antoine and Christine had reconciled at the end of Bed & Board — speak into a mirror, delivering lines that might as well be spoken directly to the camera, since they constitute the last word on Antoine and the implicit moral of this final film. It's an acknowledgment that nothing is certain, that life is a constant process of upheavals and changes, and that despite this lack of permanence the best thing to do is to approach each new adventure, each new love, each new career, pretending that it will last forever. What a great way to say goodbye to Antoine.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bed & Board

Bed & Board is the fourth installment in François Truffaut's series of films about the lovable rogue Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The previous film, 1968's Stolen Kisses, ended with Antoine settling down after some romantic adventures, finally realizing that his longtime on-again-off-again girlfriend Christine (Claude Jade) was the girl for him. This film opens with Antoine and Christine married, living in a small apartment above where Antoine works in a shop dying flowers. The film's opening scenes follow Christine on her errands, initially only tracking her shapely legs below the hem of her skirt, as she goes from shop to shop, correcting the shopowners on her title: she's a "madame," not a "mademoiselle," she says proudly, perhaps proud both that she's married and that she looks young enough to still be mistaken for a young unmarried girl. When Christine returns home soon after, she runs into an old man on the staircase, who lets her go ahead of him so he can ogle her legs, the same way Truffaut's camera had been admiring them just moments before. The point is obvious: Antoine has a young and very desirable wife, and in the subsequent scenes some comic interplay with a slightly older woman who flirts with Antoine establishes that he too is young and desirable. It's a portrait of a happy marriage but already the emphasis on youth and attractiveness sets the stage for some straying outside of this marital and domestic bliss.

The film picks up where the previous Doinel films left off, continuing to examine Antoine as he grows up but doesn't exactly mature. The series that started with Antoine as a young boy, rebelling against his parents and the oppressive confines of school, has now followed him through his teenage romantic troubles and into adulthood and marriage. The previous films are very much present here, in ways both obvious and subtle. During the early scenes, when Antoine is working at the flower shop, he gets a call and answers the phone with an enthusiastic greeting to someone he greets as a mother; for a moment, one wonders if Antoine has at last reconciled with his parents, who were last seen in the first film of the series, The 400 Blows, before he ran away from home. Instead, the woman on the phone turns out to be Christine's mother. As Antoine says, "I don't fall in love with a girl, I fall in love with her whole family." This was a running theme of the earlier films in the series as well. Antoine, who had such an unhappy childhood and such lousy parents, is constantly looking for an adoptive family to call his own. In Antoine and Colette, he'd been as attracted to Colette's loving, kind parents as to the girl herself, and in fact he'd probably spent more time with her parents than with her, as she was constantly dodging him and keeping him at a distance. In Stolen Kisses, he'd formed a similar dynamic with Christine and her parents, and his love for Christine seems to be bound up in his admiration for the happy home life and close relationship she has with her parents, a domestic contentment that had been denied to Antoine (and, by extension, Truffaut) as a boy.

Later, Christine refers to Antoine's ill-fated relationship with Colette, thinking that his admiration for Christine's new glasses is linked to the girl he once loved as a younger man. He corrects her, saying that Colette didn't wear glasses, but in fact his desire for Christine to keep the glasses on in bed hints at something else altogether: a slight restlessness, a desire for something a little different, for a change of pace. Antoine has met a girl, the Japanese girl Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer), and he seems to be heading towards an affair. That's the drama that eventually emerges from the film, but it does so only slowly, gradually bubbling up from beneath the light, charming surface of everyday life.

Day-to-day domesticity is the focus here, with lightly humorous scenarios like Antoine and Christine's elaborate and indirect way of getting a forgetful woman to remember to pay for the violin lessons that Christine gives to the woman's daughter. The courtyard of the building where Antoine and Christine live is populated with more eccentric characters, and just as the detective agency of Stolen Kisses provided a forum for little bits of antic comedy and one-liners, this cast of characters serves a similar function here, sprinkling little comedic routines along the fringes of the film. Most of it isn't particularly funny or original, amusing enough to elicit maybe a small smile or a chuckle rather than real laughter. As a comedian, Truffaut's material is rather tame and familiar, and the effect, as at times in Stolen Kisses, is of watching a comedy with very few real laughs. (One exception is Antoine's great response to Christine's musing that she wouldn't breast-feed a child, and another is the bit involving Antoine's insistence that he's reading a newspaper article about "lascivious broads.")

Léaud is such a charming presence that he's fun to watch no matter what the context, and the same goes for Jade. But the sad fact is that each subsequent Antoine Doinel film seems less weighty, less substantial than the last. By this point, the series has become a venue for Truffaut's lightly comic musings on marriage, which are strictly generic and derived from conventional romantic comedy — the best example is the recurring and very unfunny routine with an impatient opera singer and his perpetually late wife, who's always scurrying after him. When that gag is repeated by Antoine and Christine at the end of the film, it's meant to signify that they too have fallen into the routines of marriage, that this is true love. Instead, it's merely sad to see these charming and lively characters subsumed by such lame material. Truffaut's comedic impulses are at the level of a sitcom or a tired old-school comedy, with overly broad caricatured characters: dirty old men, horny housewives, and so on. In comparison to the loose, rich, offhanded humor of The 400 Blows and Antoine and Colette — humor that emerged organically from the characters and situations, blended into the varied emotional palette of those films — this staid and prosaic comedic sensibility is a jarring disappointment. Still, there are a few good recurring characters, especially a friend of Antoine's who's constantly asking to borrow money in incrementally greater amounts, always asking to borrow again whatever he already owes.

Truffaut also makes good use of a sinister mystery man (an echo of the mysterious stranger who followed Christine around in Stolen Kisses) who everyone in the neighborhood calls "the strangler." The man turns out to be an innocuous actor, and one night Antoine and Christine see him on TV, doing impersonations of Delphine Seyrig. He starts out performing a parody of Resnais' Last Night In Marienbad, then segues into dialogue from Stolen Kisses, dialogue that Seyrig's older seductress had spoken to Antoine before they went to bed together. As the lines are spoken, Truffaut focuses on a closeup of Christine, smiling and giggling, oblivious to the fact that the actor is reciting lines from one of her husband's previous sexual adventures. It's another of the film's premonitions of the marital discord and infidelity to come.

The thing is, once Antoine has achieved the bourgeois family life he always wanted — the loving parents, the sweet and smart wife, the beautiful baby boy they have halfway through the film — he doesn't really know what to do with it all. He's still a playful and aimless young man, drifting through life. He gets fired from his job as a flower-dyer after screwing up a bouquet with an experiment that fries the flowers, and he stumbles through a case of mistaken identity into a new and even more whimsical job where his sole responsibility seems to be piloting remote-controlled boats around a lake-sized scale model of a harbor. The purpose of this bizarre job is never explained; it's merely a sign of Antoine's continued existence within a quasi-adulthood in which he hasn't quite adopted to marriage, or parenthood, or the responsibilities of a real adult job. As little as Bed & Board resembles the earlier films in the series in terms of tone or style, Antoine himself is still very much recognizable, the impish adolescent of the earliest films in the series still embodied within an older body.

Antoine's continuing uncertainty about what exactly he wants leads to one of the film's best sequences, the penultimate scene at a restaurant where Antoine goes with Kyoko. During the dinner, in between courses, he keeps leaving the table to call Christine on the phone, telling her how unhappy he is and how tired he's grown of Kyoko already. The calls eventually lead to his reconciliation with Christine, a very touching moment in which Truffaut cuts back and forth between closeups of the earnest, upset Antoine and the sweetly smiling Christine, the editing bringing the couple back together even though they remain separated across the phone line. It's a very touching moment, and even if Bed & Board on the whole is too weak and inconsistent to be considered a truly worthy successor to the earlier films in the series, moments like this carry over a measure of the emotional complexity and warmth most closely associated with Antoine Doinel and his adventures.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stolen Kisses

Stolen Kisses is the third installment in the series of Antoine Doinel tales that François Truffaut inaugurated with his debut feature The 400 Blows. The film opens several years after Truffaut's last visit with Antoine (played as always by Jean-Pierre Léaud), in the short film Antoine and Colette. As with the gap between The 400 Blows and that short, several years are left as an ellipsis between installments, with the effect that each new film in the series is like catching up with an old friend, learning what he's done and where he's been in the intervening years since his last appearance. Since Léaud grows up on screen with his cinematic counterpart, it's also a way of catching up with the actor, seeing how the fourteen year-old boy from The 400 Blows has matured into an independent young man with a vibrant, eclectic life both onscreen and off. When Stolen Kisses opens, Antoine has been in the army for three years, and at the very beginning of the film he's in a military prison, awaiting his release from the army after a troubled career as a private. During his exit interview with a superior officer, the man rattles off a list of Antoine's offenses, including all the bases where he'd gone AWOL, and Antoine smiles at each one, as though fondly recalling happy memories of what he'd done during each of these infractions; a whole history is suggested in those smiles.

It's a loving and playful re-introduction to this familiar character, an assurance that though Antoine has grown older he's still a charming misbehavior, a defiant young man with little tolerance for authority. Even more telling, perhaps, is what precedes this scene, an opening image which on the surface has no real connection to the rest of the film. During the credit sequence, Truffaut films the building that housed the then-closed Cinémathèque Franèais, which at the time of the making of this film was embroiled in the Langlois affair, when the firing of Henri Langlois, the Cinémathèque's longtime director (and mentor to the Cahiers du cinema group of filmmakers and critics), triggered student protests and riots demanding his reinstatement. Truffaut and Léaud were both on the frontlines of these protests, with the latter making fiery speeches on Langlois' behalf in front of that very building. Some text during the titles of Stolen Kisses dedicates the film to Langlois, but the film itself has only the most tenuous of connections to Langlois or to the protests and politics bubbling up around him at the time. The protests over Langlois' departure from the Cinémathèque would eventually seem like a precursor to the broader student riots of May 1968, but these political questions linger only at the edges of the film.

The Langlois affair is mentioned explicitly, once, by the parents of Antoine's sometime-girlfriend Christine (Claude Jade), who describe it in vague and slightly bemused terms, reflecting the generation gap between the older generation and those who, like Truffaut and Léaud and their associates, grew up with the Cinémathèque and with Langlois' tutelage. But Antoine and Christine are equally abstracted from the events; Christine gets off from school when boycotts break out at her university, and she uses it as an unexpected vacation, going skiing with her friends. Antoine, for his part, is totally unaware of any of it. Later, Christine mentions to him that some of her friends are involved in protests, but Antoine, absorbed in his job, barely listens, and that's the extent of the film's engagement with the political upheavals sweeping France at the time. It's a curious decision, this abstraction from the politics of the time, especially since both the director and the star were so heavily involved in the events in their personal lives. It's as though Truffaut is asserting, with his casual integration of the politics at the fringes of a politically content-free film, that he intends to keep his cinema somewhat separate from the upheavals of the time — a pointed rejection of the very different path taken by Jean-Luc Godard, and the increasing split between the two filmmakers and former friends. Truffaut's film makes a token nod to the politics, to the concerns that so occupied both Truffaut and Léaud off the set. Godard could not make such a separation between his politics, his life and the films he made, but Truffaut, it seems, could.

Instead, Stolen Kisses is largely concerned, like Antoine and Colette, with Antoine's romantic adventures, in this case especially his on/off relationship with Christine, with whom he has a relationship that mirrors his friendship/affair with Colette, even including his closeness with the girl's mother and stepfather, who are like surrogate parents for the adrift young man. In addition to the relationship with Christine, the film also traces Antoine's visits to prostitutes (including his very funny encounter with a pair of them early on) and his fascination with Fabienne (Delphine Seyrig), a beautiful older woman who's the wife of the shoe store owner Tabard (Michael Lonsdale). He meets this latter couple while working as a detective for a private investigation firm, one of several jobs he takes during the course of the film. Antoine is an inept detective, perhaps because his example is the movies: in one of the film's funniest scenes, Antoine, excited over his new job, follows a random woman on the street and acts so suspicious that she detects him almost instantly. His exaggerated cinema detective routine — hiding his face behind a newspaper, ducking behind trees, weaving back and forth behind his chosen target — is derived entirely from the language of detective films, with a heavy parodic spirit in the way he executes these maneuvers.

Indeed, Stolen Kisses is a comedy in a way that, for all the humorous moments in both The 400 Blows and Antoine and Colette, neither of the first two Antoine Doinel films were. This film often seems to be built around sketches, bits of comedic business like Antoine's introduction to the detective Henri (Harry-Max), in which the detective cons Antoine (in an short-lived job as a hotel desk clerk) into helping him get proof for an adultery case. The scene is pure antic slapstick, albeit somewhat clumsily staged, with jarring cuts and a kind of forced cheerfulness as the woman in the case sits in bed topless and the men yell at each other. Truffaut's comedy often seems forced and off-key like this, particularly in the scenes involving one of the detective agency's other clients, an obviously gay man who enlists the agency to track down his former boyfriend, a magician. Truffaut makes the gay man an object of mockery, emphasizing the way the agency's owner sees right through the man's explanation that he wants them to find his "friend." Later, when the detectives tell the man that his "friend" is now married with a pregnant wife, he loses it, assaulting the detectives and eventually getting carted away. (The best part of that scene, though, is Léaud's possibly unscripted sudden fall off camera, tripping over an unseen obstacle in the midst of the chaotic scene.) The gay man provides comedic relief, his heartache over his breakup an object of derision and implicit mockery — a stark contrast to the treatment of Antoine's naïve romanticism and obsession with his amour du jour in this series.

The film is more compelling in its comedy when it comes to Tabard, the shoe store owner who hires the agency, he says, because even though he's a very successful businessman and, he thinks, a decent guy, he believes that everyone in his life, from his employees to his wife, actually hates him. Even in his first interview, he gives a first hint as to his true character, casually letting slip his racist sentiments even while insisting that he doesn't discriminate against anyone in his store — even Arabs and Chinamen, he says, not realizing that he's revealing more clues than he thinks. It gets better. Antoine gets a job in Tabard's store to observe the store owner's (nasty) interactions with his employees, and becomes obsessed with Tabard's wife Fabienne. Tabard is a jerk with his wife, too, and it's obvious that she looks at him with barely veiled contempt and annoyance. When Tabard says that he once painted houses, his wife, with a girlish smile, jokes, "like Hitler." Tabard slams down his fork, obviously angry, but the way he phrases his response, it almost sounds like he thinks she insulted, not him, but Hitler, by calling the dictator "a housepainter." "Hitler painted landscapes," he says indignantly, with the air of a man tired of hearing his hero slandered. The portrayal of Tabard as a silly fascist who wonders why nobody likes him is the film's richest vein of comedy.

In a way, the structuring of Stolen Kisses as a comedy robs the film of the depths conveyed by the earlier Antoine Doinel stories. In this film, Antoine is almost a bystander in his own story, observing the action and the weird characters around him but staying curiously uninvolved — which also works as a metaphor for the film's lack of political involvement. Antoine is almost a placeholder in this film, the strong emotions he displayed in the earlier films somewhat dimmed, held at a distance. The film is about Antoine's slow realization that he has to finally grow up, and in the final scene — having reconciled with Christine and proposed to her after a fling with Fabienne — he comes face to face with a romantic, passionate young man who wildly declares his love to Christine, who calls him "crazy." Antoine, one senses, would recognize himself in this fiercely romantic and impetuous man, and as Antoine walks away with Christine at the end of the film, disappearing down a tree-lined boulevard, he's leaving behind that iteration of himself. It's a powerful conclusion, but not one that's organically developed in the rest of the film, as Antoine simply shuffles from one job to another with little indication of what he's feeling on a deeper level, beyond his desire for one woman or another.

Even so, the film is at times charming, and the eccentric characters who populate the detective agency provide a real source of entertaining diversions. The heart of the film, though, is Christine, and Claude Jade's sprightly performance, radiating girl-next-door charm and poise, makes her a compelling character. When she decides she wants Antoine back, and devises a simple ruse to bring him back to her, the mischievous smile on her face communicates everything one needs to know about her. Truffaut also stages a lovely scene in which the reunited lovers communicate entirely in short notes to one another, culminating with Antoine proposing to her and declaring his love, all accomplished silently, just watching the faces of the actors as they play this little game of non-verbal love. Delphine Seyrig's performance as Fabienne — which climaxes with an absolutely wonderful and meandering speech she gives to a silent, slightly frightened Antoine as she seduces him — is also great, and in many ways the two women overshadow Antoine, and Léaud, in his own movie.

It's sometimes a problem that Antoine seems peripheral to his own story, but the emphasis on the two women he loves restores some of the energy and richness that's otherwise lost here. The film is sometimes funny (Antoine trying out for a job as a stock boy, ineptly wrapping a package and getting the job because the owner wants a detective in house) and has clever flights of fancy like the sequence where a letter is tracked from the post office through the underground pneumatic tubes of Paris to its eventual destination, but on the whole it's an uneven third visit with Antoine Doinel, not nearly as satisfying or consistent, or as deep, as the first two entries in the series.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Antoine and Colette

The short film Antoine and Colette, originally part of an anthology film called Love At Twenty, was François Truffaut's first sequel to his debut The 400 Blows, picking up the story of the young juvenile delinquent Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) three years after the events of that film. The film opens with a voiceover that catches the audience up on the intervening years of Antoine's life: in and out of juvenile detention, eventually landing on his feet with a job at a record company, finally getting the independent life that he'd longed for as a child. The early images of Antoine waking up alone in his own apartment and then stepping out on the balcony are the image of freedom. Truffaut's camera leaves the apartment to capture Antoine's apartment building in a long shot, zooming in on the young men as he steps out onto the balcony, overlooking the street, stretching in the morning air, a vision of freedom and independence, a young man on his own in the city.

Truffaut then further establishes the continuity between his earlier film and this one by having Antoine meet with his old friend René (Patrick Auffay), and the two friends reminisce about some of their adventures from The 400 Blows. These memories infiltrate the film in an especially cinematic way, a variation on the old iris in/out of silent film, as the frame constricts on the present-day Antoine and René to make room for their memories, in the form of a scene chopped out of the first film, which then expands to fill the whole frame. It's a very poignant moment, as the scene from the first film is nostalgic on multiple levels: for Antoine and René, remembering their childhood friendship, but also for the audience, remembering the film they'd loved so much and the playful, loose spirit that infused it, and remembering too the way these actors, now young men, had looked just a few years before, like little boys playing at being men, smoking cigars and drinking wine and gambling, then clumsily trying to hide all the evidence when a parental authority came in.

With the characters re-introduced in this essentially nostalgic way — nostalgic already for the cinema of a few years earlier, for the boyhood awkwardly blossoming into puberty and manhood — the remainder of the short concerns Antoine's unsuccessful attempts to woo Colette (Marie-France Pisier), a girl he meets at a concert. When Antoine finally gets the courage to talk to her after watching her from afar at multiple concerts, Truffaut highlights the couple, isolating them from the rest of the audience with a tight frame that only reveals Antoine and Colette, with the rest of the frame black as though everything else in the room has ceased to matter — to the besotted Antoine, at least. Reading between the lines, however, even more than this story of young love, the film is actually about Antoine's yearning for the family he'd lost, the happy family that in a sense he'd never had.

Colette rejects Antoine's advances at every turn, treating him like a friend or, more poignantly, like a brother. Indeed, Colette's parents immediately take a liking to Antoine, and at one point the voiceover says that they all but "adopted" the young man, a pointed turn of phrase considering Antoine's status as a near-orphan, with no parents who care about him. (It's touching, too, in light of Truffaut's own quasi-parental relationship with the young actor; there was more than a little of both Truffaut and Léaud in Antoine.) Antoine had been a ward of the state, and now he was on his own, and though he gets nowhere with Colette, one senses that perhaps what he really wants is not necessarily her but this family. They're so well-adjusted, so friendly, never arguing the way Antoine and René's parents had argued; there's quite a contrast between the family scenes in this film and the families of The 400 Blows.

When Antoine tells Colette's parents that he'd run away a lot as a child, they joke about it with Colette in a way that suggests they know that she'd never do that, and she seems to know that she'd never want to. They sit around the table in the family's apartment, talking and laughing, and Antoine's giggling at everything they say subtly recalls his one happy memory with his own family, a car ride from The 400 Blows when he rode in the back between his parents, watching them happy for once, flirting and joking with one another, one big happy family. This scene is an echo of the earlier one, another glimpse of a happy family for the independent Antoine.

There are other suggestions that Antoine is still yearning for the happy childhood he never had. When Colette says it must be so wonderful to be on his own, he seems ambivalent, shrugging and saying, "it depends." The conversation takes place on a dark street as the pair walk home together, and it's too dark to see the young man's face, but one senses the subtle melancholy in his voice, the sense that he's gotten what he always wanted and still isn't quite happy. This sense runs throughout the whole film, a cross-current to the emphasis on Antoine's attempts to woo Colette. The result is that, though the unrequited romance is the ostensible subject of the film, its real thematic depths reside not in the heartache of young love but in the adolescent longing for family and stability, the mingled fears and excitement of being out on one's own in the world.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The 400 Blows

François Truffaut's first feature, The 400 Blows, is one of the seminal and defining works of the French New Wave, and with good reason. This stripped-down story of a misbehaving Parisian boy is deeply moving, warm and funny, a profound and enduring humanist statement. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a young boy who, struggling against his parents' indifference and his teachers' authoritarianism, continually gets in trouble at school and at home. His parents are familiar types: his mother (Claire Maurier) a middle-aged beauty clinging to her youth and sexiness, alternately scolding and coddling the confused Antoine, and his father (Albert Rémy) a joker, a goofball, forever stalled in middle management at his job due to lack of education. The family lives in a small apartment so cramped that Antoine can't even fully open the door to his room, since the bed blocks it; he can crack the door only enough to barely squeeze out.

Antoine's mother is introduced coming home from work, taking off her stockings, stretching her legs so that her skirt rides up, as she wearily scolds Antoine for forgetting to do some shopping for her. Truffaut emphasizes her sexuality, her bare legs and the curves beneath her tight sweater, juxtaposing her womanly vivaciousness against the aura of an exhausted working woman and a frustrated, ill-tempered mother. As soon as Antoine runs out the door on his errand, she admires herself in a mirror, posing as though for photographs, reflecting her self-centered interest in herself over her son. Antoine's father, meanwhile, jokes and laughs with his son, but he's equally frustrated with Antoine's inability to behave or do well in school, and his lighthearted demeanor is often shattered by bouts of anger and discipline. Antoine is living in an unstable and unhappy home. His father's jokes only irritate his mother, especially since the banter often has a sarcastic undercurrent that suggests he thinks she's unfaithful — a suspicion that proves to be true, as Antoine finds out later when, cutting school one day, he sees his mother with another man. The relationship between mother and son becomes one of strange complicity, as the mother tells Antoine that they'll each keep "secrets" between themselves: she doesn't mention what he saw, but it's obviously on her mind.

The issue of class is developed further when Antoine goes to stay with his school friend René (Patrick Auffay), whose family is rich and lives in a tremendous house with so many rooms that Antoine can hide in one without anyone ever finding him. Antoine is stunned by the size of this house in comparison to his own family's cramped apartment, but the family relations are remarkably similar: René's mother and father hardly see each other and are rarely even home at the same time. The kids are basically left to themselves, and they respond by doing whatever they want, trying to become independent. In practice, though Antoine talks of getting a job and supporting himself, the kids mainly steal whatever they can get their hands on, go to the movies, and run through the streets of Paris without aim.

The film reflects this juvenile aimlessness in its loose, off-the-cuff aesthetics. Shot largely in the streets of Paris with the fast, low-budget methods that would become one of the defining characteristics of the early New Wave, The 400 Blows captures Antoine's yearning for freedom, the playful spirit of fun that drives these kids. In one memorable sequence, Truffaut's camera follows the class, often from a high angle, as they're led on a jogging expedition through the city by a gym teacher. As the clueless teacher jogs at the front of the line, the kids behind him peel off and run off together until there are only a couple of students actually following the teacher anymore. In another sequence, Antoine and René sit in the cinema, captured in a two-shot that fixes their enraptured gazes, their hypnosis by the screen, their eyes wide and staring, much like Truffaut and his friends of the time, all of them compulsive moviegoers who would, like Antoine, rather hole up in a movie theater for hours at a time than engage with the responsibilities and troubles of the outside world.

The cinema also figures in the one sequence that shows Antoine and his family actually in harmony, enjoying themselves for a change — a fleeting moment of pleasure built on Antoine's lies. The family plans to go out to see Paris Belongs To Us — later the first film of Jacques Rivette, at this point actually still embroiled in its troubled shoot — and their night of laughter and good humor provides one of the few happy memories of family and home life that Antoine will ever have. His parents seem happy, flirting with one another and laughing, and on the way home Antoine sits in the back seat of the car, between them, laughing at nearly everything they say, not because it's funny but because he's so happy to see them like this, a rare occurrence in this family.

This brief, cheerful interlude remains an oasis in the desert of Antoine's life, as he continues to act out and lie, to steal and cheat, and eventually his parents simply give up on him, relinquishing their care for him and sending him to a juvenile detention center after a night spent in jail along with criminals and prostitutes. It's all leading towards the film's famous finale, an extended tracking shot of Antoine running along a beach, playing at the water's edge, and then that iconic final freeze frame of Antoine looking into the camera, his eyes uncertain, searching. He's reached the end of the world, perhaps, the place where the land falls off into the water — and also the place he'd dreamed, childishly, of running away to with René, to start a boat business and make their own way in the world — and now he looks back toward the camera and beyond it, as though wondering where he's going to go next. It's an extraordinary image, impossible to forget, the endless ocean behind Antoine simultaneously conveying limitless possibilities and nowhere left to run. Léaud's obviously deep identification with this character helps to communicate the intensity of his confusion and uncertainty at this point. Léaud, so young here, so fragile and also so bold and swaggering, would eventually grow up onscreen in the films of the New Wave, and it seems to be that future he's looking towards, trying to imagine who he'll be next, what films he'll live next.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fat Girl

Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl is a chilling and disturbing movie, an in-your-face provocation that presents a devastating portrait of the kind of insinuating sexual exploitation that goes on everyday. It's a film that's deeply suspicious of the concept of "love" and the things that are done in its name, and it's all leading towards an unforgettable final line and final shot that forces the film's moral to snap into place with unavoidable clarity. The film focuses on the relationship of the young sisters Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), the former pretty and poised between girlish and womanly, the latter chubby and sullen. During a summer vacation, Anaïs watches as Elena gets an older boyfriend, Fernando (Lorenzo de Rienzo), and hesitates before losing her virginity to him.

The film's centerpiece is a very difficult-to-watch, discomfiting sequence in which Fernando relentlessly tries to convince Elena to have sex with him, while Anaïs watches from across the room in her own bed, pretending to sleep, covering her eyes then spreading her fingers apart to peek through. The scene is so disturbing because it's so real, so believable, and because it's pretty much rape. Elena keeps resisting, telling Fernando she doesn't want to, and he just keeps on verbally wearing her down, telling her it will be a "proof of love," telling her that if she doesn't give him what he needs, he'll have to go with another girl, someone he doesn't love like he loves her, and he doesn't want to do that. It's icky and scummy, and one wants to watch the way Anaïs does, half-covering one's eyes, wanting to turn away but unable to despite the burgeoning sick feeling that the scene inevitably produces. Breillat is as relentless as the boy, holding her camera on the duo as they awkwardly wrestle and turn around, Elena looking increasingly upset and confused beneath the barrage of Fernando's words. Her face suggests that she feels assaulted even before he actually does anything to her, and the contrast between her tormented visage and his smug smiles and flowery speeches is nauseating. It's a raw, unsentimental depiction of "love" as predation and exploitation, and it has the searing force of an uncomfortable truth.

This scene — in which Elena eventually relents, more or less, to anal sex, then feels ashamed afterward — reverberates throughout the entire rest of the film. Breillat is ultimately more interested in the relationship between the sisters, and especially in the lessons that Anaïs is learning by watching her sister's miserable introduction to sexuality. Anaïs, though younger, often seems more mature and cynical than her romantic older sister, who buys into Fernando's promises and professions of love completely. Anaïs isn't so sentimental, because she's watched her sister from a more objective viewpoint, outside of this relationship, and she sees how tawdry and ugly it all is. As she says at one point, the benefit of being the second child is that she gets to advance at a faster rate, to learn from the mistakes of the older child, and though she's talking about their parents' increased permissiveness with the younger daughter, her words also apply to her understanding of sexuality. She gets to learn about sex by watching her sister, and what she learns is that guys exploit girls for sex, that girls are often forced into doing things they don't want, that sex is somewhat violent. When Elena says that she's going to "give herself" to Fernando, Anaïs says that her expression is strange; it's likely that Anaïs, from her vantage point, sees the transaction as one where the guy takes rather than one where the girl gives.

The relationship between the sisters is always at the center of the film, and Breillat presents them as opposites in many ways, but bound together by sisterly affection and rivalry, by equal parts love and hatred. There is a surprisingly touching scene in which the two girls lay in bed one night, their heads close together, talking and laughing, reminiscing about their childhoods and their fights, giggling like the little girls they are. It's the one moment when they really seem like children, with their girlish giggles and their innocent banter — elsewhere, they seem to be growing up very quickly. Anaïs spends much of the rest of the film quietly glowering from afar, watching everything with alert and somewhat angry eyes, her face locked into a permanent scowl, her features small and delicate within her moon-like face. It's rather poignant, and also cruel, when Breillat repeatedly films the two actresses with their faces pressed together, emphasizing the differences between them, calling attention to the gulf between the sexualized Elena (and Mesquida was nineteen at the time, but believably looks much younger, like a Lolita-esque little girl trying to be sexy and provocative) and the younger, asexual Anaïs.

The girls are left to learn their lessons on their own, as their parents (Romain Goupil and Arsinée Khanjian) seem totally disinterested in anything the girls do. When Anaïs breaks down crying at breakfast one morning, the girls' parents make a cursory effort to ask what's wrong, and then the father storms off in annoyance while the mother simply writes it off as "adolescence." They're totally incompetent parents, wrapped up in their own lives and ignoring their daughters completely, blind to what's going on. They even meet Fernando — who's obviously so much older than Elena — and chat with him as though he's simply a nice boy but then, later in the film, they act as though they're shocked and disgusted when they learn that Elena actually had sex with him. They blame the girls for everything and, in that case, the subtext is that guys are expected to act like this, that guys are expected to want sex and to do anything to get it, so it's the girl's fault if she gives him what he wants.

All of this unrelentingly ugly depiction of sexuality is leading towards the shocking ending, in which Anaïs finally gets to apply the lessons she's learned in an unexpected way. Breillat subtly builds the tension leading up to this climax, as she extends the long drive home from the vacation, with the mother, who hates driving, at the wheel and the teary, worn-out girls sullenly sitting in the car with her. The tension builds and builds as the mother drives angrily, and the uncomfortable silence in the car is occasionally broken by bouts of recrimination and tears, or by the mother's blasting of a glam David Bowie rocker. The highway, crowded with trucks and impatient speeders, adds to the tension, and several times Breillat's staging of the long drive suggests that the film is going to end with a car crash, with a horrible accident. Instead, it ends in a rest stop where the mother and her daughters are confronted with an even more blatant depiction of predatory male sexuality than Fernando had been, and in the final line, and the final freeze frame on Anaïs' chillingly empty face, Anaïs suggests that what she's learned from watching her sister is that a guy forcing himself on a girl is normal, to be expected, that in fact it's not even rape, really.

This is a film with a very clear point of view about sex, that it's something forced upon girls by the guys who claim to love them and simply use them instead. It is, of course, a pretty limited view of sex, but that's part of the point: the film is intended as a cautionary tale, as a film to excite fear and reprehension. It aims to teach a lesson, not the same lesson as Anaïs learns — to accept rape — but the lesson that the danger of a society in which Fernando's behavior is accepted and even considered normal is that rape will be accepted. In order to reach this conclusion, Breillat has to make everyone other than the two central girls either clueless or borderline sociopathic, and the startling violence of the final scenes especially feels somewhat contrived and artificial, on the level of the fearmongering everything-is-dangerous attitudes of the American Law and Order shows. Breillat, from her very radical feminist perspective, winds up treading pretty close to the conservative outlook on sex as dirty and shameful. Another way of looking at the film, however, is that it presents sex as dirty and shameful within this context, in this exploitative situation where guys force themselves on girls who have few real defenses and no one to turn to, especially not judgmental adults who don't want to hear about their kids having sex and are quick to place the blame on the most blameless party.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Spider's Stratagem

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem, made in 1970, the same year as his masterpiece The Conformist, is another look at fascism, heroism, betrayal, and the lies and secrets of history. Like Bertolucci's more famous (and more fully realized) fascist parable, this film examines the deformation of character that occurs under fascist oppression, as well as the ways in which such regimes inevitably prey on the weaknesses and flaws of the people they subjugate. The film opens with a man (Giulio Brogi) arriving in the small country town of Tara. Everywhere he goes through the streets, he finds the name of Athos Magnani, a local hero commemorated with street signs and statues and buildings. This is the name of the man's father, and his own name as well, a name that's famous only in this local community, where Athos the father was an anti-fascist hero, a rebel who resisted the fascists and paid for it with his life, assassinated in a theater during an opera performance. Many years later, Athos the son has been invited to visit the town by his father's mistress Draifa (Alida Valli), because she believes that only the son can uncover the truth about the father's murder. Once he arrives, this son who looks so much like his father — Brogi plays both generations of Magnani men — wanders through this sleepy town where his father's life and death still seem so fresh after so long, where the old people (and the town is populated almost exclusively by old people, barring a few children) remember every detail of the now legendary story as though it had happened yesterday.

The film has a striking, beautiful look, a distinctive aesthetic, the beauty of which can't even be obscured by the slightly faded quality of the existing copies that can be seen. The imagery of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's DP on The Conformist as well, is simply gorgeous, if in a very different way from the bold colors and broad palette of The Conformist. The town of Tara consists mostly of pale pink buildings with brown roofs, lending the film a sepia tone conducive to nostalgia: as soon as Athos steps into the town, it's as though he's stepping into the past. The fact that almost everyone he meets is old enough to have known his father firsthand — and to remark on the uncanny resemblance between father and son — further contributes to the impression that Athos is standing in for his own father here, returning to his father's town and his father's life, to a place that seems deeply rooted in the past. The fascist era is still fresh here. A local landowner who had been a highly placed fascist during Mussolini's reign is still a prominent figure here, with a sprawling estate guarded by thugs who rudely send Athos away when he tries to get an audience with this man. The memorials to Athos the father, seemingly on every corner, adorning every building, are more reminders of the past, more connections to a violent history. And the mystery of the anti-fascist Athos' death still hangs over everything, perpetually unsolved, lingering as an unspoken tension between the aging townspeople.

The film proceeds at a deliberate, plodding pace, as Athos visits with his father's three friends — Gaibazzi (Pippo Campanini), Rasori (Franco Giovanelli) and Costa (Tino Scotti) — and with Draifa, who seems determined to get the son to hang around as a replacement for the father. Bertolucci weaves flashbacks into the fabric of the story, skipping back and forth without warning from the present day to the past, to the time leading up to Athos' murder. These flashbacks are disorienting and odd, perhaps intentionally so, because Bertolucci makes no attempt to disguise the continuity between the aged characters of the present and their supposedly younger counterparts of nearly forty years ago. This doesn't make much difference with Brogi, playing father and son at roughly similar ages thirty-four years apart, but it's jarring when Draifa and the father's three friends appear to be just as old in the past as they are in the present. It lends a subtle surrealism to the film, and also a sense of casual disregard for the niceties of cinematic storytelling. There's a similarly jarring aesthetic at work in a scene where Athos the son meets with the formerly fascist landowner, sitting in separate boxes at the theater, initially separated by several tiers, but by the end of the scene they're suddenly sitting in adjacent boxes as they talk. It's puzzling, and utterly unexplained, just a weird disjunction to break up the film's smooth, languid meandering.

Another weird moment occurs when Athos the son goes out walking at night and is suddenly swarmed by the townspeople, pouring out of a bar as if spurred on by an unseen, unheard signal, encircling him and chasing him. It's as though the town itself is seeking to expel this interloper who's digging around in its past, trying to uncover the solutions to mysteries that many wish had been buried for good with the end of the fascist era. The film is about forgetting, about mythmaking, about the process by which the violence and tumult of history eventually settles into a digestible account for posterity. Athos stirs up the ugly history of the fascist era with his questions and his curiosity, and he finds that nobody, on either side of that struggle, wants the old wounds reopened. Only Draifa, still smarting from love and loss, wants to really think about the past; everyone else is content with the official version of events, with the myth of Athos the hero, mysteriously murdered by his fascist enemies.

In a scene late in the film — one of the best sequences in the film — Athos the father delivers a grand speech on the importance of heroes, on the importance of illusion and appearance over truth and reality. As he speaks, he walks around the perimeter of a tower overlooking the pink-and-brown conformity of Tara's tightly packed houses, his own form a brownish-black outline, a shadow overlaid on the town, predicting his future status as a local icon. It's as though, as he speaks, he's already becoming abstracted, already taking on his status as a historical figure with a set story, a grand tale of murder and intrigue that, as Athos the son instantly recognizes earlier in the film, is related to such famous legends as Shakespeare's MacBeth and Julius Caesar.

The film's ideas are fascinating, but the film itself isn't always as enthralling as the concepts it explores. The acting is almost uniformly flat and affectless, with few flashes of genuine feeling, and the elliptical storytelling only adds to the sense of aimlessness and distance. It often feels like a loose, half-formed story has been folded around an essay, and the result is that the film is constantly slipping back and forth from languid to simply boring. There are numerous beautiful, striking moments here — Athos the father dancing defiantly with a girl as the glaring fascists look on; Athos and his friends plotting to kill Mussolini, all of them ecstatically shouting, "boom! boom!" as they imagine blowing up the dictator; a dreamlike sequence with lion tamers trying to catch an escaped circus lion — but the disconnected moments never quite add up to a coherent, satisfying whole. The Spider's Stratagem is thematically rich but narratively slack, its characters archetypal and minimally defined, with little personality or specificity.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Film Like Any Other

In the aftermath of the student demonstrations and worker strikes that swept across France in May 1968 and after, Jean-Luc Godard — who had already declared the end of cinema, at least for him, in Week-end — fully embraced the student radicalism and the peculiar French Maoism of the time. He was setting off on a journey away from the cinema, but continued making films (and eventually videos) nonetheless. For the last couple of years of the 60s and throughout the 70s, Godard all but abandoned the commercial cinema for various political and aesthetic experiments in which he would drastically reconfigure his approach to the cinema. A Film Like Any Other was one of the first statements of this new, experimental era in Godard's career, the beginning of his long exodus from the cinema, the first of what would be many attempts to work out, in film form, the political and cinematic questions that concerned him. In that respect, this film is a precursor to the films that Godard would make collaboratively with his Dziga Vertov Group experiments, as well as the later (and ultimately much more advanced) videos he'd create with Anne-Marie Miéville.

A Film Like Any Other establishes many of the concerns that would motivate the later films: the possibility of real change, the problems of how to better organize revolutionary actions, and implicitly the central idea that would drive the Dziga Vertov Group's work: Godard's attempts to reconstruct a cinematic form appropriate to ideological films. Whether intentionally or not, A Film Like Any Other also winds up demonstrating, better than any of the other films Godard made during his revolutionary period, just why the student idealism and radicalism of this period ultimately amounted to so little. The film is a direct response to (and document of) the events of May 1968. It is constructed primarily around footage of a group of workers and students having a discussion in a field with tall grass and flowers, interspersed with black-and-white documentary images shot during the May protests. The color footage of the discussion is shot from a low angle, with the speakers mostly either turned away from the camera or with their heads chopped off by the top of the frame, so that they remain anonymous representatives of student or proletariat interests rather than individuals.

On the soundtrack, Godard frequently layers the audio of this discussion with other voices, a man and a woman who are not part of the group and who sometimes talk over the discussion. Their interjections are excerpted from various texts or describe events happening in other countries, largely consisting of accounts of fascist repression or the co-option of socialist regimes by dictatorial impulses, as with Stalin. The soundtrack is often a riot of voices in which some are drowned out and others rise periodically above the chaos, but more than anything the film captures the spirit of the "revolution" as endless talk, endless debate about intricacies of policy and rhetoric, endless cycling through possibilities and if-then scenarios. Whether Godard means to or not, there's a pointed irony in his editing when he cuts from the frenzied action of the May riots to the students sitting in that pictorially beautiful field, calmly discussing revolution and resistance and never quite doing anything about it.

And yet all this discussion doesn't even imply the openness of a free exchange of ideas. One of the most telling moments (unintentionally funny, too) comes when the group is discussing the possibility of disrupting the "bourgeois knowledge" of the university, and one of the group's members asks if they mean discussing things with the professor, debating the professor's ideas. The rest of the group reacts with horror, shouting "no!" in unison, as though the idea was absurd. (The one who suggested the idea lamely protests, "it was just a question.") No, what they mean is impeding things through protests, riots, disruptions and provocations, like the one suggested earlier on the soundtrack of standing up in class and, more or less, calling the teacher an asshole and storming out. The very idea of dialogue with the bourgeois, with the oppressors, is anathema to them, not even worthy of consideration. For all their endless talk, their perpetual debate and discussion, they're only willing to give voice to certain ideas, to discuss things with those who already agree. It's a closed circle, a feedback loop in which they repeat slogans and bits of rhetoric, circling around and around the same ideas and the same concepts. They all agree so completely it's hard to see the point of talking so much other than as a form of reinforcement and encouragement.

For all that talk, one of the most powerful sequences here is a brief montage in the latter half of the film in which the voices on the soundtrack finally fall silent, as though in hushed respect for the images of the fiery, smoke-filled streets of Paris, where students and police are massed against each other across barricades, in streets filled with tear gas fumes and cars on fire. These images of the May riots, shot in the streets at the height of the chaos, are the film's most enduring legacy, and Godard assembles a wealth of footage that captures the violent, unpredictable mood of the protests, showing the competing signs for various socialist and students' groups as well as those held aloft by counter-protesters in favor of De Gaulle. The images from the protests are undoubtedly powerful, capturing all the activity in the streets, the sense of upheaval and instability, the sense that anything could happen. Simplistic slogans are angrily scrawled on the walls, there are huge assemblies where speakers give impassioned speeches (unheard on the soundtrack, doubtless because whatever video equipment recorded the May events by and large wasn't equipped for sound), cops beat the protesters and the students throw stones or light cars on fire. It's an atmosphere of chaos and violence, and it's these images that provide context to the theoretical discussions of the rest of the film. May 1968 suggested that change was in the air; A Film Like Any Other suggested the determination of these radicals and intellectuals to talk about that change, to wonder what they could do next, to nitpick one another's points while basically agreeing.

Some of Godard's later works in this vein would pose similar questions in formal and aesthetic terms, but in A Film Like Any Other he hadn't yet really begun the process of rebuilding atop the razed foundation of the cinema left over from Week-end. The other post-Week-end film he made around the same time, the much more successful and inventive Le gai savoir, was similarly built around ideological dialogue and dialectics, but despite its simplicity formal questions were very much at the heart of that film in a way they aren't here. Rather, A Film Like Any Other represents Godard's cinema truly stripped down to its barest essence. The result isn't really satisfying, as politics or as cinema, despite some interesting moments and memorable documentary images from May 1968.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mildred Pierce (episodes 4-5)

episodes 1-2 | episode 3 | episodes 4-5

In the final two episodes of Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, the story leaps forward in time several years after the previous episode ended with a decisive break between Mildred (Kate Winslet) and her high society lover Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). In the ensuing years, Mildred's business has flourished and expanded, and she now has two additional restaurants as a part of her empire, run by her friends. Mildred's daughter Veda has grown up, too, a detail that Haynes lovingly lingers over during the early scene where Mildred returns home to find Veda playing the piano in the living room. The girl is only seen from behind at first, as Haynes' camera glides through the house, following Mildred as she putters about, the images recalling the scenes from earlier episodes of Veda practicing her piano. But this is not the snotty little brat of the first three parts of the series, this is Veda all grown up into a predatory diva, played by Evan Rachel Wood. And just as she was as a child, Veda is still the center of Mildred's life, the whole reason for her existence. Throughout these often devastating, potent final two and a half hours of the miniseries, Veda's dominance of Mildred's life becomes the focus of the film as well, and in the process it begins to seem like Haynes is critiquing the foundations of motherhood itself.

Mildred's story, after all, is the story of the costs of motherhood. Again and again, Mildred sacrifices everything for Veda. At a certain point, after a tremendous argument, Veda moves out of her mother's home, and Mildred spends the rest of her time trying to get her daughter back, trying to win the affection of this girl who is very appropriately compared to a rare and beautiful — but deadly — snake. Mildred allows her business to flounder, her attention wavering from her previous single-minded dedication to having a prosperous career. The whole reason for her business in the first place was to impress Veda, to be able to provide for Veda, and with Veda gone Mildred no longer seems like the strong, determined businesswoman that she once was.

Mildred also gets back together with Monty after randomly encountering him on a street corner, waiting for a bus — he's "between cars," he says, maintaining his high society composure even now that his fortunes have fallen even further. Their relationship initially seems like an improved version of their original fling. The passion is there, and Mildred's desire for Monty is reawakened once she's back in his presence. There's real if unlikely chemistry between them, and Haynes uses it as an opportunity for another very lurid sex scene: it's not often that one sees a shot of a man's head buried between a woman's legs in a staid period picture. The couple gets married, and Monty seems to have changed in substantial ways from his earlier affair with Mildred. In a key scene for his character, he shows Mildred a room he's arranged for her, decorated with mementos of her daughter and her restaurant; he delivers a moving and seemingly sincere speech about how much he admires rooms that reveal something of their owners, rooms where each object means something to those who inhabit them, and he expresses a wish to make this kind of life with Mildred. It's a very touching moment, and a genuine one, a moment that suggests that Monty has matured, that he really wants to create that happy, meaningful life with Mildred.

That touching moment of potential with Monty, the moment when it briefly seems as though a happy ending might actually be possible for this improbable couple, lingers over the remainder of the film, and makes what happens subsequently even more heartbreaking. Once Veda is back in Mildred's life, it's as though Monty has served his purpose, just as the business has served its purpose, and Mildred ignores each of them more and more. Mildred begins to seem less like the strong independent woman she had once been and more like a overbearing mother who's living through her daughter's life and accomplishments. In one scene, Monty tells Mildred that he'll be sleeping alone, leaving her to stay up late with Veda, and Mildred jokes, "I guess we're just middle-aged," but as Monty walks away down a long, shadowy hallway, shrouded in darkness, it seems obvious that he's not so flippant about his increasing (and rapid) marginalization in this marriage.

Mildred, however, seems more concerned with her daughter, since as Mildred calculated, Veda returns to her mother's life after the marriage, lured by the society wedding and the newly redecorated Pasadena mansion, so remote from the suburban Glendale mediocrity that Veda so despised as a girl. Veda, during her time away from home, has somewhat improbably become a classical opera singer after failing as a pianist, finally displaying the talent that Mildred had always sensed was in the girl. When Mildred first hears Veda sing, she's with Bert, listening to the radio, and Haynes' camera circles around the radio, focusing on the speaker and the sound mysteriously emanating from it, emphasizing the strange disconnection of this moment, the way Veda's voice emerges from the ether, the daughter who Mildred so desperately needs and hasn't seen in months suddenly crying and howling from the radio in airy, high-pitched trills. It becomes too much for Mildred: she walks away, standing by a dock in a composition that echoes a similar one from the 1945 Joan Crawford version of Mildred Pierce, although for Haynes it's not a melodramatic moment of near-suicide but a quiet interlude of contemplation.

Later, in the miniseries' biggest set piece, Mildred, Bert and Monty go to see Veda perform at the Philharmonic, a grand debut that Mildred watches with an expression somewhere between incomprehension and terror. She doesn't even look happy; she looks like she's watching a horror movie, on the verge of tears, over-awed by her daughter's talent, unable to understand how these sounds are emanating from her longtime object of fixation. At one point, Mildred borrows a pair of opera glasses, and Haynes inserts a shot of the view through the binoculars, magnifying Veda's face to reveal the sneering, angry expressions on her face as she sings, as though she's pulling her voice up from some deep, dark place within her, expressing her rage through these beautiful but demanding songs. Mildred looks away almost immediately, unable to deal with that, and she much prefers the encore when Veda unexpectedly sings a song that's implicitly meant for her mother, a song she knows her mother loves, and ends it by blowing a kiss. It's a tender gesture that might also be a sarcastic one, prefaced by an acknowledgment that she knows her mother's song doesn't belong on a Philharmonic program, just as she knows that her mother doesn't belong in the upper class.

All of this sets the stage for the harrowing and unforgettable climactic scene, a masterpiece of staging, in which Mildred finds Veda and Monty in bed together. Haynes really lets the long-bubbling Freudian psychosexual subtexts come raging to the surface at this point, as Mildred slumps against the wall, her mouth slack, her eyes disbelieving and wide, looking at her daughter languidly stretched out naked in bed. Wood's performance is at its over-the-top best here, cutting loose with this chilly girl's sneering, sinister slinkiness. As her mother breaks down in shock and Monty quickly recovers his suave act, Veda becomes downright evil, the full flowering of the nasty, self-motivated, manipulative evil that had shown up in flashes previously but is really unleashed here. She casually lights and smokes a cigarette, lying in bed, the blankets loosely draped over her, falling off her shoulders, smiling her cold smile. And then, in a moment of transcendent horror, she gets up out of the bed, deliberately allowing the blankets to fall away from her long, thin — snakelike — body, and walks naked across the room, parading her body in front of her mother, then sits in front of the mirror, still nude, combing her hair. It's an eerie, dreamlike scene, a nightmare in the flesh. Veda is provoking her mother, displaying herself to her, and the moment resonates with the earlier one in which Mildred had given her sleeping daughter a kiss on the lips that was more sapphic than motherly. This bedroom confrontation is a chilling, provocative sequence, a scene of high gothic melodrama that, in retrospect, Haynes' entire series was building towards.

That's the emotional crescendo of the entire miniseries, and it's very powerful, deliberately upstaging the staid, censorship-bound similar scene in the 1945 Hollywood Mildred Pierce. Haynes, sticking close to the James M. Cain source novel, avoids the murder mystery genre plotting from the Joan Crawford movie, but his film's climax is even more lurid, even more melodramatic, rising to operatic excesses to stage this horrific primal scene. The whole sequence ends with another striking composition, after Mildred has choked Veda, straining the girl's singing voice. Veda runs downstairs, clothed now only in a thin silk robe, staggers to the piano, crouches on the bench to bang out a few discordant notes, croaking awfully, then collapses to the ground beside a puddle of her own vomit. Haynes holds the terrible, emotionally devastating, ugly moment in a long shot, encompassing the shadowy high-ceilinged room with Veda collapsed in the background, Mildred standing in the middleground, and Monty in the foreground looking on in shock. It's a harrowing moment, and contrasted against the meticulous period detail and quotidian reality that dominate the rest of the series, it's as though Mildred has suddenly been plunged into an abyss, hurtling out of her average suburban lifestyle into a psychosexual nightmare.

Following this scene, Mildred has nowhere to go but back into the comforting arms of her first husband, Bert (Brian O'Byrne), and the ordinary suburban existence they once enjoyed. She flees from her daughter, from her business ambitions, from her social climbing rise into the upper class, and returns to boring, prosaic Glendale and the boring, prosaic marriage she'd once fled. The Hollywood film played this marital reconciliation as a happy ending, if a perfunctory one, but Haynes allows the full impact of this turn of events to resonate. It all ends with Bert's hollow insistence that everything will be alright, that they've got each other, and all the while there's such earnest desperation in his face, in the way he urgently pours two glasses of liquor for them. "Let's get stinko," he says, and Mildred repeats it for the last line of the film. And then she shoots the camera a gaze of such teary, red-eyed despair that it becomes instantly apparent that things are not alright, that this is not a Hollywood happy ending, that this couple has got years of drunken denial and disconnection still ahead of them.