My review of László Nemes’ Son of Saul for Offscreen. My thanks to the editor, Donato Totaro, both for accepting it and for putting it up so quickly.
Note: This blog entry contains spoilers.
Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) is one seriously weird movie but not in a good way. It starts out as a realistic drama about Sri Lankan refugees adapting to life in a French housing estate and then gradually morphs into a multiculti retread of Death Wish (1974) with a Tamil Charles Bronson mowing down street trash. I found the latter more compelling than the former (which tends to drag), but Audiard seems reluctant to go all the way with it, keeping one foot in the art house and the other in the grindhouse. Ultimately, one gets the sense he couldn’t make up his mind which kind of film he wanted to make.
The opening scenes in Sri Lanka are promising. The movie begins with an extreme long shot of some men placing branches on a pile, and the relaxed tempo of the action and the sound of leaves blowing in the wind create a contemplative mood. So it’s all the more surprising when the film cuts in to a closer view, revealing that the men are building a funeral pyre with several bodies on it. As it’s never explained who the people were or who killed them, it’s unclear why their deaths inspire a member of the Tamil Tigers (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) to burn his uniform and defect.¹ Furthermore, the narration elides the details of his escape, instead cutting to a refugee camp where a young woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) walks around asking every child she sees if they have any parents. The subsequent revelation that she and the ex-Tiger are planning to go to Europe using the passports of a dead family cues the viewer to infer a sequence of events the narration has omitted.
Once the characters arrive in France, however, our interest turns from their pasts to future events—namely, how they’ll fare in their new lives. Accordingly, the narration becomes much more communicative, showing how the ex-Tiger (who assumes the name Dheepan) secures refugee status for himself and his new family with the help of a sympathetic translator (Nathan Anthonypilai), and their arrival in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, where Dheepan becomes caretaker of a neglected housing estate and the young woman, now called Yalini, finds work cooking and cleaning for a senile invalid (Faouzi Bensaïdi). Only the material involving the various drug gangs operating in the estate is handled obliquely so as to emphasize the impact of gang violence on Dheepan’s family. When representatives of the two factions start shooting it out in one of the buildings, it’s not explained why the situation turns sour, and the camera remains outside with Yalini and her new daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).
As the characters goals are somewhat vague for much of the movie, the plot tends to proceed in fits and starts, lacking the sure-footedness of Audiard’s Un prophète (2009). At one point, Dheepan visits a deranged former colonel in the Tigers, who beats Dheepan viciously when he tries to tell him the war’s over and then disappears from the film entirely. And while Yalini is evidently attracted to the invalid’s grandson, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers)—a recently paroled gang member who likes her curry—they never get beyond making small talk. In one sequence, a low-level drug dealer explains to Dheepan the advantages of hiring people from outside the community to do his job, leading one to assume Dheepan will start selling drugs to buy a thaali for Yalini. Instead, he literally draws a line through the estate’s courtyard and forbids the gang members to cross it.
It’s at this point that the plot promises to become interesting but Audiard doesn’t follow through. Instead of developing the conflict between Dheepan and the gangsters as an escalating back and forth exchange, à la Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), here Brahim threatens to kill him if he doesn’t back down and Dheepan responds by producing a machete and going on a rampage. (Earlier, he appeared to be forming a vigilante army with his caretaker buddies, but contra Hawks, when the time comes for action, he inexplicably decides to go it alone.) What’s more, Audiard perversely underplays what should be the film’s dramatic highpoint by shooting it in a sub-Bressonian fashion, keeping the camera on Dheepan’s feet as he slashes his way up the stairs of the apartment building where Brahim lives with his grandfather, and by having Brahim (who’s already been shot by a professional rival) bleed to death off camera before Dheepan arrives, thereby depriving us of a final showdown. The movie gives a whole new meaning to the idea of “vulgar auteurism.”
1. In a review for the Guardian, Andrew Pulver proposed an alternative explanation: The war is already over when the story opens and the men are burning the bodies of their dead comrades. Accordingly, Dheepan isn’t a deserter but a defeated soldier trying to pass for a civilian refugee. Regardless of which explanation is correct (and admittedly, I find this account more persuasive than my own), the very fact of different viewers making disparate inferences about the story is indicative of just how uncommunicative the narration is in this part of the movie.
In October, I submitted a festival report on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (mostly about the Wavelengths section) to the online journal Offscreen, and the editor, Donato Totaro, was kind enough to accept it. The new issue just went up and you can read my article there.
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Jia Zhangke’s first movie about his hometown since Unknown Pleasures (2002), Mountains May Depart (2015) is both a throwback to his early work and something of a departure. For one thing, he places his characters much closer to the camera than in his previous films — necessitating more cutting within scenes and lots of panning back and forth in the first section of the movie, which Jia shoots in the squarish academy ratio. Consequently, it’s all the more surprising when Liangzi (Liang Jindong) punches out his nouveau riche romantic rival, Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), as he only enters the frame a few milliseconds before making impact — whereas had we seen him approaching, we might’ve been able to anticipate the blow.
The story opens in early 1999 when Liangzi (who has a job handing out helmets to coal miners) and Jinsheng vie for the affections of Tao (Zhao Tao), who works in a stereo shop in Fenyang. In contrast with the more easygoing Liangzi, Jinsheng is possessive and creepy, so it’s a bit of a mystery why Tao chooses him, especially after standing up to him when he demands she stop seeing Liangzi. Accordingly, the movie doesn’t need to explain why they ultimately divorce when the story skips ahead fifteen years to find Tao back in Fenyang after several years in Shanghai, where Jinsheng is living with their seven year old son, Daole (aka Dollar). The last section of the film is set in Australia in 2025 and centres on a teenage Daole (Dong Zijiang), whose longing for his estranged mother manifests itself as an attraction to his equally lonely professor, Mia (Sylvia Chang).
In both Platform (2000) and this movie, Jia associates pop music with the end of Maoism and the economic reforms of the 1980s — changes he views with some ambivalence. Mountains May Depart opens with a euphoric group dance number accompanied by the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” (1993) — which alludes to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe — and ends with a touching solo set to the same song, implying that China’s move from socialism to capitalism has made the characters freer but lonelier. (Or as Jinsheng puts it, “Freedom is bullshit!”) At the same time, however, a Cantonese pop album creates a bond between the characters (as well as helping to unify the episodic plot). Jinsheng impulsively buys it from a couple who come into Tao’s shop so he can give it to her, and soon after they become a couple. In 2014, Tao plays it for Daole during his first and only visit to Fenyang, and hearing it again in Mia’s class causes him to associate her with his mother.
Jia underscores the characters’ increasing remoteness from one another by shooting each of the film’s three segments in a different aspect ratio, starting out narrow and gradually widening as the characters become more dispersed. The early scenes, set during Chinese New Year celebrations, are swarming with out of focus background activity, and on the soundtrack, one hears a cacophony of offscreen noises, while the movie’s Australian settings are antiseptically clean, colourless, and sparsely populated. The harsh sound of Jinsheng cocking a gun in the middle of a tense conversation is shocking not only because it occurs offscreen without warning (we don’t even see him pick up the gun, much less cock it) but also due to the absence of other noises which makes it seem even louder. It’s touches like this that make Jia mainland China’s greatest living filmmaker.
This blog entry contains spoilers.
In both its choice of subject matter and its style, M. Manikandan’s The Crow’s Egg (2014) is clearly designed to appeal to the international market rather than the local audience and Tamil diaspora. (I mean that as an observation, not a criticism.) Like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which was a big hit practically everywhere but India, the movie is about the effects of neoliberalism on slum kids from the urban centres. But while the protagonist of Boyle’s film strikes it rich on an English-language game show — an unlikely rags-to-riches story which the movie posits as being emblematic of the nation as a whole — in Manikandan’s film, India’s economic rise leaves the kids worse off than they already were when a developer paves over the park where they commune with nature by eating raw crow’s eggs to make way for a pizza restaurant, which they can’t even step inside of.
For much of its length, the film resembles such neo-realist hand-me-downs as Children of Heaven (1997) and Wadjda (2012) in which adorable kids living in third world countries formulate modest goals and then pursue them with monomaniacal fervour. Here, two brothers (nicknamed Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg) who’ve never tasted pizza save up to buy one by collecting pieces of coal that fall from moving trains — as apt a metaphor for trickle-down economics as we’re likely to get. But when they go to the restaurant, the security guard turns them away on account of their ratty clothes. This leads to a clichéd scene in which the two brothers make a deal with a pair of spoiled rich kids, buying them some inexpensive sweets their father won’t let them have in exchange for their new clothes, which they don’t want anyway. (Conveniently, both sets of brothers wear the same sizes.) But when the two Eggs go back to the restaurant, the security guard turns them away again.
At this point in the story, the two brothers abandon their goal and are largely absent from the second half of the movie, which centres on a pair of opportunists who try to blackmail the restaurant manager after coming into possession of a video showing him slapping one of the kids on the ear. When the video winds up on the news, the manager’s lackey promises ominously to “take care” of the matter, and when the kids don’t go home that night, we’re supposed to infer that he’s murdered them. Only later do we learn the kids spent the night with a middle-aged man nicknamed Fruit Juice (which isn’t creepy for some reason) but forgot to tell their mother about it. In other words, the narration misleads us — or at least tries to; there’s never any sense the kids are in real danger — in order to whip up a phoney crisis when everything is fine, thereby postponing the inevitable happy ending in which the lackey sends a car to bring the kids to the restaurant for a free pizza.
In contrast with most Tamil movies, the film is unusual for its realism, not only in terms of the gritty mise en scène but also the atmospheric soundtrack, which is surely the densest of any Tamil movie I’ve seen. There’s a constant hum of traffic in the distance, and in one sequence, diegetic Bollywood-style music can be heard coming from an offscreen radio over a shot of the kids walking down a side street. Accordingly, while the score is obvious and clumsy (upbeat when the kids are happy, mournful when they’re sad), it’s still far less emphatic than is customary in Tamil films, where melodramatic wall-to-wall scoring fills in the gap left by the absence of other sounds. But while the movie conforms to the technical norms of American commercial cinema, the story is still too contrived for it to “cross-over” to a western audience. Like its characters, the film never fully escapes the ghetto.
Watching Roman Polanski’s Vénus à la fourrure (2013), I was reminded of Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1971), which purports to be a behind the scenes look at the filming of Jesùs Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) but is more like an alternate version of the same story (which, due to its familiarity, is easy to follow even without any dialogue). However, by including crew members in the same shot as the actors performing their scenes, Portabella divorces the movie’s style from the story of Count Dracula, whereas Polanski does just the opposite. Based on David Ives’ play Venus in Fur (2010), which derives its title from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs — neither of which I’ve read — Polanski’s film emphasizes the unity of all three texts.
The story is about a director, Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric), who’s staging an adaptation of Venus in Furs but can’t find a suitable actress to play the lead. Just as he’s about to go home for the evening, a woman calling herself Vanda Jourdain (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up at the theatre dressed like a dominatrix and insists on auditioning. At first, Vanda just seems to be an annoying bimbo, yet she not only reads surprisingly well but quickly usurps Thomas’ role as director, pressing him to really get into it when feeding her lines and even improvising whole new scenes with him. It’s already self-evident by the time she reaches the end of page three that she’s got the part, but Thomas gets so worked up that, forgetting his fiancée is waiting for him, he goes through the entire script with her while arguing over her interpretation of it. The movie thus summarizes the plot of Sacher-Masoch’s novella as it provides a running commentary on it.
Vanda thinks Thomas’ play is autobiographical despite being an adaptation, and though he denies it, the film ultimately bears her out as she makes him her slave in both the play and the theatre. (In the early scenes, Vanda’s irritating diction when speaking to Thomas contrasts sharply with her delivery when reading lines, but after she drops the dumb blonde routine, it gets progressively harder to tell where Vanda Jourdain ends and Wanda von Dunajew begins.) At the same time, Polanski invites us to see Thomas as a stand-in for himself, in part by giving him a mop top haircut like he used to have in the ’60s, and by casting his wife as Vanda. Polanski’s identification with Thomas is signalled most explicitly at the end of the film when the epigraph for his play (“And the lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hand”) becomes the epigraph for the movie as well. In other words, the film actively solicits the sort of autobiographical readings that reviewers usually impose on Polanski’s movies anyway.
A cynic might point out that this is an easy way for Polanski to position himself as the auteur of the film rather than Ives, even though the director, for all his brilliance, is largely at the mercy of his scripts. (If you want to see Polanski and a group of talented actors working in a vacuum, check out his previous stage adaptation, Carnage .) Unlike Cuadecuc, vampir, where the style purposefully ruptures narrative unity, in Vénus à la fourrure it’s geared towards making the plot easily comprehensible. Late in the movie, when Vanda suggests she and Thomas switch roles, an overhead spotlight picks out a plywood cactus left over from an earlier production. On the one hand, this is obviously symbolic — Vanda has already explicitly likened the cactus to a wiener — but it’s also a subtle piece of foreshadowing, anticipating the film’s climax, in which Vanda ties Thomas to it. Rather than transcending the story, Polanski’s style serves to enhance it.
The characters in Olivier Assayas’ Après mai (2012) aren’t very interesting in themselves, but taken together, they serve as a microcosm of the French left in the early 1970s, which was in a state of disarray following the events of May ’68. The film tells the story of a handful of politically engaged high school students from an affluent Paris suburb, and as the story opens, the kids are a cohesive unit, carrying out acts of vandalism under cover of night. But when one of them puts a school security guard into a coma, the group splinters with each of its members following a different path. Gilles (Clément Métayer) applies to study painting at Beaux-Arts while his girlfriend, Christine (Lola Créton), joins a filmmaking collective committed to political agitprop. Alain (Félix Armand) follows his hippy American girlfriend, Leslie (India Menuez), to Kabul in search of enlightenment, and Jean-Pierre (Hugo Conzelmann) gets a job working for a Trotskyite newspaper.
This is not to say, however, that the movie gives equal weight to all of its characters. Gilles has vastly more screen time than anyone else, appearing in the majority of scenes, and in the film’s first half hour especially, the framing singles him out as the most important character. He’s the first person we see, carving the anarchy sign into his desk at school in close-up, and even when the camera pulls back to frame the class as a group, he’s still in the foreground near the centre of the image. On the other hand, there’s nothing to indicate that Jean-Pierre (sitting a few seats over, on the far right side of the screen) will be an important character in the story: he has no dialogue or actorly business in the scene, and his clothes are unexceptional. Furthermore, with the exception of Créton (who’s appeared in movies by Catherine Breillat and Mia Hansen-Løve), there aren’t any familiar faces in the cast, making it easy for the other actors to disappear into the crowd, as Conzelmann does in the classroom scene.
As this suggests, the film implicitly endorses Gilles’ eventual withdrawal from politics. At one point, he and Christine follow the collective to Florence where they’re screening a documentary on the Laotian people’s struggle against American imperialism. We only see a brief snippet of the movie, but the earnest voice-over (“Our people have rallied around the Lao Patriotic Front… and will fight until the ultimate victory”) and quaint images of a smiling peasant performing a traditional dance only reinforce our sense of the collective’s political naïvety. (Earlier, when one member caught Gilles reading Pierre Ryckman’s The Chairman’s New Clothes , he dismissed its account of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution as CIA propaganda.) What’s more, during the subsequent Q&A, one audience member asks the inevitable question about revolutionary content needing a revolutionary form, and gets the predictable answer that the collective was more interested in educating the masses than in style, which underscores the impression that their documentary sacrifices aesthetics for the sake of easy legibility. So when Gilles goes back to Paris, frustrated with the collective’s “boring films” and “primitive politics,” it’s clear he’s right and Christine’s wrong.
Indeed, Gilles is pretty plainly a stand-in for Assayas. At the end of the film, he’s working on a silly commercial movie by day and watching experimental shorts by night, implying he’ll grow up to be a director like Assayas who straddles the line between Hollywood and art cinema. Accordingly, the storytelling in this film alternates between clarity and obscurity. Despite all the characters’ wandering around Europe and Central Asia, we’re never disoriented as they always announce in advance where they’re going next. Thus, one isn’t confused to see Leslie looking at paintings by Rembrandt as she already told Alain she was going to have an abortion, even if she didn’t specify that she was going to Holland to do it. On the other hand, when Gilles’ first girlfriend, Laure (Carole Combes), jumps out a window to escape a house fire midway through the film, it’s not clear if she survives, and she isn’t seen again until the final sequence when Gilles spots her in an avant-garde movie, which doesn’t necessarily prove she’s alive. (If anything, the image of her walking blissfully across an edenic field seems to imply she’s gone to heaven.) In its validation of political apathy, Après mai is anything but radical, but it’s a lovely piece of work all the same.