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Archive for November, 2012

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Like his previous musical, Les Chansons d’amour (2007), Christophe Honoré’s Les Bien-aimés (2011) is easy on the eyes and the ears, but I never really believed in any of the characters. In 1964, a part-time sex worker (Ludivine Sagnier) meets a Czech medical student (Rasha Bukvic) whom she can’t stand to be with and can’t stand to be without, even after she marries another man. In the ’90s, their daughter (Chiara Mastroianni)—whose relationship with a petulant writer (Louis Garrel) is on the skids—finds herself hopelessly attracted to a sensitive American drummer (Paul Schneider) who has AIDS. Although it’s nearly two and a half hours long, the movie often seems to be racing through the story; the mother’s career in prostitution, which is mostly kept offscreen, feels hypothetical rather than concrete, and the film’s depiction of AIDS is so cursory that the drummer (who never looks less than healthy) is simply dropped from the story without it being made clear if he’s alive or dead. I wasn’t bored by this, but I wasn’t very deeply engaged by it either.

On the other hand, I didn’t have any difficulty believing in the characters in Damjan Kozole’s Slovenian Girl (2009), a much more involving and substantial film about prostitution. The heroine, Aleksandra (Nina Ivanišin), is a university student who works as a call girl to pay for a swanky apartment, but none of the men she meets are handsome medical students. Instead, most of her clients, as well as a married man she’s having an affair with (Uros Furst), are old enough to be her father, and in contrast with the dynamite sexual chemistry between Sagnier and Bukvic in Honoré’s film (which is conveyed entirely through the actors’ body language), this movie’s one sex scene deliberately lacks eroticism: Aleksandra lies passively on a bed with her face down while an anonymous john pounds her from behind.

Although there’s a great deal of suspense involving a fearsome pimp (Dejan Spasic) who wants Aleksandra to work for him (at one point, he and his business partner dangle her from a high balcony), this isn’t primarily a thriller, nor is it an unrelenting descent into hell, but more of a character study and a surprisingly funny one at that. Aleksandra’s father, Edo (Peter Musevski), is a small town rock ‘n’ roller whose old band is staging a comeback, and in one scene he grumbles to his buddies, “If punk hadn’t conquered the scene, we’d still be gigging all around. Fucking punk.” There are a few moments when the film strains for significance (such as an early scene in which a cab driver bitches about the EU), but the characters are so concrete that they transcend any thesis.

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A lively and very funny backstage comedy-drama, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) tells the story of an aimless teenager, known as the Kid (Alex Pettyfer), who’s living on his sister’s couch when a male stripper, Magic Mike (Channing Tatum), takes him under his wing and introduces him to the world of show business. Predictably, it’s only a matter of time before the Kid gets involved with drugs, while Magic Mike (who dreams of owning a custom furniture business) has to choose between the big time — namely, moving from Tampa to Miami to dance in a club there — and a conventional relationship with the Kid’s grounded older sister (Cody Horn).

Following a familiar rise-and-fall pattern, the film marries the conventions of a show business drama to an economical style that — notwithstanding the warmly lit upscale mise en scène — reminds one of Jia Zhang-ke more than George Cukor. Scenes play out largely in long shots without a lot of camera movement, and the terse narration eliminates a lot of the redundancies usually found in mainstream cinema. (The ending, though abrupt by multiplex standards, tells us everything we need to know.) Of course, this wouldn’t matter much if the characters weren’t believable, but the screenplay by Reid Carolin and the appealing cast (including Olivia Munn as a benign man-eater and Matthew McConaughey, who’s effortlessly hilarious as the emcee at a male strip club) manage to make the threadbare story seem almost fresh.

Brennan sauvé des eaux

Swamp Water (1941) is a major film by Jean Renoir that’s virtually unknown today among Anglo-American cinephiles, despite the fact (or maybe in part because) it was made for a Hollywood studio and the story takes place in a specifically American milieu. Set in rural Georgia, the movie is about a young man, Ben Regan (Dana Andrews), who goes into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for his dog and finds an escaped convict, Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), living in the wild. Although Tom is initially suspicious of Ben — whose father, Thursday (Walter Huston), was on the jury that sentence him to death — the two men eventually become friends and business partners. Shot partly on location, Renoir’s first Hollywood film is a poetic realist treatment of the American South, and the movie’s major achievement on the level of mise en scène is that it makes both the swamp and the nearby town concrete places while retaining the starkness of myth so that Tom registers as an exile not only from the local community but the whole of humanity.

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A delightfully silly slapstick comedy by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, La Fée (2011) is as rigorous as it is goofy. Once upon a time in Le Havre, Dom (Abel) is working the night shift at an Edward Hopper hotel when a strange woman (Gordon) walks through the door, calmly informs him that she’s a fairy, and offers to grant him three wishes. The plot essentially consists of a string of whimsical deadpan gags that are unified by the film’s narrow focus on a small cast of characters — including an English tourist (Philippe Martz) and his dog, a comically near-sighted bartender (Romy), and a trio of illegal immigrants — in a handful of locations within close proximity to the hotel over a short period of time (a series of consecutive days and nights), and by the repetition of the same camera set-ups, such as the identically framed shots of smokers standing outside a hospital in a carefully arranged planimetric tableau. Endearingly daffy, it’s the kind of movie where the hero can fall down several flights of stairs, get up, pull the cactus out of his face, and keep going as if nothing had happened. I haven’t laughed so much in months.

Hellas pour moi

Watching the films of Theo Angelopoulos, one gets the feeling that it’s always chilly in Greece. Many of his movies are about dour figures in heavy coats (which they wear even when they’re inside) traveling through damp, colourless landscapes and decrepit, conspicuously underpopulated towns on their way to ruin and despair. The Beekeeper (1986) tells the story of an uncommunicative gloomy Gus (Marcello Mastroianni, rocking a Stalin-esque ‘stache) driving a truck full of bees to nowhere in particular. Along the way, he picks up a flirtatious teenage runaway (Nadia Mourouzi) who inspires in him a particularly bad case of the seven-year itch. Though less demanding than Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975), this isn’t likely to win over many new converts while viewers familiar with the directors’ other films may feel like they’ve seen it all before. However, the hero’s increasingly enigmatic behavior and the movie’s graceful long take style kept me interested throughout.

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Although he was a radical before entering the Japanese film industry in 1936¹, Akira Kurosawa’s early features were all wartime propaganda movies, and after the Japanese surrender in 1945, he was able to continue working by making films that were palatable to the American censors.² However, unlike Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, who were able to navigate the same ideological waters more gracefully — especially after the war in movies like Late Spring (1949) and Life of Oharu (1952), to cite my two favorite Japanese films of any period — Kurosawa’s movies are often marred by the director’s heavy-handedness. There’s a tendency in his work to provide an answer even before the question’s been raised.

Released only a few months after the American Occupation officially ended, Ikiru (1952) tells the story of a career bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), who learns that he has terminal cancer and then mopes his way through a series of dates with a young girl from the office (Miki Odagiri) before settling on a plan to build a playground in a poor neighborhood. After his death, Watanabe’s male colleagues get into an argument at his funeral about how much credit (if any) he deserves for the playground, which was planned, budgeted, and built by the Parks Department, and which couldn’t have been built without the approval of the deputy mayor (Nabuo Nakamura), but it’s a foregone conclusion that nothing would’ve happened had it not been for Watanabe’s persistence in the face of bureaucratic cowardice.

The heavy-handedness of Kurosawa’s style is especially apparent here in his use of an omniscient offscreen narrator to editorialize on the story. In the film’s opening sequence, while Watanabe sits at his desk stamping paperwork, the narrator tells us that he isn’t really living, but that he wasn’t always like this and once even tried to do some real work. It’s at this point that Watanabe opens a desk drawer containing a proposal he wrote twenty years earlier on how to improve departmental efficiency and uses the cover page to wipe his stamp — an action that merely serves to illustrate the film’s thesis, credibility be damned. And in case anybody missed the point, the narrator continues, “He’s been worn down by the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless busyness it breeds. […] In this world, the best way to protect your place is to do nothing at all.” Later, during the funeral, such editorial asides are unnecessary as Kurosawa has the characters reiterate the same points in the dialogue: “You’re not supposed to do anything there [at City Hall]. Doing anything is nothing but radical.”

Although the film claims that government bureaucracy is an impediment to progress, it’s implied that a dedicated individual can still do something meaningful if he really puts his mind to it. And even if he doesn’t get any credit for his accomplishments, the people will know who’s responsible. In other words, despite the movie’s anger at bureaucratic waste, the existence and even the inefficiency of such departments are taken for granted as an inevitable part of the human condition. (The funeral ends with Watanabe’s colleagues making a drunken pledge to be more like him, but predictably they don’t follow through on it.) Accordingly, viewers are merely supposed to accept this attitude as an eternal truth rather than thinking too much about why bureaucracies are so wasteful or how the system could be changed.

Notes:
1. “I had tried reading Das Kapital and theories of dialectic materialism, but there had been much that I couldn’t understand. For me to try to analyze and explain Japanese society from that point of view was therefore impossible. I simply felt the vague dissatisfactions and dislikes that Japanese society encouraged, and in order to contend with these feelings, I had joined the most radical movement I could find. Looking back on it now, my behavior seems terribly frivolous and reckless. Yet I stayed with the proletarian movement until the spring of 1932.” Kurosawa, translated by Audie E. Bock, Something Like an Autobiography (New York: Vantage Books, 1983), p. 78.

2. “The company arranged a screening [of No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)] for the American censors. They sat talking among themselves while it was being shown, so I was all the more certain that I had failed. But then as the film went into its last twenty minutes a hush fell over the group, and they began to gaze at the screen with deep concentration. They looked as if they were holding their breath right up until the end title appeared on the screen. When the lights came on, they all stood up at once and reached out to shake hands with me. They praised the film to the skies and congratulated me warmly, but I just stood there amazed. […] One of these American censors, a Mr. Garky, later gave a party in honor of the film.” Ibid., p. 149.

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