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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 [2011].) 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.

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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 [1971], 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.

As a contract director for Nikkatsu, Seijun Suzuki pumped out about forty B-movies between 1956 and 1967, when the studio fired him for making “incomprehensible” films. In an interview in the ’90s, he said, “In normal movies, they take care to show time and space. […] But in my films, spaces and places change,” adding, “I guess that’s the strength of entertainment movies. You can do anything you want to as long as those elements make the movie interesting.” Shot in twenty-five days, and edited and mixed in just three (a normal production schedule for a Nikkatsu B-movie of the period), Gate of Flesh (1964) is less willfully avant-garde than Branded to Kill (1967) — the film that got Suzuki sacked — which suggests that the difficulty one sometimes has in following the plot is more likely the result of the haste with which the movie was made rather than a deliberate choice.

Set in a bombed out quarter of Tokyo during the American Occupation, the noirish storyline revolves around a brutish ex-soldier turned penicillin thief, Shintaro (Joe Shishido), who holes up with a band of prostitutes while recovering from a gunshot to the leg. The women — whose brightly coloured clothes contrast nicely with their scorched surroundings — form a kind of mini-cartel, each having vowed not to give it away for free. (To make it easier to tell them apart, the movie associates each woman with a different colour.) When they discover that Machiko (Misako Tominaga), who always wears a black kimono, refused payment from a trick she’s fallen in love with, the other women force her to strip, tie her hands, and beat her with a stick. According to Suzuki, the studio wanted an erotic film, and he lingers on Machiko’s punishment with kinky relish.

Notwithstanding his taste for jump cuts, here Suzuki doesn’t violate the rules of continuity editing as flagrantly as he would in later films. The only really unusual thing about his coverage in this movie is his apparent aversion to shot-reverse shot cutting. Instead of alternating between Machiko’s humiliation and the reactions of the cartel’s newest member, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa) — who’s both figuratively and literally green — Suzuki superimposes the latter over the former, though I don’t know if he did this to make the sequence more interesting or if he just did it to save money. In an interview on the DVD, the film’s production designer, Takeo Kimura, frankly admits that he decided on a theatrical style for the sets in order to cut costs, and the lighting is accordingly non-naturalistic. In one nighttime scene, an unmotivated spotlight follows Sen (Satoko Kasai), who always wears red, as she moves around the hovel where she plies her trade.

What makes the film a little confusing is its tendency to cut away in the middle of an action to an unrelated event in another location. Early on, the movie jumps from Sen asking Maya if she’s a virgin to a gratuitous scene in which a black preacher (Chico Roland, in an indescribably bad performance) comes upon a woman’s body in a field somewhere. I didn’t catch whether the woman was dead or merely unconscious, and ultimately it doesn’t matter as she’s never mentioned afterwards. And later, when the cartel members threaten to do unspecified harm to Machiko with a razor, it’s unclear if they go through with it. At the point where the sequence breaks off, they don’t seem to be moved by her pleas for mercy, but the next time we see Machiko, she appears to be alright. However, while Gate of Flesh isn’t an entirely successful movie, thanks to its lurid plot, eye-catching colour scheme, and copious sex and violence, at least it’s never a boring one.

The day before his new movie, Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015), was screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Peter Greenaway gave his customary speech disparaging text-based cinema at an event hosted by the British Council. I gather it’s a talk he gives pretty often, as I’d already heard him rehearse the same arguments eight years ago at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, using the selfsame examples to illustrate his points. Both times, he loudly declared on the subject of actors that “the cinema is not a playground for Sharon Stone” — a reference that was already comically out of date in 2007.

Implicit in Greenaway’s assertion that there hasn’t yet been any true cinema but merely one hundred and twenty years of “illustrated text” — a fair enough charge when leveled at Woody Allen (whom I like), but less convincing if one knows the films of Robert Bresson, Miklós Jancsó, and Kenji Mizoguchi to name a few — is that he’s just the man to give it to us, despite the fact that his own movies are all pretty talky. Indeed, part of what makes The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) such terrific fun is the way the characters use language as a weapon; in Eisenstein in Guanajuato, alas, they simply regurgitate Greenaway’s pronouncements on sex, death, and voyeurism verbatim while the camera spins around them pointlessly and still images of famous faces (Charles Chaplin, Walt Disney, etc.) flash onscreen whenever they’re mentioned in the dialogue.

Greenaway, who started his film career as an editor at the BFI, has called Sergei Eisenstein the only truly impressive filmmaker in the medium’s short history, so it’s somewhat surprising that he makes no attempt in this movie — notwithstanding his taste for non-diegetic inserts — to approximate or build upon the montage style of Soviet films of the 1920s, but instead employs a suped up version of continuity editing not fundamentally different from the commercial cinema he despises. To be sure, Greenaway has some neat ideas of his own which have nothing to do with Eisenstein (as when he uses invisible wipes to stitch together several tracking shots moving laterally from right to left, each one scanning a different side of the same room), but they lack any narrative motivation that would make them meaningful.

Ultimately, what seems to interest Greenaway most about Eisenstein (played here by Elmer Bäck) is that he had a homosexual fling with a teacher of comparative religion (Luis Alberti) in Mexico for ten days in 1931. Eisenstein’s adventures in Hollywood (synopsized in a lengthy, frenetic monologue) and the shooting of ¡Que viva México! are relevant to the plot only insofar as they provide an excuse for bringing him briefly to Guanajuato and then sending him away when his investors put the kibosh on filming. The movie tells us virtually nothing about the film Eisenstein wanted to make, suggesting that Greenaway is totally uninterested in it, and when we see brief clips of Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), they’re either cropped to fit the ‘Scope frame, obscured by an orchestra, or shown three at a time in a Gance-like triptych. In short, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is an essentially conventional biopic about the private life of a public figure, which just goes to show that it’s easier to talk about true cinema than it is to make it.

Tayla Lavie’s Zero Motivation (2014) begins with two female NCOs walking back to a remote base in the south of Israel after a weekend furlough. When Daffi (Nelly Tagar) refuses to go on, saying she can’t face another week, her friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) tries to encourage her by saying they’ll set a new record for minesweeping. Only later do we learn that both women work in the personnel department and the only minesweeping they ever do is on the office computers. Periodically, their commanding officer, Rama (Shani Klein), scolds them for their laziness at a time when others are dying for their country, but that’s the closest anyone comes to even mentioning the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in what is essentially an office comedy.

For reasons that are never spelled out, Daffi has her heart set on being transferred to a base in Tel Aviv (even though her family lives in Haifa), so when an unfamiliar young woman, Tehila (Yonit Tobi), turns up at the base, Daffi jumps to the conclusion that she’s been sent to replace her. Only after Tehila is unmasked as an impostor does Daffi discover that Zohar never mailed the countless letters they wrote together requesting a transfer — partly to spare Daffi the embarrassment of having them read by anyone, but also because Daffi would be helpless without her (her only useful skill is her ability to operate a paper shredder), and because Zohar has no other friends in the department, which is full of passive-aggressive skanks.

There are some real laughs in the film, but for the most part, the story is a little too serious to ever be very funny. We eventually learn that Tehila’s purpose in sneaking onto the base is to see Eitan (Moshe Askenazi), a soldier whom she had a one night stand with four months earlier and has been hung-up on ever since. But while there’s a hint of farce in a scene where Eitan tries to conceal a female officer in his room when Tehila barges in in the middle of the night, her heartbreak when Eitan finally disillusions her is too real to be laughed at, and in a particularly gruesome sequence, she attempts to remove a commemorative tattoo from her belly with an Exacto knife. The movie’s least convincing scenes are its few forays into out-and-out hilarity, such as the improbable happy ending in which Daffi and Zohar make up and all their dreams magically come true, as if by divine intervention.

Unlike war movies made in the United States, the few Israeli films I’ve seen about the military don’t have much recruitment flavor — maybe because national service is mandatory there so there’s no need (or appetite) for movies that try to sell young people on enlisting. (In this film, the IDF’s macho culture is treated simply as a fact of life rather than a problem to be solved.) At the same time, the movie is conspicuously silent on the Palestinian question, which is alluded to only in passing, as when Zohar puts up posters commemorating every war Israel has fought since 1948. The impression I get from the film is that most Israelis are too busy with their own lives to worry about political issues that don’t directly concern them, and instead of giving recruits a sense of mission, military service is a meaningless obligation they’re forced to endure whether they like it or not.

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Shortly before seeing Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013), I finally got around to reading Robert McKee’s screenwriting manual, Story (1998), which recommends that a two hour movie have at least four major turning points: an inciting incident that gets the ball rolling and another big reversal at the end of each act. By my reckoning, however, Reichardt’s film just has three major turning points, and while McKee advises writers to get to the inciting incident as quickly as possible with thirty minutes being the upper limit, here the first big reversal doesn’t occur until an hour and seven minutes into the movie when its protagonist, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) — a radical environmentalist who takes part in the bombing of a hydroelectric dam — learns that a camper was killed in the explosion.

I take this to be the inciting incident because, in McKee’s words, it upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life and raises what he terms the “major dramatic question”: We want to know if Josh will be punished for the camper’s death or if he’ll somehow get away with it. After the bombing, he tells his accomplice, Dena (Dakota Fannng), “We just gotta get home, show up for work tomorrow morning… Just get back to normal, okay?” And at this point in the film, there’s nothing to stop them from doing just that, but after the discovery of the camper’s body, Josh receives a phone call from a third conspirator, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who tells him that Dena isn’t handling it well. Worried that she might go to the police, Josh initially tries talking to her, but when word of his involvement reaches the communal farm where he lives, forcing him to move out (the second big turning point), he escalates to threats before finally strangling her.

Of course, Reichardt and her cowriter, Jonathan Raymond, could’ve gotten to the inciting incident much sooner, but in this case, the film would’ve been less exciting if they had. As soon as it becomes apparent that Josh and his cohorts are planning to blow up the dam, we instinctively know that something must go wrong (or so right as to make the bombing superfluous), so rather than getting it over with as quickly as possible, the movie draws out the suspense by throwing up obstacles which delay the characters from carrying out their plan. Specifically, in order to make a big enough bomb, they need to procure five hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, but when someone buys that much manure, it tends to raise eyebrows. So when the boys send Dena to make the purchase, the suspense arises from our apprehension that the clerk (James Le Gros) — who refuses to sell her that much fertilizer without a social security card — is going to call the cops on her.

Another thing that keeps the movie interesting is the way it doles out information about the characters in small doses so that we have to keep revising our ideas about them. In the conspicuously terse opening sequence, as Josh and Dena walk back from the dam to Josh’s truck, their dialogue is too low for us to make out what they’re saying so it only becomes apparent in retrospect what they’re really up to. At this point, it looks they might be on a date, but one quickly discards this hypothesis as we never see them kiss, hold hands, or even smile at one another. (Later on, it’s even hinted that there’s something going on between Dena and Harmon or maybe I’m just imagining it.) In fact, it’s never explained how Josh and Dena know each other, nor do we ever find out how they got involved in the plot to blow up the dam, yet it never feels like the film is being overly coy. Reichardt knows exactly how much the viewer needs to know and when, and leaves out everything that’s inessential.

As a rule, I like to know as little as possible about a movie before seeing it, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t avoid learning that the unnamed heroine of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) is an extraterrestrial who assumes the form of a pretty girl (Scarlet Johansson) in order to lure men to their deaths — something that the film makes clear only gradually. Unfolding without a word of exposition, the first hour of the movie is a kind of narrative striptease that slowly reveals what the heroine is up to as the film reveals Johansson, who gets a little more naked each time she brings a fresh victim back to her lair.

The film opens with an enigmatic sequence in which a black space dildo slowly penetrates a white plastic doughnut that plays like an obscene outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), hinting at the movie’s science fiction premise without giving away any concrete information. This is followed by an equally mysterious earthbound scene in which the heroine’s accomplice, an untalkative biker, picks up a corpse by the side of the road so that the heroine can appropriate the dead woman’s whorish outfit. As it’s never explained who she was or how she died, it only occurred to me in retrospect — after seeing what happens to the heroine in the final sequence — that the dead woman might be her predecessor in intergalactic vamping, though I can’t say for sure. (According to one review I’ve read, the dead woman is also played by Johansson, but it’s hard to tell as we never get a good look at her face.)

The stinginess of the film’s exposition, and the lengthy scenes in which the heroine cruises around Edinburgh picking up strange men (shot primarily with a camera mounted to the dashboard of her van), both suggest the influence of Abbas Kiarostami, and like Ten (2002), this movie is an ambiguous blend of fiction and documentary. In the publicity surrounding the film, much has been made of the fact that several scenes were shot using hidden cameras, but it’s not always possible to tell while watching the movie what’s real and what isn’t. I had read beforehand that the disfigured young man whom the heroine offers a lift to the supermarket is a real guy rather than an actor wearing makeup, and the interview-style dialogue invites the viewer to imagine what life is like for someone with a genetic deformity. However, when he says that he’s never had a girlfriend, I can’t be sure if this is true of the man or only the character he’s playing.

In addition to being a major turning point in the plot, the heroine’s decision to spare this man’s life is the first indication the movie offers of her having any sort of inner life. Prior to this, the only time she ever drops her sweet ‘n’ slutty routine is to bludgeon an unconscious man to death with a rock as robotically as the title character in Jeanne Dielman… (1975) peels potatoes, and indeed, it’s never explained why she wants to kill a bunch of horny Scotsmen in the first place. Furthermore, there aren’t any significant close-ups of the heroine either looking at the men with a predatory gaze or expressing remorse for her actions, and it’s unclear precisely when she begins to have feelings for the middle-aged bachelor who chivalrously offers her a place to stay when she flees into the Highlands. Rather than getting us to empathize with the heroine, the film presents her as something of an enigma.

I liked the film quite a bit, but notwithstanding one spectacularly creepy special effects sequence that’s like nothing I’ve seen before, there’s not a whole lot that’s new here. Alas, this hasn’t stopped reviewers from hyping the movie like it was a cure for cancer with Matt Zoller Seitz going so far as to place Glazer in the same “weight class” as Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Stanley Kubrick. But while each of those directors has or had their own distinctive sensibility, Glazer is at best a skillful imitator. To be sure, originality isn’t everything (just look at Steven Soderbergh), but to place Glazer in such august company is a bit like saying that the Monkees were just as great as the Beatles.