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Posts Tagged ‘European Cinema’

My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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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.

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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.”

Note:
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.

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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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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.

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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.

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