Posts Tagged ‘European Cinema’

Given not only the example of such major directors as Sam Fuller and Ousmane Sembène who both started out as novelists, but also his involvement in Alain Resnais’ greatest film, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), and the photographic prose style of such exciting early novels as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), it’s all the more puzzling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s own films should be so clumsy and unimaginative. At first glance, Trans-Europ-Express (1966), his second feature, seems to have a lot going for it: the presence of actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marie-France Pisier, Willy Kurant’s documentary-like cinematography, the snatches of Verdi on the soundtrack (thrown in seemingly at random for a few seconds at a time), and a characteristically abstract and absurdist plot line in which, as in The Erasers (1953), the difference between the police and the criminals becomes increasingly meaningless. But beyond putting all of these things on the screen, Robbe-Grillet doesn’t have very many ideas as to what to do with them. The self-reflexive framing device—in which the director, his wife Catherine, and a male friend pass the time during a train ride from Brussels to Antwerp by making up a story about a trainee drug smuggler who dresses like a cop (Trintignant) and gets on the same train carrying a suitcase that doesn’t have any cocaine in it—provides a loose justification for frequently violating continuity, but stylistically Robbe-Grillet has so few tricks up his sleeve that the film’s attempts at playfulness—having the characters change position from one shot to the next, as if they had just teleported across the room; cutting away to close-ups of people looking into the camera that may or may not represent Trintignant’s subjective fantasies—quickly start to feel mechanical and the occasional stabs at humour don’t help. (I began to suspect the film was in trouble during the pre-credit sequence when Trintignant wears a funny beard, as if that in itself were sufficient to expose the absurdity of the genre conventions Robbe-Grillet is sending up.) It would be instructive to show this in film schools to aspiring avant-gardists—preferably alongside Godard’s Alphaville (1965)—in order to demonstrate the difference between replication and parody and between rule-breaking and creativity.


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Michelangelo Antonioni was forty-seven when L’avventura (1960) won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, establishing his international reputation, and had already been directing for over a decade—though in contrast with the slightly younger Ingmar Bergman, who had to make a lot of promising films before he could produce a good one, Antonioni was making films of exceptional quality virtually from the beginning of his career. His third feature, The Lady Without Camellias (La signora senza camelie, 1953), strikes me as something less than a masterpiece but it’s a work of considerable interest nonetheless. More classical both in terms of its plotting and mise en scène than Antonioni’s better known ’60s films, it tells the story of a pretty young starlet (Lucia Bosé) whose controlling producer-husband (Andrea Checchi) objects to her playing the sort of steamy roles that made her famous in the first place and insists on casting her as Joan of Arc. Later, after bravely striking out on her own as a serious actress, the heroine finds that she doesn’t have any talent and ruefully returns to playing the sexpot. I can’t say that I cared very deeply about these characters, but as a satire of the Italian film industry the movie is frequently hilarious (you’d never guess from the way the characters talk that the heroic age of Italian neorealism had just come to a close), and Antonioni’s style is breathtaking. Working in extremely long takes with a mobile camera, Antonioni keeps his compositions balanced and centred so that the actors aren’t overwhelmed by their surroundings (despite Enzo Serafin’s deep focus cinematography), and in the crowd scenes, the director packs throngs of actors into congested, improbably frontal arrangements reminiscent of 1940s Hollywood—suggesting that, like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Antonioni had to master classical découpage before he could reject it.

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My report on the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks as always to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it. Since writing this article, I was able to catch up with Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which — in spite of its stylistically awkward conclusion — rivals Western as the best and most moving narrative film in this year’s festival. On the other hand, I don’t consider Darren Aronofsky’s mother! a success as its allegorical story isn’t grounded in enough realistic detail (few real poets can support themselves on their work alone, much less afford a house like the one in the movie), and I didn’t really enjoy watching it, but it’s such an audacious and at times exciting failure that you should probably see it anyway, if you haven’t already.

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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.”

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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