Monthly Archives: September 2013

Le temps qui reste – 2005

temps-qui-reste-2005-02-gLe temps qui reste, or, as some appalling translator has deemed it shall be in English, “Time to Leave” is the second part of François Ozon’s informal trilogy about mourning. Romain (Melvil Poupaud) is suddenly thrown prematurely into death as he discovers he has only three months left to him. A lesser director would then show us heart-warming scenes of families re-united, lost lovers sought and found and other generally accepted sweet as pie ways to deal with the situation.

Romain does not do this. He takes on the role of mourner and mourned, refusing to let anyone else share in this grief. Poupaud therefor carries the whole film on his shoulders, rarely leaving the frame, let alone the scene. His performance never lets up or disappoints, despite the strange situations and unfamiliar emotions he is required to portray.

By declaring that the film is about mourning Ozon raises a question, what exactly is being mourned? While of course it is the life of the protagonist it is also the future he will not be part of. The generation he will not be able to father. By making this character gay Ozon adds another layer to the story. The impossible future seems to taunt Romain as even his sister confidently declares that soon France may allow gay adoption. (Incidentally given that France is still in the aftermath of violent protests against gay marriage, Ozon’s frank and honest portrayal of a homosexual relationship is refreshing and also somewhat daring.) The narrative solution to this is a little contrived but allows for the main thrust of the film’s plot. From trying his hardest to leave no trace of himself, Romain has now decided to leave what small mark he can given his lack of time.

The themes of fatherhood, loss and homosexuality are so raw and vivid in this film that it can be rather uncomfortable to watch. There is none of Ozon’s cold detachment in the cinematography of this film. Every scene, every emotion is played out in your face, at terrifyingly close range. The dying photographer records his own life with the same emotion as Ozon’s direction. This makes it a challenging watch, with not so much as a shred of optimism. Still, it is definitely worthwhile, if only to allow a more open discussion of death and the way in which people approach it.

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Weekend – 1967

weekendJean-Luc Godard’s self-proclaimed “fin de cinema” is probably a very good stopping point. The self-involved obscurity of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague communication reaches its absolute height. I think any film beyond this would become utter nonsense.  Without at least a sense of Godard’s previous works, Weekend seems utter nonsense.

Weekend is a parody, a dogma for social change and a critique of art and society rolled into one. At no point is the film regular or ordinary in its style. Even a conversation filmed in a conventional way is often blocked out by music, allowing only certain words to fall through, “buttocks”, “milk”, “breasts”. Not the conversation one expects from these bourgeois characters. This oblique filmmaking does not become easier to understand. An immense investment of concentration and persistence is required to make it through the first half hour of this film. For my part I felt that, after watching ten minutes of a traffic jam with symphonies of car horns, I had invested too much to turn back. I was glad I continued.

As the film progresses it becomes clear that everything has been a vitriolic criticism of the bourgeoisie. The traffic jam is only an annoyance to the viewer because the audience, like the characters has refused to see the joy in a journey or even the horror of a car accident. Normally such a thing would be written off as an annoyance, both in life and in art. Godard forces us to confront it. We realise the empty pointlessness of those travelling with a dinghy on a trailer, the cruel indifference of the family setting up a picnic just metres away from a fatal accident. These characters are careless, desensitised consumers and the film forces them to re-engage with the world. They even admit to being no better than characters in a film, finally demanding of every passer-by if they are in a movie or in real life. Here the “movie” seems to be the bourgeois society, ignoring and abetting our protagonists. The reality, even though it is savage, disgusting almost, and definitely terrifying, is more human than anything else in the film. The very fact that we find their connection with nature, animals and traditional hunting so shocking is Godard’s point. Society is far too disconnected to accept humanity.

What sets this film apart is the assault-like style. Godard does not allow the audience to rest because otherwise it would stop thinking. This short 90 minute film contains more ideas than many directors confront in a lifetime. The film cuts from scene to scene with little or no explanation, each scene seeming to be an unconnected set piece. Yet each is part of a sustained attack on society as Godard sees it. Materialism, leisure, prudishness, nothing is safe from Godard’s scorn. While watching this you will probably be frustrated, offended and even bored. But even if you disagree with every point Godard makes, you cannot help but admire the way they are made, almost like a film full of bullet points for us to make of what we will.

Paris je t’aime – 2006

ParisIn 2006 20 different directors were brought together to make a short film about Paris each. The 18 which were chosen to become part of Paris je t’aime all together create a portrait of life and love in Paris. Although, of course, some are more successful than others.

Montmartre: A rather bland piece depicting a sweet chance encounter. It sets the tone of the film very well, “small romances of the districts”. Ultimately, however, this is intensely forgettable.

Quais de Seine: Elegantly shot and touchingly understated, a young man is enchanted by a woman who leads an almost precisely opposite life to his own. Cyril Descours’ performance as a man tentatively attempting courtship is comic and endearing. Even after the film has ended you find yourself cheering on this enamoured teen.

Le Marais: Van Sant, truly the master of mildly metaphysical monologues, gives us a scene of wooing in the cosmopolitan world. Time is short and opportunities are quick to pass by. It is odd that while a missed connection is tragic, a nearly missed connection is incredibly joyful.

Tuileries: Steve Buscemi and the Coen brothers give us a demonstration of how not to act or direct. Each moment is exaggerated to the point of being disgusting, however this isn’t even tongue in cheek. It seems that the directors genuinely believe that this is what counts for wry observational humour in this day and age.

Loin du 16e: The first scene of non-romantic love in the film draws our attention to the bond between mother and child. Perhaps the simplest concept within the film, this section is haunting and poignant regardless of brevity or simplicity.

Porte de Choisy: Either I missed the point, or there wasn’t one. Seriously no idea what happened here, maybe it’s a comment on westernisation in urban communities but really I don’t have a clue.

Bastille: A refreshingly sane piece after Porte de Choisy, but a rather depressing portrayal of a man losing everything he has ever wanted or loved. A true self-sacrifice that doesn’t even seem worth it.

Place des Victoires: What should be a highly memorable section is unfortunately overshadowed by the previous portrayal of motherly love. After such delicacy Sawa’s direction is unnecessarily melodramatic and involved for such a difficult topic.

Tour Eiffel: Chomet’s first and only venture into live action aptly demonstrates why he is an animator. The caricatures of personality and dimension which are charming as drawings are unnerving and incredibly annoying when portrayed by actual humans.

Parc Monceau: While Cuaron’s decision to shoot this as a single take is daring and a testament to the two actors abilities it does make this into a very boring five minutes with little to no visual interest and a fairly average script.

Quartier des Enfants Rouges: The idea had potential, unfortunately it is let down by an awkward and stilted performance by Maggie Gyllenhall. This renders the section sadly mediocre.

Place des Fetes: The tragic counterpart of Van Sant’s piece. This missed connection is so brutally portrayed. In the end it is no one’s fault, it is just an awful series of events.

Pigalle: A couple struggle to maintain the spark in their relationship. A somewhat naïve piece, romanticising weaknesses and empty gestures over true emotional catharsis.

Quartier de la Madeleine: An ill-conceived vampire romance brings down the tone.

Père-Lachaise: An irrational and irritating English woman throws a tantrum at her long-suffering fiancé. Why does he go after her? God alone knows.

Fauborg Saint-Denis: A beautiful piece, containing a fantastic montage of time lapse footage and what comes across as a poem or rap elegising a lost love. All this, only to be sadly ruined by a trite 30 seconds at the end, which utterly devalues the beauty before.

Quartier Latin: Perhaps the highlight of the whole film. A shorter than the average piece showing a couple who have fallen out of love, but maybe are still soulmates. There is no anger or vitriol between them, they argue with grace and enjoyment. They light up with each other, regardless of their official relationship. There is a love but it is indefinable.

14e arrondisement: An American tourist narrates her visit to France. In a tactful finale we see views of the entire city as she contemplates bittersweetly on her life and loves in somewhat flawed French. It is endearing and genuinely funny and lightens the mood from the more mature and unhappy pieces which preceeded it.

 

 

Masculin Féminin – 1966

masculin-feminin-1966-02-gRecently I have watched four Godard films. A Bout de Souffle, Masculin Féminin, Weekend and Le Mépris. It was only when I watched Le Mépris, which is not considered part of the nouvelle vague, that I had a breakthrough in understanding what the nouvelle vague, or at least’s Godard’s part in it was.

These films are not by any means easy to digest. They are films made by film critics for film critics so at first viewing are basically closed and inaccessible to the viewer. It was only after two films and three weeks that I felt I understood enough to attempt a third film. I will first review Masculin Féminin. The style is not quite documentary, more an exposé of cinema itself, the characters are self-aware, mocking their own performances. Brigitte Bardot even appears as herself for a cameo, so blurred are the lines of fantasy and reality. Plot goes for a burton: the whole film seems to be entirely disconnected moments in the life of young people. These instances are divided into chapters, blurring the lines between different media and allowing the more scholarly diction of literature to become a part of film. However, suddenly, we are forced back into a plot-based way of thinking at the very end as the characters have to explain the narrative we have just seen. What this shows us is that life is so much more and less than the stories we frame it as. Even telling a story gives the whims of the human heart and the winds of fate far too much credit.

As well as this already groundbreaking style the film is boldly political, as if Godard simply had too much to say at any one time. “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” appears emblazoned across the screen in one of the many intertitles. These intertitles are crucial, flashing on screen with barely enough time to be read they contain the keys to understanding the film, an ironic reversal of a picture being worth a thousand words. Every so often the film cuts to a series of interviews, questionnaires on politics and sex. The questions seem to be loaded with meaning but we are never told what. We later realise that we only believed so because the characters were so passionate about these things. Yet the political activism seen in these young French intellectuals is almost pitifully insincere. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) splits his time between spraying socialist slogans on walls and trying to be like James Dean. For all his bravado and self-determinism he is utterly and tragically controlled by his love for a woman.

It is difficult to comment on the acting performances in Masculin Féminin, one gets the impression that in truth very little acting is going on, for all we know what we are actually seeing are the conversations had before the camera started rolling. Each word and thought is so genuine that it is somewhat disarming, you feel as if you are watching a documentary of people’s personal lives and views. This counterbalances the confusing and imposing thematic and stylistic features allowing the film to be understood as a charmingly realistic story of unrequited love. But it is so much more. It is like a snapshot of being young. Each character dreams of political change, free love and a great, successful future: they will probably never achieve this but it does not matter, they are now frozen forever in this naïve and joyful state. While the places and particulars may be different the themes still affect every young person today. Yet no other generation has recorded it with such faith or such boldness.

La Grande Belleza – 2013

grande bellezzaSo many films are desperate to express the same few messages, live each day as if it’s your last, do what you love, never let that one true love pass you by. However what happens when, like people living in the real world, our protagonist has not followed this advice. The film is an elegy for Jep’s (Tony Servillo) lost youth. Now 65 and alone in Rome he spends his days casually detached from the people he spends time with, even his lovers. The events around him do not make an impact as he impassively tears down his companions for lack of other ways to fill the time.

The direction seems to share this indifference, the cinematography brings everything down to the most normal common denominator. Beautiful, miraculous and surreal scenes are played off as entirely ordinary through the camera’s eye.  This allows sequences that would normally be written off as dreams or delusions to blend into the background of the absurd city. A city where priests and strippers regularly find themselves in the same circles. Possibly the most surreal juxtaposition of purity and pleasure found anywhere in the world.

Servillo’s performance pulls no punches, he grieves almost incessantly for a life he never had. His austere but kindly face is able to express both interminable world-weariness and childish joy within seconds of each other. The “king of the nightlife” slowly leaves his own terrain, declaring that he’s too old to waste his time. In the end the film leaves a sad taste in the mouth. He has not found his lost love or resolved his loneliness. He has merely experienced a little bit more of the variety of life, beautifully expressed and understated. His narrative is ongoing, like everyone’s. Life does not come in perfectly framed, convenient two hour packages to hsare. It is a series of random events that come our way. What La Grande Belleza mourns is the randomness, the meaningless of it all, when such beauty is just another wave in a sea that no one will remember.

The Bling Ring – 2013

film-bling-ringSofia Coppola’s newest film falls into the same trap as so many other “based on real-life events” films. The audience knows exactly what is going to happen. This is not so bad in films like Argo where the joy of the story is not in the factual outcome of the story but rather how it happened. The Bling Ring, however, does not have this. From the first ten minutes of film you have the whole plot. Spoilers: they steal things, they get caught, they get locked up.

The problem is that the film appears to be trying to achieve more. It is unclear what deep message is meant to be conveyed in this 90 minutes but I’m pretty sure there is one. Perhaps she was aiming for a sensitive character portrait, but since the film seems to switch between three central characters it’s hard to tell. Is the main focus meant to be Marc (Israel Broussard) , our sporadic narrator’s, hinted-at but largely ignored homosexual streak and platonic love for a criminal? Or is it rather Rebecca (Katie Chang), the lonely daughter of a broken home desperately living vicariously through her celebrity idols? While her obsession is certainly disturbing, her motives are never satisfactorily revealed or explained and she remains a one-dimensional mercenary social climber. However the film could as easily be seen as a study of Nicki (Emma Watson) who is even more mercenary, turning her aspirational crimes to her advantage and making herself into a Z-list celebrity in her own right. It feels as if the film could have been edited to be a study on any one of these three, however the bizarre decision was made to not actually investigate any and leave the interesting character arcs on the cutting room floor. I guess that did leave more room for slo-mo footage of coke-fueled parties.

Unfortunately the cinematography is not varied enough to make the repetitive story entirely engaging. It achieves amusing, entertaining, but after the fourth scene of teenagers going “OH MY GOD” at what X or Y celebrity has in their underwear drawer you start to wonder what you are doing with your life. Although, credit where it is due: one of the robberies is beautifully filmed in a single wide angle shot showing the glass-sided house being illuminated and the two young robbers treating it as their own. It’s a bold and impressive style statement which is sadly never followed up.

Perhaps what this film has achieved is a dark parody on modern culture. These young people document ever moment of their lives, no party is complete without a picture and a Facebook post. Their experiences are not precious to them as moments of happiness but as possessions, quantifiable things that have “cool” value to be bragged about. One of the characters even points out that America has an obsession with a Bonnie and Clyde archetype. I feel that, accidentally, this film turns back on the audience with venom. In its very dullness, the shallow and vapid shots of people taking pictures of themselves you wonder why you are giving the validation, why you too were lured into the Bonnie and Clyde phenomenon. The film is a combination of hedonism and voyeurism and the audience condones this by their presence. There is nothing in the artistry of the film that takes a stand against this society, it’s up to the viewers to simply refuse to view, to refuse to let celebrity culture and over-documentation suffocate true art and ideas. Huxley had a point, don’t let his dystopia come true.

Restless – 2011

restlessGus Van Sant’s 2011 film was widely disliked by critics at its release. Almost universally considered too frivolous for its subject matter, it got somewhat forgotten in the back-catalogue of Van Sant’s work. The story confronts love, death and illness with an almost scandalous lightness of touch. Discussions of death are accompanied by upbeat ragtime piano tunes and light is made of every possible situation. As such, the film treads the fine line between comedy and melodrama, the cutting and witty script counterbalancing the tragic storyline at every turn.

Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska give charmingly subtle performances as today’s star-crossed lovers. Hopper’s performance as Enoch Brae is especially impressive given his newcomer status. His interpretation of the off-beat troubled teen is perfectly complemented by Wasikowska’s gentle presence. What is so endearing about this film is its distinct adolescent quality. What many have seen as Van Sant ignoring the issues is merely the result of a profound insight into the teenage state of mind: the ability to deal with something by simply…not dealing with it. Indeed Hiroshi, the third main character is an embodiment of emotional displacement. Not a single one of them is able to confront their issues. It is not that they are unwilling. Throughout the film numerous attempts are made to discuss or solve these issues, in a mature and adult way, but the tragedy is that they are not adults. Their attempts are on occasion farcical, calling to mind Luhrmann’s inept Romeo and Juliet more than any realistic coping methods.

While the simple narrative would designate Annabel (Wasikowska) as the tragic victim, it soon becomes apparent that happiness and tragedy befall only those who cannot approach them positively. Enoch bears the full brunt of the tragedy that befalls these lovers only because he tries to engage with it, unlike Annabel who shrugs off her issues in a definitively carefree manner. The cinematography and direction are knowingly whimsical, romanticising every moment as if the whole film is already held in happy retrospect. This is a huge part of the film’s success. Were it to be more brutal in its approach there would be no hope, no catharsis, and ultimately no point in telling this story. Van Sant delivers a highly moving story with heartbreaking realism, the deepest sadness is both amplified and healed by the very joy it unwittingly contains.