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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In Stalker Tarkovsky searches for what lies beyond both measurement and
intellect, and hooks the viewer by the senses. The first images after
the credits are hypnotic, bleached, cold, that's home. Then there's a
trip, some danger but nothing serious, in black and white, for a moment
its sustained rhythm makes it almost warm, and then there's a search
that takes the bulk of the movie, that's the Zone, a forbidden area
outside society. The relatively normal colours of a cool climate are
apparent but the visual elegance seems to persist. It's an abnormal
normality, a vast natural stage emptied for the actors. The play begins
and the actors search, first in open spaces and then in caves and
rooms. They're a scientist, an intellectual and a stalker, a man for
whom the totally rational world where he lives is insufferable. He's
bullied by the scientist and the intellectual in a scene near the end.
In the epilogue, the stalker's wife confesses to the camera that she
knew this man was an outcast, that there would be problems, but she
discarded the possibility of a better suitor. Their daughter, a girl
with telekinetic powers, ends the movie.
Constrained by a shoestring budget, and despite visually dazzling moments and an undeniable social element, Tarkovsky's exploration seems minimalist and geared towards introspection. The social and the personal are shown side by side. Lesser filmmakers are often incapable of telling one category from the other. "Intangible" and "tangible" apply to parallel or contiguous realities. The abnormal powers of the stalker's daughter displace the glasses across the table; the vibration by the train passing nearby affects the table and the glasses on it. Stalker is that rare artifact, it knows what to take from reality and what to expect from allegory, how to connect form and content in a coherent way that extends to the exacting relationship between the director and his medium. The Zone's travelogue may not always be top-notch. You sleep a little but wake up to a lot.
Heaven makes some odd couples but I wasn't expecting this one. Lucile H and Gaspar Noé.? Oh my, Katherine Mansfield dates Jack the Ripper! Now, seriously, I read Mansfield quite a few years ago so I probably mistake her for someone else, Noe can't be that bad, he's all show, and Innocence isn't only a delicate tale, there's a ghost story hanging in the air, the ghost is partly male. Lucile wants to tell the world and Gaspar wants to shock it. She's a grown-up woman telling what it may feel like to be a girl, a middle-class one to be precise, you just listen, watch her tell it. For some it may be too obvious or heavy-handed but there's nothing wrong with simple things as long as they're not simplistic. Others could miss a substantial plot development but a true plot is only necessary for plot-driven movies. It is a coherent and consistently balanced job; if there are provocations, they are offered rather than imposed and can be easily handled. They used to say girls grew up first. I just wonder what she would do with a school for boys. No, I don't want to know what Noé would do. The movie begins with the credits, à la Irreversible, and there's an explanation for that at the end but what does it mean? Could it possibly be a tribute? I don't know, but I think there are tributes: Varda's Cleo and Truffaut's next door.
Two things haunt you throughout L'intrus (The Intruder): who's the intruder and is it a movie or a dream you're watching? The ending is so shocking that for a while you're at a loss for an answer to either of those questions. The intruder pops up as different characters, different men in different circumstances who don't belong in the scene, so they're expelled from it, kindly or brutally, but often without emotional involvement. The main character, Louis, is a contemptible man. He's got rough ways, some mean job and no heart. He needs one and goes after it. He has a heart transplanted and afterwards decides to start a new life. Can this man succeed in his quest for redemption? A guy like that could cut your throat at the drop of a hat. You know it but Claire Denis doesn't encourage you to judge him. Occasionally, there's a young Russian woman -a beautiful girl who seems to inhabit someplace between heaven and earth - who does judge him. She may even punish him. But not Denis. There's the character played by Beatrice Dalle who wants no business with him: don't touch me, she says. But Denis lets this man be himself, films him in his self-absorbed quest. I don't know if what she films is the heart or the mind but it isn't the traditional plot basics. Whatever she films, you get it in the end. You know who's "the" intruder, you know why, more or less, and some scenes come back to your mind with their full meaning. But was it a movie or a dream?
Whenever I see La Paura I think of it as a companion piece to Eyes Wide Shut, or maybe it is the other way around. Adultery makes both films tick but in different ways. I think Phillip French was right on the money when he pointed out a Wizard of Oz thing in Kubrick's last work. Like Dorothy, Tom and Nicole go through fantasies and nightmares and at the end Dorothy's reassuring childish motto "there's no place like home" is ironically updated to the adult circumstantial adage "there's no sex like marital sex". Kubrick's take is intellectual, he never leaves the world of ideas to touch the ground. He taunts the audience first with an erotic movie and then with a thriller and refuses to deliver either of them. He was married to his third wife for 40 years, until he died. Rossellini was still married to Ingrid Bergman when he directed La Paura; they had been adulterous lovers and their infidelity widely criticized La Paura is a tale, a noirish one. The noir intrigue is solved and the tale has a happy ending. The city is noir; the country is tale, the territory where childhood is possible. The transition is operated in the most regular way: by car, a long-held shot taken from the front of the car as it rides into the road, as if we were entering a different dimension. Irene (Bergman) starts the movie: we just see a dark city landscape but her voice-over narration tells us of her angst and informs us that the story is a flashback, hers. Bergman's been cheating on her husband. At first guilt is just psychological torture but soon expands into economic blackmail and then grows into something else. From beginning to end the movie focuses on what Bergman feels, every other character is there to make her feel something. Only when the director gives away the plot before the main character can find out does he want us to feel something Bergman still can't. When she finds out, we have already experienced the warped mechanics of the situation and we may focus once again on the emotional impact it has on Bergman's Irene. In La Paura treasons are not imagined but real, nightmares are deliberate and the couple's venom suppurates in bitter ways. Needless to say, Ingrid has another of her rough rides in the movies but Rossellini doesn't dare put her away as he did in Europa 51, nor does he abandon her to the inscrutable impassivity of nature (Stromboli). His gift is less transcendent and fragile than the conclusion of Viaggio in Italia. He just gives his wife as much of a fairy tale ending as a real woman can have, a human landscape where she can finally feel at home. Back to the country, a half lit interior scene where shadows suggest the comfort of sleep. After all, it's the "fairy godmother" who speaks the last words in the movie.
This is said to be the first film of the Nouvelle Vague. I don't see
the Nouvelle Vague anywhere here. The distance between Le Beau Serge
and The 400 Blows is not one year but an age. Chabrol's first film is
like a melodramatic throwback to 19th century naturalism with a touch
of redemption, that is, unnaturalized naturalism. Serge and his gang
are enslaved by circumstances but his Parisian pal will work hard to
bring them hope. It feels as if it had already been outdated at the
time of opening and it doesn't look very chabrolian. Not that
chabrolian always means "good".
I've seen at least as many bad movies by Chabrol as good ones. How could this happen to me? Once upon a time people used to say he was a legendary master, someone to keep track of. Maybe he was. He has indeed made some masterful pictures in the 1960s-70s and some think he's also made 3 or 4 very interesting films in the last 20 years.
Anyway, that's no excuse for all the mediocrity he's churned out so complacently not only during the last 20 years but, as it turns out, since 1958 when he directed this shrill rural drama. There's even a mean priest and, of course, the saviour is a secularized priestly figure, he's devoted to his flock but has sex. As priests go, I'd rather have the uncanny Gerard Depardieu in that miracle Pialat borrowed from Bernanos: Sous le Soleil de Satan.
The US v Europe in philosophical style via a little eastern Zen. I
Heart Huckabees is an American comedy, which means it has a happy
ending. Sometimes the plot may seem flippantly thin and the comic
rhythm too subdued for a screwball comedy but it does have a few points
to make and some hilarious scenes, like one with left-wing
environmentalists and an all-capitalist God-loving family.
Huckabees is an intellectual comedy. The bright-side look on life draped in suburban Buddhism represents American optimism, everything can be solved, everything is connected, pain comes from a narrow and fragmented perspective. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play the existential detectives committed to this trend; they are parental figures. Opposite, the fallen angel, the existential Satan, obviously someone from France: Isabelle Huppert. A nihilist philosopher disguised as femme fatale. Huppert's pitch is chaos, life is painful, don't connect the dots that have never been there, things can't be solved.
But Huckabees is an American intellectual comedy and Americans aren't always comfortable with thought. They are practical folks out there across the Atlantic and like their things being used, with buttons and preferably with folding accessories, so sometimes they mistrust thought and tame it, they make it usable and pocket-sized. And that's when Huckabees existential hero, the troubled Jason Schwartzman, reaches a conclusion, solves the mystery of the universe, puts yin and yang together, reconciles the old and new worlds and we have our existential happy ending without having really entered a daring territory or have we?. Maybe I'm biased but I don't think Europeans mistrust thought so willingly. They have learned to live with thought as they have learned to live with God, even when they don't have much faith in either of those. Huckabees goes from screwball to feel-good, and it feels good but it should have been wackier. I wish there were more films like it.
Prostitution has been a popular trade in the movies. It could be about
glamorous courtesans in chic apartments for the rich or miserable young
women in dingy hotel rooms for the low wages of the poor, some kind of
bordello or simply that most elliptical dishonour, the heroine with a
dirty past. Sometimes the girls got married, sometimes they remained
alone or died but they were usually entitled to a sublimated love scene
with their lovers, if not their customers, and when morals changed they
could be obliging enough to have sex with both lovers and customers.
Hou Hsiao-hsien makes this film as if it belonged in some old time that maybe never existed. Flowers of Shanghai is a film about glamorous brothel-bound prostitutes without a single sex scene but it shows or tells everything else, which provides it with a surreal intimacy.
That intimacy is reinforced by the fact that there are no exterior scenes and by the gripping warmth of its colour palette. That warmth invites you into the movie's visual environment to share in the cruel melancholy of the stories, the domestic routines through which they unfold and in some unexpected comic episodes: an attentive camera that pans and zooms attests to a regimented fate for the characters it watches, carefully staged vignettes shot in distant takes feel like vivid scenes spied on through a keyhole or behind a curtain and in some cases the dramatic expectations about the characters are ironically upended.
There's a great article on the movie in the external reviews section. The author is in awe of what he writes about. It lingers on Hou's camera movements and framing and gives a detailed account of what makes this movie intoxicating. But it's in Portuguese, so stop reading this and learn the language!
Week End for me is divided into three parts. First, the Apocalypse of capitalist society, which is deliberately presented as a madcap comedy. It reminded me of those medieval tales about the end of the world where the havoc wreaked by the plague seems to be a symptom of wider social malfunctions. It kept me thinking of Bergman's The Seventh Seal all the while. Then, there's a middle section in which Godard's preachiness gets increasingly simplistic. Its climax is that scene in which the black and Arab representatives of an exploited African continent eat a sandwich while Godard states the more or less obvious. Finally, there's the new dawn for a reborn human kind, intentionally filmed as a terror movie, something like 2001 played as a slasher flick. But the movie this last section made me think of was Passolini's Salo, which I think it anticipates. The main difference would be that Saló's brutal savagery cannot be redeemed, it's carried out for its own sake, fascism without additives, which makes it unendurable beyond words. In Week End that brutality is sort of moral, human kind has to be reborn... but there's that bourgeois girl in the new human tribe, so maybe it all is a bloody joke.
When you're watching Distant you know you're not watching a French
movie, there's little sex and it's mostly elliptical and people don't
talk that much here, there are a few lines scattered here and there and
a couple of important conversations, just to let you make sense of
what's going on. It doesn't look American either, there aren't any car
chases or shoot-outs or violence, unless you consider the killing of a
mouse an act of blood or the daily tension of getting by a subdued
catastrophe. At times, the relatively long-held medium-distance shots
may remind you of 'contemplative' Asian cinema, but just reminds you,
the director doesn't push things to the radical minimalism of some
Taiwanese filmmakers but then again, this is not a Taiwanese movie,
it's a Turkish movie. I don't know what that means, I don't even know
if that's supposed to mean something.
The movie doesn't have a plot proper and yet, those few lines, those somewhat long-held shots and that often mitigated tension gradually build a sense of something happening, a sense of 'plot', for lack of a better word, that grows on you. By the end of the movie you may get the feeling you're going to miss those two cousins who have many things in common but are worlds apart.
Some of Wong Kar-Wai's films are a bit hazy in my memory but judging just by Happy Together and In the Mood for Love he was near to sublime in going into the ineffable intricacies of that old catchall metaphysical concept, think they call it love. 2046 is pedestrian by comparison both plot-wise and visually. What could persuade this guy to make an uninspired sequel to something that was perfect is something that beats me. The poor writer fellow in the movie, Tony Leung reprising his role from ITMFL, certainly didn't need it because he comes up with some lousy stories and more women than he can handle. He's not in the mood for love anymore, so why should we?
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