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Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder
This unusual war film, based on the novel of the same name that won the Prix Goncourt 2008, was brilliantly adapted to the screen by author Atiq Rahimi (Earth and Ashes, 2004) himself, in collaboration with his friend, the legendary scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière.
In Persian folklore, there exists a magic black stone, Syng-e-saboor (the Patience Stone), to which one can confide everything. The stone listens, soaking in all the words, the secrets, the miseries, until it finally explodes, and on that day, one is instantly delivered of all one's sufferings and worries.
In ruined Kabul, rival bands of mujahidin are fighting like rabid dogs over the remnants of the city. In this apocalyptic world, a man lies comatose on a mattress in a bare room of his house. His wife kneels next to him, fingering her prayer beads and talking to him. She recalls episodes of her life. Her voice, timid and hesitating at first, affirms itself. She finally lets bitter words, crazy words, holed up far too long, escape from her inner self. She heckles Allah and his Hell, insults men and their never-ending wars, curses her warrior husband, a hero vanquished by his male pride, his religious obscurantism, his hate of the other, and goes as far as to reveal her most inner thoughts and secrets. In doing so, she frees herself from the marital, social and religious oppressions she has been enduring the whole of her life. Once quietly praying, now she screams. Once living in silence and self- sacrificing abnegation, she emerges now as a human being, a woman.
The adaptation to the screen was a significant challenge, given that it is a tragic huis clos taking place in the sick room, which The Woman (we never learn any of the characters' names) only occasionally leaves. The book is a monologue by a woman to a dying man. Its delivery is straightforward: the voice speaks as if the woman is writing. Translating this narrative to the screen was something else, and the challenge depended on the choice of a very special actress whose theatrical talent would allow her to embody the role of The Woman on whom the whole film so critically depends. Rahimi chose the young Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani. Born in Iran after the revolution, she knows what it means to live in a phallocratic society. This was not a sine qua non pre-condition for the part, but it was certainly an asset. She was the leading woman character in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008). At first, Rahimi hesitated to cast Farahani in the part of The Woman because of her physical beauty. Indeed, she is beautiful, and in the film she even makes wearing the chadri (the "tent" that covers some Afghan women from head to toe) look elegant! In the continuous face-to- face with the spectator, Farahani demonstrates the majesty and flame worthy of an ancient Greek tragedienne.
Within the four walls of the room, Farahani's voice and face do wonders. In a searing, provocative, and passionate performance, she gives a star performance of a kind rarely seen anymore. Revealing the ambiguities of her character with a liberating and disconcerting sweetness, she carries her difficult role to a level of truth which seems impossible to achieve. All by herself, she anchors this story at the heart of reality, offering the birth of her free speech to the twilight world that required her silence.
The Aunt (Hassina Burgan), a wise old prostitute, presides over a bordello whose ambiance is like a feminine calm in the middle of the storm. Inside its walls are all the things men don't understand. In this role, Burgan's acting is on the mark, conveying calm and wisdom. Nothing much can be said about Hamidreza Javdan, The Husband, except that he remains perfectly still, except for the heart pulse in his jugular and his slow breathing, for practically the entire film, probably a first in the annals of film!
Most of the film was shot in Morocco, with some outdoor scenes filmed on location in Kabul under the pretext of filming fighting quails, one of Afghan men favorite pastimes. Since most of the film is interior shots, where space is limited, Rahimi was keen to have a camera in constant motion: with few exceptions, the camera is always kept moving, in order to offset the threat of staginess in The Woman's monologues.
The film is the result of the collaboration of many talented people, each an expert in his own field, starting with Thierry Arbogast (6 Césars), the celebrated photography director responsible for almost all of Luc Besson's films; Hervé De Luze's (3 Césars) editing is seamless, and no small reason for the film's success; Max Richter's soundtrack is discreet, and yet has a strong presence, acting as intermezzos between monologue sequences, and adding to dramatic suspenseful moments in the film. The soundtrack consists of metallophone sounds mixed with string instruments (or perhaps electronic keyboarding).
In Patience Stone, Rahimi breaks all of the Afghan taboos social, cultural, sexual and religious. "When I wrote the novel, I wanted to put myself in the shoes of an Afghan woman to bare her desires as well as her suffering," he said. In this respect, he also becomes the Patience Stone, gathering and reinventing the pains and hopes of the martyrs, of all the Afghan women of the shadows, in order to give them a memory, their struggles forever synonymous with truth and freedom. In a country like Afghanistan, in order for an oppressed woman to finally speak, Rahimi first had to paralyze the oppression of the system. As such, The Husband symbolizes this whole patriarchal, repressive system, which is now paralyzed and injured. And because of it, The Woman can finally blossom and flourish, and she becomes intensely symbolic: "The voice that emerges from my throat, it is the voice buried for thousands of years."
"Honi soit qui mal y pense" (Evil be to him who evil thinks)
This film's subject was risqué fifty years ago, and it remains so even now. How can one make us believe in the delicate charm of this wondrous love story between Pierre (Hardy Krüger) a shell-shocked, amnesiac, thirty-something man and a lonely twelve-year-old child, Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi) without promoting or raising the specter of pedophilia? It is the intense love story of incredible purity, a love that the cynical adult world cannot understand and will eventually condemn. Reading this film's synopsis, one immediately thinks of Lolita, except for the fact that in Sundays and Cybele the adult man is not the sexually obsessed Humbert Humbert and the young girl is not the treacherous nymphet, Dolores Haze. Under Director Serge Bourguignon, Sundays and Cybele becomes an authentic masterpiece, deeply moving, a film touched by grace and poetry, which is made even more miraculous by its controversial subject.
The relatively small cast is brilliant, starting with Patricia Gozzi's extraordinary portrayal of Cybèle as an extremely feminine, intelligent, and enchanting little girl. She plays this character with astounding insight, evoking the apparent understanding of a mature woman. Her attachment to Pierre is a mixture of her budding sexual stirrings and of the impulses to reach for the male affection she has never known in a loveless, broken home. Gozzi is without a doubt the finest child actress I have ever seen. Hardy Krüger fulfils his difficult role of Pierre with panache, as a misfit on the margins of society. He portrays a man whose life has been shattered, and who is desperately trying to find a way out of his amnesia and vertigo, to start anew, and in the process of his healing, Pierre becomes as much of a father to Cybèle as he is her big brother, her boyfriend, and even her son.
Nicole Courcel, as Madeleine, acting underscores her well-deserved reputation in the role of a loving and understanding mistress who has brought Pierre to physical health and is patiently trying to restore his mental health through her unconditional love. Daniel Ivernel, as Carlos, is also excellent in his role as Pierre's best (and only) friend and confident, a man who has tried to understand and accepted his friend's relationship with the young girl.
Sunday and Cybele is based on the eponymous novel by Bernard Echassériaux. This was Serge Bourguignon's feature film debut (and what a debut!) and it became his magnum opus. Besides the grace of the cinematic conceit and the dialogue, Bourguignon's mise-en-scene is praiseworthy from beginning to end: instead of physically and literally recreating an imaginary world, he suggests its reality through its magic. For example, there is a traveling framing of Pierre's and Cybèle's reflections in the water rather than on them directly, as well as the many contemplative shots of nature during which the dialogue is superimposed. The camera behaves as another character, a silent witness intimidated by their love, who does not dare to look them directly in the eyes, lest their innocence be corrupted. With these simple effects, Bourguignon renders the beauty and purity of their union and also its fragility. The film puts great emphasis on intimate, silent scenes, such as the walks along the pounds and in the forest, in the cold and the mist of the winter Sundays. Although this film was made during the birth of the Nouvelle Vague, Bourguignon's film is closer to the poetic realism of Carné, Renoir, and in particular the tone in René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952).
The setting is Ville d'Avray, a small community near Paris which at the time of the filming had still retained its rustic setting, its forest with its hunting roads and famous pounds which so inspired the painter Jean Batiste Corot. The sublime photography in black and white is by Henri Decaë, who has 84 films on his résumé, including such memorable films as Louis Malle's The Lovers (1958) and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959). Maurice Jarre's discreet and beautiful musical score, together with a very appropriate old French song ("Aux marches du palais"), and other musical excerpts ranging from Tibetan music to works by classical composers including Thomaso Albinoni and Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and exquisite natural sounds, creates an other-worldly, timeless atmosphere.
As mentioned above, the film's subject, the relationship between an adult man and a young girl, might be extremely controversial. Although no sexual relation is ever suggested between Pierre and Cybèle, their relationship being primarily emotional in nature (in Greek mythology, the goddess Earth Mother Cybele had a eunuch mendicant priesthood). Nevertheless, many viewers and critics were none the less shocked and outraged. Times have not much changed: at a recent screening of the film at a ciné-club a few years ago, many viewers were appalled that such a "eulogy to pedophilia" could be shown. The strength of Bourguignon's film is the subtlety and sensitivity with which the subject is handled. He never looks for the shocking or the melodramatic, or poses himself as a moralist. He is simply an emotional witness to the story where a child who has grown perhaps too fast and an adult who has reverted to childhood meet and emerge from their individual loneliness. Bourguignon distances himself from the melodramatic by adopting an outsider's point of view: his genius has been to put the viewer in the position of Madeleine and Carlos, rather than that of Pierre and Cybèle. Choosing the latter for the viewpoint would certainly have been detrimental to the film, manipulating the viewer's emotions to the extreme. Following Bourguignon's suggestion, we should become a Madeleine or a Carlos, merely observing, and through our observations, try to understand
Edvard Munch (1974)
Made for TV
Munch has long been one of my favorite painters, if not my favorite, since I was seventeen years old. I love films (Angelopoulos, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, you name it.). Therefore, it was not a hard decision for me to forgo a particularly beautiful afternoon in the outdoors for being locked up for three hours in the AC atmosphere of a movie theater. What a mistake, and what a disappointment! Where was the editor (sorry, it was Watkins) for this film? I am amazed that director/editor Peter Watkins should so obviously confuse the television medium for cinema. The film is about one hour too long. It is repetitive, grossly uneven in its presentation of the painter's life (half-life, would be a more appropriate term). It seems that Watkins went on and on, repeating himself, and suddenly, looking at his watch, realized he had to rush through the remainder of Munch's life to finish the film. He rushed and still did not make it past 1909. Why ignore Munch, the man and his work, after 1909? But I guess this is the director's prerogative, to show what he wants of Munch's life.
In general, the cinematography is good, with delicate colors. The representation of the period was well researched and comes across as authentic. The hand-held camera works well most of the time, with beautiful close-ups. In some scenes, such as the socio-political discussions in the cafes, its unsteadiness underlines the chaos of the expounded philosophy. There are even moments of greatness, such as when Munch is painting "Death in the Sickroom." Unfortunately, more often than not, the camera is shaky for no apparent reason. But there are far too many cuts, so many it makes one dizzy at times just watching, and they interfere with the narrative thread of the story. Worse, the contrivance of the cuts is astonishingly predictable -- after a while, I knew that the instant any character's eyes looked directly into the camera, the scene was going to quickly cut to something else. Geir Westby's performance, whose likeness to Munch is remarkable, is not convincing: one does not get any insight regarding Munch's internal demons, or any real sense of the artist's passion, jealousy, and repression. The dreadful environment, familial, social and political, seems practically divorced from Munch's life, as the artist appears to stand apart from it all, an outside observer. His very critical relationship with his father is hardly touched upon, except for a (too often) repeated short scene at the dining table, when Munch was still young. Munch's complex and ambiguous feelings about women in general, which shaped so much of his work, are not even touched upon, except for his particular relationship with Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas). Waltkins' decision to present Munch's biography more like a docu-drama could have been rewarding, except for the fact that he was not able to integrate the historical document with the subject matter.
It all boils down to the editing, which is just AWFUL. Believe me, I say this not because the film is three-hours long (Angelopoulos' and Tarkovsky's films do not exactly produce short subjects), but because when a director has nothing new to say, and keeps repeating himself, it quickly becomes tedious and boring. Most likely, the original television production was shown in three one-hour installments. Therefore, many of the numerous flashbacks were justified, not only to somehow refresh the memories of the viewers who might have seen one or two previous episodes in the preceding weeks, but also to "bring aboard" new viewers. But in the continuum of the film, these same flashbacks become useless, even counter-productive, unnecessarily weighing down the viewer with back-story.
Please note that I did not follow many of my fellow spectators who left the theatre early. I suffered through to the ending credits.
"If he were dead, I'd know it."
With "A Very Long Engagement," Jeunet denounces wars, and the politicians and militaries who instigate them for their own benefits. In a brilliant mise-en-scène, Jeunet shows us the miseries, both physical and psychological, inflicted by wars on human beings. We are in the trenches of WWI, on the Somme front, with the French "poilus," ("the hairy ones"), as the grunts were then known. They are waiting for yet another meaningless assault on some meaningless enemy position, most likely just to please someone in the upper command who, safe from harm, decided on a whim or a hunch to order such assault, which he hopes will reflect positively on him and bring him glory, a medal, and maybe a promotion.
World War I, referred to in some history books as the "Great War." But "great," in what sense? Certainly not in the sense of "illustrious," or "noble," or even "heroic," although in their state of misery and desperation, the soldiers on both sides of the trenches were heroic. This war was indeed the "mother of all wars," whose battles produced some of the largest mass graves ever. One of its main battles was the battle of Verdun, also known as the "mincing machine of Verdun." Just imagine a battle which lasted eleven months 21 February until 21 December, 1916, resulting in more than ONE million casualties, half of them killed outright. The "artists" of such a slaughter were General Eric von Falkenhayn and Prince Wilhelm (later known as "the butcher of Verdun") on the German side, and General Joseph Joffre and General Philippe Petain on the French side: All of these legal assassins got praises for their "heroism," medals, and promotions, entirely won on the backs of the million poor souls who had never asked to be there in the first place. Military historians all agree that the butchery of Verdun hardly resulted of any tactical advantage for either side.
The action of the present film takes place at another ill-conceived battle, the battle of the Somme, a counter offensive made to relieve the pressure on Verdun. It started on July 1, 1916. In this single day, the British infantry suffered 57,470 casualties! When it all ended six months later, after 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and about 600,000 German casualties, the Allied forces were still 3 miles short of their first day's objective Of course, "humanity" has made progress since that time: the battle for Stalingrad during WWII lasted about six months, resulting in some two millions casualties. However, the "rules" had changed, as part of this hecatomb also includes civilians, euphemistically referred to as "collateral damages," who have now become fair game.
Thanks to this legal assassin elite, together with its politician counterpart, a whole generation of young men was sent to the slaughterhouse, wiped out in a few years. What is this called, a "generacide?" There were no round-ups, just a mobilization. Nobody wore a yellow star, just a uniform. And there were no death-camps, just battlefields, or better yet, "fields of glory." Jeunet, however, is careful not to paint all the military commanders with the same brush, contrasting the vile and disgusting Commandant Lavrouye (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), with the honest and compassionate Captain Favourier (Tchéky Karyo).
Jeunet, having taken by his own admission Stanley Kubrick's remarkable "Path of Glory" (1957) as a model, films the war and its trail of misery, shows great care to stay within the bounds of credibility, devoid of any epic elements which would magnify and glorify war, and would distance us from the small men overcome by History's mayhem. Jeunet shows us the death sentences handed down for the slightest pretext, to the whim of the superior commanders and their sense of moral superiority and righteousness, while themselves hiding from combat and living in luxury. He confronts us with the despair of men who are at the end of their wits, who cannot bear any longer the carnage that never ends, notwithstanding the fact it gives some individuals the opportunity to rise in their positions thanks to their hate of other people's lives, their taste for torture and sadism, their mental imbalance and psychology, all of which derive from the worst schizophrenia used by politicians and military brass to achieve their unspeakable aims. I will abstain from drawing any parallels with the present situation in the Middle East.
Jeunet brings to life the wizened, taciturn men one sees every evening at 6:00 pm, with their breasts overflowing with military medals, walking up the Avenue of the Champs Elysees in Paris, toward the Arc of Triumph. Those men go to symbolically revive the Eternal Flame on the tomb of the WWI Unknown Soldier (is he French or German?), the same unknown soldier who became Major Delaplane's (Philippe Noiret) last concern, in Tavernier's brilliant "Life and Nothing But" (1989). Many of them were the poilus in that war, or some other wars later on. Thanks to Jeunet, they are no longer folkloric shadows walking up the great avenue, and we are a little bit more knowledgeable regarding their past.
Nevertheless, Jeunet's film ends on a note of genuine optimism. "A Very Long Engagement"'s theme is also the conflict between bestiality and love: war tears lovers asunder, and love has to conquer all. Mathilde is relentless pursuing the truth regarding the fate of Manech, knowing in her heart that, against all semblance of reality, and just because she loves him so truly, he must be alive, no matter how overwhelming or horrible the war was. Jeunet tells us that Love can win, and his film is full of optimism, as he concludes with the lovers' reunion and the human spirit's victory over bestiality.
"A Very Long Engagement" is a deeply moving film, in which, once more, Jeunet shows that he can master complex projects. This film, for which "Amélie Poulin" was the rough draft, is a total success on all accounts, adaptation, camera, casting, mise-en-scène, is highly recommended.
L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961)
Memory is imagination pinned down
"Last Year at Marienbad" is a love story, although not a "story" in the conventional narrative sense, since the fragmented images cannot be scanned chronologically. The "story" is not told, rather it is described using a juxtaposition of physical images, through memories and associations, projected through a space-time continuum, which destroys both linear chronology and fixity. Resnais built a captivating puzzle-like film, a labyrinth, which at time resembles the optical illusions of Escher or the surreal world of Magritte. Any attempt to provide a satisfying chronology for the film would contradict the assumptions upon which it was built, as well as the manner in which it is presented.
"Marienbad" is a cine-roman, a cinematic novel, that is, a particular way to tell a story, which by definition involves space and time. It is not simultaneously a novel and a film, but it uses certain techniques of the novel and of the cinema. Resnais uses a variety of cinematographic techniques: the use of "atmosphere," or mise-en-scène, to provoke an emotional response on the audience's part; the use of dream sequences, flashbacks and flash forwards as they relate to imagistic or observational characterizations of a character's imagination; the use of visual and audio montages to disrupt the chronological time and replace the temporal and linear narration by his mise-en-scene's spaces. As a result, it is necessary to view each Resnais film completely in order to understand its structure and discourse. This is especially true for "Marienbad," where a second and even a third viewing are necessary to fully appreciate the structure and the details.
"Marienbad" is lyrical, but, by its framings, has the precision of a documentary, undermining the cinematographic writing and heralding the future films of Duras, Robbe-Grillet, or Jean-Luc Godard. Resnais uses extremely short scenes, with purposely too dark or over-exposed shots, obscure image flashes, shot with reframing that allow for the intrusion of characters. Certain scenes are repeated several times, with variants. At times, the actors' clothing changes in the same scene, resulting in blurring the distinctions between past, present, and future, reality and fantasy The fluid camera moves everywhere with unrestricted freedom, a character unto itself. The dialogues are in the form of leitmotifs. The secondary characters utter disjointed, repetitive bits of conversations, and have a strange tendency to freeze in mid-sentence, or even to speak without making a sound. All of these effects are mesmerizing, and contribute to destabilizing the viewer. The mystery is further sustained by the names of the characters, which are only initials.
Everything contributes to destroying chronology and setting an ambiguous mood. The music at the film's "beginning" is typically "end of film" music. Using staggered sound tracks of the narrator's (X's) voice after the music further enhances this impression. Through most of the film, the sound of a single organ, playing an excruciating music score mostly in a minor key which seems to have come from a horror film, accompanies the action. Minor keys conjure melancholy and insecurity. X and A, dancing a slow waltz whose music, instead of being joyful and exuberant, recalls Sibelius' "Valse Triste," does not contribute in any way to lighten the mood.
Games are pervasive in this film, symbolizing destiny (dominoes), and also the domination of M (who plays poker with determination and coldness, successfully bluffing his adversaries). But the most notable game shown in the film is a variation of the game of "Nim," which from the release of the film on became known as "the game of Marienbad." M haughtily announces "I could lose, but I always win." In this particular version of "Nim," which is based on binary representation of the number of items in the game at any give time, the one who first starts the game cannot win against an experienced player, such as M. And M, who proposes the contests, always manages, under the cover of courtesy, to make his adversary begin the game.
The first theme of "Marienbad" is love, which does not require much explanation. X is or was in love with A (or was it with A? If not, then A will do), and A, as befits any beautiful woman, plays hard-to-get (or maybe she is not attracted by a bore such as X). Literature overflows with love stories, with all possible variations and permutations: I do not believe I need to expand on this theme.
The second theme is Resnais' favorite: the elusiveness and subjectivity of memory, but also, its persistence and inescapability. As in "Hiroshima Mon Amour," Resnais explores the effects of time and memory on the emotions of a pair of would-be lovers. In his hands, the time elements of memory, whether retrospective or prospective, find realization as cinematic images, which the author manipulates through editing, effusing a non-chronological structure to his work. In "Marienbad," Resnais shows us the hotel, its corridors, its salons, and its garden, together taken as an explicit metaphor for the "mind," traveled by the roving camera, the "self" exploring its memory.
There are so many things to discover in "Marienbad" that, like the "story," the possibilities are endless. There are two possible ways of viewing this film. In the first, a Cartesian approach, the viewer will try to somehow impose a linear, rational structure and invariably will find the film difficult, if not totally incomprehensible. In the second way, the viewer will just let himself or herself be carried away by the extraordinary images and the mise-en-scène, and he or she will find the film completely obvious. And the "bonus" resides in the fact that upon subsequent viewings, one can reassemble this puzzle-like film in as many different ways as one's imagination allows, making it each time a new viewing experience. Viewers in the first category will probably give the film a negative rating; those in the second category will give it a ten-star rating.
I give it ten stars.
More Than Skin Deep
There are three interconnected themes in this film: an impossible love story in the colonial environment of pre-WWII Vietnam, relationships, and the constant crossing of boundaries and borders.
I was rather disappointed while reading more than a dozen American reviews of this film penned by professional film critics. Only one reviewer seemed to be knowledgeable about the author and the position she occupies in the world's literature. These film critics concentrated somewhat obsessively on the sexual scenes, which take a total of nine minutes, or 8% of the film's duration. In my opinion, these movie reviews are the result of the genetic puritan attitude that prevails in the American society. Or maybe the reviewers were asleep during most of the film and only woke up for the "good parts?" "The Lover" has nothing to do with pornography. It depicts an intense passion, where, of course, sex plays an integral role. Annaud had no choice but to include this aspect of the story, and he did it in a meaningful and artistic way.
The Chinaman has the advantage of being older, male, and wealthy, but he is Chinese -- and she is white. He has "lived it up" in Paris, where he had many liaisons. He is an expert at lovemaking. But he is also vulnerable as an only child, orphaned by his mother, dominated by his father. The Chinaman uses love and lovemaking to shore himself up against his insecurity. He is the archetypal romantic lover, talking to her of love, death, and eternity. His love, while passion-filled and pleasurable, is also an agony and physical torment. He is not at all the dominant, forceful seducer whom she craves. However, we must be careful to remember that we see his desire for the girl only through the narrator's subjective memories.
By contrast, we know the feelings of the girl, even though time has certainly altered her memories. Right from the start, the girl refuses to use the language of love, denying the romantic concept of being his only love. The girl's desire for the Chinaman's body is firmly grounded in sensuality as well as in curiosity, but the first appeal she feels upon meeting him on the ferry is for his wealth, his luxurious car, his diamond ring. However, as she sails back to France, we learn that she comes to the realization that she may have loved him all along.
As the affair progresses, other figures creep into the sexual imaginary: the young brother, the older brother, her friend Helen, and of course, her mother. There is a mother-daughter love/hate relationship. Duras depicts her mother as an unhappy, driven woman. She admires her mother's quality of perseverance, yet Duras cannot forgive her mother for the life of poverty and degradation, nor for her mother's excessive love for her oldest son and apparent failure to love her two younger children.
And of course, Duras cannot forgive her mother's opposition to her becoming a writer. With her lovemaking, the girl experiences a triumphant sense of separation from and superiority over her mother. She is trying to eradicate the mother, to escape the stranglehold of their mutual hatred. The daughter's drive toward the lover, toward social disgrace and reputation, without understanding it herself, is to "punish" the mother.
The girls' love affair with a Chinese man is also a giant step toward her liberation from the tyranny of her elder brother. It is somewhat ironical that the older brother's gambling, drug-addiction, and social marginalization are mirrored in the way her lover spends his days gambling and smoking opium.
Finally, there is an undercurrent theme which runs throughout the film, which is that of boundaries and borders. The film opens with a ferry ride across the Mekong and ends with an ocean crossing, signaling the constant crossing of frontiers and borders: geographic of course, but also racial, cultural, and sexual. These are confronted and sometimes dissolved as the poor white girl of French parentage meets her wealthy Chinese lover in the Cholon, the ill- repute Chinese district of Saigon. She, a white girl, was raised among natives, almost as a native. He is a native who experienced the western culture and somehow longs for it.
There is also the transitory period of the girl's adolescence, between what remains of her childhood, and the onset of her womanhood. On the ferry and on the steam liner, the girl wears a child's pigtails, but she is dressed in women's clothes. The gender roles are somewhat blurred, too: she wears a woman's dress, but also a man's hat, in a color that signifies femininity. The boarding school in Saigon is home mainly to the abandoned mixed-blood daughters of local women and French fathers. The girl has an intimate friendship with Helene Lagonelle, which is ambivalent and perhaps sexually charged. The girl is unable to treat the Chinaman with even a modicum of courtesy when she is with her brothers because he is Chinese, not white. In the public bus, she rides in front, separated from the locals, yet in her private home, she lived as a native. In the cocoon of the "garconnière," she is separated from the crowd on the street by only thin cotton blinds. There is even a meta-boundary crossed, as Duras takes her memories and feelings and externalizes them in the form of her writing. What has been internal and private becomes external and public.
"The Lover" is an autobiographical love story set in a post-colonial environment. We owe the remarkable transcription of this literary masterpiece to the artistry and creativity of Jean-Jacques Annaud. In this production, he has successfully combined two art forms, the beauty of the written word with the fascination of the image. I believe that the film has been, for the most part, misunderstood in this country, and I would recommend a second, more open-minded look at it. It will be a worthwhile experience.
This film is loosely based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's "Road Side Picnic," and Tarkovsky tried, as he did with his "Solaris" (1972), to downplay the science fiction aspect of "Stalker." Except for a brief explanation at the film's beginning, Tarkovsky chooses to ignore the speculations as to what could have created The Zone, and the changes within it.
With "Stalker," Tarkovsky marks the shift toward his later style, with the long takes throughout the film averaging one minute in length, with many four minutes or longer. These long scenes in turn rely heavily on the talent of the actors to sustain the mood, like Writer's long monologue in the sand mogul room. In "Stalker," Tarkovsky is definitively more systematic in his use of black-and-white (sepia) and color stocks than he had been in his previous works. In the swamp scene and Stalker's dream, Tarkovsky reverts to is more usual convention, where dreams are shown in black-and-white, and reality in color. However, the last scene is in color, implying a leakage of the powers of The Zone into the outside reality.
As always in Tarkovsky's films, the natural world is present. Water, which used to be the source of life, a redemptive force and a center of regeneration, is now mostly a symbol of decay and pollution. The only exception is in the dream scene in the swamp, where the water is somewhat restored to its positive symbols. In the last scene in The Zone, the men, resigned to their limitations and weakness, sit outside The Room, as the rain falls inside, gently blocking them from entering.
The wind is associated with the spiritual, and the earth is a positive force. Upon arriving in The Zone, Stalker's first act is to lie down and embrace it, and in the swamp, all three men lay on it. Like a miracle, there is the luxuriant, if dangerous, Nature ever present in the Zone, in contrast to the polluted outside world, where it is totally absent.
And then there is the mysterious dog, which first appears in the swamp scene. Up to this point, the men felt totally alienated from their environment, outside and inside The Zone, and it is at the very moment when they start to meditate and remember, that the dog appears: The Zone is its territory. But at the end of the film, the dog has followed Stalker outside the Zone, showing that even there, the hope that the men were looking for inside The Zone must somehow also exist here, outside, as the dog establishes its own space even though it becomes domesticated in the process.
Although Tarkovsky usually favors classics by such composers as Bach, Pergolesi, or Purcell, the musical score in "Stalker" consists almost exclusively of Eduard Artemiev's electronic music mixed with some folk melodies, contributing efficiently to the hypnotic atmosphere of the film.
The performances of Nikolia Grinko and Anatoly Solonitsyn, as two lost souls in search of an answer, are convincing. Aleksandr Kajdanovsky is outstanding in his role of a tormented and somewhat pathetic Stalker. Although Alisa Frejndlikh's appearance in the film is restricted to only few scenes, there are most powerful.
In "Stalker," Tarkovsky opposes a world in decline, polluted and sterile, to a verdant Zone, which has gotten the better of any human enterprises. He portrays a society which has severed all links with nature, with its own past, and lost its spiritual or moral bearings.
"Stalker" explores the conflict between science, rationalism, materialism, and cynicism versus spirituality, faith, art, and love. The three men embody different philosophical principles. Professor is a rational being who tries to understand the world according to the law of physics. He justifies his going into The Zone as purely scientific curiosity. Writer belongs to those people who cannot accept the world as it is. He is well aware of humanity's decay and of his own as well, but he abhors science, which he does not understand, and would rather look for answers in the supernatural. Writer believes in the redemptive power of art, but he has lost his own inspiration.
Stalker is alone in showing an inclination toward faith. He knows The Zone and has total faith in it, speaking about it as if it were a living being. Stalker respects and fears The Zone at the same time, as he recognizes its potential to provide comfort to the wretched ones who, like himself, have lost all hope, but at the same time it punishes who so ever infringes its rules. This, of course, is how most religious people see their own Gods.
The redemptive power of love is personified by Stalker's wife. Her love and devotion is the final miracle which opposes cynicism and the emptiness of the modern world. All these ideas are clearly expressed at the film's end, as she addresses the audience in her heartfelt monologue.
As the three characters reach The Room, they can ask for their dearest wishes to be granted, but this would require a painful and searching self-examination, with the realization that what they thought they wanted was not exactly what they now really want. For Professor, his true aim was to destroy The Room, which was beyond his scientific understanding. Writer had said that the purpose of his journey was to regain his genius, his inspiration. However, on the threshold of The Room, he realizes that he may not worthy of accepting The Room's gift. As for Stalker, he asks for nothing of The Room, his only purpose to make the trip being to bring hope and happiness to those most retched than he.
"Stalker" is certainly Tarkovsky's most complex and most beautiful film, and is worthy of many viewings to appreciate its aesthetic and depth. Unfortunately, the word limitation of this review does not allow one to explore all the intricacies of this extraordinary film and do it justice.
We'll make another one
"L'Enfant" was filmed in the town of Seraing, a dreary industrial suburb of Liege, located on the Meuse River. The film's style is that of a documentary, using a hand-held camera which is always on the move, pursuing Bruno and Sonia. So many close ups and extreme close ups force the viewer into extreme intimacy with the characters, and produce a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere from which no escape is possible. The film's austerity is amplified by the fact that there is no music in the whole film, only urban background noises.
As always, the Dardennes rely on the ability of their actors to be the actual characters before playing their parts. The never provide psychological descriptions of their protagonists, but leave it to the viewers to discover them as they develop on the screen. Jérémie Renier is the lead, as Bruno. Renier was discovered by the Dardenne brothers as a teenager, when they featured him in the leading role of "La Promesse" (1996). In "L'Enfant," Renier is spontaneous and natural, simply superb in his role of the amoral Bruno. Déborah François, in her debut role as Sonia, is already a compelling actress. Twenty-three babies were used in the role of Jimmy, not due to the part's challenge, but because of the necessity for multiple retakes -- babies require feeding and changing, and they can get cranky fast. A doll was used as a stand-in during only one scene at the beginning of the film, where Jimmy is carried by Sonia on the back of a motor scooter, because of the potential danger that may have been posed to a real infant. The doll's name was "Jimmy Crash." Bruno, although physically adult, behaves like a child. He is not immoral as much as he is amoral, like a young animal, living day-to-day, oblivious to tomorrow. When he has money, he spends it on the spur of the moment: he buys a pricey baby carriage, expensive clothes, or he leases a fancy convertible to take his girlfriend and infant son on a joyride. Bruno seems to understand money in its purest form, as currency: the longer it stays in one place, the less valuable it is.
On the other hand, Bruno is generous, and above all, honest. When he distributes the proceeds of his "deals" to his young gang members, he is scrupulously honest in letting them know the precise amount of each transaction. And he does not abandon Steve in the hands of the police, but voluntarily goes to the police station, surrenders the stolen cash and takes full responsibility for the holdup. Sonia does not appear to have a strong personality, until she is challenged by the loss of her baby. Right in the beginning, after Bruno sells Jimmy to the trafficker, we see how motherhood transforms Sonia. For Bruno, it will take longer -- actually until the end of the film, following a series of terrible events. Even then, he will not have an epiphany, but at least something in him will change.
"L'enfant" (the child) is almost faceless, just a lumpy blue bundle with two tiny, protruding hands. He does have a name, "Jimmy," but he does not know it yet, as nobody speaks to him or addresses him during his first few days as a human being. Jimmy's start in life does not show much promise. He will have the distinction of having driven back from the hospital on a motor scooter, without a helmet, on a drizzling day. He will carry forever the feeling of abandonment, and a hatred for flowered wallpaper, remembering the room where his father sold him for a wad of Euros. Will he ever get beyond his inauspicious beginnings? The film's cathartic ending hints at this possibility. The Dardennes may be resigned regarding Bruno's and Sonia's future, or lack thereof, but one feels that they carry their hope for a new beginning in Jimmy.
Bruno and Sonia live in a permanent "here and now." They are like two cubs, cavorting, rough-housing, laughing, full of life and full of love for each other. In spite of their immaturity, there is no question that Bruno and Sonia love each other, and in the end, their love overcomes their adversity, bringing a faint glimmer of hope: for the first time in the film, and in their life. They transcend the gloomy present in their reconciliation, which could also be a manifestation of their survival instincts.
Bruno and Sonia live in a society which ignores and destroys its children, turning them into fringe elements, petty thieves, and misfits, a society where crime leads to more crime, more crime to violence, and so on, ending finally with imprisonment. Is there a solution? The Dardennes seem to answer "yes," and propose love and nurturing as the solution.
The Dardenne brothers never fall into the melodramatic or whining sentimentalism. Their reality, sordid though it is, speaks for itself. They are neither judges nor moralizers. They show us a crumbling society which has lost its bearings, and whose moral code has collapsed under the weight of repeated social and economic crises. Bruno and Sonia evolve in their everyday devoid of both perspective and future.
To conclude, a small production anecdote. In filming the scene when Bruno and Steve are on the run and find themselves up to their necks in the Meuse River, Jérémie Renier got into trouble. The cold water (which was 42 degrees Fahrenheit) was polluted by industrial oil from a nearby coal processing plant, and Renier twice ingested some of it. This landed him in the local hospital for a stomach pumping that evening.
The strength of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's film is to have made Bruno and Sonia, both such society outsiders, simply as two human beings, not the dregs of society nor poor wretches to be pitied: a remarkable achievement worth four stars.
Manon des sources (1986)
The Carnations of Wrath
In "Manon des Sources", the second chapter of his novel, "L'eau des Collines" (1963), Marcel Pagnol uses the same approach as he did in the first chapter (see my review of "Jean de Florette" on IMDb), posing questions and providing answers in a more or less convoluted, drawn-out way, the better to keep the viewer's suspense high.
The first and most important question in this chapter concerns the soothing of our bad conscience following the less than satisfying conclusion of the preceding chapter. We feel perturbed for having resigned ourselves to accepting the outcome, the success of Ugolin's project, which we never totally rejected, at the expense of Jean's project, which we by now wish had succeeded. How will Pagnol liberate us from this disturbing feeling? We already know that Pagnol is not interested in introducing a "Deus ex machina" to discharge our anxiety. He will again proceed objectively, relying on the psychology of the different characters involved.
The second question concerns the two new characters who appear on the scene: a grown- up Manon and Bernard Olivier, the school teacher. We hope that they will be the ones to provide us with a more satisfying resolution to the first chapter. But what is done is done. The only liberation from the sense of guilt that we feel must be a plain, straightforward type of revenge on Ugolin and César for their crime. However, Manon appears to be so sweet and innocent that we feel that she could not possibly be the tool for revenge, no matter how well-justified. The presence of Bernard, then, offers a solution. Pagnol presented Bernard in such a way as to leave the viewer totally unconcerned about his character. So, we think that perhaps he will be the implement of vengeance against Ugolin and César and the rest of the village.
When the perfidy of César and Ugolin is fully exposed, our conscience is partially appeased by Ugolin's suicide. But César's retribution will be more terrible yet, in what is one of the most dramatic endings of any film I have ever seen. Eventually, it is not certain that we applaud this ending either, as no matter how devious Ugolin and César were, we cannot totally erase the positive feelings they and their project inspired in us at the beginning of the first film.
For the interpretation of the three leading roles, film director Caude Berry chose three exceptional actors, each with a unique personality and film presence. In the role of "le Papet," we could not have imagined anyone other than Yves Montand, native of Marseille, a fabulous actor with more than sixty films on his resume, cabaret singer, and at one time candidate for France's presidency. This aging character of César, cantankerous at times, a happy strapping fellow at other times, a sensitive and vulnerable human being, is Montand himself, and vice-versa. As for Daniel Auteuil's performance, his attainment of the well-deserved César for best actor in 1987 for these two films, says it all. Finally, Emmanuelle Béart, who also won a César for best supporting actress in 1987, fills the role of Manon with grace.
There are two additional brilliant "actors" in the films. First, there is the picturesque and harsh landscape of Provence. From the first minute of "Jean de Florette" until the end of "Manon des Sources", we are seduced by the gorgeous images of the Provence countryside, and certainly by the love the director shows for Pagnol's work and the atmosphere it evokes. The second "actor" is the village itself, as portrayed through the different village characters, shown as little vignettes scattered throughout the films. We are thus introduced to the little community, from the "cul-benit" (blessed-ass), Anglade (Jean Maurel), to the secular, socialist, anti-clerical mayor, Philoxène. All these characters bring much authenticity to the story.
Jean's musical theme is the overture from Giuseppe Verdi's "La Forza del Destino", which Jean-Claude Petit weaves occasionally together with some expressive music to underscore some of the most dramatic moments of the film.
The themes are the city versus the country, modern versus traditional, good versus bad, and memory versus oblivion.
Pagnol does not consider the country life as a perfect universe, without conflicts. He illustrates the violence that can result from the peasants' deep attachment to their lands. Pagnol exposes us to the tribal mentality of the villagers against "foreigners," such as the inhabitants of the nearby village of Crespin. The only outsiders accepted by the villagers are the "pillars" of a village society: the priest, the doctor, and the school teacher. These outsiders are accepted for the obvious reason that the village needs them to exist. Finally, Pagnol shows us the deep motivation of Ugolin and César that is also easily understood by a city-dweller: making money.
Pagnol's message is thus humanistic in so far as, without ridicule or Manichaeism, he presents the motivations and different points of view of each of his characters. On the same humanistic level, these stories demonstrate that not withstanding apparent differences, such as social, regional or physical, all people are alike and deserve to be treated humanely. However, in that respect, Pagnol's philosophy is a little naïve. The reconciliation of the villagers with their past wrongdoing toward Jean Cadoret, symbolized by the marriage of Manon, occurs only when they understand that Jean was actually "one of them." So the community of humans beyond differences that Pagnol proposes as an ideal only exists here because Jean "belonged" to the village. As such, according to Pagnol, the village life is idyllic, but for the eventual presence of harmful individuals such as Ugolin and César.
In spite of Pagnol's naïve idealism, the films still succeed, because we are ultimately able to tie up all the loose ends, and to reconcile the warring factions through family and blood ties that transcend any geography.
Jean de Florette (1986)
The Carnations of Wrath
"Jean de Florette" owes its success to Pagnol's particularly intelligent story, which, taken verbatim from his novel, Claude Berry and Gerard Brach translated into images.
A good story must have a plot, a compelling conflict, and characters that we care about who change as a result of their experiences. This particular story qualifies unquestionably as a good one, on all these points. The viewer is kept in suspense, continuously questioning the outcome of the story, which moves forward from crisis point to crisis point. We can see that a large part of the scriptwriter's role is to ask questions, and then provide the right answers at the right time. These answers can be partial, ambiguous, even contradictory, in order to reinforce the viewer's suspense and questioning.
The first question posed in "Jean de Florette" concerns the success of Ugolin and César in their "carnation project." Will they succeed in getting the critical water necessary for the cultivation of these flowers? This question interests us because these two characters have been introduced as somewhat likable, worthy of our support, although, following Pique-Bouffigue's demise, we may have second thoughts about their integrity.
A second question rises with the arrival of Jean Cadoret. Will his project of raising rabbits, a project directly in conflict with Ugolin's, succeed? Although we may have considered at first Jean as an intruder who comes and upsets Ugolin's plan, we also realize that the dice are loaded in Ugolin's favor, and our sympathy slowly shifts toward Jean. But we still keep a somewhat favorable image of Ugolin and "le Papet," still hoping for positive answers to these first two questions.
Pagnol now determines that the progress of the drama toward its conclusion, that is to say the answers to these two questions, will depend on subjective, internal factors, such as the personalities or the stubbornness of the characters, and not on external or providential circumstances.
Thus, the new questions now being posed are about the nature of the characters. Can Ugolin carry out his duplicitous game to its conclusion? Will he make a mistake and be discovered, or will he be overcome by a sense of guilt and help Jean by revealing the presence of the spring at "les Romarins?" The viewer hopes that in the end Ugolin will give in to his positive instincts. As for César, the spectator knows that "le Papet," in spite of all the difficulties arising along the way, will never abandon Ugolin's project. Yet the viewer has detected something peculiar concerning César 's reaction when Florette's departure from the village is mentioned. We therefore suspect that somehow Florette's past relationship with César could bring about a positive change in his behavior. Independently, Jean's character will also dominate the outcome of the story. We wonder if his enthusiasm, boundless optimism, and his erudition will somehow contribute to his failure. Jean's scientific approach to his project is itself a sort of revenge against Nature that made him "un bossu," - a hunchback, and therefore he will never abandon it.
As the film progresses, our attention narrowly focuses on the principal characters and their evolution. We are not distracted by outside events. At the same time, we are torn between the two conflicting wishes for the success of two conflicting projects. This is the originality of "Jean de Florette" and what distinguishes this story from the usual, vulgar Manichaean novels or films.
The themes are the city versus the country, modern versus traditional, and good versus bad.
Jean, returning to the country to cultivate the "othentic," is an idealist, more or less in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau's tradition. His knowledge has all been acquired in books. He speaks in the idiom of the bureaucrat that he was. He constantly quotes statistics to guide his project and to convince himself and his listeners how Nature should and will behave. He tackles his project with a definitively modern, scientific approach. Nothing is left to chance: everything is anticipated and calculated.
To the villagers, because of his language, education, and culture, Jean is a kind of pedantic usurper colliding with the peaceful, traditional aspects of their village life. They make fun of Jean because his knowledge was acquired in books, not by experience. These villagers speak with the melodious Provençal accent, their conversations peppered with old, colorful sayings and local proverbs. The people of "les Bastides" are isolated from Jean's world by their hills. They are attached to the land they have worked for centuries, and to their way of life.
However, Pagnol, by presenting us with Jean's failure, seems to distance himself from the intellectual tradition, while, at the same time, not considering the country life as a perfect universe, without conflicts. He illustrates the violence that can result from the peasants' deep attachment to their lands. Pagnol exposes us to the tribal mentality of the villagers against "foreigners," such as the inhabitants of the nearby village of Crespin. The only outsiders accepted by the villagers are the "pillars" of a village society: the priest, the doctor, and the school teacher, which the village needs in order to exist. Finally, Pagnol shows us the deep motivation of Ugolin and César that is also easily understood by a city-dweller: making money.
Pagnol's message is thus humanistic in so far as, without ridicule or Manichaeism, he presents the motivations and different points of view of each of his characters. On the same humanistic level, the story demonstrates that not withstanding apparent differences, such as social, regional or physical, all people are alike and deserve to be treated humanely. As such, according to Pagnol, the village life is idyllic, but for the eventual presence of harmful individuals such as Ugolin and César.
In spite of Pagnol's naïve idealism, the films still succeed, because we are ultimately able to tie up all the loose ends, and to reconcile the warring factions through family and blood ties that transcend any geography.