Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Le silence de la mer


Two men meet on a deserted street. One hands his briefcase to the other and leaves without a word. Inside the case, buried beneath some shirts and bundled newspapers, there is a worn, cheap-looking paperback called Le silence de la mer, written by Vercors and published clandestinely in France during World War II. As the pages flip open, we are transported back to 1941, when “No Jews Allowed” signs popped up in cafes across the country and the only tourists strolling the streets of Paris sported Nazi uniforms.

Now, as far as storybook openings go, this is not exactly the stuff of Disney, but it is a fitting beginning for Jean-Pierre Meville’s Le silence de la mer, which adapts the Vercors novel as a grimly naturalistic fairy tale filled with captive princesses, sensitive monsters, and an entire populace held under somnolent enchantment. Unsurprisingly, Beauty and the Beast is one of the film’s key references, with the role of the monster filled by a Nazi officer named Werner von Ebrennac, who is billeted at a cozy French countryside cottage inhabited by an older man and his niece.

A musician in his civilian life, the officer is charming and sensitive, a dedicated Francophile, and his fondest wish is for the occupation to meld France and Germany into “a solid union, where each is made greater.” He speaks of a broken engagement to a ferocious fraulein in the fatherland, recalling a sun-spackled, meadow-set outing where he queasily watched as his betrothed ripped the legs from a mosquito with ecstatic sadism. His love for France in general—and the niece in particular—carries with it a whiff of desperation as he searches for sanctuary from his violent compatriots. But the French are understandably skeptical of the officer’s attempt to frame the occupation as an idiosyncratic form of German courtship, and uncle and niece answer their guest’s heartfelt nightly monologues with a defiant, if fragile silence.

“Perhaps it’s inhuman to refuse him even a single word,” admits the uncle to his niece in a moment of weakness. Perhaps, but speaking might have been even crueller. Free to say what he wants before his mute audience, von Ebrennac can maintain the illusion that he remains a cultured, humane soul while serving a genocidal regime. However, the silence is even more perilous for the French hosts. What begins as an act of resistance can easily seem like a tacit acceptance of the officer’s presence, as the uncle himself muses in his voiceover narration at one point. The distinction between passive resistance and plain passivity is not always clear. Notably, once the officer leaves for the front, preferring to die rather than defy his superiors, we still do not see the uncle and niece talk openly between each other, even though the German’s ghostly presence has finally vanished from their home. One wonders if they have forgotten how to speak.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Other Side of Hope


The Other Side of Hope, the second part of Aki Kaurismaki's planned migrant trilogy, bears a superficial similarity to its predecessor, Le Havre, but six years and millions more people displaced make the two films feel like dispatches from different worlds. True, both are tales of immigrants stranded on the shores of a European port, with the French setting and African boy of the first film traded for Finland and a young Syrian refugee named Khaled. Of course, the cast is stacked with Kaurismaki's usual coterie of stone-faced Finns and aging rockabilly musicians, and the plot is shaggier than a sheepdog: a financially struggling shirt salesman, Waldemar Wikstrom, leaves his alcoholic wife and gambles his life savings in an illicit high-stakes poker game in order to purchase a restaurant staffed by the comic-relief squad. But the refugee crisis has only grown in severity since 2011, and The Other Side of Hope strikes a consistently darker tone than Le Havre as a result. The soft-hearted police inspector of the earlier film has been replaced by an indifferent bureaucratic machine; kindness remains the chief currency of Kaurismaki's world, but it seems to buy so much less now. Television news footage of the destruction in Syria appears at one point, and the grainy, violent imagery set against the filmmaker's gentle, quiet style feels like a deliberate act of vandalism. 

Kaurismaki still mines humour from Europe's cultural myopia, particularly in the sequence where the restaurant crew fumbles an attempt to serve sushi, but his depiction of the racist thugs as dimwits—one nonsensically spits anti-Semitic epithets at Khaled after attacking him—never forgets the very real danger represented by nativist violence. Friends and strangers alike step forward with their own acts of kindness, but helping one man escape the police or chasing away a racist gang can do little against a stacked immigration system and the escalating global wave of refugees. Kaurismaki seems to genuinely be grappling with how individual action, however noble and humane, can do anything for a problem of such massive scale, and the film's ambivalent ending contains a world of suffering in a single sad smile. Khaled's sister submits herself to the same system that has already failed her brother, who heads off to an uncertain fate, still a citizen of nowhere. Briefly reunited, the pair seemed destined to separate lives once again, while Wikstrom chances upon his wife, now sober and healthy, working in a bodega and ready to resume married life. Apparently happy endings are still possible—for the locals, anyways.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Rebecca


The sensual gothic daydream of Rebecca has always fit oddly alongside Alfred Hitchcock's other works. The director resented producer David O. Selznick's heavy hand and expressed mixed feelings towards the end result—"Well, it's not a Hitchcock picture," he told Truffaut—but who can resist this intoxicating blend of Jane Eyre and Bluebeard, spiced with a dash of Alice in Wonderland? (Is it just me or do the doorknobs get higher as the film progresses?) Our heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, is a gawky young woman so unformed that she lacks even a name. We know her only as the first-person singular in the film's opening narration, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Without prospects or family, she is an eager bride to Maxim de Winter, a broody old-money type sulking his way across the French Riviera with the ghost of his dead wife. The young woman becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and moves into the extravagant Manderley estate, where the dead wife's initial is branded upon everything in sight. Impostor syndrome seems the only possible outcome in a place where you can't even blow your own nose without being handed your predecessor's monogrammed handkerchief. The unseen Rebecca looms large as an impossible standard of femininity—breeding, brains, and beauty, Maxim glumly notes—that the younger woman can never possibly match.

From this sinister fairy tale of a young woman's coming of age we shift to plodding procedural in the film's later moments. To satisfy the production code, the filmmakers contort the plot in sometimes baffling ways—I never knew one person could die by murder, suicide, and natural causes simultaneously—but ghosts are harder to appease than Will Hays. The second Mrs. de Winter loathes her predecessor but also feels the seductive pull of that personality, with its promise of beauty, glamour, and a secure place in the world. The narrator is all but drowning in the luxury of Manderley—she clings to the walls as if the polished floors could swallow her whole—and Rebecca torments her like a distant shore. Introduced to viewers as a dream, the entire film can be seen as a young woman's overwrought fantasy of married life, poised somewhere between excitement and dread. "We're happy, aren't we? Terribly happy!" she pleads with her husband, and neither looks terribly convinced of the sentiment. Instead, they watch film footage of their honeymoon and tell each other that images of married bliss can stand in for the real thing, while the narrator looks back on this sad moment from an indeterminate present, chasing a fleeting happiness through these layers of fantasy and memory. Manderley is gone, all traces of Rebecca consumed by fire, and still the place holds the narrator in its thrall. Perhaps birds sometimes dream of their gilded cages too.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Nocturama


Among Nocturama’s visions of terrorist violence—windows blown out at the Palais de Justice, a statue of Joan of Arc set ablaze, the top of a skyscraper shattered by explosions—nothing is quite so unsettling as the sight of a lone car burning on an empty Parisian street at night. No curious onlookers, no first responders: this is terror turned mundane, the point where fear and paranoia gives way to numbness and inertia. David, one of the film’s dewy revolutionaries, encounters the wreck on a midnight stroll following a carefully coordinated city-wide bombing carried out by his comrades. Of the entire group, he is the one most unsettled by these actions, and he has slipped away from the others in an attempt to grasp how, if at all, the world has been changed by the explosions. Briefly, he chats with a girl on a bicycle, asking her about what has been happening in the wake of the attack; she speaks in the blasé tones of an opiated Cassandra about how she had always known this was coming at some point. Like so many of the characters shown in the film, she accepts the prospect of her world being engulfed in flame with the same shrugging indifference with which one greets bad weather.

Bertrand Bonello has drained his film’s terrorists—a deliberately multi-racial group of mostly university-age Parisians—of any sense of purpose. There are allusions to economic discontent and historic revolts, but the group mostly carries out its plans with an impersonal, almost robotic, efficiency. The members are conduits for a violence they neither comprehend nor fully control, as the escalating brutality of the film’s conclusion suggests. Only once the group members are holed up in a department store to wait out the post-bombing chaos does their youth and naiveté become fully apparent. As sirens flicker in the streets outside and dead security guards slowly leak blood onto the store’s floor, the terrorists marvel at the quality of the building’s sound system and playfully wield plastic guns. The stricken cry of “Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!” that concludes the film is the sound of sleepwalker awakening in a strange and frightening place, covered in blood and holding a gun that he does not recognize is his own. Everyone’s complicity in the system they seek to destroy is summed up by one terrorist’s encounter with his mannequin doppelganger, decked out in the same Nike-stamped blue shirt he wears. A martyr without a cause, he will spend his death not on the streets of paradise, but in the aisles of Printemps.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Night of the Demon


A puppy from a hat, a demon from the headlight of a train—illusions both benign and sinister run through Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, where the wise men of science conducting a hypnosis experiment are no less credulous than the children watching a backyard magic trick. Tourneur’s old boss, Val Lewton, might have balked at so bluntly revealing the demon whose appearance bookends the film—an oversized rabbit this mangy is perhaps better left hidden inside the magician’s coat—but the film’s grim power is located in the terror-stricken faces of the true believers, not the monster’s animatronic snarl. The sight of a runic curse reducing the masterful magus to spluttering panic or driving the hypnotized madman into a suicidal frenzy is where Tourneur finds his horror, and the collision between science and the supernatural creates explosions deadlier than any mystery fireballs. In fact, the film functions as the shadow of the director’s earlier exploration of the precarious balance between faith and rationality, Stars in my Crown. But whereas that film conjures goodness through a willingness to believe in the goodness of others, Night of the Demon shows the devout followers of evil similarly rewarded for their own twisted acts of faith. Beware of which gods you enshrine, the film suggests, for they may just answer your prayers.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!


For all the praise lavished upon it, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was overburdened by its need to treat its slight coming-of-age tale as a profound state-of-the-union address. By comparison, Everybody Wants Some!! is the director at his loosest and funniest; he’s working in the plotless, discursive mode that has defined much of his strongest work. The film follows the members of a Texas university baseball team in 1980 through the three days before classes begin—essentially the international waters of adulthood, where all laws seem momentarily suspended, after you have left your parents’ watchful eyes but before the realities of post-secondary education have set in. In these giddy first few days of university life, everyone seems as drunk on possibility as they are on, uh, more mundane substances. But Linklater is not simply taking easy shots at horndog jock culture here. He’s diving deep into the hormone-addled tribal dynamics of campus life, and viewers might very well feel at times like amateur anthropologists along for the ride. The first 15 minutes alone could aptly be titled, “Put ‘er there, champ: A study of the ritualistic purposes of handshaking in post-adolescent American athletic subcultures.”

Linklater treats the hyper-competitive, testosterone-fuelled adventures of the group with a fond, if occasionally mocking touch, although nostalgia does admittedly soften the film’s edges at times. Still, nostalgia is a barbed emotion, and its presence is also a sign of things lost. Small conflicts flare up between the teammates only to be muffled by the endless roundelay of parties, but there is a strong sense of future tensions that will push these people in different directions. (You can almost imagine one of those closing 1980s college comedy where-are-they-now montages running over the credits, outlining each person’s diverging life path in a few pithy lines.) Everyone is in the early days of discovering themselves, and it becomes clear as the film progresses not everyone will like what they find. Some seem destined to drop out or fail, others to remain forever outside of the group, and others to abandon the sport that has defined their lives up until that point. If time feels suspended for these three days, that just makes the looming threat of its resumption all the more potent. Fittingly, the film ends with a pair of our raunchy Rip Van Winkles dozing through history class. One suspects their eyes will remain shut until the final exam—and that they’ll wake up screaming.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Knight of Cups


Transcendental beauty—what a racket, huh? Terrence Malick, bless his soul, seems to have carved out a niche for himself manufacturing ready-made profundities from ecstatic imagery and Hollywood stars desperate for artistic cred. Knight of Cups is his latest lament for our lamentable age, featuring an actor (Christian Bale, stupefied) confronting his hollow world as Malick muses upon a host of generic existential agonies: Are we living the life we were meant to live? Has modernity robbed us of our spirituality? Can we borrow a feeling? I say battle not with banality lest ye become banal. Sure, these themes have served as the foundation of as much good art as bad, but here they succumb to the director’s manifold filmmaking weaknesses, which can only be obscured behind the lens flares for so long. Malick is a sensitive misanthrope, yearning to express the quivering ache of human existence while having little actual use for human beings. His improvisatory methods—set everyone loose, run amuck with the camera, stitch it all together in post with voiceovers—reveal an inability to direct actors or craft narratives. There’s actually an arbitrary and implausible home robbery just to show that the main character doesn’t own anything worth stealing. (Cause his life’s, like, empty, you know?) We are not in the presence of a great dramatist.

That need not be a crippling failure for a talented image-maker, but Malick inexcusably falls back again and again on clichés to prop up his pretty pictures. Mercifully, the voiceovers, while blandly spelling out the emotional states of his empty puppet-people, obscure much of the risible dialogue, but we still have to watch hoary nonsense like a family fight ending with everyone throwing furniture around the dining room. Set adrift, the performers all too often fall back on mannerism and overacting—Natalie Portman’s generic adulteress and Brian Dennehy’s histrionic paterfamilias being the worst offenders here—to pierce the impenetrable fog of art that surrounds. Malick’s overreliance on the familiar translates into the visuals as well. Initially stunning, the imagery is essentially a string of all-purpose poetic signifiers, anointed by the gilded touch of an Oscar-winning cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki): skyscrapers set against piercing blue skies, awe-struck pans of leaves limned by sunlight, hair whipping in the wind as people laugh and love in a convertible. With Knight of Cups, Malick has at last taken his rightful place as our era’s greatest maker of stock footage. Frankly, his talents are wasted on art. He should be making travel commercials.