Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

When talent fails, the results are a blazing crash of the first order. It’s why people watch NASCAR, and it’s surely the only reason to watch We Need to Talk About Kevin, a high-functioning mess of a movie from two skilled artists, director Lynne Ramsay and actress Tilda Swinton. This is no run-of-the-mill multiplex mediocrity, but a spectacular arthouse flameout. Set in a small city rocked by a high-school massacre, the film focuses on Eva (Swinton), the mother of the killer—a brooding, amoral teen envisioned as a Tiger Beat pinup crossed with Satan. An intriguing premise, perhaps, but why is it necessary to reduce the entire community to the level of caricature in order to elevate Eva to sainthood? To save one soul, Ramsay damns an entire city, depicting every secondary character as some sort of dumpy asshole. Snobbish and mean-spirited, the film populates itself with ignorant suburban thugs, creating a world so blandly ugly it suggests Norman Rockwell illustrating an old issue of Eightball. It could almost work as a grotesque if only Ramsay weren’t so direly humorless in her depiction of Eva’s martyrdom. Everything hits rock bottom early and hard when the mother of one of the victims walks up to Eva and without provocation punches her in the face. Apparently this is how people grieve out on the savage streets of Anytown, USA—or at least the weird, phantom nation that exists somewhere in the filmmakers’ imaginations, far beyond the borders of good sense.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Belle de Jour

Let’s begin with the box. Not because it’s important—though it is, sort of, kind of, in the proper light and when the mood strikes—but because it remains one of the most beguiling moments in one of Luis Bunuel’s most beguiling films, Belle de Jour. It appears only briefly, when bourgeois-housewife-turned-prostitute Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is shown a buzzing, glowing box by one of her clients. We see only the woman’s reaction, not the contents. Rather than horrified or confused, she responds with simple wonder, approaching it quietly, wide-eyed and serious, like a child encountering a strange, new toy.

Viewers drawn to literal explanations are easily flustered by the presence of such an inscrutable detail, which can best be described as a surrealist MacGuffin. It structures the scene and drives the plot forward by providing something to entice Severine on her sexual journey, but beyond that the meaning is irrelevant. The little mystery of the box allows the larger mysteries of the film—those of Severine’s curious, conflicting desires—to exist. One almost begins to believe that the film could be explained away if only that one little mystery could be explained: everything unknown and unknowable, safely locked away in a little box held by a man who, to our relief, speaks a language none of us understand. 

If only it were that simple. Belle de Jour remains one of Bunuel’s most engaging yet confounding works, effortlessly pleasurable and still somehow unsettling (Bunuel attributed the film’s enormous success not to his own talents, but rather “his marvelous whores”). At times, the film evinces nothing more than a fly-stained pulp erotic novel, scraped off the back shelf of some used bookstore. The very premise—sexually repressed housewife becomes a prostitute during the day while her husband is at work—has very likely been replicated a dozen times over in a less tasteful manner than what we see here. Even the first few clients met by Severine (a candy maker and, no kidding, a gynecologist) sound suspiciously like the beginning of a pornographic joke.

Ever the blasphemer and ever the Catholic, Bunuel’s version of titillation is modestly restrained, relying heavily on fetishistic detail (Deneuve’s calves should get second billing). Severine’s numerous visions of debasement are filmed from a cool distance, which only heightens the erotic charge. Contra to all the good clean kinky fun, the film also flirts with adding a psychological gloss to Severine’s masochistic tendencies by offering two brief glimpses of her childhood: a scene where an older man fondles her, and another where she denies herself the sacrament in church. Already there is a pattern of desire and shame at work here, self-denial and self-flagellation rooted deep in her being. But like most psychological origin stories, it’s far too simplistic to be believed, and the film rushes past it, eyes down, as if almost embarrassed. 

However, everything is elevated—you might even say levitated—by the inimitable Bunuel touch, which erases all boundaries between fantasy and reality. So many of his other films freely break into dreams and surreal interludes with little warning, but few spend so much time focused on the dreams of one individual. Bunuel’s surrealism comes and goes like weather—forever changing, always present. Typically rooted in the director’s own imagination, here it is personalized as an emanation of Severine’s own stormy psyche. We likely spend close to a third of the film in her dream life, and if we’re not in her head we’re in her bed at the brothel, where she spends her afternoons luxuriating in the desires of others or merely lounging in the arms of her gangster lover, Marcel—he of the golden scowl, perpetual slouch and scar from the knife in his back.

At times, Severine bears an uncanny resemblance to Conchita, the literally two-faced (well, two-bodied, really) heroine of Bunuel’s final work, That Obscure Object of Desire. In that film, Conchita is played by two different actresses in order to showcase her capricious moods, alternating between warm tenderness and fiery passion. Severine is similarly divided, living her passions out by day before going home to a fond, but frigid marriage at night. Yet this division should not be taken for mere inconstancy. Much like the later film, it is a sign of feminine individuality, unbowed before the demands of the men who wish to control her. The two halves of Severine define the woman, her repression meaningless without her liberation and vice versa.

This tension comes to a head in a final scene that brings her daytime adventures into conflict with her nocturnal domesticity. Her husband, wheelchair bound and practically a vegetable, cries after being told of his wife’s affairs. But then bells ring from the street—the sound of the carriage that carries Severine through her fantasy world—and her husband springs to his feet. We’re back in the dream world of Severine, but this time it is not her humiliation she envisions, but rather a modest matrimonial clinch (or is that her final humiliation?). They watch the carriage ride away from the window.

There are a number of ways of looking at this. One is to say that her fantasies and reality have a last merged, making her whole and satisfied for the first time. But another possibility exists. She only imagines her unrealistic desires—abject humiliation, violent and painful sex—because what is the point of a realistic fantasy? You dream of what you want, not what you already possess. This final fantasy may be her most perverse, unachievable longing—a simple, loving marriage. When all the barriers have been broken, normality becomes the one taboo remains out of her grasp.

Are the filmmakers punishing Severine for her desire or setting her free? Doubtless, Bunuel has little interest in answering the question, much as he cares not to explain away the contents of the box. Later in life, he remarked upon how often people came to him asking about that buzzing mystery. Undoubtedly, it irritated the old surrealist, all these ridiculous prosaic types who saw the film as some riddle to be solved. Does the picture in a jigsaw puzzle become incomprehensible when you remove one piece? (It’s a bigger question than you think: why do people see what they lack instead of what they have?) When people asked Bunuel what was in the box, he would simply wave them away with a simple answer, “Whatever you want to be there.” No surprise that the answer leaves so many unsatisfied. How many of us truly know what we desire?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Easy Virtue

Released in 1928, Easy Virtue finds the young Alfred Hitchcock still casting about wildly, fishing for his subject matter and landing himself a bit of a stiff. The film is adapted from the Noel Coward play about Larita, a high-society woman who divorces her abusive, drunken husband yet finds that she is the one to be tainted by scandal and infamy. All the elements necessary for a righteous assault on small-minded bourgeois hypocrisy are readily evident here, but the results are strictly lightweight. Lacking comic edge or tragic gravity, Hitchcock’s tone is too mellow to even qualify as melodrama. It’s The House of Mirth reduced to a lukewarm potboiler.

There are at least some glimmers of skill from the director, for whatever that’s worth. The opening courtroom sequence interweaves flashbacks with great brio (young master Alfie appears to have discovered the match cut, and likes his new toy very much). A later scene involving two lovers chatting over a phone conveys the substance of their conversation entirely through the changing expressions on the face of an eavesdropping operator—a lovely conceit native to silent film, and a sweetly innocent expression of the voyeuristic tendencies that crop up throughout Hitchcock’s work (well, Norman Bates was sweetly innocent in his own way, too). Notably, these stronger moments rely little on the weak central cast, most particularly Isabel Jeans as Larita, who lacks the substance to ground the film in real human pain. Instead, she bounces between insouciant defiance and weary resignation, sometimes the provocateur and other times the victim. A story like this lives or dies by its central character, and Hitchcock unsurprisingly detaches himself from the results, amusing himself with the finer points of craft while biding his time for a stronger cast and script.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock followed his success with the The Lodger with Downhill, an aptly titled retrograde effort. Much of the credit—or blame, perhaps—belongs to Ivor Novello, who wrote the script and stars as a somewhat bewildered, prudish playboy. An all-star rugby player at a boarding school, the jaunty young Novello proves irresistibly attractive to women, including the sinister sexpot who lures him to “Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe” in the hopes of seducing him (ye olde bunne in the ovenne). She fails and settles for his chum, but puts the blame on Novello anyway in the hopes of tapping his family wealth. From there, his life—apparently as sturdy as the hideous cardboard sets where most of the action takes place—collapses in mild chaos, light depravity, and slight madness.

Hitchcock has never really been what you might call a feminist director, but he could still muster some strong, intelligent female characters throughout his career. Unfortunately, the sex-panicked script lays the blame for Novello’s fall at the feet of a series of shrill, callous gold-diggers and floozies, with rock bottom being a hairy-lipped lady in a dingy Parisian dance hall. If there is any reason to watch this film—and really, there probably isn’t—it would be for Hitchcock’s technique, which betrays an intelligence far livelier than the surroundings. Some elegant lighting, a few judicious tracking shots, and even some point-of-view perspective shooting add to the visual interest of the film, but do little to enrich the material. Mostly, these touches serve as an occasionally pleasant distraction from the finger-wagging, tongue-clucking moralizing of the dreary script.