Thursday, February 28, 2013

A New Leaf

A New Leaf, Elaine May’s debut feature as writer-director, drowns the modern romantic comedy in a swamp of bad feeling and savage disdain. May plays Henrietta, a wealthy, clutzy botanist sporting oversized glasses and undersized personality. Her suitor is freshly pauperized playboy Henry, played with a droll sneer by Walter Matthau. Repulsed by women—and most of the human race, actually—the dedicated bachelor aims to marry his way back into money. Add a dash of arsenic, and Henry can live happily ever after as a wealthy widower. Reportedly recut from May’s much darker three-hour original, the film makes for a bracingly black vision of love. So many romantic comedies are built around a desperate woman enduring countless humiliations just to earn the affections of an indifferent man, but few take the premise this far. Subjecting her character to scorn and ridicule in pursuit of a murderer—played not by a dashing leading man, but the eternally rumpled Matthau—May turns movie romance into an extended act of self-flagellation. The film laces the usual bromides of the genre with enough poison to flatten a small elephant.

Artless and stylized all at once, the film suggests a live-action cartoon. The director indulges in grotesque closeups (more for shock than laughs), and buries gags inside carefully cluttered scenes. But she also shoots much of the film on real locations around New York, wedding a rough-hewn realism to a farcical plot. Such contradictions sit comfortably alongside the jarringly dissonant characters, who are pushed to extremes of cruelty and idiocy, yet viewed with bemused affection. This being called A New Leaf, it should come as no surprise that the film turns away from the abyss in the end. Both characters recognize that they complete each other, and the helplessness that Henry scorns in Henrietta is revealed to be a mirror of his own. But even during his big change of heart, Henry still tosses his wife about like a ragdoll, and he submits to domestic bliss the way some people succumb to cancer. Barbed to the very end, the film is both an autocritique of romantic comedy and exemplar of the genre. Can you become the thing you hate? Sure, and you can marry it too.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Michael Haneke, cinematic sadist extraordinaire, may have crafted his ultimate iron maiden in Amour. After years of random brutality, films filled with mutilations of the self and the other, the director has at last discovered the greatest horror show of them all: time and our own crumbling bodies. Not that there aren’t signs of a newfound tenderness occasionally breaking through the misanthropic gloom of Haneke’s world. When Jean-Louis Trintignant dodders around an apartment trying to capture a pigeon, one reflexively cringes at the inevitable violence to come (visions of a dead bird a la The White Ribbon flutter around the imagination). Instead the old man simply holds the creature, caressing it sadly before later setting it free—and unless he released it into a turbine, the bird may be one of the first animals to survive a cameo in a Haneke film. Elsewhere, the director’s clinical touch is evident, bolstered by two superbly considered performances from his octogenarian all-stars, Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. When Riva looks through a photo album and declares life to be beautiful, the moment is so drained of sentimentality it makes the weather report seem overwrought. Too bad all of the fine efforts of the actors are torpedoed by Haneke’s predictable fondness for sudden, shocking bursts of violence. As always, he confuses surprise for genuine emotion and assumes making people squirm is the same as making them think. Even in his supposed humanist crowd-pleaser, Haneke can’t resist sucker-punching the audience.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The End of Time

A free-associative epic, The End of Time allows Peter Mettler to fulfill his apparent ambition to make a film that is simultaneously about nothing and everything. This is harder than it sounds, and much more satisfying an experience than you would imagine. The trick is to reduce all reality to abstractions, at which point abstractions become real, and then the world turns into the acid-freak section of 2001: A Space Odyssey and you lunge towards the doors of perception only to realize they were painted on the wall all along. “What is time?” the film asks, and then answers, by showing five minutes of lava footage. “What is time?” the film asks of a physicist, who would love to answer, except that he has a call he really has to answer, can you hold on a minute? “What is time?” the film asks again, this time of the director’s mother. Oh, it’s mother’s day. Well, now I feel foolish for even asking in the first place.

Mettler’s skill as a cinematographer is well established at this point, but The End of Time offers ample evidence of his talent as a sculptor of sound and image. He mines a series of far-flung locales—Hawaiian volcanoes, Swiss scientific complex, holy sites in India, devastated Detroit slums—for strange and illuminating juxtapositions. Stars fall like snow and the metal circles of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are no less mystical than mandalas found at a Buddhist shrine in India. An Indian funeral procession provides the soundtrack to an army of ants pulling at the towering corpse of a grasshopper. The omnipresence of cellphones becomes a running gag, with the devices multiplying like little rodents devouring the now. Visual motifs disappear and resurface like whales breaching the surface of the ocean, while sounds form a thread stitching together images in unexpected ways. Something as innocuous as the tin-coated song of an ice cream truck can transform the sprawling ruins of Detroit in a single neighbourhood. Beyond its exploration of time, the film is a monument to the incidental.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

La Terra Trema

Merging decadent style with revolutionary content, La Terra Trema is very much a product of the contradictions of director Luchino Visconti, aristocrat by birth and communist by choice. Rarely has any film purporting neo-realism—natural settings, unprofessional actors, documentary-style voiceover—contained such rampant aestheticism. (Even when filming dirty, decaying hovels, Visconti can’t stop himself from scattering mirrors on seemingly every wall.) However, the film’s immaculate compositions and sumptuous camera movements lend grandeur to the Valastros, a Sicilian fishing family that tries—and fails, disastrously—to overthrow the wholesalers exploiting them to the very last lire. Reducing poverty to aesthetics risks condescending to the disadvantaged by suggesting they have somehow been ennobled by suffering. Visconti elevates his characters to the state of tragic heroes while never denying their own hubris and folly, which only compounds the injustices inflicted upon them. The whole world seems arrayed against the defiant family: the cackling wholesalers, the villagers who sneer at any attempt to destroy the crushing old order, and even the absurdly cartoonish smuggler (one can easily imagine him opening his trenchcoat to reveal a line of fine imitation Rolexes). Assaulted from without and betrayed from within, the Valastros flail through their erstwhile revolt until falling prey to their own weaknesses, whether pride, lust, greed or simple human frailty. The family ends humbled and devastated, discovering themselves to be naked beneath the chains they have thrown off.