Monday, December 31, 2012

La femme infidèle. (1969) Claude Chabrol

Reconciling Infidelity for A&F Nominations.

"I love you," says the disconsolate husband, softly.

"I love you," whispers the unfaithful wife. She is clearly telling him the truth.

"I love you like mad," he utters, again under his breath, holding to his marital bond like an armistice.

If La femme infidèle is about the love between a husband and wife, it's also about the mad bonds that tie them together, and the lengths the two might go to preserve them.

The title says it all, for this is really a story about three people (four, if you count their little boy, and with the uneasy ramifications that will play out here, the fate of the little boy is certainly worth consideration). This is a love triangle tale. It is as messed up as Anthony and Cleopatra -- an ages-old theme, to be certain -- but it is relayed to the eye through the sheer power of autuer cinema, Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier formally giving new light to a timeless idea.

The husband, Charles (Michel Bouquet), suspects his wife, Helene (the beautiful Stéphane Audran) of spending her time in other places in the city, instead of getting her nails done or going every other day to the cinema. He hires a detective and uncovers her lover's name. Husband then proceeds to meet this fellow, and at this half way point all the characters' lives unravel while the cinematic way in which it is told springs the story to life.

The camera movement is phenomenal, at one point swooping from inside a parked car, following the husband around the corner and back into the car in one take -- in other moments slightly inebriated, reflecting the sudden wooziness in a central character's state, or with masterful tracking as we follow Charles dragging something as large as a human, wrapped in cloth, down a Parisian sidewalk. The quiet, felt tension relayed by Bouquet as the husband is actually mirrored in the movement of the lens.

Rabier's craftmanship showcases, quite clearly, a very different and unique time in cinema history -- scenes steal the show on their own, like glimpes of the inside of the Bates Hotel in Psycho, or the people in the other apartment in Rear Window. Yes, it's Hitchcock that foremost comes to mind, where the psychology of the characters is also relayed in the way we're allowed to see it. In the very movement of the camera itself -- a sense of disorientation likewise later in the wife -- we not only see, but feel, the loss of her freedom, her desire, and her need for understanding reflected in tilts, pans, zooms, and perfectly paced edits.

Chabrol even has a sense of humor, like the signature of Hitch appearing in his own film. Only here, in a nerve-wrangling scene in which husband is driving very fast down an all-too-crowded boulevard, we faintly catch a theater in the background as it passes by. What was playing in the cinema in France that day? Les Biches, Chabrol's film from 1968.

This is an amazing, masterful film in which all of the pieces come together: a fine script, decent deadpan (read: French) acting, highly artistic and expressionist cinematography, and edits that know when to cut and when to refrain and let us see more.

After watching La femme infidèle, I find myself wondering: Claude Chabrol, where have you been all my life?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Take This Waltz. (2012) Sarah Polley

"New things get old," a naked elderly woman says to three younger naked women taking a shower in a public locker room.


A drunk, who, seconds after crashing her car in the driveway, is lecturing her sister-in-law for abandoning her marriage: "Life has a gap in it... You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."


These two statements are the core themes of Take This Waltz, a film which has a few truths mixed in a bucketful of suggestions which, might also be true, and show us a way not to live -- but it's a miserable spectacle to see.

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen star as Margot and Lou, at the five-year mark in their marriage. They're a couple who care for each other, and probably still love one another, but have lost the spark and can't figure out how to reignite it.

They've lost their ability to engage (they know each other too well to converse in a restaurant), they horribly fail at spontaneity (she cries after several attempts at seducing him in the kitchen), and they've grown too comfortable with each other's presence, losing the joy and sense of fondness they once shared. It seems Margot is looking for the spark a trifle more than Lou -- whereas he is happy in the stability of his home and marriage, she wants every day to be fairies and fireworks.

Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), the new neighbor from across the street. He's a mysterious loner, a good-looking solo artist who doesn't show any of his melodramatic paintings. He is sly, and fit, and runs rickshaw around Toronto. He's broke but wears the persona of a "Fifty Shades of Gray."

At first he runs into Margot by chance, but as the film moves toward the inevitable they are constantly seeking ways to run off and hang out. They do coffee, they take walks, they condescend and harass one another to no end. There's something going on here, and Margot begins to feel a bit unnerved.

Daniel would be the "new," Lou would be the "old," -- Daniel might be the "fill," Lou might be the "gap".

A truth, hard as it will be, is at least found in Take This Waltz. Margot won't find happiness by running off with someone else. She'd be leaving not only her husband (and a good man), but a supporter with common bonds and a shared history -- and in doing so she'd be leaving many of their mutual friends as well. Her choice, should she go there, will hurt her, leaving her even more unsatisfied than before -- a fact of life depicted quite well in the miserable Take This Waltz -- depicted so well, I never want to see the damn thing again.

The truth often hurts. And these situations hurt. And all kinds of hurtful (read: truthful) questions still rise, questions which anyone who wants to grow might be prone to ask: Can any ONE person really complete ANOTHER? Is that "gap" able to be filled by another person, or is it made to be filled by something larger? (Can an individual fit into the God-shaped hole?)

"You complete me," was the dialogue-turned-pop-expression by Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. But -- really? Is it even fair to hoist this kind of burden on another individual?

Like the suggestion in the phrase, "You complete me," all of the characters in Take This Waltz, but Margot in particular, come across as half a person looking to add another half a person to make some kind of Whole in the end. As if a fractured, unhealed individual might be able to add another partial person to their lives, and that together they might make a complete unit.

But in relationships, this doesn't work. If you don't take the time to work on your own self first, you are not going to be completed by the love of someone else -- nor the emotional strength, sex, or help of someone else (although it may work for a time).

I've always thought of this in terms of math. Whereas many would like to use addition, making a 1/2 plus a 1/2 equal one whole unit, I've thought that perhaps we need to look at it as multiplication. One whole times one whole equals, yes, one whole relationship.

All the truth that's found here seems like it might make for a masterful film. So many times these days we see depictions of people who seem to do the wrong thing and live happily ever after. So it's to be lauded that a director like Polley finds a way to make us squirm in our seats, to see the devastation of moral failure so clearly.

However, a suggestion at the end of Take This Waltz leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth (though it may still ring true). The suggestion is that all of these characters are lonely, miserable, untrusting, feeling used, probably slightly bitter and most definitely hanging on to some kind of resentment. That no matter who they end up with they will always want something more, and no matter who they are fucking they'll only wind up feeling fucked.

It's bitter, but it's true -- if you're planning to live your life the way these characters do.

This is a film full of truths, and suggestions that I hate, and lives that take paths that are inwardly destructive and no fun. When and if some of these characters choose to have kids, their kids will have terrible examples and will wind up on the same meds as their divorced parents.

That the film shows truth-in-action is a noble pursuit. That the film shows broken people who find wrong ways to "heal," and that the ramifications of their poor choices are clearly seen is a rare thing in a story these days.

But is it fun to watch? No. I doubt I'll ever watch this wretched thing again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gilles' Wife. (2004) Frédéric Fonteyne

Heaven turned to Hell for A&F Nominations.

Like Breaking the Waves (but with no God or grace or dialogue to offer help), Gilles' Wife can be a tough film to watch. 

It compares a married couple and the lengths they will go to in opposite extremist ways of life: the disgraceful husband who chases and cheats and emotionally browbeats his wife with the details, and the faithful and saintly wife who loves him so much she selflessly helps him in his affair.

These two, fixed in their positions, are a horrible mix for a marriage. In fact, they are a horrible mix for any relationship -- two extremists who can't meet in the middle.

This is a miserable art film, the kind that people rail against, the kind that people complain about when they complain about a certain kind of French film. The characters are punished (and even punish themselves) for their own inability to properly deal with life on life's terms, and they deserve all the punishment they end up with.

That they got what they deserved doesn't make it any less miserable to watch.

I pretty much hated this movie.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunrise. (1927) F.W. Murnau

A Silent era masterpiece for A&F Nominations.

There is little doubt that Sunrise is one of the greatest films of all-time. In 1929, the first year of the Academy Awards, Murnau's silent drama was awarded for "Unique and Artistic Production," the only time that award has been granted, regardless of the film itself being a box office failure. The National Film Registry of the US Library of Congress has chosen the film for preservation, and both the American and British Film Institutes have placed it on lists that recognize the greatest films in the history of cinema.

A few years back, it was a hard one to track down. I remember purchasing a DVD copy on eBay, for around $30 in 2003, and sending it on tour to my cinephilic friends so they could enjoy it, too. Now, in the age of Instant Viewing and more readily available classics, film geeks find it available through Netflix.

Its plot, based on the story 'The Excursion to Tilsit' by Hermann Sudermann, is simple enough, even generic in its summary: The Man (George O'Brien) has an adulterous affair with a Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston), who convinces him to drown The Wife (Janet Gaynor), sell their farmhouse property, and move to the city to be with her. At the mention of drowning his bride, The Man nearly strangles The Woman at first, but even as he strangles her, his lust regains control -- he falls into her embrace and is soon enough agreeing with her proposition.

Somewhere inside The Man is a decent, faithful husband, who is now struggling between two emotional extremes. Sunrise is surely a film about an abundance of issues, an adulterous affair being its first target, but it is also about a man coming to senses with himself, coming to terms with his own inherent goodness. It is about recognizing your own faults, your own sin, and reconciling with yourself, and hoping to find good standing with the ones you have betrayed and let down.

This was Murnau's first film in America. He was brought to the states in 1926 by William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation in Hollywood. He was widely known before Sunrise as one of the key directors in German Expressionism, with films like Nosferatu and The Last Laugh catching global attention.

Expressionism is well-known for embracing the fantastic, and somewhat a rejection of realism. Think of the cinematography, outrageous acting and over-the-top nature of something like Edward Scissorhands, which is a direct allusion to these German films. But what is fascinating about a film like Sunrise is that while there is melodrama in the acting, and while it's undoubtedly expressionist in its lighting, set design and roving cinematography, even 85 years later the story comes across as a quite realistic, real enough to transcend space and time while being seen.

I think the reason for this is because of the nature of the relationships between The Man, The Wife, and the Woman From the City. This is the never ending stuff of life, these inner impulses and struggles of the heart which will always be present, no matter when a story is told. And what's interesting about a film like Sunrise is that it hails back to an earlier time in cinematic history, sure -- but through the sheer power of its camera's presence from that time we find comfort and mourning in the same elemental struggles.

We are human. We desire to love. We desire to be loved back. We screw it up along the way, and we don't always know how to love right. Even after we screw up, the desire for love remains inside us. And that is a desire that is timeless.

Sunrise is surely a technological achievement, a modern-era wonder, quite recognized as a superior product from silent cinema. But it remains on best-of lists even decades after sound and color because of the heartbeat and the values at its core. There is a pulse that continues to linger, no matter the era in which it is seen, for it is alive, fully human, with a heart made of flesh and not stone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another Year. (2010) Mike Leigh

Due to the alcoholic subtext of Another Year, as I'd read in various reviews about its characters who deal with addictive tendencies (a subject I'm prone to take obsessive interest in), I've wanted to see it since it hit theaters last year. However, I've also been a little fearful of the film because I'm no fan of Mike Leigh, the UK writer/director who never seems to realize the outrageous potential of cinema, and maybe should have worked his sullen dramas in theater instead.*

I'm not saying Leigh's films are boring... Well, OK, to be honest, I guess I am.

I do enjoy films in which character study is the most important aspect, but for some reason Leigh's other well-known films --  Secrets and LiesAll or Nothing and Vera Drake -- are the kinds where you view them and you might remember them in a week, but certainly not in a month. Case in point: I remember talking about Vera Drake with quite a few people way back when, but I have no memory of anything we discussed outside its controversial subject matter, and frankly, it wasn't strong enough to care to go back for another look.

So there is is. I find Mike Leigh films a bit of a bore. I've admitted my bias up front, and I'm willing to be taken to task for my failure. (There are circles, in Britain, where the guy is held up as a god with a small "g".)

I finally sat with Another Year when my friends at A&F began the nominating process for a list that will eventually become the Top 25 Films About Marriage, or whatever we finally call it. I am voting in that poll and want to give the many nominations their fair shake -- meaning, I want to see as many nominees as I can and follow in the discussions about why a particular film might qualify as a top film on the complexities of marriage. And I can see a decent case being made for Another Year. It is definitely a film which would suit that list quite well. The problem I'm having with it is more of the "boring" and less of the "well suited."

The film might be as boring as some of the marriages I've seen, but I found something interesting when engaging its reviews, one thing that might make Leigh a genius and prove that I honestly don't know what I'm even talking about. To get to that, let me first explain the foundation of Another Year's plot:

The story follows a happily married couple in North London, Tom and Gerri, and a year in their family and friends' lives. The year is divided into four seasons, beginning with Spring and ending in Winter. The couple is aging, but both are still working -- Gerri as a therapist, a counselor of some sort, and Tom as a very professional city engineer, which he shrugs off as being a guy who "digs holes." They are both white collar, educated, with a big house and quite a few rooms and are happy in their various roles in the marriage. They have a son in his late twenties or early thirties, Joe, who hasn't yet found the right girl (and doesn't share much with them about this part of his life), and a few friends who seem to stay over and drink too much at their house from time to time.

One of the friends is Mary, perhaps one of the neediest characters I've seen in a while. She is single, in her early forties, and says she's happy until the drink has finally excited her tongue a bit, and that's when you find out, oh, she's not so happy about being single after all. After she's been drinking a few times at their house you start to look at her a little differently. One might say she's pathetic, but you can also form feelings of sympathy for her loneliness. It's not every single person's fault that they are alone. Mary has made some sad choices over the years, sure. But the choices don't seem wrong enough to alienate her. That's just a part of her life. That's a part of her character's fate. Hence the sympathy.

A few of the characters here are interesting to watch, Mary being the first and foremost. It seems she might fall for any man to dig herself out of her isolation. But that's not quite true. There's another fellow who stays over at Tom and Gerri's place sometimes too -- Ken -- an overweight and aging smoker and drinker, another divorcee who also drops in at the house, stays over, and cries a little bit when he's drunk, too. Though Mary never sees Ken cry, she treats him with contempt. It's hard to say whether there was some sort of past that hangs between them. Mary, too old for Joe, keeps feasting her eyes on him, and when she runs into Ken, who might be a decent fit, she treats him like the plague.

If you like a character-driven drama and a story that simply watches how folks interact in the real world, Another Year can be worth your while. But for me, Leigh's genius came after the film (which I still admit is a little long winded for my own tastes), when I read about the characters and how different viewers reacted to them. This is where we look at Tom and Gerri a little differently, and begin to see that we don't always have the same perceptions about the people we meet; that our backgrounds and understanding shape our perceptions about people as much as much as their own actions.

Recently, after sitting once again with the beautiful six-hour epic The Best of Youth, I wrote a bit about how two characters can be involved in the same situation and can be moved in opposite life directions, polar extremes from one another -- but we still understand both characters and why they would choose their separate paths, even though they've been through the same ordeal.

The same can be said about alternate viewers' reactions to Another Year. Case in point: My long time A&F friend and WAFCA critic, Christian Hamaker, wrote the following about Tom and Gerri after seeing Another Year:
The married couple around whom the story revolves are wonderful people, imperfect but kind-hearted and generous. People come to them with their worries and fears, with good news and bad. And the couple reaches out to others who are hurting, who are newly widowed. They take care of their family, and their friends.
Christian goes on to say that it is so simple and obvious, and yet amazing.

I had the same sort of interpretation of Tom and Gerri (minus the word "amazing," for I don't know whether he is talking about the couple in the film or the film itself). That basically, Tom and Gerri are nice. That there really are courteous people left in the world, and that the film displays an example of that notion in this couple. Here are two people who have grown together, and from their love, which is really the driving force of the film, they feel compelled to reach out to their friends, except when their friends get in the way of their family (and essentially, that happens in Mary's later reaction to Joe bringing home a real girlfriend).

How interesting, then, to read a few other critics' reactions, and I'll just note here that this is re-printed from the same forum:

Karina Longworth, The Village Voice:Unfolding in four episodes pegged to the seasons, Another Year’s arc covers the widening gulf between Tom and Gerri’s entitled contentment, and the increasingly bleak desperation of their family and friends. Ken and Mary, envious of Tom and Gerri’s bond to one another, seem to regard the couple’s home as a safe space in which to unload—apparently oblivious to the knowing looks that Tom and Gerri exchange right in front of them. The further the characters are etched, the harder it becomes to figure out with whom Leigh intends us to identify: Tom and Gerri’s horrible house guests, who you can’t help but pity for their clueless concern for only themselves? Or self-appointed “Saint Gerri” and her even more self-righteous partner, whose care for friends and family is never anything less than condescending?

Glenn Kenny, MSN Film Reviewer:Tom and Jerri are cheery, comfortable old lefties who've understood that they're not in a position to change the world anymore, and have gotten to be fine with that -- there's a correlation between this picture and Leigh's 1988 "High Hopes," in which a younger (obviously), punkier, leather-jacketed Sheen played one half of far a more agitated couple in Thatcherite Britain. As for Mary, her life is one (largely invented) turmoil after another, and the couple's dealings with her frantic plaints eventually get the viewer to wondering whether these nice, settled folks are really all that nice. Mary is very clearly an alcoholic. But the A-word is never once dropped in the film. And Jerri, who's a therapist herself, never even suggests counseling, or a support group, to Mary until an almost cruel hammer-dropping scene near the film's end. Tom and Jerri are so very polite, so very indulgent, so very correct in all their dealings, all the while dispensing conventional left-liberal wisdom spiked with conventional complacent cynicism whenever contemplating a crisis, be it global or local. But it's clear that all the while, they're stifling their own strong feelings of put-upon-ness and resentment. As much as you like them -- and maybe you won't like them, (that's one of the things about Leigh's films and their characters, they're so unusually and thoroughly textured that they never seem designed to elicit a simple response) -- you have to wonder if they're so besotted by their own comfort and contentment that they can't help but act as passive-aggressive near-monsters to the people they're supposedly close to.

I guess this is one long blog post simply to say that I'm still learning, and that one can learn even from a movie that he considers slightly "boring." I'm learning about the power of perspective, still learning that there is never one absolutely right path. I'm learning that we all see things from our own (mostly wrong) backgrounds and senses of personal taste, but the human nature in every one of us needs to form some kind of an opinion anyway -- if anything, so that we just don't float and get pushed around.

I'm gonna chalk this one up as a film which didn't really bother me, but it didn't really move me, either. But its reviews and criticism gave me a bit to chew on, so it can't be as bad or boring as I originally thought.

And if ever I talk about Mike Leigh again, I'm going to try my best to not give an opinion in a sentence or two. Clearly there is a lot of craft at work here, to be able to evoke such strong, opposite reactions from well-known critics.

Is Leigh a genius? Tough to say. But he wouldn't be the first genius I don't really connect with all that well.

* That is not to discredit theater, although that's not my thing either, but it is foolish to not realize that film has more tools available with which to enchant the viewer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Best of Youth. (2003) Marco Tullio Giordana

Six Hours of Italian for A&F Nominations.

This is a sprawling, epic journey following the lives of four siblings in Italy over the span of something like forty years. One of my all-time favorite films, it's a story I wish I could live inside. It has brothers I wish I could call my own, and friends, who like in real life, I wish I could figure out.

The story pivots itself around two brothers from the Carati family, Nicola and Matteo, from the time of their early college years into their diverging adult lives. It shows how their paths are forever altered by one event they share early in the story, and how each of them manages to carve out a totally opposite path from the other -- social, political, and otherwise -- and yet they always stay somewhat connected, and neither one of them are wrong in their different directions.

One event from their youth has sent each in opposite directions, and yet we can understand why each has chosen the way he deals with it.*

When Matteo takes on a job at a mental institution in the mid-sixties, he is introduced to the character that changes them: Giorgia, a wreck of a patient, who barely speaks and refuses to let anyone touch her. Matteo begins taking her on walks as a part of his job, walks that sometimes don't turn out well due to Giorgia's belligerent nature. But when he researches into her past he discovers that she is recovering in a greater degree from her treatment rather than whatever originally ailed her. Giorgia has been given electro-shock treatment, an ineffective, incredibly damaging procedure where two electrodes are placed on the patient's temples for shocking the brain.

If you look very closely into Giorgia's eyes, you can see she might have at one time been a beautiful girl. Whatever hurt her before isn't as bad as the treatment that is hurting her now. Matteo instinctively sees this. On an impulse (the first of many for Matteo), he sneaks her out of the institution at night, and shows up with her when meeting Nicola. They were planning a vacation to Norway with some friends, but in an error of innocence, the naive young brothers decide it is time to take Giorgia back to her home to be with her parents.

Perhaps you remember some event from your life that changed you forever, or maybe it altered the course of your thinking. Perhaps you were raised to believe one thing, but experience taught you something else. In taking Giorgia back home, Nicola and Matteo are trying to do the right thing, but they will fail in doing so. And what happens on this trip will haunt them for many years to come, their psyches permanently altered.

Giorgia disappears from their lives, and there is nothing the boys can do. As we follow them over the decades, there are other characters who pop in and out of their lives, too. Quite a few times when someone disappears, the only thing left behind is heartache. Sometimes the heartache feels like it's just too much, and we get to see and understand how each of the family members deals with it. When those we love go MIA, it has deep ramifications on our other choices, too.

Plot lines weave in and out, different characters have different arcs. Time moves forward. Political movements have their moment in the sun. The Best of Youth becomes a tapestry of all the lives in and around the Carati family, what they face over the years with their spouses and their friends. Some go into the government. Some become fiercely anti-government. One, in particular, loses herself to a political uprising.

And then there is love, and destiny, and the idea that sometimes two can make it work even with the same ghost that follows them around.

The expressive nature of this Italian family makes it such an endearing work. This is a film in which Story (capital S) is front and center, and Characters (capital C) can be loved, whether in joy or misery, understanding or mystery. There is a pulse to this six hour film that makes it worth its longer length. It develops so deeply, these people become the kind of family you want in your heart.

Truly, this is an unforgettable and rewarding Story experience.

*Well, maybe. One can understand some of the choices Matteo has made, but one of the most mysterious parts about The Best of Youth is Matteo himself, and the final choice that he makes. This man is another one of the mysterious figures that drives at the heart of the story. We want to understand him. We are compelled, like his family, to somehow get to what  drives him, and yet we are left understanding many of his choices but never understanding his beautiful, emotional heart.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chrystal. (2004) Ray McKinnon

Southern Gothic for Marriage Nominations.

Raw heartache and traumatized lives are grim reality in this 2004 drama, starring Billy Bob Thornton and the now deceased Lisa Blount. A red dirt scratchwork of southern gothic suspense is the foundation on which the two deliver bold and riveting performances.

Joe (Thornton), involved in a high speed chase by a cop, nervously navigates the back wood Ozark roads with his small boy and wife Chrystal (Blount) at his side. It's hard to know exactly what is his crime (the viewer tends to think there might be quite a few), but this ends in the same sad fashion as many of these types of chases -- Chrystal's neck broken through the windshield, their child gone (presumed dead), and Joe carted off to jail for the next sixteen years.

Over time, Chrystal's mental condition erodes until only a shell of a woman remains. She is promiscuous with teens, can barely string together a sentence, and seems to care very little about moving forward. She always said that Joe was the one with the bad luck, but seeing her so traumatized, unable to find that needed healing, one has to wonder whether the bad luck was actually their bond.

Out of nowhere Joe's out of prison and back home. When she sees him she tells him it's still his place. She hasn't divorced him, there aren't even any papers drawn up, and if he wants her, he can have her, because it's nothing special anymore. She has been broken for so long that if Joe thinks he can find redemption here, he is sadly mistaken. He is a fool.

He finds work as a welder and begins to find a routine, but the past steadily creeps over his shoulder. Years ago he was known for selling the best weed. A local dealer, Snake (in a blitzkrieg performance by director McKinnon) tracks him down and makes a threat: if you intend to sell your stuff, you're selling your stuff through me. Joe has no desire to go back to breaking the law, but he's not going to be thugged around either. Between these two characters follows an incredibly real fist fight, and later one of the goofiest (again: real) shootouts one can fathom.

The film is about trauma, and a need for reconciliation, and it's about heartache and pain and the need for sorrow to just go away. Sometimes with sorrow, it's like: enough is enough. Any way I can get rid of you, even momentarily, sure, I'd be glad to do that. The mystery of their little boy, that child they lost that night in the woods, is a memory that haunts Joe and Chrystal every day. He is gone, and nothing can be done about it, and where he went is a mystery, and yeah Joe -- it's all your fault.

In this hostile, menacing place where only the strong survive and the cops can't be trusted, this feels like Flannery O'Connor, or maybe 2010's Winter's Bone. There are ruthless people to avoid and a harsh wilderness all around -- the ragged setting heaps another layer on Chrystal's misery.

The incredible thing about this mournful little dirge is the symbolic redemption at the end of the misery. It's no happy ending, I'm not sure anyone here will live in happiness again. But a genuine stab at transformation seems to leap like a ghost from the Arkansas woods. And in more than one symbolic gesture we are reminded of why children grip our hearts and touch us so much:

A few quiet scenes of a little girl in the end give us pause at how precious childhood is. When we talk about wishing we were kids again, or think back to a time when things were innocent, we aren't just looking at some kid and hoping for her best, or even watching children's lives hoping they avoid all this pain. We're amazed at the thought of innocence itself, and that to a child, healing can come, and so quickly.

There is something necessary about watching babies and children, about remembering the beauty of inexperience. They remind us of safety, of purity -- of a place we'd like to go back to. They remind us that all is not lost.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

La moustache. (2005) Emmanuel Carrère

Shaving Away at the A&F Nominations.

I first encountered this film three years ago when my ex and I were going through the initial stages of our separation. The film had a profound impact on me, and it has never left my mind. It's a film that could have been a sonnet, might have been a verse from Ecclesiastes, but is anything other than just a story.

When the fine folk at A&F recently began the nominating process for a list that will eventually become our Top 25 films about marriage, this was the only immediate nominee that sprung to my mind out of the thousands I scoured over, from the past ten years of keeping film journals.

I must admit a kind of superiority complex regarding my thoughts about the film, from my recent strolling over at the IMDB message boards. There is nary a thought there in two pages of posting that doesn't want, in some way, to read this film in a literal sense. Whether it's an alternate universe or a dimensional shift, or Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia, people tend to view it as though what they're watching represents reality, albeit a fictionalized form. But if La moustache were a square, it would never really be the square. It would be all of the beautiful space inside and outside the lines of that square.

There is nothing literal about La moustache. It is as figurative as figurative gets. Perhaps a better way to say it is that, like films like Mulholland Dr., or Reconstruction, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is as abstract as abstract gets, at least in its forward, plot-like motion. Its plot certainly references and resembles the real world, and how things work in the real world -- but this is stronger than a linear or a literal story. It's easy to fall into the trap of reading a film about a man who shaves his mustache as only a man who shaves his mustache, but to do so somewhat misses the point. A key to fulfillment with La moustache is seeing it as representational in its plot, and more literal in its themes.

So what are its themes? Loss. Isolation. And our need to be connected and stay true to our vows. The idea that love is a superior force, stronger than the problems it faces and willing to reconnect when the world goes haywire.

When Marc, known for years for sporting his signature mustache, asks his wife what she'd think if he were to shave the thing off, her first tepid thought is that she might not even recognize him. She's only known him for sporting this one particular look. For whatever reason, he immediately shaves it anyway, and when he playfully reveals himself to her she doesn't even notice.

That night at a dinner party, his friends don't see a difference, but in his disappointment he doesn't say a thing. At work the next morning Marc is blown away by his office teams' lack of response. No one is noticing this thing which seems so trivial, but the thought of it scratches at the back of Marc's mind. That night he finally blows up at his wife.

The response he gets from here on out is that he never had a mustache and she has no clue what he is talking about, which sends Marc searching old photo albums and pictures, and on a whirlwind mental ride in which slowly, other things begin disappearing from his life. Friends, family members, the house on the street where he grew up all disappear in the unraveling process. Marc slowly begins to understand that a reconstruction of sorts has begun in his life; that his memory is completely different from all evidence of nearest reality. At this notion, Marc fearfully skips town and country, and looks to separate himself from everything he has ever known.

Agnès, Marc's wife, loves him dearly but is obviously concerned. He is obsessing about his mustache, is making up friends he says they've hung out with, and he can't even remember the death of his dad last year. The unraveling process increases in strength and it's never clear whether Marc, or his wife, or the world at large is to blame. We don't know who misremembers what, even though we do know we saw Marc shave in the first few frames. Things that would once be seen as small problems begin to pile up. The issues take a toll on the once strong relationship.

It's at this point that the mind plays a trick on the viewer. Does this couple love each other? Surely they do. Agnès has heaps of love for Marc and what he is going through. Is what is happening here truly a narrative experience? Surely it isn't, at least not in this viewer's way of thinking. What are the small things that add up that lead us to separating ourselves from our most dearly beloved?

Looking at situations like this in day to day living, it might not be so small: He was unfaithful. She spent too much money. He developed an addiction. She had an illicit affair.

But what about the smaller reasons we forget about? What about the fact that he likes to squeeze the tooth paste, and she likes to roll it up? He leaves the toilet seat up and she leaves the toilet seat down? What about the dirty socks he somehow never gets into the hamper? What about the times when she forgets to feed the cat?

Two people can be in love as well as they can be in blame. And as they grow, their memories and perceptions about themselves and their significant other will differ. La moustache is a film with no real ending, other than to show us that these things can be managed if the two are willing to try. Sure, something as tiny as a missing mustache can be the impetus for leaving a marriage and a home behind, but a need to relate can help overcome some of these problems, and our differences. Relating brings healing from isolation.

La moustache is a very French film. It hails back to a tradition of films that do not care whether their structure is sound at all. In fact, structure might be seen as something conveniently tossed aside in favor of pushing the medium's limits. (Think: Last Year at Marienbad.)

There is a lot at work in this very French film, but to read it as any structure outside of its themes (of loss and change and loyalty and dedication), is to miss its focus entirely. Remember: it's the beautiful spaces inside and outside the lines of that structured square.