Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Descendants

(Alexander Payne, USA, 2011)

After seven years, Alexander Payne has finally come in from the cold. I know I'm not alone in missing him in these intervening years. As wonderful as his contribution to "Paris Je T'aime"was, Payne is one of the few filmmakers that I'd consider "essential" to American cinema, and his proper place, if he doesn't mind me saying so, is working consistently on feature films. So now we have The Descendants, and we're told that more is on the way - that he is eager to make some more movies, and soon - which is great news. If the latest is any indication, he's still as vital as before, if a little rusty; he's also still taking risks.

The Descendants isn't Payne's best film. That remark begs for qualification, because one of the reasons for the "essential director" designation is the fact that even at his worst, Payne is a cut above the rest; at the same time, expectations, especially given seven years to ripen, inevitably become very high. And he mostly meets them. The Descendants has lovely performances from an exquisitely chosen cast (Payne is a maestro with actors), and it has that meticulously controlled tone that Payne is famous for. But it's also here that he falters a little bit. The Descendants is by far his most serious film; it's the first one that's recognizable as primarily a drama, and yet oddly, unlike his more comedic efforts, it doesn't quite pack the same dramatic punch as the previous films. This goes some way in indicating both Payne's strengths and weaknesses. Up until now, you could roughly label his movies Comedies, even though they were, at heart, philosophically serious. This is Payne's trademark - a funny man with serious preoccupations - and he's widely praised for it. But there's an important distinction to observe, and it makes all the difference. His movies aren't comedies with serious parts, or dramas leavened with comedy. His brilliance lies is creating moments, and an underlying mood, that is both sad and funny at the same time. Here's just one example - in Election, the character played by Matthew Broderick cheats on his wife with his neighbor. They're planning on having another assignation, but she doesn't show; defeated and confused, Broderick returns home, only to find his wife and his neighbor in the living room. They've been talking - it's clear in a moment that the neighbor has spilled the beans to his wife - both are red-eyed with anguish, and both stare at him with a terrible stew of pathos - betrayal, rage, injury - that's almost unbearable. Broderick just sort of slowly backs up and quietly intones, almost to himself, "okay...okay...". It's an excruciating moment of almost Sophoclean proportions. His wife is holding their baby when she giving him the how-could-you stare. Everything he knows has just been irrevocably fucked. And even so, it is, on some very proximate level, hilarious. Not that you'd laugh out loud. But funny because it's so awful, so absurd, considering how he anticipated the course of his afternoon. One minute, you're reveling in the carnal glories of small-town America. The next, your marriage is over. Oops.

If you think about it one way, you could see Payne as a prime example of the "smuggler" paradigm, which holds that serious filmmakers make certain concessions - they hew to a genre convention of some kind - in order to surreptitiously bring in certain ideas, tropes, etc. that otherwise wouldn't be acceptable in the high-stakes realm of mainstream movies.  There's some pretty clear limits to this metaphor, obviously, but it's useful as far as it goes. With Payne, it's less about any ideas as it is about emotions, and their messiness. What his movies are after, it looks like to me, is dealing with the fucked-upness of life in a way that honors life's complexity, rather than denying it. They are, at heart,  films about failure (and he's said as much in interviews). Failure, of course, is an unacceptable topic for mainstream films. You can make a film in which people fail, but you must offer some kind of antidote; it must always be risen above. In Payne's movies, that doesn't happen. They fail, and they fail hard. Think About Schmidt, which deserves massive credit for successfully humbling one of the the most virile presences in American cinema.  Here, Nicholson is a doddering retiree who loses the one person in the world who can really stand him, and then, in an attempt to reclaim his past, he tries to break up his daughter's marriage to a nimrod, a task at which he fails. Broderick in Election; another nebbish, another failure. You get the picture. And yet they aren't depressing movies; they don't linger on the failures they depict. And here's where Payne is really sneaky - he does offer redemption, just not the kind we've come to expect. Rather than giving us the event of redemption, or recovery, or correction, he gives us the feeling of it. Instead of showing us the girl and guy finally getting together, he implies that even if they never do, something survives that moment. That we do not struggle, and fail, in vain. It's really not that complicated, but I suspect it is exceedingly difficult to pull off - to uplift our spirits, even as our minds perceive things not working out. Hidden beneath the characters' mistakes is the long march of persistence. That's the secret message of Payne's oeuvre - life goes on. Stated plainly, it barely rises above platitude. But expressed artfully it takes on a certain emotional authority. It tugs on our heartstrings, it lifts our spirits, it sweeps clean, for some fleeting time, our disordered minds.

The Descendants isn't an exception to this, but it doesn't quite reach the same depths as Payne's other movies. I'm not sure why this is, but I have a theory: Payne's films succeed through the manipulation of a dynamic. This dynamic, unlike the oft-observed admixture of funny and sad, has to do with outlook, has to do with the previously stated "life goes on." Payne, through his movies, strikes me as kind of a pessimist in the classic sense, meaning a frustrated optimist. He's someone who wants to believe in the good things we all secretly hope for - that people can change, that life has meaning, that there is enough goodness in the species to justify its continued existence. But, burned as we've all been by evidence to the contrary, he couches such optimism (or hope, if you like) in cynicism. Except that it's not a protective stance, since it's expressed as humor - it manages to sublimate the smallness of the characters, their venality, because we laugh at it. Laughter strips the moment of its bitterness, and leaves behind the humanity.

Here, without as much recourse to the exhaust valve of flippancy, Payne gets serious. In this seriousness, he is at a slight disadvantage, since he isn't used to getting the same kind of mileage out of his cries as out of his smiles. He has to address the awful heaviness of the subject matter straight on, and his uninflected style doesn't quite do him the favor he needs. This isn't all that surprising, since the weakest moments of his previous films had to do with their more direct tackling of the upbeat - vide the coda of About Schmidt, which is just a bit too tidy to resonate as strongly as it needs to. After all the scenes of George Clooney dealing with his wife's death - before and after the actual event - there is a quietness that smacks of uncertainty. It's a director a little outside of his comfort zone, and it shows. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In many ways, Sideways, his last picture, was an apotheosis; it was the comedy of that historical moment, hitting almost every beat just right. It felt like the end of something, a farewell to the sunny days and hysteria of an America trying to dig itself out of post-9/11 despair. It was the moment we loosened up a little, before the wicked hangover of the Economy Meltdown really hit. Now, we have grief, we have death, and with it a chance at starting over. This has been a pretty damn good year for movies, and Payne's film seems like an appropriate marker, signalling new territory to be explored. Life is still going on.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


(Bruno Dumont, France, 2010)

A surprising turn for Dumont, in the sense that it at least feels more subtle, tender, and even-tempered than his previous films. For all the heartfelt sincerity of his work, he has been at least equally interested in provoking his audience, daring us to look away, to reject his seriousness. This double-edged sword is what fascinates me about Dumont - his moral gravity is inspiring, especially in light of frequently oblique and skeptical attitudes among artists in all mediums, but he has an undeniable streak of the bad-boy artiste that seems deliberately repellent.

So I'm not sure how I feel about this latest, mild-mannered version of Dumont.   I like that he's being totally upfront about investigating the varieties of religious experience, from the vicious to the sublime, but I found myself only half-invested for much of the movie. It opens magnificently; Julie Sokolokowsi is fantastic from the first frame, and the early scenes in and out of the convent work especially well. But once we are introduced to Yassir's brother, who is swiftly revealed as a jihad-wager, things become overly schematic. Celine's "conversion" from gentle-if-overly-ardent novice to willing terrorist is done at the drop of a hat, seemingly, and it doesn't convince. The subtext is clear enough - we overhear, in Celine/Hadewijch's prayers, remarks on God's love being "violent," and other ruminations on the ambiguity of faith. Dumont is concerned with the mercurial nature of religion, in which a philosophy of love can so easily degenerate into a monstrous doctrine of hatred, and Celine/Hadewijch is his test case. But in refusing to delve into the messy and (and mostly passe) world of psychological realism, he leaves the audience no way to access Celine's inner life. In Bresson (an obvious touchstone of Dumont's), who was ever rigorous in his minimalism, this wasn't much of an issue. I actually like that Dumont lets his characters appear more tangibly human - for me, paving this middle path between Bressonian minimalism and more traditional storytelling was one of the things that made his first two features so exciting. Hadewijch shows even more progress toward the dramatic, but in too many instances, the director seems to hesitate. It's as if he wants us to empathize with Celine, but also consider her as a metaphysical idea - an avatar of pure religious devotion. Unfortunately, these two impulses don't easily coexist, at least not in this film. We either encounter her as a poorly-written dramatic "character" or as an amorphous religious conceit. Clearly, Dumont is interested in illustrating her humanity - why else would he cast a girl who is so naturally talented at being on camera? Unlike some of his previous protagonists - Pharoan in l'Humanite, or the menacing lug in Flanders, who were cut from similar cloth to Bresson's impassive and statuesque "subjects," Celine is delightfully alive. She's quiet but intense, vulnerable yet strong, a fairly typical teenage girl (which is to say, complexly immature) who just happens to prefer Jesus to other boys. So when we see her recede from rationality into full-blown fanaticism, it doesn't wash. To be fair, the challenge Dumont tackled is a massive one - how do you depict the appeal of fanaticism? How does one persuasively argue for acts of violence that will harm the innocent? Of course, we're all capable of imagining the conditions that produce many terrorists - poverty, repression, lack of education, violence - but Dumont makes it abundantly clear that he isn't interested in sociological explanations. Celine has everything - she's the daughter of a wealthy and powerful man - and she still decides to become a killer. The point is pretty clear - the origins of evil are deep, mysterious, and intermingled with the origins of love. They might even be the same thing. That's a subtle and fascinating idea, but Dumont doesn't effectively dramatize it. He instead reverts to his native minimalism, preventing Celine's character from developing, while the audience is left cold.

It's still the case that nobody casts non-actors like Dumont, and that nobody can spot a compelling face like Dumont; but compelling faces alone can't carry a film. This latest work shows an increased emphasis on straightforward storytelling, a form that Dumont isn't entirely comfortable with - at least not yet. It's hard to tell if Hadewijch is a spiritual film infused with secular skepticism, or a secular film with spiritual yearnings. Either way, the inherent tension is fitful at best. I will admit to being pleasantly surprised by the final action of the film, although it didn't resonate the way Dumont's previous conclusions tended to - it's a nice, effective set piece that casts the preceding events in the glow of a religious parable, but it can't make up for the film's shortcomings. Overall, Hadewijch is worth seeing, but it doesn't match the unsettling power achieved by some Dumont's previous efforts.