Sunday, April 28, 2013

À Nos Amours

(Maurice Pialat, France, 1983)

My first Pialat film, and I was hooked from the first shot.  Meticulously observed, fiercely emotional, naturalistic but with a strong, almost instinctual sense of form.  You can see Pialat's roots as a painter, just as you can see his sense of liberation in the possibilities of cinema.  It's a terse, personal work, full of piss and vinegar, just like the man evidently was.  At times a bit too much piss and vinegar, I might add.  What is it about the French, that they seem to have made casual cruelty into a kind of performance art?  You see this in film after film.  People - and not just strangers, but intimates, lovers, family members -  say and do all kinds of horrible things to each other, and then either shrug it off or pretend it never happened.  It's enough to make one think that there was never a happy French family, one in which the women weren't long-suffering harpies and shrews, or where the men weren't taciturn, colossally narcissistic assholes.

But the film's counterweight to its ample familial misery is contained in the delicate, even slightly swoony depiction of Sandrine Bonnaire as Suzanne, the sexually voracious and eminently confused young protagonist.  Suzanne's plight is simple enough, but it's revealed with great subtlety by Pialat (who also stars as the girl's narcissistic asshole Dad).  Her emotional needs totally abandoned by her dysfunctional family, she hooks up with a whole slew of French dudes (and one ratty American), most of whom are as uninterested in her as she is in them.  As we soon discover, the only person she loves is her father, who has established with finality her archetypal paramour - infrequently affectionate, mostly absent, occasionally vicious, and emotionally remote. 

Bonnaire's performance is a pitch-perfect depiction of a troubled teen, and Pialat captures her interactions with effortless grace.  His camera is agile and at times even elegant, casting the same tearless eye on both the breezy seductions and the terrible discord.  It's mostly handheld, but it keeps a consistent sense of space.  Pialat understands, and God bless him for it, that the handheld style should be as rigorous and considered as any other.  He doesn't abuse the jump cut or the motility of his camera, and he has a sensitive eye for light and color.  But the performances are his main focus, and he orchestrates some truly terrific (and terrifying) ones from his talented cast.  It's a fascinating and inspiring new dimension of filmmaking that I'm lucky to have discovered.


(Steven Spielberg, USA, 2012)

I'm a little unsure as to how to respond to Lincoln.  On the one hand, it's a great story told extraordinarily well.  Kushner's script is a thing of beauty, and Spielberg stays faithful to its acute emotional power and brilliant craft.  The cast is wonderful, from the masterful DDL on down the line.  Everyone involved with the making of the film seems sufficiently enthralled and reverent of the subject matter.  It's an unselfish movie, taking inspiration from its subject's mythical status:  possessed of noble, lofty goals and possessing a saving, humanizing sense of humor.

On the other hand, Lincoln suffers many of the pitfalls of historical mythologizing: Abraham Lincoln as America's preeminent secular saint.  As it must, it attempts to deal with the great and terrible question of slavery, the essential conundrum and crime of American society.  But like Django Unchained, it doesn't fully reconcile itself to that fact.  Tarantino's movie misses the point by being fatuous about atrocities, and Spielberg's by his tendency towards sentimentality and myth-making.

It's true that this tendency is mostly kept in check by the integrity of Kushner's rigorously researched and deeply sensitive script.  Lincoln the character is portrayed as a complex, wounded, and often uncertain man, certainly exceptional, but limited by his times and by his own troubled humanity.  But Spielberg can't help himself from getting schematic with his storytelling, bullet-pointing the major emotional and moral beats.  Don't get me wrong - nobody bullet-points as gracefully and effectively as Spielberg.  But at the end of the day, it's still a less-than-inspired way to tell the story.

 The best scene of the film (and it is a film of many great scenes) comes towards the end, when Lincoln has a one-on-one with Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who has become a successful business woman.  Keckley makes the point that even for many anti-slavery partisans in the North, the population of American blacks, slave or free, are mostly unwanted.  Lincoln concedes that this is so, and Keckley asks if Lincoln himself wants "them."  His answer is a perfect encapsulation of the character.  He seems to want to evade her question, responding that he doesn't know "any of you, really" - a humble admission that is also a sly dodge, and a kind of misdirection.  As to what will come next, after freedom, he admits to not knowing, any more than she does, and wonders what black people will "be to the Nation."  Keckley accepts this, more or less, but also tells Lincoln that her son died fighting for the Union, and by extension freedom, and freedom must be a precondition for any further ideas of what society may be beyond emancipation.  Lincoln says that he "reckons he'll get used to you" - again revealing someone who himself is far from saintly, and who recognizes that allegiance to reason and certain ideals is what can save people from themselves, and perhaps save society too.  This is the crucial insight of the movie - Lincoln didn't always know what was best, or what was right, but he was willing to listen and reason.  The overall picture that emerges is too pure and righteous by half, but it is in moments like this that the details of life manage to give lie to the myth of Lincoln, and through art, reveal something more. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Django Unchained

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012)

Tarantino's latest is furiously empty.  What is ailing Quentin?  Django Unchained's best moments are comedic; while the man himself is almost painfully ungraceful on-camera (which hasn't stopped him from making his numerous cameo appearances), Tarantino is expert in directing comedy, and in writing it.  He not only knows how to cast actors in roles that will highlight their comedic skills, his greatest cinematic talent is as an observer of the offhand, the humorous, and the stylishly idiosyncratic in human interaction.

I've long believed that one of the signal joys of cinema is in the ability to observe this kind of behavior - of people being people.  Theater is naturally more artificial and more immediately physical, features that the best dramaturgs have always used to their advantage.  But in cinema, the audience and the stage are made invisible, the camera and the cut allows the director to manipulate time and space, and the living action of the mind and body become available to see and enjoy in literal and metaphorical close-up. Tarantino is a filmmaker who understands this capability of cinema, this magic.

But Tarantino has devolved into a willfully adolescent filmmaker.   Visually, his films have become increasingly lazy and uninspired; Django Unchained evinces this most starkly.  His writing has become fatuous and meandering.  The story behind the film is yet another rote revenge fantasy, and its pursued by Tarantino with only a modicum of interest and vigor.  Clearly, the man is more fond of writing pithy dialogue and having his excellent performers deliver it.  The characters here are present enough, but again Tarantino seems uninterested; only Dr. King Schultz (played with effortless élan by the wonderful Christoph Waltz) has some sense of personal history and emotional depth.  Even so, his very European insistence upon honor - which leads to his downfall - comes across as mere fastidiousness, given the moral compromises he has made so far.

As a filmmaker, Tarantino has always been a bit more hype than substance, but at his best, he can be a storyteller of significant wit and perceptiveness.  His formula has always been that of old-fashioned storytelling virtues combined with a modish flair for kitsch.  His taste for the lurid and the puerile are part of his charm, but lately he's been relying too heavily on them.  The creeping tendency to tell his stories "bigger," has resulted in movies that are either bloated curios (the Kill Bill films) or embarrassingly glib historical mashups (Inglourious Basterds and this one.)

Tarantino's range of influences and references is wide, but it's a mistake to confuse that with his aesthetic range as an artist.  His best work focuses on small-scale human interaction that is occasionally interrupted by terrible, weird violence.  He has no sense of historical scale or gravity; in Django Unchained, he does a pastiche of historical grandiosity that doesn't know it's a pastiche.  People who say that this film is "brave" or whatever because its Dealing With Slavery are being silly or are actually ignorant.  While it's true that Tarantino does effectively portray the depravity and viciousness of slavery and the ridiculousness of the culture that fostered it, he ultimately belittles it, robs it of its complexity and its power.  The slavers in Django are uniformly absurd and awful creatures.  Most of them are quaintly stupid.  We see nothing of the banality of this particular and essential American evil, the overt and subtle ways in which the "peculiar institution" was reinforced economically, politically, religiously - in a word, culturally.  Granted, that might not fit in the mode in which Tarantino is working, but that's not a reason to let him off the hook. 

I'm going to sidestep the other glaring issue with Tarantino, namely his gleeful reveling in extreme violence, because for me, that aspect of the movie had been sufficiently built up that I wasn't too surprised or affected by it.  I suppose I'm sympathetic with the position that Tarantino's violence (especially in these last two films) is often so cartoonish that its visceral effect is diminished.   The more "serious" violence, or the "bad" violence, if you will (and this is distinguished from the righteous, vengeance-based violence) - the stuff Tarantino clearly wants us to know he disapproves of - is shown as being repulsive and cruel.  Whether or not this is ethically sound is a can of worms that I'm not going to open up here, but I will say this:  it doesn't do the experience of the film any favors. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967)

Another foray into the inimitable world of JLG.   As per usual, the experience is a mixed bag: flashes of greatness amid turgid longueurs.  While I don't doubt JLG's brilliance, I'm not as dazzled by it at as the man himself evidently is.  There has never been a cinematic genius as omnivorous or as preening as Godard.  Watching his movies can bore you to tears, blow your mind, and leave you fighting for air.  He ingratiates himself at every opportunity, and not just his voice, but him - this slightly disheveled, maniacally intense, chain-smoking-sunglasses-wearing Frenchman -  and it can be positively creepy.  He can be like a child, tugging at your pant cuffs for attention, or a like a pretentious older brother, pontificating about things you've never heard of.  A great connoisseur of beauty, Godard is an expert seducer, but he is also part of the long, sorry history of French "theory" - the postwar literary/philosophical tendency towards politically murky, irrational, obfuscatory rhetoric.  He fits strikingly well as the cinematic avatar for the peculiarly French phenomenon of the Rock Star Philosopher.   Granted, he's much better than the rest of them, and very much his own creature.  But he is as much a product of his culture as he is a self-conscious creator of it, and sometimes, in the pilings-on of quotations, digressions, and diagetic disruptions, one can see, through the cracks, an ugly penchant for intellectual posturing.

Note that I'm not making the simplistic critique of JLG as the chilly intellectual, lecturing us mere mortals from his ivory tower of cinema.  There is plenty of feeling is Godard's films, once you start figuring out where to look for it.  And he does rather forcibly declare his views, but it is always far too personal to fit the bill of a "lecture."  Godard is never interested in instruction - he is always interested in expression.  He is a collagist, or, if you like, a precursor of remix culture.  His curiosity is encouragingly catholic, at times even un-discerning in its range.  Depicting the rot of French intellectual culture is yet another manifestation of a man who makes himself transparent through his work.  Godard, like any good artist, is a sponge, and his super-absorbency means that we're going to get a particularly close view of the culture from which he's expressing himself, warts and all.  If the experience drags - and man, how it can drag - it usually isn't too long before he quits vamping and finds something else of interest to train his camera-eye on.  A Godard film is like improv theater.  Making it up as he goes is part of the thrill.

And then there's the anger.  2 or 3 Things is a breathtakingly anguished film; at times, it seems as though the director is running entirely on spite.  His view of modern society is delightfully acerbic, and he manages to save it, somehow, from outright cynicism.  My impression is that Godard is far too restless to settle into the stasis of cynicism; his camera, like his mind, and always looking for the next topic, the next avenue of inquiry.  In this film, he hits blind alley after blind alley, finding despair in almost every instance of modern life.  The horrors of imperial war are being played out on the radio and in magazines.  People everywhere are accepting with apparent indifference the predations of high capitalism: low wages, shitty housing, endless advertisements, and the overwhelming grind of dehumanization through consumerism.  JLG seems particularly obsessed with this theme - the way in which people are made into objects.   It keeps coming up in the film, especially relating to women.  Secretaries, whores, housewives, retail clerks - and these are the ones lucky enough to have jobs, and thus purchasing power, and thus identities.  Is what JLG seems to be saying.

Of course, it's more than a socio-political critique.  It doesn't take long before JLG goes cosmic, in the films probably most memorable scene, a series of philosophical ruminations play out over an extreme close-up on a cup of coffee.  We watch as the swirling bubbles form galaxies, and listen to the anguished, hushed whispers on the soundtrack.  Something about identity, words, existence, and so forth.  The image is stunning, and the words are pretty banal - but they are earnest.   To me, the ruminations on language are the most threadbare moments in the film, and they become a nuisance pretty quickly.  On one level, this a byproduct of not knowing French, and having to read these dense little packets of words while watching the images (which are usually excellent) is a chore.  Perhaps if I understood the words as I heard them, it would be a different story.  And it's not as though every phrase needs to be individually untangled and understood - they can only work as an auxiliary to the tapestry of image and sound that are the primary focus of Godard's vision. To me, they seem to function best on the level of texture.  Part of the experience of any Godard film is a willingness to sift through the ephemera; it's a fool's errand to expect every piece to add up to the whole, especially on a first viewing.  If you don't take well to the ample sprinklings of hardcore semiotics or philosophy of language, just leave it alone.  Concentrate on the images and you'll have no less rich an experience.  Godard's movies are eminently well-served by the era of digital video - repeat, rewind, re-view at your leisure.  And for all of the philosophical (and pseudo-philosophical) density, it's not as if the man is incapable of being lucid, and even poetic.  See the sequence at the garage, where we hear on the soundtrack, over a string of glittering images: "I'm seeking a world where men and things live in harmony - such is my aim.  It is as political as it is poetic.  In any case, it explains this longing for expression."  Indeed it does, about as well as it explains his sorrow, his anger, and his fortitude. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

To The Wonder

(Terrence Malick, USA, 2013)

Don't anybody knock this era of cinema to me.  Who could be so ungrateful as to proclaim that cinema is dead, or dying, or in grave trouble, when, in the course of two years, we've seen two new Terrence Malick movies (with at least two more on the way, and soon)?  Love them or hate them, they are undeniably radical films.  Malick is one of the truly great contemporary filmmakers, one whose canonical reputation can be observed as it is being written.  What other American artist in big-budget film is as protean, as unyieldingly and hungrily evolving?  Who else thinks so deeply into the formal foundations of the medium?  Who else as relentlessly idiosyncratic?  There are other ways to innovate, of course, and other radical works that don't announce themselves so insistently, than the seismic upheavals that Malick has now made his bailiwick.  But currently there is no other American film artist as committed to reinvention, as passionate in his discovery of his own vision, and as sincere in his conveying that vision to audiences.

Cinema is our newest art form, and the one that's most reliant upon technology.  We hear about this all the time.  We also hear about cinema's baptism into the world of commerce, how it was born in the arcades, the perfect experience-as-commodity.  But less commented upon, although it goes part in parcel with the other two descriptors, is how cinema was born in the age of democracy.  Deep into that age, as a matter of fact; and it's flourishing and still-evolving understanding of film, with its potential as high art and universally accessible experience, illustrates that fact.  Art civilizes - I choose to believe this.  And the expansion of cinema into all realms, and cultures, as readily available and constantly changing, gives me all the evidence I need.  Art doesn't only civilize, of course, and it isn't sufficient to civilize; but when it offers up a vision of the world that is complete and recklessly alive, sensitive to culture and personal experience both, it shows us that there is something worth preserving, something worth furthering, in human society. 

So yes, I loved To the Wonder.   While no less radical than Malick's previous opus, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a more intimate and a more cohesive work. Where the former film was, at times, teetering under its own sense of scale and majesty, this film finds Malick less conceptual and more intuitive.  Part of the thrill of watching the movie is witnessing Malick discover a new language; like a great Impressionist painting, it serves as a record of both the events depicted and its own creation.  Every cut is felt, every scene has the traces of a thing newly discovered.  Much has been written about the quality of the light; the way that Malick (with indispensable assistance from Emmanuel Lubezki) seems uncannily sensitive to light and color, composing his film as if from notes in a musical score, or, of course, like painting.   Here, the light works both within the universe of the characters and on the level of metaphor.  Besides the contrasts between urban and rural light, and between northern France and Oklahoma, the light becomes a marker of perpetual and universal change, always fading and rising.  It's always in some kind of motion.  It isn't too much to say that the light not only suggests God, but is God - it's everywhere, illuminating everything, but invisible.

But there is also a palpable, sculptural quality to Malick's style, and it's nowhere more prevalent than in this latest film.  With the camera, Malick shapes a world not only of glittering surfaces and refractions, but a space, a physical presence.  I can think of no other films that manages to convey the distinct architecture of a room, be it a sparsely furnished kitchen or the nave of a cathedral.  He even manages to give a sense of scale to the limitless: when the characters reach skyward, you can almost feel the distance.  I'm not sure how Malick and Lubezki accomplish this, but it has something to do with the motion of the camera.  Through his instinctual, graceful movement of the camera, Lubezki makes motion palpable, tilting and swooping with the objects, drawing the audience into their motion.   The unconventionality of this approach is stunning, when it gets you: rather than a window into space, Lubezski's camera moves space itself.  It doesn't just direct our gaze, it sweeps our gaze along with it. 

Leaving the theater, I felt like I did after viewing Tree of Life for the first time, lighter somehow.  Riding my bike back from the theater, I was in a Terrence Malick movie, extra-attuned to the sounds and sights, the color of the leaves, the song of birds.  This feeling lingers and then fades, but it's a contemplative place that I seek out often enough in my own life, and to have it corroborated, aesthetically, always feels miraculous to me.  And it's not a philosophical or religious sensation, exactly; it's much to elemental for that.  Malick, for all of his great erudition moral seriousness, retains a sense of wonder that can only be called childlike.  You can see how he's inspired by the playing of children, how the adults in his movies seem most free when they laugh and clown and gambol like little kids.  Others have commented upon the dance-like quality of the physical action in To the Wonder, but it has to be noted that this is like the dancing of youngsters: loopy, joyful abandon.

As ever, there is little room for psychology in Malick's work.  But I wonder if this assessment, which seems at times to be a truism, misses something that's being accomplished.  It's true that Malick will often use his actors for their ability to portray a type.  It's not symbolism, exactly, but it does consistently hint at something greater than the individual lives of the characters.  And Malick is very earnestly committed to a visual language that relies upon what could be deemed symbols (as an example from this film, the shot of the roaring, tumultuous waters that precedes Marina's assignation with the carpenter.)  But symbols and archetypes don't begin to encompass the effect of these images, and their contrapuntal relationship to each other.   In To the Wonder, Malick has gone deeper into the lives of his characters than ever before, made all the more remarkable by his discarding most dialogue, or even what's thought of as conventional acting.  People who criticize Affleck's performance do so because they're seeking a "performance;" something discrete from the overall composition of the film.  There is no action in the film that isn't furthered, echoed, or elaborated by the other elements - the set design, the camerawork.   This is true, to varying degrees, in any good film, of course, but nobody I'm aware of (at least in the realm of "feature" filmmaking) has taken it to such an extent as Malick.  In Affleck's impressively subtle action, every glance, every movement, becomes loaded with emotion and potential meaning; he's the picture of an emotionally reticent person.  What he seeks in the free-spirited Marina (and later, in Rachel McAdam's character) is that complimentary side of existence, that which is visibly, palpably unbound in emotion.  While representative of very familiar modes of behavior, they are nonetheless very specific people.  Affleck's sense of the world is grounded in abstract knowledge, in direct communication, as when he tells Marina's daughter, Tatiana, about the reflection of the Earth on the evening horizon.  But he delegates his emotions, relying upon Olga Kurlyenko's character to experience the world, on an emotional level, for the both of them.   At a certain point in the film, it really came home to me that these are unhappy people; for all of the exaltation of the imagery, which frequently border on the ecstatic, the main characters are often very sad.  The question that keeps being asked, by the characters and by the movie, is: Why doesn't joy stick around? 

But all of this still doesn't capture the way in which Malick manages to infuse the everyday with the cosmic.  How he manages to approach things with a documentarian's eye and the heart of a poet.   I'm trying to figure out a working description  of Malick's style.  It's blissful naturalism combines with a painterly approach to metaphor, if that makes any sense.  It roots the grand gestures of the poet in the here and now of the political, historical, moment:  This is what makes this film such a leap forward.  I'm thinking of the many interior scenes in which Neil and Marina's Oklahoma house appears barely furnished.  On the one hand, it locates the characters very specifically; they are un-rooted, always in a state of settling in, never fully unpacked, never really home.  On the other hand, it touches upon the fickle nature of love and existence; everything is transient, everything is changing.  How do we keep up? 

And then there's all of the nonprofessionals featured.  (I'm getting back to that previous tangent about democracy).  Far be it from me to weigh down a film as airy as To the Wonder with something as crass as a political reading, but the images are there; they can't be ignored.  It's hard to miss that contained within To the Wonder is a kind of call to arms.  The world he depicts is deeply riven; crumbling, corrupt, poisonous.  Community seems only to exist as a shadow.  Were this just another metaphor, it would be an unbecoming, opportunistic one indeed.  But the lines of Malick's vision run both ways; the poisoned groundwater is our despair of ever holding on to love, and our despair is the poisoned groundwater.  I mean this literally, and I think Malick does as well.  There are direct, physical connections between our current deficit of what used to be called "community spirit" and the deep crisis in our local (and global) environment.  The resolution that the film offers, hints at (and it does this in no uncertain terms) is one of love, in a distinctly spiritual sense - which is to say, a love that both encompasses and transcends romantic love.  There is no love between people that is not attached, in some fundamental way, to love for the world.  Love is everywhere; it's like light.  Use it for illumination, use it to build up your life.  But you can't have it without also having everything else. 

The Great Gatsby

(Jack Clayton, USA, 1974)

How did Clayton get it so wrong?  In what should have been a slam dunk, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, based on one of the greatest - and most cinematic - stories in American literature, the British-born director snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  '74's Gatsby is a prettified slog.  The few felicitous shots and moments that it accomplishes feel accidental, as if Clayton were the proverbial busted clock that's right every 12 hours.  And that may be too generous.  At least Redford is well cast, although he's still Redford; there's only so much wattage he can get out of his Midwestern/patrician good looks and easy charm; the rest must fall to the director, who proves himself, in scene after scene, to be over-matched by the source material.  For that matter, the rest of the cast makes sense as well, but, like Redford, they're all dressed up with nowhere to go.   The movie appears as a sort of blueprint; you can see what it's supposed to do, from a schematic standpoint, but it remains provisional and monochromatic. 

What's frustrating is that Clayton does evince some understanding of the story; he gets some of what Fitzgerald was writing about, and some is certainly better than nothing at all.  But his understanding is just that - the kind of knowledge that can lead one to summarize the plot, make easy judgements about the characters, but remain disinterested, even, God forbid, professional.  As a visual stylist, he's clumsy and uninspired, full of ideas about where to place the camera, but they're all wrong, not least because they're completely impersonal.  It's tempting to think that the book, for all of it's glorious imagery and lapidary, often funny dialogue, is actually an unfilmmable novel in disguise as a "cinematic" one.  And a pretty good case can be made; it's reliance on narration, its exposition-y stretches and fierce interiority, its ethereal hovering between moods, accomplished so deftly with language.  But I don't buy it.  These are technical issues, wholly subordinate to questions of inspiration.  Gatsby the book is great because it does what all great art does: it creates a world effortlessly, organically, that seems both autonomous and absolutely conditional.   What it's conditional on is the consciousness that created it, and the miracle of possessing a consciousness that can experience, so directly, a spark from another soul.  It refreshes the world.  The right path for any director to take would've been to honor their own resonances and emotions regarding those sensations, but Clayton fumbles the whole thing by his fidelity to the Importance of the novel.  Like many other would-be artists before him, he serves the wrong master.  In adapting the book, he treated it as an object, not an experience.

And so we have this starchy, dead thing.  On the one hand, it's a shame, since there's a great film to be made there, and the 70s was the era for this kind of ambitious, high-minded project to work.   Coppola himself might have done it as director, but I'm tickled by the idea that the perfect man for the job would have been Cimino.  There was someone who at his height possessed both the appetite for greatness and the wild, impetuous ambition to make it completely his own. But on the other hand, it works rather well as a cautionary tale.  In the meantime, we'll have to be wary of Baz Luhrman's chintzy jive.  It's very possible that he'll screw it up in an entirely different way.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Earrings of Madame de...

(Max Ophüls, France/Italy, 1951)

My first Ophüls, and yes, I am ashamed that it's taken me this long.  His reputation as a master of the moving camera is, of course, entirely just, and the primary pleasure of this film is in its lush, fluid surfaces.  After the beauty of the visuals, what impressed me most were the uniformly excellent performances, especially the three leads: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica. 

It's a whirlwind romance of a film, starting off confection-sweet and ending surprisingly sour.  This transition, notable as an example of Opüls' directorial craft, is accomplished with aplomb, subtly but effectively shifting from the lighthearted (and often very funny) moments of the introduction to the stately tragedy of the finale.  It's a mannered film, though, fastidiously elegant, and it never really relinquishes its sense of charm and propriety.  There's no madness, no threat of emotions bursting from  the frame; it's a classical piece, not wanting for emotion but evoking it through the perfection of technical elements.  I guess I mean that while the subject of the film is the fickle and irresistible hand of fate, the form remains controlled and slightly elevated; above the fray of the character's messy, unpredictable emotions.

Even so, it's the handling of the mood, and the perfect showcasing of the actors, that keeps the film working, and that showcases the astounding authorial control of Ophüls.  Naturalistic moments of grace occur with regularity; there's a comfort to the performers, a joy in their expression and their craft, that's echoed by Ophüls own palpable joy in the glittering, ornate sets and costumes, and of course, the sinuous, roving camera, unspooling like a velvet ribbon (or a strip of film) from joy to sadness, from frivolity to gravitas.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


(David Cronenberg, Canada, 2012)

A disappointment from Cronenberg, whom I admire, but who lately hasn't been of much interest to me.  I've always run hot and cold on his films, which can madden and inspire in equal measure.  His singularity of vision is nothing if not admirable, but it can also make for a hermetic and chilly experience; Cronenberg is at times a bit too self-amused and cool for my taste.  At his best, he achieves a quietly powerful poetry of luridness and obsession - the work of an intellectual and analytical filmmaker who also revels in the tangibility and grotesque comedy of human fallibilty.

But Cosmopolis is a wash; pseudo-intellectual claptrap that boils down to fairly tame platitudes about wealth creating abstraction and failing to provide for intimate connection.  Mostly, I blame DeLillo, but Cronenberg deserves some knocks for going along with the whole silly enterprise.  A few times, the exaggerated flatness of the whole thing becomes eerily effective, such as the long take where Pattinson's character surveys the dance floor, or in the theater-of-the-absurd exchange in the barbarshop.  And when Giamatti finally shows up, his sweating, manic performance plays pretty nicely off of Pattinson's reptilian mannerisms, creating a scene that approximates the mood and idea, if only fleetingly and weakly, what the whole thing could have been.