Saturday, October 18, 2014

Recently Viewed

La BĂȘte Humaine - (Jean Renoir, France, 1938)

More catching up with Papa Renoir.  A striking, powerful variation on several noir themes (the femme fatale, the twinning of adultery and murder, and more broadly, sex and violence, skepticism if not dread of modernity and industrialization, etc.) Elegant, yet simmering with appropriately animalistic menace.  The scene in which Jean Gabin's Jacques encounters Blanchette Brunoy's Flore, after she has just shoved an ogling farmboy into the river, is mastery exemplified.   The scene starts out bucolic, with a healthy dash of pastoral eroticism, and then moves into surprisingly dark, violent territory, as Jacques, seized with a mysterious "fit" that seems to fuse lust and murderous aggression, nearly strangles the young woman, only stopping when he's brought to his senses by the rush of the oncoming train, which passes by only feet away from where he is attacking Flore.  Jacques as the tragedy of modern man: alienated from humanity, he retreats to the impersonal din and granduer of industry.  His love for trains as a way to bind his murderous energies to something that can resist or subsume them.   Also contains some of Renoir's incisive commentary on social mores, and some fantastic views of the Gare St. Lazare, including one that could be Manet's view from his studio at the time of his painting Le Chemin de Fer. 

Bob le Flambeur - (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1956)

Delicious stuff.  Perfectly atmospheric, combining postwar anxieties and nostalgia with crackerjack plotting and swift, sharp characterizations.  Breezy fun that still has serious heft.  Glad I finally caught this classic.  The introduction, from the gritty streets of Montmarte at dawn, to the introduction to Bob, as panache personified, even sleep-deprived in his seedy, checkered lair of iniquity, is simply sublime. 

Monsieur Verdoux - (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1947)

Chaplin can do no wrong.  Hilarious, deft, his performance as dextrous as his handling of the story, which manages to remain piquant despite its sordid subject matter, until Chaplin reveals his political hand, at which point, the mood gets surprisingly grave, and we find ourselves in an odd parable about human depravity.  While the concluding portion of the film could be critiqued for being heavy-handed, it's elevated by the brilliant nuance Chaplin brings to his portrayal of Verdoux, who, despite being a wholly self-righteous serial killer, seems also to be one of the few civilized men left in Europe.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl

(David Fincher, USA, 2014)

A marvelously nasty piece of work.  It flirts shamelessly with pulpy nihilism but is ultimately much too fun to be bleak.  As for its treatment of male-female relationships, it's neither insightful nor shocking, mostly because its analytical interests lie elsewhere.  First and foremost, Fincher's latest is a thriller.  And it delivers thrills and chills aplenty; I can't remember the last time I was so deeply engrossed in the plot of a film, practically squirming in anticipation of the next beat, no matter how silly or bizarre it might be.  In the grand tradition of Hitchcock, Fincher not only dispenses with plausibility but actively ridicules those who would seek it.  Gone Girl is, at its most sociological, a dark mirror reflecting a culture that is so awash in superficiality that it no longer cares if the lies its being fed are persuasive.

We shouldn't make too much of this, though.  Although Gone Girl has some acute observations about life and love in 2014 Amerika, they exist mostly in the background of the action, which is both insane and compulsively watchable.   The most trenchant stuff lies on the margins, like the haunting scene where the cops descend into the Stygian remains of what appears to be a shopping center. Occasional glimpses of this blight intrude on the green-lawned development of McMansions where Nick and Amy live.  This is one of the best jokes of the film; for Nick and Amy, the worst crisis in their life is losing their brownstone and gaining a massive, airy house in a quiet suburb.  What used to be a prototype for the American dream has become, for these two self-involved drips, slumming it.  Far more extreme suffering exists all around them, but it barely intrudes on their consciousness.  Nick is vaguely aware that there is a "homeless problem," apparently because some of the untouchables have been appearing in their manicured neighborhood.  Maybe one of these specters made off with Amy.  That's the best explanation he has for her disappearance, until he realizes that it was an inside job.

All of Fincher's films are essentially whodunits; they are powered by the insatiable urge to know what happened.  This desire is fixedly rearward-facing; although there are some striking affinities between Finch and Hitch, the latter's great subject was knowing what was going on in the present tense, expressed with the doubt and paranoia of encroaching madness, whereas the former is concerned with the limning of the past.  Benjamin Button, his most emotionally naked and personal film, attempts to answer this by reversing the flow of time.  It is a fairy-tale for grownups, a touchingly straightforward bromide about how life isn't erased by death, not completely; that it slides often and easily into stuttering sentimentality is why it's affecting.

Time, the greatest and most diligent of serial killers, was Zodiac's principal subject.  Even the most heinous crimes are eventually forgotten.  What could be more terrifying?  

Gone Girl is Fincher's take on the revenge plot.  Never has his sympathy for deviance and deviousness been more eager and obvious.  Fincher is a cynic, but he is blissfully ignorant of tragedy.  For him, shit happens, occasionally horrible shit, but there is nothing cosmic about it.  What he admires most is mastery.  For Hitchcock, the human tale was essentially a tragedy - humans, mostly men, being undone by the intensity and the persistence of their obsessions.  His heroes are bunglers, fools, fatuous imposters, who move forward (which they learn eventually is actually an inbent spiral) only through flailing doggedness.  Fincher, himself possessing a razor-sharp wit and a fine sense of humor, sees a silver lining: through mastery, one can resist, if not avoid, the depredations of the world.  There is little doubt that Amy is the hero of Gone Girl.  She might be psychotic, but she gets things done, and for Fincher, there is no greater virtue. Like Nick, we can't help but feel a certain grudging admiration for her resourcefulness, her doggedness, even if she is thoroughly immoral.

Like Hitchcock, Fincher delights in goosing his audience, playing to their fears and desires.  He loves nasty fun, but he isn't a scold.  There's a dozen instances in Gone Girl that seem designed deliberately to dare the prigs in the audience to reject the film.  If you can't take a joke, Fincher seems to believe, that's your problem.  He isn't interested in lecturing, or in being responsible.  He does what the various demagogues in his film do not; he leaves the moral judgements to us, the audience.  To make moral judgements, we first have to decide how seriously we're meant to take any of the action.  This is also, thankfully, our problem.  I don't know how seriously to take it, but if anything, I am amazed that he is able to tweak the ambiguity so exquisitely.  From scene to scene, tone to tone, there is no solid ground to stand on.  It's a virtuosic performance of directorial craft. 

Despite that, Gone Girl has some gaps in its excellence.  The performances vary in quality; Affleck is very solid in some scenes, but elsewhere seems unfocused.  Especially in the beginning, he is so sapped of vitality that it seems like the actor or the character is stoned on muscle relaxants. Rosamund Pike fairs better; there are flashes of otherworldly brilliance in some of her scenes, but also some odd flatness, perhaps the fault of the script, which, while structurally excellent, falters on character and dialogue, betraying the pop-thriller fare that is the source material.  Tyler Perry is consistently excellent, as is the great Kim Dickens, and Carrie Coon, as Nick's twin sister, is a revelation in a difficult and somewhat thankless role.