16 August, 2010

Movie Review: I Stand Alone (1998)

Seul contre tous (I Stand Alone) is a little too big for its britches, a baroque, explosive film heavier on style than substance, though purporting to contain much substance. The style likewise never cast a spell on the viewers, due to the continual jarring of the audience by over-the-top film techniques. Gaspar Noé's first feature film prides itself on its truthfulness and extremity, but it fails to impress much of either on its helpless spectators, leaving instead a distasteful aroma of cynicism.

The film is told almost entirely through voice overs by Philippe Nahon, an unsmiling, hardened older man who plays the film's unnamed main character, the Butcher. His entire life history is rattled off in an opening monologue accompanied by vintage photographs, a life history replete with abandonment, concentration camps, orphanages, fondlings by priests, adulterous lover, retarded children, nagging incestuous thoughts, wrongful indictment, prison time, bankruptcy, manipulation, and unemployment. The Butcher has lived one hell of a horrible life, but on January 3, 1980, he resolves to begin anew. Having moved with his pregnant wife from Paris to northern France, he looks forward to opening his own butcher shop and starting from scratch.

Within moments, however, this dream dissolves. The Butcher's vindictive wife (Frankie Pain), who controls the family finances, lies about putting down the money to buy a shop for him. Unable to afford the shop himself and unable to find suitable employment within his field, he takes on mind-numbing employment as a nursing home's night watchman. The job teaches him the ugliness of old age, the pointlessness of working, and the utter meaninglessness of life and death. He hates his job, he hates his wife, he hates his child in her womb, he hates his mother-in-law whom he lives with (Martine Audrain)--soon his hatred encompasses everything, and we learn about all of it through the vitriol that his internal monologue spouts.

I Stand Alone is a film about bitterness and how it spreads through the body and mind like an all-consuming poison. Bitterness has a way of taking hold of the thoughts and preventing any positive change in direction. How can the Butcher's luck improve when he constantly thinks about the horrible things he has witnessed and the horrible things that he wants to do in response? Unjust things have certainly happened to the Butcher throughout his life--he was thrust into poverty, the Nazis killed his father, a priest molested him, his wife cheated on him--but his inability to forgive or to forget ensures that he will never overcome the bad luck that dogs him. Negativity breeds negativity.

Rather than trudge forward hopefully--a path that seems idiotic and blind at first but that would yield infinite results in the end--the Butcher seeks to blame others for the failures of his life. And since in many cases he cannot directly retaliate against the real perpetrators (the Nazis are gone after all, and his wife is dead, and who can really be blamed for societal poverty or for children being born handicapped?), he instead directs his rage against easier targets: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, people with jobs, Germans, his unborn child, himself. He attacks his wife, beating her pregnant belly. He lashes out at strangers, calling them fags. He concocts elaborate, violent revenge fantasies. With nothing to hold onto and the conviction that life is nothing more than a cruel, selfish joke that goes on too long, he decides to end his life in a blaze of destruction.

He does have one small source of love that he still clings to, however. His daughter, a frowning, mute teenager with a mental handicap, is the only goodness he can still see in the world, and not wanting to leave her to fend for herself amongst the wild animals in the ferocious jungle, he decides that he will kill her out of mercy before slaughtering a sacrificial victim to represent all of his frustrations and then taking his own life. His love for her is not without its impurities, though. Obsessed with corruption and sin, he cannot shake the idea that he wants to have sex with his daughter. Would that matter in a meaningless world? Would it even be worth it, or would it ultimately be as joyless as everything else? Why would he really want to destroy the one pure love he possesses on earth by corrupting it in such a way?

The Butcher imagines the horror of shooting his beloved daughter. He imagines the difficulty of embracing his own violent death. And then, after an hour and a half of hateful sneering, accusations, violence, and drinking, he dissolves into tears, embracing his daughter and confessing that he loves her while "Pachelbel's Canon" plays. This moment of loving selflessness and complete surrender within a film mired down by ugliness and cruelty is deeply affecting, but even this final moment is evanescent, as the Butcher's thoughts return once more to rape and revenge.

I Stand Alone is a disquieting film, not just because it depicts murder and the beating of a pregnant woman but more so because it exists entirely within the mind of a pathologically angry man. The Butcher's diatribes are constant, and for the most part they are not nearly as insightful or interesting as the Butcher thinks they are. I know that's probably intentional on Gaspar Noé's part, but that doesn't keep the excessive cynicism from being obnoxious. Even more jarring about the film are the constant directorial intrusions--abrupt, deafening gunshots that accompany almost every rapid camera movement, title cards that emphasize abstract concepts like "morality" and "justice," extreme close-ups, and even a countdown warning that the viewers should leave the theater prior to the violent climax. These "anything goes" stylistic flairs might be fun in a more entertaining, upbeat film, but the bleak nature of I Stand Alone demands more serious handling. I Stand Alone has its moments and is certainly not a stupid film, but it falls far short of its successor, Irreversible.

I Stand Alone (1998)
d/w: Gaspar Noé
(Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir)

Movie Review: The Blues Brothers (1980)

There are only four reasons to see the original The Blues Brothers movie from 1980, and they are as follows:

1. Scatmaster Cab Calloway delivers a snazzy, smile-inducing performance of "Minnie the Moocher" on a glitzy stage.

2. A hilarious cameo by European supermodel waif Twiggy has the wealthy, beautiful woman ordering Dan Aykroyd to fill up her tank with gas--because in her eyes everyone exists to follow her commands so that she needn't lift a finger. When Aykroyd smoothly informs her that her bill is ninety-nine dollars, her only concern is that she doesn't have exact change. She instead offers him a hundred dollar bill and tells him to keep the rest as a tip, which he graciously accepts. She is the perfect embodiment of the upper crust's complete obliviousness to the workings of reality.

3. James Brown as a singing preacher delivers the full stereotype of what white people imagine black churches are like, complete with a full gospel band, holy spirited dancing, and divine revelations.

4. At an uptight five star restaurant, Jim Belushi, taking on a ludicrous Russian accent, makes an offer to buy "the women" of the appalled gentleman at the table next to him.

Do these four moments justify watching a movie that's almost two and a half hours long? I hardly think so, yet the film somehow landed on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of the thousand greatest movies of all time at position #795. The Blues Brothers was the first of nearly a dozen movies based on "Saturday Night Live" sketches, and while it may be the best of them, that's hardly saying much considering the pedigree includes A Night at the Roxbury. I don't want to waste too much time detailing what I didn't like about this movie because it is what it is and it doesn't try to be much more. It's a series of set pieces and musical numbers. It's entertainment. I personally don't think it succeeds as entertainment a lot of the time, but I'm sure millions of people disagree with me.

For what it's worth, I'll list the basic problems I had with the film.

The Acting. Okay, sure, sure. Nobody really expected that Ray Charles would be able to act. That's not why he's in the film. He's there to play the keyboards and sing, not to win an Oscar. I can accept that. But why is Dan Aykroyd so terrible? He tries to pull off some kind of unshakable coolness, but it comes across as complete nerdiness or autism. John Belushi bears much of the comedic weight, but even he pulls a lot of the punches. I could understand if they were going for a straight man/crazy guy set-up, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Dan Aykroyd is just weird.

The Directing. The film is a comedic fantasy. Nothing in the film is treated with much seriousness--not religion, not love, not crime, not even Nazis. Nothing, that is, except for the opening credits, which feature a slow tracking shot over the factories, streets, industrial areas, and prison of Chicago while a down tempo, somber blues song plays. What way is that to open a comedy? What does that add to the film? What kind of tone is John Landis supposed to be setting? By the time the absurd fantasy stuff kicks in--and kicks in in full force, with cars jumping bridges, women touting uzis, and angry nuns flying through the air--the viewer is completely unprepared for such a turn. On top of that, the pacing is awkward and the film is much too long.

The Writing. Screenwriters John Landis and Dan Aykroyd put some thought into setting up clever set pieces, but the plot as a whole lacks any thread of cohesion. The plot is about two impoverished losers getting their band back together in order to put on a fundraiser to save the orphanage they were raised in from foreclosure. It's never quite clear what the band accomplished in the past, prior to Joliet's (Belushi) imprisonment. Were they huge and popular, or were they always complete nothings? They manage, unconvincingly, to fill a huge arena for their comeback show--were these all former fans, or are they just really excited to see a band they've never heard of before, composed of line cooks, restaurant hosts, and ex-cons? The Blues Brothers is a fantasy that demands that not too many questions be asked about the thrills involved, and that's okay, but the fact that not one tiny string holds the film's scenes to any semblance of reality or consistency just seems lazy. Who pays for the extremely expensive dinner that the duo have while crashing the five star restaurant? Surely their friend the maitre'd can't have the most expensive bottle of champagne comped for two nonpaying troublemakers? How exactly do the stage design and the costumes transform during Cab Calloway's performance? And so on and so on.

The Band itself. The film features a lot of awesome musical numbers by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and others, as well as a consistently entertaining soundtrack, but all of this music builds to the final performance by the actual Blues Brothers--which completely sucks. Despite the thousands of overzealous fans, the brief show is quite horrible. Belushi has an awful voice, and the tall, skinny, awkward Aykroyd made me extremely uncomfortable with his shucking and jiving. The movie made me embarrassed for him. I know that the numerous musicians within the band are all talented, renowned musicians, and I suppose they do a good job, but for the most part a band is nothing without its singer(s), and it helps for the singer(s) to actually know how to sing. The climactic number is an overwhelmingly corny rendition of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," made even more unbearable by the mismatched reaction of the ecstatic crowd. The structure of the film dismisses Ray Charles as a pawn shop owner and Aretha as a fryer of chicken, purportedly saving the best for last, and yet the last musical number is by far the worst.

But what can I say? It's a beloved classic that's made millions of dollars. Maybe I just need to stop taking things so seriously.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
d: John Landis w: Dan Aykroyd, John Landis
(John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd)
TSPDT?: #795

Movie Review: Irreversible (2002)

Where can lines safely and firmly be drawn between pleasures, perversions, and outright transgressions? Are such lines possible, or have the boundaries between sexual acceptability and indecency become too dangerously blurred?

Gaspar Noé's beautiful yet nerve-shatteringly disturbing tragedy Irreversible examines this theme among many other insightful inquiries.

Throughout history, various periods have been marked by more or less accepting attitudes toward deviant sexual practices. In our present time, a long list of sexual fetishes have entered the common lexicon: sadism, masochism, bondage, coprophagia, water sports, fisting, electrostimulation, furrydom, and so forth into more obscure territories. These perversions in essence are harmless. Consensual, safe, democratic participation is sought on the parts of all parties, even when the playacting involves dangerous rape. Many people today (though certainly not all) will respect another person's desire to privately engage in consensual and legal though unusual sexual practices in private with their partners, even if they don't find those particular practices appealing. Kinks and fetishes, embarrassing and private as they are, are more widespread and thus less abnormal than the average person will admit, so a tolerant attitude is in part a reaction against hypocrisy.

Sexual pleasure is a peculiar thing. Who can say where and how it's hardwired in the brain? While some people--guided by religion or tradition or their own personal preferences--will maintain set, narrow guidelines for the circumstances under which any normal person should be able to derive suitable sexual pleasure, others will admit that what works for one person might not work for all. Conflicts over what makes good sex arise even within close, loving relationships.

In a late scene in Irreversible--which, chronologically, is an early scene since the film is told in reverse--Alex (Monica Bellucci) discusses with her current (Vincent Cassel) and her ex-boyfriend (Albert Dupontel) the conditions that allow her to orgasm. Ex-boyfriend Pierre was very loving but a failed lover, whereas present boyfriend Marcus is a selfish pig who achieves excellent results in bed. They have this loud and explicit conversation in public on a crowded Metro car, which seems oddly indiscreet to me being a southern American but which perhaps is more commonplace in Paris, where nobody even turns a head, pointing to a very sexually tolerant and permissible environment. Pierre talks to his dedication to lovemaking--his orgasmic self-sacrifice, his physical diversity, his poetic whispers, all of which were unsuccessful. At which point Alex admits that what is most important to her is the satisfaction of the man she's with. She doesn't want a man sacrificing his orgasms for her continued pleasure; she wants a man who is having a great time. If the man comes, then she will come.

This admission is eerily ironic given that later in the night (and earlier in the film) Alex is raped by someone entirely interested in his own pleasure. Needless to say, she does not enjoy this. The rapist, a bisexual pimp known as Le Tenia, "the Tapeworm" (Jo Prestia), is a sneering, ugly parasite who extorts money from transgendered prostitutes and spends his free time at The Rectum, a red-lit, underground labyrinth of extreme sexual deviancy. Accustomed to an environment where men willingly beg to be raped, tortured, tied up, and fisted and where exploited sex workers are more or less willing to submit to fantasies of domination and adultery, Le Tenia's perceptions of acceptable interpersonal behavior are, to say the least, warped. He compliments Alex as he rapes her, and as he holds a knife to her face he asks her if she is turned on by the sadism. His words hover somewhere between mocking derision and a genuine belief that this passing woman might actually enjoy the brutal sex act, like so many in the past who have enjoyed simulated rape with him while pretending to resist.

There is no forgiving Le Tenia, however, for his actions are rooted not in an attempt to share good sex with Alex but in a hateful, destructive derision. Le Tenia comes across Alex in a red-lit, filthy, concrete highway underpass while threatening one of his hookers. Alex cowers in response to the violence, a fearful reaction that titillates Le Tenia. Though he is not normally interested in women, he is motivated to rape Alex by a desire to punish her--first and foremost for having witnessed his indiscretion, but mostly out of jealous rage against her beauty, wealth, and normality. His gruesome crime is in part an act of class warfare, a violent revolt against the bourgeois morality that he imagines she represents. By raping her, by accusing her of enjoying it, and by ultimately destroying her physically with his fists and feet, Le Tenia attempts to taint the pure, white-clad Alex with his subterranean evil.

On a certain level, Irreversible is a bellicose depiction of a clash between classes, an upper and a lower class divided not by economic status but by values, a division made trivial by being wrought with hypocrisy. In the opening scene, a fat, naked man confesses to his accepting friend that he went to prison for having sex with his daughter. Despite his own severe depravity, he allows himself the superiority of deriding the gay men who flock to the Rectum club in his neighborhood. He is an incestuous, pedophile rapist, but at least he's not a queer! Alex's boyfriend Marcus is an adulterous, immature drug addict, but when he launches on a reckless course to avenge his battered girlfriend, he allows himself to launch insults against everyone he passes, including those who help him. He beats a man at the sex club who is the only person who can identify the rapist for him. He chastises gay men in a restaurant, even though they can help him find the Rectum club where the rapist cavorts. He hurls racist insults at and steals the cab of a Chinese taxi driver who is driving him to his destination. Most tellingly, he assaults and threatens the transsexual prostitute who can tell him exactly who raped his girlfriend. His unnecessary violence is no different or better than the beating that Le Tenia gave to the very same hooker earlier in the night (later in the film), the beating that involved Alex in Le Tenia's life.

Marcus considers himself better than the trash he comes across during his vengeful journey into hell, but not only does he need this trash in order to continue his journey, he is also no different or better than the trash.

Even Pierre, easily the noblest man in the film, is not without sin. A professor and philosopher, he is reserved, mature, and calm, and he expresses a genuine concern for Alex's safety and feelings, but even he is preoccupied with sex, crossing boundaries to engage Alex in the explicit discussion on the Metro, which she tolerates even though she is obviously unhappy with it. Alex allows room for an indiscretion, and Pierre unashamedly takes it. A complex film about rape must also say something about personal space and consent, and Irreversible chillingly hints at these specifics. In the final scene of the film, a bedroom scene between Marcus and Alex, the nude and horny Marcus prods at various taboos, aggressively seeking new territory from Alex that she hesitantly relents to. There is talk of sexual punishment and of anal sex. The talk is gentle and consensual, but in what ways does it erase the boundaries between what Alex truly wants, what she's willing to give, and what she might be forced to give? Structured as the climax of the film--following the revenge, the rape, and the argument--these scene is charged with a power it otherwise wouldn't have if the film were told linearly. Given our knowledge of what will happen later in the night, we see the rape from within this scene as an explicit, external culmination of Alex's internal fears about her relationship--that she is losing control. She has just learned she is pregnant (the final revelation of the film, which adds a horrifying twist to the rape and beating), and she is unable to control her lover--the baby's father--in bed in ways that she should be able to control him. This powerless escalates at the Metro, where she is forced into an uncomfortable, indecent conversation by the one man she does seem to trust and where she feels subjugated to her man, who wraps his arm around her and cups her breast in a very possessive way. (It's easy not to notice her face during this scene, since Pierre and Marcus do all the talking at this moment, but the expression that covers her as Marcus wraps his arm around her torso is one of surreal horror and helplessness.) At the party, she loses complete control of how her life should be ordered. Her boyfriend, a future father who should be acting responsible and committed to her, abandons himself in drugs and attempts to seduce numerous other women. When she leaves the party and--unable to hail a cab--crosses through the underpass on the advice of a stranger ("It's safer!"), her life descends into complete hopeless chaos. She is anally raped and beaten into a coma. Her universe dissolves.

Gaspar Noé offers predestination as a consideration in the film. The title, the backwards structure, the spiraling omniscient camera, and the epitaph "Time Destroys Everything" encourage this thought process, as do a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alex's references to a philosophical book about time that she is reading. Premonitory dreams alert us to the future according to the book, and Alex indeed dreams about entering the red tunnel before it happens. (Marcus also dreams about being unable to feel his arm, which inversely foretells the fact that later in the night he will have that same arm broken.) Everything is written beforehand, the author claims, and fate cannot be changed. We experience this firsthand by watching the film, since we have already seen what is coming. Knowing that the future is miserable, we likewise feel the same helplessness that Alex feels, though we witness it in reverse. Gaspar Noé has made a truly discomforting and terrifying film, the most disturbing one I have ever seen, and this is fitting given that his two major themes are two of the ugliest elements of human nature: sexual and physical violence--or, more specifically, rape and revenge.

The early scenes of the film detail Marcus's revenge tragedy. When we first see him in the film, he is being hospitalized and Pierre is being arrested, so we know--as in any revenge tragedy--that things will end poorly. To explain things chronologically, after discovering Alex's comatose body, Marcus and Pierre are interrogated by the police. The police know nothing, and the best lead they are able to come up with is that Pierre did it. In the depths of their dismay, the duo is approached by two soft-spoken thugs who promise inside information and revenge. The police are for pussies, they claim. Revenge is for men. The two thugs exploit the tragedy, seeking payment, of course, but they deliver on their promise. Navigating the criminal underworld, Alex and Pierre are led underground to the cavernous corridors of the Rectum.

At this point Pierre insists that revenge is for animals. Men should derive their actions from the higher faculties. Rather than pursue a path that can only lead to ultimate destruction, they should go to the hospital to sit with Alex. Marcus refuses to listen. Though he could care less about Alex when they were at the party, now he must overcompensate to avenge his woman. Finding the man he believes to be Le Tenia, he starts a fight before a live audience of sex fiends. He is quickly overpowered, however, and the man snaps his arm in half.

At this point Pierre, who has maintained his cool throughout the hunt despite being profoundly upset by Alex's fate, knocks down the assailant with a fire extinguisher and then proceeds to repeatedly bash in the man's skull with the heavy, thudding instrument. The man's jaw quivers as his blood splattered face caves in. Though one or two hits would surely suffice, calm and passionless Pierre is overpowered by rage and revenge. He demolishes the man beyond repair. By showing this extremely brutal murder in one of the opening sequences of the film rather than at the end, we are forced to examine the outcome of revenge without regard to its incitement. The revenge is horrible, animalistic, primal, demonic. It unlocks something in Pierre that can never be covered up, and it kills an innocence in him that can never be regained. By seeing the revenge before knowing why it's happening, we have no desire to cheer for it or support it. We must examine it on its own terms and decide that there can be no justification for its brutality.

Even more unsettling--though this is not readily apparent on first viewing--is that they attack the wrong man. Le Tenia is one of the passive spectators of the fight, who smiles and snorts drugs while devouring the murder with his eyes. Though the thug informants promised results--that the rapist would be punished instead of, at worst, spending a peaceful life being cared for in prison--the consequences of reckless revenge are disastrous. The wrong man is destroyed, the guilty man will now probably never be caught, and the avengers will be punished instead. Not to mention that nothing can change that Alex was raped and beaten.

The men at the sex club watch the beating but in no way involve themselves in trying to stop it. Some of them even encourage grislier violence, like spectators at the Roman circus. Given the nature of film, we are spectators, too, though different in that we could not help or change things even if we wanted to. One of the most horrifying images in this thoroughly horrifying film is the silhouette of a man who passes in the background of the underpass while Alex is being raped. He takes a few steps forward, pauses, and then hurriedly leaves. Did he realize it was rape, or did he think it was consensual, perverse sex that he should just tolerate and ignore? If he realized it was rape, why didn't he interfere? Would we interfere--or, more importantly, would we interfere after having seen this film and this shadow of a passerby? By showing us this nightmare, Gaspar Noé prepares us to react heroically in the (hopefully never-will-happen) event that we find ourselves in the same position as the faceless passerby. Hopefully, we will not remain faceless, retreating in the shadows. Hopefully, we will know to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In a rare bit of heroism in the film, the prostitutes rise up with curses and sticks to defend their troubled sister when Marcus attacks one of the prostitutes. Courage like this is in short supply in Irreversible.

There is an infinite variety of sexual practices. Many of them are fine. Some of them aren't. The nude man's friend in the opening scene laughingly dismisses the man's incestuous rape as merely "the Western syndrome," par for the course. When Alex's mutilated body is discovered, some of the spectators on the sidewalk seem satisfied and entertained. "Some whore got raped!" one of them cheers, as though the fact that the woman may have worked in the sex industry makes it okay that she was nearly killed. Rape is never okay, but how can you tell when rape is actually rape in a world where some people genuinely want to be raped in a way that looks, feels, and sounds like rape yet isn't actually rape?

Irreversible is a clever and complicated film that operates on many levels. Though unsettling to the core, the film is a beautiful work of craftsmanship. Gaspar Noé's fluid, ghostlike camera (with cinematographer Benoît Debie) weaves in and out of cars and buildings, hovering and spinning, inducing vertigo and nausea in the viewer. Cuts are seamless, giving the impression of one endless (though nonlinear!) take, a feeling which increases the dramatic inertia and hopelessness of the film's story. The acting, largely improvisational, is flawless, with desperation pervading in the lives of normal people. Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk did the score, a pounding, hellish, nerve-shocking techno soundscape that regulates the heartbeat in stressful ways. Visual effects by Rodolphe Chabrier are more extensive than they appear (a good mark of any special effects artist) since the impressive camerawork, cutting, and detailing received a thorough (though unnoticeable) digital makeover. The bashed in skull of the man in the revenge scene, one of the most unforgettable and macabre moments of cinematic history, was impressively fabricated using a combination of matte painting, latex models, 3D imaging, and acting. The attention to detail--a jaw that gasps for air even after the rest of the face has been rendered unrecognizable--turns just another murder into one of the most gruesome murders ever filmed, and Chabrier should have received more recognition for that.

Irreversible is an unpleasant film, and many will avoid trying to think about it too hard, if indeed they're even able to watch the whole thing. Though they may dismiss the film as sensational, the film has much to say, and the sensation is intended to moralize rather than glamorize (this boundary is never crossed). Irreversible treats horrifying, unsettling, and difficult themes with horrifying, unsettling, and difficult filmmaking techniques, and in this regard Gaspar Noé is an artist of the highest caliber. Though I can't recommend it to the faint of heart, Irreversible is one of the most important and life-changing films of recent years.

Irreversible (2002)
d/w: Gaspar Noé
(Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel)

15 August, 2010

Movie Review: Cache (2005)

Our lives project from the stories we tell about ourselves and our worlds, not just to others but to ourselves, as well. We form routines and make assumptions to make our lives flow more efficiently and to give ourselves some inkling of understanding and intuition about our universe, and the foundation for these assumptions and routines are myths about what our world is like and who we are within it. Some of these myths are more dependable than others: something thrown into the air will fall down, a dark and cloudy sky brings rain. Some are less reliable: if I walk under a ladder then bad things will happen, or if I am nice to someone that person will be nice in return. And some are downright dangerous: I drive better when I'm drunk, or Japanese people should never be trusted. The assumptions, prejudices, and routines remove the thought process from our lives, freeing us up so that we can live lives of action rather than constant decision-making.

That's neither an entirely bad nor an entirely good thing. Certainly, it's good for our survival to be able to assume that a barking dog might be dangerous without having to experiment first. Many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities have been missed, I'm sure, by people who pondered first rather than leaping ahead. Too much thought can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, depression, laziness, fear, and second guessing. Too little can lead to tunnel vision, stereotypes, mistakes, and a lack of imagination.

Among other things, Michael Haneke's voyeuristic mystery film Caché (sometimes translated Hidden) is about the power of establishing a fact and moving on. Whether these facts are truthful is irrelevant in a complicated world where truth is a graduated scale rather than an all-or-nothing quality. What is instead important is our ability to accept the truthfulness of a fact and all that it entails--its consequences and correlatives--and continue on with life. An inability to move on is a plague on the mind that prevents further progress by calling into question the truthfulness of everything else we think we know. Truth is a frangible house of cards. When the strength that supports one piece of it dissolves, we realize that the entire structure is built on collapsible prayers.

At the center of Caché is Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a late middle aged, successful family man and television personality who may or may not have told a couple lies when he was a six-year-old boy. Faced with the possibility that his parents might adopt the orphaned son of two Algerian farmhands, the only child of this wealthy French provincial farm family fabricates two lies about the older usurper. First, he tells his mother than the boy coughs up blood, a rather strange lie suggestive of tuberculosis which, in my opinion, encourages sympathy for the orphan rather than repulsion. When that lie--which perhaps wasn't even a lie, since Georges's adult flashbacks of the incident seem rather realistic--fails, Georges convinces the boy that his parents want him to behead the grumpy family rooster. When the boy obliges, young Georges tells his mother that he maliciously slaughtered the cock in order to terrorize him. The mother takes the bait, and the boy is unwillingly hauled off to an orphanage.

Georges confesses these sins to his wife (Juliette Binoche) late in the film, after much denial and evasion, many nightmares and threats. What, however, is the nature of these sins? Are they really that unforgivable? Georges is six years old, a spoiled only child who quite naturally resists having to share his family and his life with another kid. His behavior is selfish, but it's understandable. It's also something that a little good parenting, communication, and discipline could easily solve. His first lie, like I said, is bizarre--not the sort of lie a child seeking to vilify someone would invent. Was it a lie? Was it something he saw in a bad dream that he somehow thought was the truth at one point? Did he really see the Algerian boy coughing up blood, and did this frighten him? Was his opposition to the Algerian not based in selfishness but in fear? A flashback of the rooster beheading scene--presented as one of Georges's nightmares--presents the possibility that maybe the boy was trying to scare him, yet Georges later confesses that these were his lies. The rooster slaying couldn't have caused too much damage, considering that an old rooster can't be that valuable, that the Algerian would be capable of explaining his side of the story, and that Georges would have to do an impressive bit of acting afraid in order to convince his mother that he was traumatized.

All this, plus consider that Majid, the Algerian, was the truly traumatized boy. At age eight, his parents are murdered by the French police in the 1961 Paris massacre. This is the event that causes the boy to be orphaned. Killing an old rooster, having tuberculosis--are these really crimes unpardonable enough to cause potential adoptive parents to heartlessly abandon a pitiful child to a flawed welfare system? Who is the greater sinner: Georges for accusing the boy, or Georges's parents for condemning him on shallow evidence?

Or is it more likely that when Georges confesses to his frustrated wife, he leaves out crucial information about his indictment of Majid? When he first mentions the childhood event after a long duration of feigned ignorance, he claims to have forgotten all the details. These details emerge only much later, after all threats have been removed and confessing is merely a choice rather than a necessity. Does he confess only to what he is capable of admitting? Are these two lies merely the tip of a vast, hulking iceberg of guilt? Or are these formative lies, which eventually destroyed a man's life, all that is necessary to plague a man's conscience?

Two lives emerge from the slaying of the rooster. Georges continues to be the spoiled only child of a wealthy, white family. He is cared for, well fed, looked after, and educated. He becomes an intellectual. He lands a high profile job as a book critic on public television, a successful, beautiful wife who is a publisher, and a luxuriant apartment in Paris. He barrels through life forming opinions, entertaining friends, and making decisions without doing much thinking. He darts out into the street without looking and is almost hit by a black bicyclist, who he then violently accuses of being an idiot. He passes through life telling unnecessary white lies to his friends and his wife. And when he walks by a man who is standing in plain sight videotaping him--the Algerian he knew decades ago, most likely--he doesn't even notice. He is all action, no thought. He needn't think because he already knows everything.

Majid's life follows a much different course. Hauled off to the orphanage, he must fend for himself, receiving bad food and shoddy living conditions. His education is poor. He has a son, but perhaps his wife leaves him or dies. He lives in a small, cluttered, subsidized apartment in an ugly hall. And regrets about what he could have had, pains about the education and life he almost received, unquenchable anger and nausea at the thought of Georges's misdeeds haunt him for the rest of his life, until the exhausted depression drives him to a bloody suicide.

On a certain broad level, Caché is a film about racism in France and its effects on a certain generation of whites and Algerians who are promised equal lives but receive quite different fates. Featuring the children of Georges and Majid, who cross paths in the film's unusual end scene, the film points to the legacy that the next generation will inherit. On a very specific level, Caché presents itself as a mystery about voyeurism. Though Georges lives in the public spotlight, his life becomes unsettled when he begins receiving extensive videotapes of his front door. The tapes point to the fact that he is being examined, and for the first time they force him to examine himself. This examination unleashes his memory of his long buried sins; a thoughtful pause highlights the crooked card on which his shaking house of cards is built--the fact that his life of privilege that he takes for granted is undeserved. The producer of the videotapes is never revealed, but the most likely culprit is Majid (Maurice Bénichou), who nevertheless denies guilt.

This crux is the thematic center of the film. More important than racism or voyeurism is the question of guilt, an obstacle which prevents us from plowing forward on our sure-headed paths of assumption and routine. Guilt forces us to admit that something in the way we perceive or once perceived the world is wrong. Guilt tells us that we do not always act according to truth. A mysterious childhood event creates one child who cannot stop pondering the numerous possible universes of truth and another who pigheadedly insists upon his way or the highway. When the child who thinks finally acts, the man who acts must finally stop to think.

Michael Haneke's style is a cinema of "insistent questions" and uneasy answers, and perhaps in no other film is this style more fluidly perfected--nor, perhaps, as frustrating. Caché is presented as a mystery, yet it lacks the evidence to firmly support any possible solution. The film achieves the provocation of thought that it sets out to accomplish, but it does so in the most purposely unentertaining of fashions. The acting is solid but unspectacular (Annie Girardot is most interesting in a very brief role as Georges's remorseful-looking old mother, who betrays no word of guilt despite the tears her eyes cannot hold back), and the cinematography is bright and antiseptic. There is no score or soundtrack. Caché is a thoughtful and intriguing film, but not a particularly stirring or enjoyable one.

Caché (2005)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou)

14 August, 2010

Movie Review: Eraserhead (1976)

When in an early scene of Eraserhead Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is informed by his alluring neighbor that his girlfriend requests his presence at her parents' house for dinner that night, Henry's reaction is shock. Neither producing unhappiness nor fear (and certainly not pleasant expectation), the stimulus is so mortifying to awkward Henry with his polygonal hair and highwater slacks that his nervous system shuts down. Like a deer in headlights, he lacks the fortitude to process the danger that's coming his way. Having spent the first ten minutes of screen time silently wandering the apocalyptic city streets alone, he responds to the invitation by immediately sitting on the corner of his bed, drying his socks, and staring at the radiator, waiting for darkness to fill his room so that he can make his nighttime appointment. From inside the radiator comes a promising glow, a suggestion of something orderly, peaceful, and longed for, but the glow fades away with the promise unfulfilled. Tonight is not a night of pleasant routines. Tonight he will be yanked from his comfort zone into uncharted, perilous territory: girlfriends, parents, dinner etiquette.

Long past dusk, at the industrialized home of girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart), Henry is chastised for being late. Mary has stood by the window, nervously awaiting his arrival with a frown furrowing her face; in her opinion, there was no guarantee that he would come. Perhaps she's used to him blowing off plans with his friends, either from forgetfulness, fear, confusion, or something else. Henry supports her assumption when he tells her, in a panicked outburst like much of his speech throughout the film, "I wasn't even sure you wanted me to come!" Despite the straightforward terms of the invitation and Mary's obvious desire that he show, Henry has almost unconsciously convinced himself of what he wants to believe, that his presence at the uncomfortable dinner is neither necessary nor wanted. Nevertheless, he hesitantly comes, and the dinner that follows is more uncomfortable than he could possibly imagine.

In the corner of the room, a newborn litter suckles at a mother pup's teats. The sound, which fills the room constantly, is like feasting, scurrying rats. With this grating, inhuman noise combines a steady whir of lonely wind, a sound like chaos howling before the dawn of time, and the combined effect is to set the viewer--and Henry--constantly on edge. The sound could be his own overworked nerves on the verge of snapping; whether the film depicts an objective reality or a manifestation of Henry's subjective perspective (I lean toward the latter) is never quite clear. Mary's mother, Mrs. X, is at once abrasive, insistent, and dismissive. When Mary assures her that Henry is a very clever printer, she responds with what could easily be either agreement or sarcasm: "Yeah, I'll bet he's clever."

When Mr. X, an excitable plumber, enters, introducing a string of new conversation topics from chickens and pipes to progress and knees, Henry's panic level rises. Henry has trouble keeping up with one thread of conversation; following half a dozen is impossible. When Mr. X later asks him, "Well, Henry, what do you know?", the openendedness paralyzes him. "Oh, I don't know much of anything," he humbly replies, but the future father-in-law continues to stare at him with an expectant smile. The question is a banal piece of conversational fluff, a statement devoid of depth, intended more as grease for the wheels of social interaction than as any prying insight into human understanding. Henry could easily respond with any number of trivialities--the weather, sports, work, politics, a humorous anecdote--anything to keep the chatter flowing, but Henry, completely lacking in social consciousness, interprets the question literally as an interrogation demanding a complete accounting of the vast corpus of knowledge he possesses. "What do you know?" Where to begin? Better not to begin at all--and so the conversation stalls.

When Henry is asked to carve the chickens--a task made more difficult by the fact that these are unknown, alien chickens, miniature mechanical creations--Henry is forced to perform as the center of attention. If he had any fears about making a fool of himself, now would be the time when that would happen. The tiny, squirming chicken, moving in a rather sexual motion, vomits blood as he slices it, sending Mrs. X into a violent, screaming convulsion that causes her to run from the room. Pandemonium erupts. Mrs. X aggressively questions Henry about his "sexual intercourse" with her daughter, combining guilt, anger, and threats with sexual awkwardness when she suddenly begins licking and kissing his neck. Responsibilities, expectations, restitution, and threats are piled on: Henry has a baby, he must marry his girlfriend, he'll be "in very bad trouble" if he doesn't "cooperate." The whole spectrum of difficult, confusing social interactions and expectations combines in one disturbing climax as the ratlike puppies continues suckling and as Mr. X worries about the chickens growing colder and as Mary's catatonic grandmother puffs at a cigarette.

If I had to guess what Eraserhead was about, I'd say social anxiety disorder or perhaps even something severer like autism. How else can I explain the peaceful satisfaction that Henry derives from his lonely wanderings and his isolated quarters? His window looks onto nothing but bricks, yet this doesn't seem to bother him. Instead of pets or photographs of people, his apartment is furnished with plants and dirt. His favorite passtime (or should I call it a ritual or an escape or a safety net?) is the solace of staring into his humming radiator, where he imagines a shy, affectionate, inhuman woman dancing and promising him better things to come. The repeated lyrics of the only song she sings are, "In heaven, everything is fine. You've got your good things, and I've got mine." You have yours and I have mine--no "ours." They are both separate, and everyone is happy. Henry is prone to misinterpreting and misreading the statements and actions of others. When his beautiful neighbor tells him that she has locked herself out of her apartment by accident, we see her move close into his face in a sexual aggressive maneuver. Is this real, or is Henry's confusion--his eagerness to see the most awkward in any social interaction--forcing him to imagine a conversation that is much more complicated and loaded than it really is? Does every conversation Henry has really end in disaster, or does his hypersensitive mind merely convince him that they all do? Is Henry "on vacation" from the printing factory because of psychological reasons? Why does Henry's baby--which cries and moves like a real baby--look like a monster? Perhaps because Henry has enough trouble seeing fully grown adults as humans; a tiny, babbling creature is as alien to him as an embalmed calf fetus. Henry's problems and reactions, his fears and perceptions (if we are to view Eraserhead as existing entirely within Henry's perceptions) all resemble the innerworkings of a mind riddled with social anxiety, right down to the climax in which Henry, at the height of his stress, imagines his head becoming disembodied and used by caricatures as a cog in a factory machine. The portrait of severe social anxiety is disturbing, stressful, and accurate. David Lynch has fascinatingly depicted what it looks and feels like to feel utterly disconnected from the people around you.

Of course, when I first saw Eraserhead about five years ago, before I was dealing with the social anxiety I presently deal with, I didn't interpret the film in any such manner. I thought it was about the fear of growing up and facing responsibility. The worries of parenthood. Maybe even abortion. The baby's fetal appearance, the odd sperm-like creatures that the woman in the radiator stomps on, the infidelity that Henry commits with his neighbor while trying to conceal his crying baby, the bizarre infanticide: everything pointed to this conclusion, and I think that's a conclusion that many viewers reach.

But trying to analyze what Eraserhead is about is an exercise in futility, stupidity, or arrogance. No explanation is all-encompassing; any analysis will still be rife with holes and questions. If the film is about social anxiety, then what are the worms that the woman in the radiator battles with her feet? If the film is about anxiety or about fatherhood, then what does the horrifying man who lives inside the moon and pulls the levers that begin all the action in the film represent? David Lynch is a surrealist, and in his filmography he has proven himself a master of cumulative effects. Scenes, visuals, dialogues, songs, sounds, and other aspects of Lynch's films don't necessarily fit together like jigsaw pieces. More often the varied parts of a Lynch film harmonize together kaleidoscopically, achieving an effect of plenitude. In a symphonic composition, a flute plays a part, a tuba plays a part, and every few moments a tympani drum plays a loud part. In isolation, these parts are scattered, unstructured noise; together, they are music. The unsettling soundscape, the dystopian landscape, the bizarre dialogue, the overemotional overacting, the lush black and white photography, the immersive cinematography, the horrifying imagery, and the haunting music of Eraserhead combine to create the overall effect of a nightmare.

David Lynch's first film, assembled in Philadelphia over five years for a modest budget, is a fascinating, terrifying dream that pries its way into the mind, demanding to be understood despite refusing all attempts at explanation. In over thirty years, Lynch has never abandoned this aesthetic, instead perfecting his mind-boggling vision into works of art like Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. Eraserhead may perhaps suffer from being too long and too baffling, but like certain disquieting dreams, it will never be forgotten by those who have seen it.

Eraserhead (1976)
d/w: David Lynch
(Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart)
TSPDT?: #318

06 August, 2010

Movie Review: The White Ribbon (2009)

When the wealthy, landowning baron (Ulrich Tukur) of the tiny German town Eichwald rises in church to announce to the congregation that an evil person lives secretly amidst them, the accusation is both alarming and relieving. A dastardly prank has left the town doctor (Rainer Bock) severely injured, and an unknown offender has recently kidnapped the baron's young son (Fion Mutert), violently thrashed him to the point of bleeding, and left him hanging upside down and naked in a mill. To know that a person would be capable of such ill will is a horror, but to hope that a careful investigation might discover and eradicate the culprit, restoring the town to peace, is a relieving prospect.

Michael Haneke, however, is a filmmaker who creates mysteries. He does not solve them. His films require the viewer to draw the proper conclusions, and they often force the viewer to think twice about whether the questions he's asking--the suspense he's caught up in--are even the relevant questions. Is something greater at stake? Is something else going on? Anyone expecting a startling twist and a detailed revelation at the end of Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Band) will be disappointed, but those familiar with Haneke's "cinema of insistent questions" will walk away with a horrifying glimpse of pervasive, cyclical violence.

Set in 1913 on the eve of the First World War, The White Band plays out in a context of societal violence. A war-stained empire was primed to proudly, patriotically enter what would be the bloodiest conflict in human history. Their children would grow to become the generation of Nazis. Antisemitism had already threaded itself through the Protestant Christian culture, and all of the country's misfortunes could easily be thrust upon a scapegoated minority. This historical setting has little to do with the specifics of the parochial drama that unfolds in the film, but considering that the movie is Haneke's first feature film to not take place in contemporary times, this historical context is important to note.

Specifically, however, The White Band is a depiction of individual sins and their ability to expand into community, national, and global evils. The baron describes one sinful criminal and the community believes him. I, too, found myself suspecting the unlikeliest of suspects, a polite young school teacher (Christian Friedel) who is seen fishing in the river after the doctor's horse trips over a "nearly invisible, thin, but very strong wire" tied between two trees and who is seen whipping a horse immediately after the baron's son is discovered to have been thrashed. I think, given Haneke's precise style, these clues are intentional red herrings, and suspecting the mild mannered teacher (who is also the narrator) also conforms to the mystery movie convention of the perpetrator being the most unlikely suspect. An additional reason to suspect him is the reason that the community would likely suspect him if the film had taken place twenty or thirty years later: with his dark, curly hair, his wire frame glasses, and his intellectual misfit manner, he is rather very Jewish. That he remains innocent in a town where almost no one is and that he ultimately leaves the town never to return again is a statement against the vilification of Jews, proof that goodness can survive in a hostile environment and that using irrational means to create and rout out enemies is no way to solve the real problem of evil.

The baron may be willing to scapegoat, but each of the townspeople, with few exceptions, possess their share of sin. With sparse, meticulous scenes divided amongst a large, impressive ensemble cast, Haneke illustrates a pervasive ill will, terrors and hypocrisies that lash out in every direction. The doctor appears to be a kindly old widower, yet he sexually abuses his fourteen year old daughter Anna (Roxane Duran), who each day looks more and more like her mother. He maintains an illicit affair with his hardworking, supportive neighbor (Haneke regular Susanne Lothar), but then rejects her with humiliating, cruel insults after having sex with her over the sink. Who would set a trap to kill him and his horse? Perhaps a local villain, but more likely his own daughter, who watches the accident from the doorway and, unlike her younger brother Gustav (Thibault Sérié), does not seem grieved by the mishap. The trap would be an indirect way to retaliate against a powerful, dominating oppressor, a way to end her years of incestuous rape. Given her maturity, her inheritance, and the dependability of her neighbor, she would also not have much to lose and plenty to gain. This is, of course, only my theory.

The film details many indirect responses to abuses of authority. In an unequal, undemocratic relationship, the submissive party when wronged has few safe recourses to retaliation. Revenge is therefore either carried out anonymously, is self-inflicted, or is redirected to a third, less powerful party. When the baron's neglectful supervision of the workplace conditions on his farm leads to the death of an older woman, the woman's son avenges the death and the baron's minimal response to it by destroying the baron's cabbage patch, a symbolic act which means, "If you don't pay up, I'll cut your cabbage (money) for you." His action speaks words without him needing to speak up. When the pastor's oldest daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is humiliated by her father in front of her classmates simply for having fun during recess, she silently slips into his office and impales his parakeet with a pair of scissors. "You take away my joy, I'll take away yours," the gesture symbolizes. Unprovable deeds of anonymous revenge are the most directly satisfying but also the most likely to be discovered.

Others direct violence against themselves because it gives them a sense of control, feeling, and action that harms no one else in the process. When the pastor's son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) is beaten and humiliated by his father for staying out late, he walks along a high, precarious bridge banister, tempting God to kill him. If he dies, his religious conviction tells him that he deserves his punishment; if he survives, then he knows that God has forgiven him. The panicked school teacher intercedes and exacts a promise from the boy that he will no longer punish himself with such dangerous existential crises. Later, the husband of the dead farmer woman hangs himself, his only escape after having lost his job during the controversy following his wife's death. The night before, one of the baron's barns (possibly the one his wife died in, though I'm not certain) burned to the ground. Did the old man burn the barn down and then kill himself in remorse? Or is the murderous, kidnapping villain also an arsonist? That mystery is never solved.

The baron is the most obvious source of corrupt power in the film. The cruel, incestuous doctor receives the most intimate examination. But the most squeamishness-inducing monster in the film is the pastor (Burghart Klaußner), who rules over a silent wife and a brood of creepy children. The pastor never ceases to remind his young children that they are mortal sinners, that they have failed him, and that they are destined for hellfire unless they change their terrible ways. When the children return home late one evening after spending the day supporting Anna, whose father just nearly died, the pastor reminds them of how disappointing they are, sends the entire family to bed without dinner, makes plans to beat them with a switch, and attaches the titular white ribbons to them to remind them that they once were pure despite their straying. It is soon after the canings that the baron's young son is kidnapped and thrashed. Did the overly disciplined children direct their vengeance against the spoiled, happy child? Did their inability to stand up against their oppressive father cause them to gang up on a small child?

The pastor sees his teenage son's sullenness as proof of masturbation, and after detailing the horrid fate that awaits him if he continues to abuse himself, the father begins to tie the boy's hands to his bed frame at night. Trust, free will, decision making, and privacy play no role in an authoritarian dictatorship. The rulers make the decisions, and everyone else obeys.

The most horrifying act of violence is one that happens late in the film. After the doctor dismisses his lover, she threatens to do something that will make him feel sorry but then quickly admits that he probably wouldn't care anyway. Soon afterward, her young Down Syndrome child (Eddy Grahl) is found blinded and beaten in the woods with an attached note: "The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Num 14:18). A premonition from one of the pastor's daughters suggests that his kids may have something to do with this horrendous crime, yet it seems unlikely that the children would leave such a note. Assuming that no one would have any reason to punish the gentle child, one must assume from the note that the punishment is directed against his father. The father of the unmarried woman's child is never stated, but one can easily assume that the doctor, her long-term lover, is responsible. Is harming his son what she means by making him feel sorry? And is she right in assuming that he--who has a legitimate, healthy son and daughter--wouldn't care? Does she punish herself and her innocent son more than him in this misdirected path of revenge?

As town doctor, the man caresses and cares for the boy who may be his son as the tortured mother looks on. In a following scene she hastily commandeers a bicycle from the school teacher, claiming that she has discovered evidence of the perpetrator who has committed all of the crimes and she must rush to the police station immediately to tell what she knows. With her son evidently locked up inside, she disappears and is never seen again. When the townspeople gain access to her abandoned house, they find no trace of the boy. After harming him, has she put him out of his misery with a mercy killing? Did guilt over her horrible, senseless crime force her to flee the city and her old life?

The doctor and his family also disappear abruptly the same day. This is treated as a mystery of the highest order, and the narrator describes an unlikely story of the doctor and his lover fleeing together, having successfully pulled off all the capers. Why might the doctor have actually left with his daughter and son? Could it be that he had impregnated his own daughter and needed to escape discovery and shame? Did the neighbor kill them and bury them in the yard? Did he kill his daughter giving her an abortion? (A haunting midnight scene about "ear piercing" suggests the possibility of late night abortions.)

Haneke leaves many unanswered questions at the end of The White Ribbon, but the likeliest scenario points not to one evil influence but a sphere of conflicting, misdirected evils. The school teacher announces his belief that the pastor's children are likely responsible for the crimes only to be denounced by the pastor, who--despite constantly berating and punishing his children for their ungodly behavior--thinks it impossible that pure children could be responsible for monstrosities. The children are likely responsible for some of the crimes, but the town has no small share of monsters. Even minor characters in small, tangential scenes reveal seething threads of jealousy, sexual infidelity, abuse, and contempt.

The baroness (Ursina Lardi) moves to Italy with her son after the boy is injured a second time by jealous peers. She explains to her husband that she can no longer live in a society ruled by hypocrisy, hatred, and oppression. Would she really find solace in Italy, or are these vices a worldwide epidemic? The film does not answer this question.

The movie does, however, provide brief glimpses of hope. The schoolteacher and his nursemaid girlfriend Eva (Leonie Benesch)--both outsiders to the town--provide a pure, progressive, compassionate love story to contrast the ugliness surrounding them, though innocents such as them were likely the first to be victimized in the Holocaust or crushed under fascism. The doctor's wide-eyed son, who has just discovered death, remains innocent, though age will likely corrupt him one day, and one of the pastor's young sons, who raises a wounded bird and then gives the bird to his father in sympathy when his parakeet is murdered by Klara, is capable of selfless acts. One of Haneke's most admirable skills is in rounding out even the most despicable of his villains: the pastor's face as he receives the gift from his son is one of heartfelt redemption and sadness. The pastor may be a cruel and manipulative autocrat, but even he mourns the death of a joyful bird.

Stunningly captured in deeply saturated black and white, The White Band's cinematography by Christian Berger evokes the tiny postcard paintings of forests, carriages, and snow-frosted church steeples found on the wallpapered walls of old people's parlors. The photography paints a horrifying tale with beautiful, stark images. Attention to detail is superb; the film authentically feels a century old. The nuanced acting, buried in ambiguities in secret passions, is superb throughout; even the many young child actors possess genuineness. The White Ribbon is one of Michael Haneke's greatest films, a mystery that reveals itself to be a horror film once one realizes that the mystery is not much of a mystery at all. Evil is not carried out by elusive masterminds. Evil is everywhere, breeding like a virus and burning like a fever.

The White Ribbon
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Burghart Klaußner, Rainer Bock, Christian Friedel)

Movie Review: Julia (2009)

When we first see Julia Harris (Tilda Swinton), she's at the top of her game: uncountable drinks in, her bra-covered breast exposed, dancing on toddler's legs at a loud, dark party. She's happy as can be, her arms flying in the air, her eyes gelatinous, her hair and makeup overdone. Somebody asks her what she does for a living and she responds with an unnervingly dismissive cackle, sputtering her lips and fanning her hands out in front of her. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that," she offers enigmatically in a way that is perhaps intended to imply that she invented heart transplant surgery and is modest about it but that actually suggests that she's a hooker and discrete or else unemployed and embarrassed. Her response is an obnoxious bit of vague casualness intended to push the focus off of herself and onto more important matters--namely, partying.

She tries to seduce a married man--a skinny, bald lech who is somebody's boss, though presumably not her own--and she succeeds. A vertiginous camera angle shows her passed out the next morning, a sourpuss frown stretched across her dry, smacking lips. After shoving him away, she stumbles to her own car and drives home, likely still drunk. What we have seen is a chaotic, shameful mess of a night, but we sense that if her soused mind were able and willing to record memories of the event, she would likely consider it a success. And with this wild night as our introduction, we enter the unpredictable, topsy turvy world of Julia, the first American film by French-born director Erick Zonca.

What follows is what can only be described a bender of a film. Zonca's lens is a subjective one; like so many other schmaltzy melodramas, Zonca does not attempt to observe an addict under a microscope, framing the subject with coldness and judgmental distance. Zonca instead involves us in the drunken perception and the alcoholic delusion, and he does so without resorting to cheesy cinematic tricks like unfocused slow motion and droning noises. Abrupt cuts give way to unexpected scene changes like an alcoholic blacking out and then resuming consciousness. Our sense of time disappears as we acclimate to Julia's unique schedule of passing out during daylight, having drinks at sunrise, and getting serious in the middle of the night. Characters we would never trust are revealed to be her closest friends, and decisions we would never make come unthinkingly to her scrambled mind. Morality, safety, responsibility, and appropriateness become alien concepts. This is Julia's world, and we're not here to judge it. We're here to experience it.

When Julia loses her job--whatever it may be--her preachy sponsor (Saul Rubinek) pressures her to resume going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But snacking on store-bought cookies, drinking black coffee, and confessing about giving birth in a dumpster while unconscious is simply not her scene. She blows off her first meeting as well as the advances of an unhinged, clingy Mexican woman (Kate del Castillo), a nervous bird with wide eyes who reveals herself to be Julia's next door neighbor. When Julia passes out on her front yard after having a vodka tonic at six in the morning, neighbor Elena pulls her into her house for coffee and rest. Before she can regain her senses, however, Julia is asked to involve herself in a convoluted, delusional plan to kidnap Elena's eight-year-old son from his billionaire grandfather for fifty thousand dollars. This is a mere seventeen minutes into the film, and though Elena is clearly insane with nothing to back her far-fetched story except a frantic nod and some newspaper clippings, and though Julia is clearly an undependable, mean, booze-addled stranger who should never be trusted with such a precarious, difficult, and illegal operation, they both decide to make this drastic mistake together.

It's comical. It's absurd. It most certainly can only end in a disaster of massive proportions. Yet their complete inability to realize any of this makes for an involving thriller and also lends an erratic, bizarre film an air of stranger than fiction realism. Because crazy and stupid people do attempt to pull off impossible crimes every single day. Because it has no objective perspective and because its main character lacks both a moral compass and any shred of sensibility or foresight, Julia is a truly unpredictable film. Julia abounds with a rare spontaneity, a sense that anything truly could happen. Julia's survival, the survival of the innocent child she kidnaps, her success in pulling off the heist, and any blossoming of her character arc into sobriety or decency--none of these are guarantees as they are in most films. In a movie where Julia murders, breaks promises, and makes idiotic blunders, the hand of chance plays a significant role. As a result, the thrills are more edge-of-your-seat, the laughs are harder, and the emotional investment is higher.

Tilda Swinton is a joy to watch in one of the most captivating performances of 2009. A train speeding off the tracks, she encompasses all of our gravest shortcomings. Her flaws are embarrassingly transparent, but in her mind she maintains an excess of dignity. Her prospects seem abysmal, but her blind optimism drives her to act, always recklessly but often with results. Julia is not a woman who overthinks things, who worries or doubts. It's a tragic and an admirable trait, in keeping with the ambiguity of her character. We witness her lies, her double crossing, her greed, and her ruthlessness, but we also witness moments of earnestness and clarity that make one wonder if she even realizes that her lies are lies. When the kidnapped boy (Aidan Gould) asks her if she intends to kill him, she is hurt by the question and aghast at the idea, even though she's holding a loaded gun at his face when he asks her. Later, she tells the boy a number of sappy stories about how much he meant to his parents. They are lies--Julia knows nothing about the father and she has contempt for the mother (who she may have even murdered offscreen!)--but why she bothers with the lies is unclear. Is she only trying to keep the boy cool because a calm kidnapped victim is an easy kidnapped victim? Or is she trying to give a lonely, cute child some feeling of affection and importance? When she breaks her promises to him and mistreats him in the most neglectful and irresponsible of ways, she reacts to the consequences with genuine horror and concern. Is she merely upset at the near loss of her investment, or is she really remorseful for her thoughtless actions? When she tickles and caresses the boy in a rare moment of quiet tenderness, is she merely drunk and dazed or has a motherly affection stirred within her? Is she capable of any selfless acts, or is all she does guided by greed, improvised maneuvers to guarantee that she will secure two million dollars for herself?

Julia is a riveting examination of the unlikeliest of redemptions, a searing portrait of a woman who has plunged deeply into the shadowy depths of amorality. Will she sell her last shred of decency for the alluring prospect of two million dollars, or will she risk losing everything in order to prove to herself that she still has some humanity, whatever that might be worth? Erick Zonca succeeds in leaving this important question open until the very last moment of the film.

Julia (2009)
d: Erick Zonca w: Roger Bohbot, Michael Collins
(Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Kate del Castillo)