Sunday, March 18, 2012

Once upon a Time in Anatolia, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

The first two-thirds of this great film concern the search for a body buried somewhere on the central plateau of Anatolia, a region, according to Wikipedia, rich in archaeological treasures. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan turns this fact into an overarching metaphor as his watchful hero, Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), unearthing shards of truth in the lives of his fellow citizens, must decide what to leave buried and what to exhume.
Seated in the back seat of the first of several police cars trolling the countryside for a corpse throughout an endless night, Cemal surveys with justice and mercy the human tragicomedy unfolding around him as the murder suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), tries to remember the site of a grave that he dug while blind drunk. The grave, like the truth, is always around the next bend. In the front seat, excitable Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) berates his inferiors for the delay, anxious to go home to his wife, but determined to prove his competency to Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), in the car behind him, by closing the case. Driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), navigating the company around purgatorial hills, experiences the ordeal, and life itself, as a passing dream: a tale told “once upon a time in Anatolia.” Seated between the doctor and a policeman to whom he is handcuffed, the prisoner Kenan remains quiet, himself a tomb of mysteries.
As the searchers pile in and out of their cavalcade of cars and scurry over the terrain with their shovels, headlights illuminating the grassy slopes, Doctor Cemal, seemingly passive, exploits his opportunities to converse with his companions, offering cigarettes—to Kenan, too, who breaks silence to thank him—and casually leading them to retrace their steps when their stories bypass a crucial bit of evidence. Prosecutor Nusret, for example, who compiles facts for a living, has overlooked the central clue to his own past: that his wife did not die of a heart attack, but poisoned herself. Cemal leisurely guides him to this conclusion, not to be cruel, but to bring him to consciousness, and Nusret thanks him.
The doctor also knows when to hold his peace. Near dawn, the search party arrives at a village, where the mayor, happy to have the ear of the authorities to lobby for village projects, arranges a feast. In a gesture that echoes the doctor’s sharing of cigarettes, the mayor’s beautiful daughter serves tea, not excluding the prisoner. Later, the prosecutor reflects that this young woman will probably never leave her village, remaining the servant of her father and, eventually, a clownish husband. Buried alive! What a waste! The handsome doctor, who has met the “angel”’s pure gaze, concurs, but makes no foolhardy, heroic effort to pluck her from her circumstances.
Back on the road, the company at last finds the body, and after some mordant comedy around fitting it into the trunk of the car, heads home to the city (perhaps Ankara). A number of viewers and reviewers have opined that the film should end here. But in the last third of the film, in daylight, the tone ironically becomes more somber and the ambiguities deepen: who died? who killed him? At the autopsy—yet another archaeological event—a final discovery forces Cemal once more to intervene in the course of events.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

We Need to Talk about Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay

Cupid, draw back your bow

and let your arrow go

straight to my lover’s heart

for me

When sixteen-year-old toxophilite and sociopath Kevin (Ezra Miller) slays his father and sister and then a clutch of his schoolmates, it’s his mother’s heart at which he is aiming. Beginning at birth, the boy has tormented his mom, Eva (Tilda Swinton), with every arrow in his quiver: crying, pooping, glaring. Think these kiddy tricks sound benign? So does his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), who believes his emotionally distraught wife is exaggerating. The crafty Kevin is always a normal boy when his credulous dad is at home. So when Eva insists that it was Kevin who left out the Draino, causing his little sister to lose an eye, her husband tells her she “needs help.”

Kevin successfully splits his parents’ marriage, just like an apple. How surprised Franklin must be when he finds himself in the crosshairs. Maybe he has time to think, “Jesus, she was right.” Franklin’s death vindicates Eva’s judgment, although the poor shattered woman, who loved her husband and daughter, does not find time to gloat.

What motivates Kevin to beleaguer his mom, whose soft heart gets minced along with the family guinea pig he stuffs down the DisposAll? When she demands an answer after he infects her computer with a virus, he says, “There is no point. That’s the point.” But his adolescent existentialism is, actually, beside the point, a fake bull’s eye, a distraction from his sadistic passion for his mother. For 112 minutes, we watch him watching the impact of his behavior on her. When she walks in on him masturbating and they lock eyes, his expression of defiance, lust—something beyond words—is one of the great looks of cinema.

After the film I heard several audience members exclaim, “Why didn’t she leave?!” Some critics have diagnosed Eva’s masochism as guilt for raising a demonic child, even suggesting that an intolerant remark she makes about fat people identifies her as Kevin’s emotional progenitor. But that is only what Kevin wants her to think. When a creepy co-worker calls her an “uptight bitch” for not dancing with him at a Christmas party, do we take him at his word?

Eva has committed to parenting Kevin, neither sanctioning his actions nor ceasing to try, if not to socialize him, then at least to humanize him. Her aim is true. In spite of some Dogville-type scenes of humiliation at the hands of townspeople who lost children in Kevin’s rampage, she exceeds the role of perpetrator/victim, the role that Kevin cannot outgrow without her.

When we first see Eva, after the killings, she is camped on her couch, where she has evidently been for weeks or months, with a bottle of wine and a half-gnawed sandwich. Neighbors have lobbed paint at her house and car. She sandblasts the stigmata off the walls, puts on a suit, gets a job at a travel agency, and continues to visit Kevin in jail on her Tuesday afternoons off work. Mostly they sit in silence, in the same near-despair that has characterized their entire relationship. But Eva is gathering her strength, the strength once again to ask him why. This time she receives a slightly different answer.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Le Havre, by Aki Kaurismaki

When I ask people if they’ve seen Le Havre, they ask, Who directed it? and when I say, Aki Kaurismaki, they ask, Do you mean Akira Kurosawa? or, Do you mean Abbas Kiarostami? It doesn’t help that Le Havre takes place in the eponymous city in France and not in Kaurismaki’s usual locale, Helsinki. This confusion of nationalities takes us to the heart of the story, however, for the film is about the arbitrariness of borders, between citizen and alien, rich and poor, life and death. But that is too tired and abstract a description of a film radiant with emotional and sensuous pith.

A former writer, now shoeshine man and tipler, Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), lives modestly with his beloved wife, Arletty (the Finnish actress Kati Outinen). Arletty suffers from a terminal disease, a fact that she conceals from her husband to spare him pain. Marcel comes upon a young refugee from the former French colony of Gabon, Idrissa (Blonden Miguel), who has escaped a police raid on a group of stowaways to this port city, this “haven.” Marcel determines to help the boy by tracking down his relatives, discovering his mother’s address in London, and arranging for his illegal passage across the Channel. To accomplish these deeds, Marcel must evade a detective, Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), who is himself locked into the bureaucracy of authority. Meanwhile, Arletty is admitted to the hospital, where friends and neighbors sit by her side reading aloud from Kafka (pure Finnish humor).

Le Havre is a Casablanca for today. Marcel Marx is the film’s Rick Blaine, whose rival for the love of the Scandinavian heroine, Arletty/Ilsa, is not a Czech resistance leader, but death. Unlike Rick, however, Marcel is not bitter, and there is no doubt that he will help the vulnerable Idrissa, who stands in for all the desperate people seeking passports out of Casablanca. That is, if Marcel can elude the policeman Monet, a double for Casablanca’s symbol of collaboration with the Nazis, Captain Louis Renault.

In the end, Le Havre does not demand the sacrifices of Marcel that the older film does of Rick. Kaurismaki’s film turns out to be a beautiful, karmic fairy tale about good things happening to good people. It is kind to its viewers, treating us to the gorgeous cinematography of Timo Salminen and protecting us from despair, as its characters do each other.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Skin I Live In, by Pedro Almodovar

(Spoilers ahead; this post contains a detailed plot summary.)

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant and wealthy cosmetic surgeon, beautifies the plain, restores the disfigured, transitions the wrongly sexed. He experiments with genetically modified skin that will resist fire and insects—no more burn victims, no more malaria! He believes, foolishly and repeatedly, that those whom he loves must love him in return. He is one of Almodovar’s most complex and memorable characters.

Ledgard kept his wife alive for months, swathed in bandages, after she was critically burned in a car crash with her lover. One day she totters out of bed to a mirror, see’s her decimated features, and jumps out the window to her death at the feet of her young daughter, Norma. The girl (Blanca Suarez) grows up to be a timid woman-child who cannot bear constricting clothing. Her dresses bind her, like the dressings that bound her unwilling mother to life with her father.

At a wedding party, Norma wanders into the garden with a young sales clerk, Vincente (Jan Cornet), who misconstrues her compulsion to shed her shoes and sweater. She passively endures his embrace until he penetrates her, when she sinks her teeth into his hand. To free himself he knocks her head against a tree trunk, then rides off on his motorbike. When Dr. Ledgard resuscitates his daughter in the garden, she takes him for the rapist. He is forced to commit her to a clinic, where she refuses to see him or to wear anything but a shift. Eventually she too jumps out a window.

Dr. Ledgard kidnaps Vincente to his private clinic and manorial home outside Toledo. He surgically changes Vincente’s sex: You will never rape again. Vincente is now Vera (Elena Anaya), confined in a locked room with a closet full of dresses, every move captured by a hidden camera and displayed on monitors throughout the house. Will she too manage to jump through the window represented by the monitor screen?

Ledgard gradually covers each section of Vera’s body with luminous miracle skin, cultured in his futuristic lab of steel and glass; he is remaking her as his dead wife. Confined during the transformation in a body stocking and helmet, Vera furiously tears into strips the closet full of dresses. Gradually, however, under the influence of captivity, opium, and presumably hormones, Vera becomes female, domesticated. She practices yoga, cleans her room, reads, poses for the hidden camera. One is not born a woman, one becomes one. The helmet comes off and she is beautiful. She knows the doctor is falling in love with her.

Marilia (Marisa Paredes), the doctor’s possessive and adoring housekeeper (secretly, the mother who gave him up at birth), urges him to kill his captive before she escapes and makes trouble. Ironically, it is Marilia’s other son, Zeca (Robeto Alamo), the no-good who ran away with Dr. Ledgard’s wife, who liberates Vera. Dressed for carnival as a tiger with a farcically twitching tale, Zeca slips into the house and strips and rapes Vera. He is caught in the act and shot to death by Ledgard. For the third time, the doctor has rescued the woman of his dreams from a male predator cruder but hardly more dangerous than himself.

Now Ledgard's lovely and seemingly devoted mistress, Vera pleads that the rape has left her too sore for intercourse. It is she, instead, who penetrates her man, at her first opportunity, with a bullet to the heart. She returns to the shop of her mother, who has never stopped looking for her kidnapped son, and announces, I am Vincente. Transformed far beyond her sex, she has not forgotten who she is.

Almodovar’s critique of his Faustian hero is devastating; how much more sympathetic are the callow youth, Vincente, and the femme fatale, Vera. Dr. Ledgard personifies the abuse of wealth, science, and male prerogatives. The director gives him beauty, but denies him even a moment of self-knowledge.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

One Day, directed by Lone Scherfig

Love stories may be formulaic, but at least in Lone Scherfig’s films the couple doesn’t speak in the reductive American slang—seriously?—that conveys social facility but not individual thought. Scherfig’s characters articulate, and when they resort to canned conversation, it is a sign that they are in trouble.

The bright heroines of An Education and One Day, like the Jane Eyres and Catherine Earnshaws of yor, fall for complicated sinners. These heroines’ vibrancy comes from the tension they maintain—for years or decades—between love and self-respect. In the recent One Day, Emma (Anne Hathaway) is smitten with Dexter (Jim Sturgess) from the night of their graduation from Edinburgh University, when they almost make love, until he finally proposes, twenty years later. In between she strives to become a successful writer and to care for someone else: an adoring but goofy stand-up comedian and later an elegant French musician. Meanwhile, Dexter gains celebrity as the host of a trendy TV show for the club set, does too much coke, gets fired when he ages out of the role, and marries a rich girl who can support his worthless ass. We track the annual crossing of their trajectories as Emma and Dexter meet as friends for dinner, go skinny dipping, and call each other at midnight with the blues. In each meeting we sense the sadness beneath Emma’s clever banter and the laziness of Dexter’s attraction to her. At last, when she is reasonably content in Paris, he barges into her life and declares himself. Yes, we’ve seen this before, in As Good as It Gets and again in Sex and the City. But beholding these two very handsome and witty people happy at last is a cinematic joy, and the movie should end there, with a swooping kiss on a Paris street.

Scherfig has trouble ending films, or she chooses scripts that tie up too neatly. One Day doesn’t stop with that kiss, but with Emma being run over by a bus. The earlier Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, a more eccentric and less commercial effort, concludes with the sad demise of one of the main characters. Maybe worst of all is the finale of An Education, an otherwise topping romance about the relationship between Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a talented high school student, and David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty-something thief with a genteel finish and a wife around the corner. When Jenny discovers the truth, she garners the courage to deliver an ultimatum. As she waits in painful suspense on the stairway to her bedroom in her parents’ home, David drives away. The story ends there, but we are treated to a voiceover in which Jenny tells us that she graduates, goes to Oxford, and meets someone more suitable.

Still, I like Scherfig because I like her heroines—not just the young women, but the older ones (Patricia Clarkson in One Day and Olivia Williams in An Education) who remain beautiful, smart, and decent in the unenviable role of disapproving of caddish behavior. And I like her cads—comely, smooth, and lost as they are.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Future, directed by Miranda July, and Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiorastami

Sophie, a dancer (Miranda July), and her tech support boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) decide to adopt an injured feral cat, Paw-Paw, who will come out of the veterinary hospital in 26 days. The adoption signals their commitment to family life and the end of their prolonged youth and freedom.

They vow to saturate the intervening time with artistic production (she) and openness to experience (he). They quit their jobs. She plans a project involving 26 dances videotaped and posted on the web. He volunteers to sell trees for a miniature environmental agency.

Neither is successful, but the point is how each reacts to failure. Jason starts to befriend the people he attempts to solicit for donations, including an old man (Joe Putterlik) who crafts lovingly bawdy greeting cards for his wife. Jason maintains.

Sophie does not. When she encounters a creative block, she “breaks up” with herself, takes an even more pitiful job (worse than teaching Frisky Feet) at the dance studio, and moves in with Marshall (a sympathetic David Warshofsky), a successful manufacturer of banners for any occasion. Yup, she ditches Jason and their LA apartment for a suburban manse and fumbles her way through seeing off her man to work in the morning.

Meanwhile, Jason, who can’t bear to lose her, stops time. While in Sophie’s world she is shacking up with banner man and his troubled daughter (Isabella Acres), in Jason’s world everyone but he is frozen in place. Even the waves at the beach are caught mid-splash. His only interlocutor is the omniscient moon (voiced, interestingly, by Joe Putterlik, the smutty greeting card artist).

In Paw-Paw’s caged world, as we understand through his narration (voiced by Miranda July), time both crawls as it never did in the woods and mean streets and simultaneously speeds towards the 26th, when he will be adopted or euthanized. Will these traumatized humans come to their senses in time to save him?

While Miranda July seems to be stuck with the epithet “quirky,” don’t let that put you off. She rides out speculative jests (Old French, “actions, exploits”) to arrive at catastrophes (Greek, “turnings”), sometimes liberating, sometimes terrible. There are a few in The Future: watch for Sophie’s agonistic dance inside a tee shirt while at Marshall’s house and Jason’s titanic effort to restart time.

The Future and Certified Copy make odd bed fellows, but not incompatible ones. In Kiorastami’s latest wonder, a French woman (Juliette Binoche) who runs an antique shop in Tuscany meets James Miller (William Shimmell), a British writer on tour, and convinces him to drive with her to the village of Lucignano. In the 106 minutes during which we follow their adventure, the two day-trippers almost imperceptibly morph into a married couple who, according to “Elle,” spend too little time together due to James’s schedule. The trip to Lucignano, where they spent their honeymoon, is her gentle attempt to seduce him back to a time when they were ardent lovers and not mere co-parents of an adolescent son (Adrian Moore).

This is my interpretation. Others argue that Elle and James pretend to be married after they are mistaken for a couple in a café, enacting the arc of an impromptu fiction that engages their emotions but is destined to end with his evening flight. That works, too. The beauty, sadness, gestures of affection, stinging little rebukes, and lost opportunities that mark their journey tell an archaic story that has happened to them and to us.

Kiorastami is unparalleled at writing and directing films in which people begin a car ride as strangers and end it as intimates. In this film (edited by Kiorostami's son Bahman), the jaunt may indeed be only a shared “jest,” or it may be a recourse to territory the couple has traveled many times. As Elle entreats James to spend the night with her in Lucignano, the film seems to ask, what is the difference between the original and a certified copy?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog

Over a period of at least 5,000 years during the ice age, people in southern France frequented a mountain cave to paint images of bears, antelopes, lions, horses, bison, and rhinoceroses. Perhaps the people danced or performed rituals, but they didn’t live in the cave. During a glacial upheaval, the section of the mountain containing the cave fell down, blocking the opening. In 1994 a team of speleologists, including Jean-Marie Chauvet, discovered the cave, its contents perfectly preserved. France prohibits all but an elite team of scientists from entering the cave (it closed the famous Lascaux caves after tourists’ breath caused mold to grow on the walls). Recently, the country allowed august German director Werner Hertzog and a few crew members to enter the cave for a brief period to make a film—Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The interior of grotte Chauvet looks like the inside of a half-eaten carton of vanilla ice cream that has crystallized in the freezer. A thick coat of smooth sparkly minerals, drip by drip over millennia, has deposited great toothy stalactites and stalagmites and embossed the ceiling and floor. Under this coating, the bones of the animals depicted in the paintings strew the floor. No human bones lie among them.

The minerals haven’t covered the walls or the paintings, though. The Paleolithic artists used sticks and their hands to make the images, which are amazingly refined. Economical yet subtle lines, revealing close study of musculature, facial expressions, and habits, depict the animals galloping and fighting. To show motion, the painters used lines reverberating from the images, such as comics artists use, something like this: ((((( The artists must have paid special attention to the animals’ mouths, which in the paintings have more detail than the other features, snarling and neighing. Horns, too, are exaggerated. The scariest parts of the animal.

My favorite images are of male and female lion couples, with their spotted muzzles and small ears, like the handles of tea cups. One pair—the male has balls but no mane—stride together sleekly, while another disputes about whether to mate—the female sitting down and grimacing at her attendant companion. The painters only assayed one human figure (or that is all that remains): a woman from the hips down, resembling the ancient “Venus” figurines, only she has a bison head where her belly should be. I’m not sure from the film if this group represents a mythical combo executed by one artist or a juxtaposition of images painted by two artists centuries apart, of the sort existing elsewhere in the cave.

Herzog, who interviews the scientists on the project and provides the voiceover, admits that the local scenery of steep mountains, rising from the banks of the Ardeche River with its famous natural arch, create a mood of “melodram” putting him in mind of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. As the film's title signals, Herzog’s sensibility is epic and romantic, and he is wonderstruck by the timeless feeling of the cave and discomfited by a perception that the ancient artists are watching him. The scientists share these impressions that the humans of 30,000 years ago participated in a sacral world of borders shifting among plants, animals, and humans. After all, the Paleolithic people shared the earth with Neanderthals—two distinct stages of human evolution co-existing! Who knows how they categorized being?