31 Days of Cinema, Days Eleven and Twelve: “Close-up” | “Soldier of Orange”

Like the previous day’s film Je, Tu, Il, Elle, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up is concerned with the economics of art—the difficulty of filmmaking in a world of scarcity. There is an infinitude of films that are never made, ideas that are never executed, potential directors that die unrecognized. Close-up gives us a glance into that infinitude. It concerns a bizarre real-life case when, in 1989 Tehran, one Hossein Sabzian decided on a whim to impersonate the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He earned the trust of one Ahankhah family and planned to make a film in their house with them as actors, but was caught, arrested and tried. The film functions through two perspectives. The first is documentary: the actual courtroom scenes in which Sabzian pleads for mercy take up the bulk of the story. Kiarostami is heard stating that he can only use two relatively grainy cameras in the court’s narrow confines, one on the judge and one on Sabzian and his audience. There is a rawness to the essential simplicity of this approach, which makes us feel Sabzian describing his poverty, how it impeded him from being a filmmaker, and how he connected with Makhmalbaf’s depiction of the subject. He saw no other avenue to realizing his dream other than to exploit Makhmalbaf’s ethos. Indeed, name recognition and pre-awareness in the world of cinema are valuable and hard to gain, and that today’s film industry seems to have cut off anyone without them is destructive. Yet, Kiarostami is clear that Sabzian’s act of fraud was inappropriate: Sabzian details enjoying the power he felt in dictating the lives of the Ahankhahs, and the risk of him abusing that power is palpable. The film’s second perspective muddies the waters: Kiarostami reenacts the scenes of Sabzian posing, and he and the Ahankhahs play themselves—which is to say, a version of themselves from the recent past, who only differ from their past selves in that they know how this will play out and have learned from the mistakes they make. That difference is slight but crucial. Heraclitus told Plato, “You could not step in the same river twice,” yet that is what Kiarostami is endeavoring to do. Is his feigned doubling of reality all that different from Sabzian’s doppelgänger scheme? Is film innately fraudulent like this? Does Kiarostami mean to finally give Sabzian and the Ahankhahs the chance to be in their ideal film? Is he as indignant as Sabzian about how the world economy thins the herd of filmmakers, and does he mean to shed or disregard the privilege that he and Makhmalbaf have over Sabzian? The two perspectives blur in the closing scene, when the real Makhmalbaf at last shows up (Sabzian does look like him) to console and forgive a sorrowful, but more mature, Sabzian. The result is a strong example of cinéma vérité, with one curious omission: I do wonder if Kiarostami could have redeemed Sabzian more meaningfully by showing us—at least part of—the film he was putting together.

Grade: A-

************

Not too much to say right now on the next film, Soldier of Orange, because I see myself writing more about it in the near future. Famous last words, I know. But this film was fantastic, and it may be bound to grow on me. My main issue with most war films is that there are too many characters, who receive little focus on account of their multitude and turn out as threadbare and indistinct from one another. Who’s who? I often muse. What’s his name again? Some directors use, in an unspoken way, the unity and solidarity of the standard military as an excuse to disregard characterization and its rigors, but really, that’s quite a pathetic excuse. Soldier of Orange solves this conceptual problem by making each of its major characters archetypes, who are fleshed out through keen acting to fill in the gaps the script leaves while trying to push the epic story forward. This is a very meta-filmic type of writing; these archetypes are familiar, and they risk being passé, but it works when one examines them and how it traps their characters within the limited, unremarkable, tragic social roles that they represent. Orange executes this stratagem brilliantly. The narrative follows a group of Dutch college friends who split up, yet remain linked, as World War II encroaches on the nation. Erik (the great Rutger Hauer), a slight naïf and a womanizer, joins the Resistance and resolves to flee to Britain. Guus (Jeroen Krabbé) begins as Erik’s upper-class bully but quickly emerges into his closest comrade and also decides to fight the Nazis. Robby (Eddy Habbema) is a radio expert caught between his friends, his Jewish wife, and the Gestapo, who are holding his wife hostage in exchange for his cooperation. Alex (Derek de Lint), a German, is a snide little shit who sides with the SS because his parents are being persecuted—an understandable motive, I will admit. There are action setups that feel amateurish, a tad graceless, even farcical, and that hint at the future Hollywood phase of its director, Paul Verhoeven, but that are wry enough to be bought. I am thinking of the scene on the beach involving a can of petrol, a splinter in a box and an ill-placed match; a shootout between boats; and a character death that felt contrived to an extreme. Yet, there are plenty of other scenes against which I have no reservations, that display a nuance most of Hollywood sorely lacks: the scrawling of significant dates in Dutch history on a wall; Erik and Guus’ botched first attempt to enlist; an Iron Cross that gets mistaken for a brooch; a rejection of silver coins in favor of zinc; two brutal, perfectly filmed executions; Erik and Guus’ sexual follies with a cute British secretary (a superb Susan Penhaligon); Erik’s klutzy pursuit of a high-ranking suspected traitor; Robby’s deployment of an “old Gestapo trick”; the tongue-in-cheek use of Queen Wilhelmina (Andrea Domburg), a refugee in Britain during the war, as a character; and—best of all—the climactic waltz between Erik and Alex. Verhoeven, best known stateside for Robocop (okay) and Total Recall (brilliant), is considered Holland’s foremost filmmaker, and I eagerly await the chance to see his other Dutch-language works.

Grade: A

Tomorrow: I review A Woman Under the Influence (seen), and Open Your Eyes (will see).

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31 Days of Cinema, Days Eleven and Twelve: “Close-up” | “Soldier of Orange”

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