31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

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Three excuses for the inexcusable delay:
1) It’s easier to be doing this when unemployed than when employed.
2) The Philadelphia Film Festival.
3) These films are blowing my mind. I am prepared to say that women on average make more consistently good and more provocative films than men. There’s so much I want to put down in these reviews, I can’t do it so quickly. So I will be extending this project into November. Also, while I promise you will hear my thoughts on all 31 films, the order I will publish them in will correspond not with my film schedule but rather with my whims and preferences.

Fame did not change Chantal Akerman. She got the attention of cinephiles everywhere with her radical experiment Jeanne Dielman (1975). She could have stepped up her game, scored a higher budget, made something even more ambitious—a dream project, perhaps. Nope. Her following work of fiction, Les Rendezvous d’Anna (’78), is simpler, not as challenging as, yet somehow more austere than Dielman—notwithstanding the name continental cast, and the themes of what it means to achieve fame as an artist, and what comes after. Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) is a filmmaker touring her latest film across Western Europe. She stays in well-off hotels, gives press interviews, has little trouble bringing men to her bed, and has friends, family and colleagues rather eager to have her as company. There is little doubt she is a thinly veiled Akerman promoting Dielman.

But there is no glitz to Anna’s fame. At 28, Akerman had already developed her signature motifs: immense long takes, voids of silence and of monologue, as few characters as possible, a Spartan narrative thread consumed by quotidian tasks and prolix travelling, a deep and genuine concern with base physical needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.), and an effectively stealthy feminism. We have a few scenes with a few actors to establish the exposition that Anna is an auteur of some esteem. That’s it. There is no ostentation to Anna’s/Akerman’s place in the world of cinema. There are merely tedious sojourns in the posh hotels and restaurants of urban Germany, Belgium and France, punctuated by tedious train and car rides, which it is not uncommon for Anna to spend sitting or lying around, eating, passively listening to whatever the hell the person she’s with is saying, sleeping, staving off sleep, waiting for something—anything—to happen. This is a filmmaker committed to her artistic vision, giving minimal thought to the demands that fame may place on it.

I know of no other filmmaker who depicts waiting—as a process, as a discipline, as an existential state—as well as Akerman. It’s been said and written that she impels her audience to feel time. I half-agree. Dielman clocks in at 3 1/3 hours, yet I can’t say I feel that much time go by as I watch that film (one of my all-time favorites), as time is folded in and made watchable by the domestic chores that set Dielman’s routine, and anyone who’s been through childhood can relate to some degree of necessary domestic duty. In her forty-five-year career, Akerman never made another film even close to that running time. Anna is a standard two hours, yet it is much more languid because of the energy that Anna expends on waiting—waiting to arrive at her destination, waiting for the next errand in her itinerary, waiting for whoever she’s with to shut the fuck up already. As the scope of her filmic projects contracts back to normal, Akerman demands reciprocity and asks her viewers to increase their patience. The shorter the film, the less that happens, of course. Granted, the soliloquies of the peripheral figures that Anna encounters on her travels are not as memorable nor as provocative as those few present in Dielman and in this auteur’s other early masterpiece Je Tu Il Elle. So Anna is a notch down from those efforts—and it is not surprising that critics expecting a match of or an improvement on Dielman’s galvanism (unlikely) were disappointed. The film’s thematic core nonetheless remains valid and poignant. The cult success of one project and the good graces of critics do not, nor should they, assuage Anna/Akerman of the burden of creating more and at-least-as-good art, of staying truthful to one’s aesthetic instincts, and of taking inspiration from real life—even when that may entail listening to someone in your proximity spin a near-insufferable yarn on family troubles and toxic masculinity.

Perhaps I ought to write that I know of no filmmaker who handles time and temporality—and, by extension, space and environment—as well as Akerman, not least for her acute understanding of making and viewing cinema as a time-consuming process, a perpetual self-enhancing feedback loop. That is a more confident statement. Watching her films on Hulu, lights off, snuggled up in my easy chair with laptop and headphones, I find it effortless to plunge into her intimate universe of narrow train corridors squeezed between windows and berths, of familiar hotel rooms and flats providing serene urban views and almost all needed amenities, of train stations and cars cutting modern forms and sharp neon æthers through dusky autobahns of steel and tarmac. (Jean Penzer is the cameraman responsible for this.) The ubiquity of windows and the areas observed beyond them steers us towards a meta-filmic commentary. Anna/Akerman here is the filmmaker as audience, seeing and hearing for ideas and signs of a new story to transmit through her calculated vessel-like self to the cineaste public.

Further, Anna’s/Akerman’s passive, quasi-gendered, ironic silence—comparable to Liv Ullmann’s selectively mute actress in Persona—points to the artist’s struggle to speak through film, or better yet to speak beyond and outside of film. If film is Anna’s/Akerman’s main means of subsistence and communication (which it is), then what does it say about ourselves and our increasingly tech-obsessed and tech-dependent society if we can only live and talk through technological media and membranes? To what extent are they a protective raincoat shielding us from our insecurities? Fame and privilege, travel and sightseeing have not alleviated Anna of her steely interiority—which the film adroitly reflects—and Clément’s enigmatic submission to the top-down wheel-spinning she is subjected to, by people and place alike, is a fitting complement for Akerman, a vulnerable and fearless artist who appears nude and has sex with man and woman in Je Tu Il Elle. The great final scene shows Anna at home, in bed, trying and failing to relax, listening to an answering machine full of friends and colleagues demanding further travel plans. Forever she will face down an audience full of wannabe storytellers who want her to tell the stories they want to be told—perhaps their stories—as opposed to her stories. For her and Akerman, there is no escape from the house of cinema. Ultimately, though, it is Akerman who has decided what stories to tell, and how she will tell them.

(I almost take it as a sign of approval from God—for this 31 Days of Female Cinema project, that is—that without realizing it, I slated myself to watch this—and watched it—on October 5, the first anniversary of Akerman’s death by suicide. She was a great auteur, one of The Greats, and I am only more eager to explore her back catalogue. That said, my advice for Akerman virgins is to start with Dielman, and don’t be intimidated by the running time.)

Grade: B+

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31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

“Eyes Without a Face”: A Near-Perfect Textbook Exercise in Body Horror

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This review spoils the beginning of the film, but not the end. Granted, this film is best viewed with zero foreknowledge. Go watch it, then come back and read this. Thank me later.

A severe-faced blonde drives through the night, flanked by trees and stonewalls, wary of any traffic joining her on the road. Why so wary? we ask. Then, we see: a figure in fedora and topcoat is in the backseat, head lolling forwards—a corpse disguised as a sleeping passenger, the crime concealed cleverly but not inasmuch as to avoid suspense, a faint possibility of capture. No time for a better idea: the body’s decay calls for haste. The blonde dumps it in a river. A respected surgeon, Dr. Génessier, is giving a lecture on the potential and risks of facial reconstruction when he receives a distressing call. That call leads him to a morgue, where he sees the dead body and identifies it as his daughter, Christiane—which he does in spite of the fact that the face has been cleanly carved off. Tessot, another bereft father of a missing girl, wonders aloud to Dr. Génessier whether he should take a look at the corpse and assure it is not his daughter. The doctor insists that there is still hope for that girl—the dismissal comes off as awkward. At the funeral, the blonde stands in a line with the doctor, and shakes hands as he does with mourners offering condolences. The plot thickens; the culprit is on the inside. Yet, the circumstances are even more sinister than that. After the funeral, Dr. Génessier and the blonde—his assistant, Louise—head to his house, where a young lady lies in bed, hiding her face—or at least what’s left of it. It’s Christiane. She’s very much alive, but far from well. Her face has been disfigured in an accident for which her dad is responsible, and the doctor is trying to make up for it by commissioning Louise to lure girls who resemble Christiane to his palatial estate, where he knocks them out with chloroform, slices off their faces, and attempts to graft them onto Christiane’s face. Results so far have been dire. Tessot’s daughter was one such girl. She died mid-surgery, and it was her body that Louise dumped in the river. Tessot’s fatalist instincts were right, and Dr. Génessier cruelly lied to him, giving him false hope to cover up his crime. This doctor is deranged.

The opening scenes of Eyes Without a Face—a classic of French horror, and the most famous film of Georges Franju—demonstrate a mastery of narrative economy invaluable to students of cinema. Every scene, every take, presents something new that alters and clarifies all that came before. Every detail is essential, nothing is embellished, all the Chekhov’s guns pay off, yet there is enough theme and symbolism to add variety, make the proceedings plausible, and avoid coming off as generic and schematic. To be sure, the disturbing revelations are foreshadowed—mainly through Génessier’s lecture, and postmortem commentary on Tessot’s daughter. Even if you do see what’s coming, though, the confirmation of it is palpable. This is the value of the horror genre: not sadomasochistic jump scares, but the fulfillment of a grave fear, and the catharsis that arrives with looking it in the eye (face?) and confronting it head-on. After the flawless first act, the writers—Franju, novelists Jean Redon and Boileau-Narcejac, and Claude Sautet—show us what they can wax with the opposite: a predictable scenario, in which the horror emerges not from the nasty surprises but from the mounting dread of preordained doom. We see Louise go to Paris and appeal to a Swiss girl, Edna, looking for a place to stay. She has Christiane’s blue eyes. She may as well be Tessot’s girl all over again, just another selfsame rung on the doctor’s downward spiral. This is Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. These damsels have no significance to Génessier other than that they are doppelgängers of Christiane, of whom he is deeply envious. Edna’s end is written—and after Christiane’s attempt to rescue her backfires (in a way you have to see—and feel—for yourself), all we can do is watch, and understand why, as she lies unconscious and powerless while her face is peeled from the rest of her body. There is no fighting back kicking and screaming and losing with dignity, only a chilling indulgence in defeat.

A traditionally structured film made and premiered when the New Wave was greasing its wheels, Eyes Without a Face stuck to the tropes of gothic horror while innovating within them. This is the earliest film I know of to create horror out of a group of bumbling, well-meaning good guys playing right into the villain’s hand. The ironic confusion the writers create between the murderer’s victim and the murderer’s daughter in the first act is a stroke of genius, prepping the audience for the film’s theme of physical collusion, and the counterpoint that Tessot’s presence provides is icing. The police’s incompetence plays into Génessier’s hand one more time, towards the film’s end, and though the impact of that second helping is blunted, the suspense is far from totally diminished. The body horror was also groundbreaking for its day, and the psychological factor makes it even queasier. Génessier is not a quack. He reconstructed Louise’s face successfully, for which she rewards him with loyalty and trust. He can perform a skin graft. But can he make lightning strike twice? Apparently not. He has ruined Christiane’s face, and in trying to rectify it, he ruins other faces and other lives and digs deeper into his moral grave. (One scene late in the film indicates, with appropriate irony, that Génessier has more medical talent on the subject of eyes than on skin.) What exactly is his plan with the girls whose faces he robs? This isn’t made clear. He decorates their heads with gauze (last year’s Austrian horror workout Goodnight Mommy goes out of its way to reference this), imprisons them in a cellar, and…that’s it. Does he expect them to be pushovers, to be open to something in return for their visages? Maybe he hopes he’ll find a cadaver resembling Christiane and then be able to give Edna—and Tessot’s girl before her—a facial transplant. But shouldn’t that have been his original plan for Christiane? Wouldn’t the cadaver’s skin already be decaying? No matter. To Génessier, these girls’ lives are expendable for their faces, and beauty is a zero-sum game. The film’s most horrifying theme is that the body is indispensable to our identity; many have been disfigured enough that they have euthanized themselves. Génessier’s devotion to body over soul makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath.

Fitting to its title, Eyes Without a Face views superficially disgusting events with clear, even perspective—like wizened gothic pupils gazing onto new storytelling frontiers that grow more insidious and challenging with each innovation. Pierre Brasseur brings a contemporary clinical take to Dr. Génessier, smearing his delusions with stentorian professionalism, and underhandedly reminding the audience that the strongest of intellects is always vulnerable to ethical corruption. Alida Valli, as Louise, is what you’d expect from a dark, serious titan among Italian actors; between this and The Third Man, she has grown on me since I cringed at her awful late-career misstep as an über-camp dance school administrator in the overrated Suspiria. Rounding out the lead trio is Edith Scob in the role of a lifetime as Christiane. Performing all but a few minutes behind a porcelain white mask with nose, lips and eyeholes, robbed of facial expression, she is tasked with creating a character and evoking her through movement and voice alone—not a role fit for an acting novice. You try doing it and pulling it off as well as Scob does. Avoiding overt despair in favor of grace, Scob charts Christiane’s progression from weakness to rebellion with perfect fluidity, and her ultimate acceptance of her disfigurement is conveyed with a brutal karmic vendetta and a stunning closing shot. It is not easy to make acceptance of a tragedy a satisfying resolution—much less so in this genre—but this film succeeds at it with aplomb. It’s her body; it’s her choice. This tale could’ve been set centuries before, so when the camera strays onto a passing airplane or a Picasso poster in a chic bachelor pad, the realization that this is the ‘60s is startling—but in hindsight, this really is a modernist film, a keen warning on the burdens of expanding medical technology with a dash of feminism. The only glaring flaw is the mismatched carnivalesque frill of the young Maurice Jarre’s musical score. This is a bracing cinematic textbook, and I am glad that I was able to overcome my distaste for horror enough to see it.

Grade: A

“Eyes Without a Face”: A Near-Perfect Textbook Exercise in Body Horror

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Seven: “Transit” by Anna Seghers

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Transit is true-life Kafka—an account of refugees struggling to escape the Nazi invasion of France via the port city of Marseille, where they are imprisoned not by blunt despotism, but by simple paperwork and bureaucracy. The narrator, unreliably named “Seidler”, is an escaped German POW who comes into possession of the papers of Weidel, an author who has killed himself, and who travels to Marseille to return them to his widow Marie, all while blissfully dismissive of the chaos enveloping France. Once at the port, he is quickly indoctrinated into the Catch-22s that govern life as an asylum seeker in Marseille. You can’t stay in the city unless you can prove you intend to leave; otherwise, you must leave, but where can you go? To prove you mean to depart, you must acquire a series of documents—a visa to enter, a visa to travel, a visa to exit, etc.—in a certain order, and fast enough so that they don’t expire before you have them all, and if they do, that’s on you and the bureaucracy takes no responsibility for its bullshit. You get the picture. The Nazi lust for power, coupled with the international community’s long and storied suspicions of refugees (as pertinent in World War Two as it is today), creates a system that purports to tell those under its purview, “You may cross these borders, but you must first do this”—effectively insulting the intelligence of the refugees, who know fully that the “this” is a task designed to be near-impossible, to trap them in an inconstant theatre of the absurd, to make them feel that they are welcome nowhere and might as well perish. The Eagles said it best: “You can check out anytime you like…but you can never leave!

It is difficult to tell a story about an unmotivated character, steeped in ennui and world-weariness, since most readers demand a protagonist who wants something, for some reason, and who moves to achieve his/her goal with certain tactics that reveal just who (s)he is. I’m one of the few readers I know who empathizes with the guy who doesn’t ask for much, the objective and uninvolved observer, not passive but not desperate nor beholden to any plot machinations. Transit mostly succeeds in making Seidler this. He is a cipher, not caught up in the rush to get transit visas, only going through with the ridiculous process as a formality, adopting Weidel’s identity to facilitate the process for Marie and the doctor with whom she is having an affair, and to hint at a nuanced irony. In this Marseille, the deceased can be alive—in the minds of those who know him but aren’t up-to-date on his fate, as well as on paper. That a dead man has enough of a weight and an aura in this universe to gain transit visas more easily than most living people can is the novel’s most bitter indictment of WWII geopolitics. Nebulous identities are as free to cross borders as the papers and literature on which they are written, while our bodies imprison us and make us easy for governments to control and manipulate. Marie’s will to be unfaithful to Weidel (emotionally more than physically) with the doctor and with Seidler is made ethically dubious by her insistent belief that Weidel is alive and in Marseille, and this enrages Seidler even though he partakes in it and effectively betrays Weidel. Bodies do not matter in this political landscape because they are finite; only names and written/oral language are tangible.

Seidler’s objectivity makes him not a powerless spectator insomuch as it does a man who uses his power over Weidel’s identity in calculated, if amoral, ways. This makes it convenient for author Anna Seghers, a fervent Communist who based this novel on her own experiences as a Marseille refugee, to divert from Seidler/Weidel’s main thread and offer a panorama of immigrant lives. The most powerful anecdotes are the ones in which the characters have all the necessary papers and tickets and are ready to go, only to be swindled out of freedom at the last second—the conductor assured that the privilege of his profession will get him out of France easily, who succumbs to a heart attack over a bureaucratic fluke; not to mention, the extended family who stays behind for an elderly relative near death despite having everything in perfect order. Transit also has the peculiar quality of having benefits that on occasion work against its narrative. One would think that in this case of mistaken identity, Seidler would ease himself into the role of Weidel (if not outright embrace it, since we are talking about a less active narrator) and see how much he can get away with it, beyond the sphere of consuls and embassies. That he doesn’t, and that he merely sits in awe as Weidel shows his influence on the refugees’ lives beyond the grave, feels like a copout on Seghers’ part. The frenzy of characters, further, gives us no hint as to which figures are more important or more tertiary than the others, so that when Marie is introduced as a romantic waif flitting between cafés in search of Weidel, always running into Seidler by coincidence, the effect is hackneyed and saccharine and makes the novel’s ultimate focus on Marie and her adultery slightly jarring. None of this damages the novel’s power as a timeless testament to just how physical politics is—in place, in body, in language.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Seven: “Transit” by Anna Seghers

31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-One, Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three: “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” | “Nostalghia” | “Beau Travail”

In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, an early film from Japanese legend Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the title flowers is Kikunosuke Onoe (Shotaro Hanayagi), the presumed last in a long line of kabuki actors. He works in 1880s Tokyo and is thought to be an artistic-genealogical cul-de-sac because, besides being adopted, he has no talent. The onstage performance in the opening scene and the subsequent gossip make that clear. When the family’s wet nurse Otoku (Kakuko Mori) makes an improper—perhaps romantic—advance on Onoe to encourage him to improve his acting, both are shunned from the family, and Onoe flees to Osaka to follow Otoku’s advice, and to consummate his love for her soon enough. The film is tinged with nostalgia for an era lost and an art form dying amid unspoken historical change. Theatre is very much a common man’s art, a communal experience shared between actors and audience. Cinema is more privileged for its performers, more accessible across time and space, but not as ethereal and distinct, and lacking—as Walter Benjamin reminds us—the “aura” of theatre. Mizoguchi knew that film technology risked making theatre, kabuki and otherwise, obsolete—and that risk is still present today—but he accepted film as the up-and-coming storytelling medium and used it to tell a motive story that theatre in its stasis could not. What else besides film can appropriately reveal and convey such backstage dramas, or such insights into how theatre is prepared and received? Thus, Mizoguchi expertly plays on the contrast between film and stage, and the ironies of their interaction herein. Also a source of much profundity is the ironic and tragic injection of privilege into the universe of kabuki. Another contrast occurs between the refined, popular upper-class theatre of Tokyo and the poorer, more amateur traveling troupes of Osaka. This is one of the film’s many elements that are still relevant in today’s world, in which popular stage productions are confined to our greatest urban metropolises (New York, especially) and forsaken everywhere else—an astonishing universalism, given the isolationism of Japanese culture and cinema. Paralleling this is the film’s mixture of static (i.e., theatrical) and panning (i.e., traveling) shots, which were long and impressive for the time, 1939. (My favorite part of the film was likely a juxtaposition between a search for a major character on a store-filled street and a similar search, years later, across a row of train carriages.) The long takes do get ponderous at some points, but reducing them might have diluted the impact of the ending, in which the story culminates in a classical tragedy executed to near-perfection. This was my first Mizoguchi, and a splendid introduction to his vast body of work.

Grade: A

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There’s an infographic somewhere online—I can’t find it but still hope to—showing and interpreting one still from each shot of Nostalghia, the late-career film that Russian great Andrei Tarkovsky made in Italy. The very concept of such an infographic should tell you how refined a style of filmmaking it is, to weave just a handful of long takes into one story as Tarkovsky made his specialty. With films like these, I have made it a pastime to count—or at least attempt to count—the number of shots. Here, I counted 117 shots, give or take a few, in just over two hours, making an average of just over a minute per shot; that math of course neglects to convey the story’s climactic crux, which plays out in one nine-minute-plus shot. Frequently, Tarkovsky tricks us into thinking that a particular shot will end quickly, as it starts off with some falling action—a character or two walking away; a face, place or fact being established; the camera of Giuseppe Lanci zooming out. Yet, far after these falling actions have made their points and dissipated from their pinnacles, the camera lingers, yearning for more, conjuring life beyond a constructed false end. There’s a sense of winding down to the whole project that becomes all the more poignant knowing that this was Tarkovsky’s second-to-last film. He was dead three years later, due to cancer that he contracted working nearby nuclear ruins on Stalker, which he made before Nostalghia. The plot itself is threadbare and a little bloated: a Russian biographer Andrei (Oleg Yankovsky), clearly modeled on you-know-who, and his Italian guide Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) head to a Tuscan bathhouse where a late Russian composer whom Andrei is researching spent a brief but crucial sojourn. A local madman (Erland Josephson, a muse of Ingmar Bergman) gets involved, in ways on which I won’t elaborate. The narrative is stodgy and confused, and it’s going to take me a second viewing to comprehend it all, but the film works as a tone poem because its mood is innovative and assured and comes from a genuine, wise and palpable sense of mortality. And it is more than worth watching for two brutal scenes at the end, which involve different degrees and uses of fire. One of them is the nine-minute take I referred to, and it shows Andrei trying to make it across a bath while keeping a lighted candle aflame. It sounds banal, but trust me: when it happens, you will understand why it is happening, why Andrei is doing it, and it will be suspenseful, and you will be rooting for him to achieve his goal. What a beautiful scene.

Grade: A-

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Beau Travail was the second film in a row I watched that with a somewhat flawed body and a perfect ending—a wobbly routine that somehow sticks the landing. I hope to write more on this film later, because I want to re-view it in the context of its source, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, once I’ve read it. I’m aware it’s a loose adaptation, but it’s still a curious one. The director Claire Denis moves Melville’s tale of British naval impressment to a modern-day brigade of the French Foreign Legion being trained in Djibouti, a city-state on a strategic point of the Horn of Africa. The narrator is one Sgt. Galoup (the subtle yet versatile Denis Lavant), who for reasons unexplained develops an intense hatred for one of his group’s most popular and charismatic soldiers, Gilles (Grégoire Colin). The film is sublime as an ethnography of the Legion’s training regimen and interplay with the surrounding African color. The inclusion of Muslims into the Legion receives much focus and delivers much insight; observe their stamina in how they refuse to nourish themselves during Ramadan, even in the desert. Yet, as a psychological drama, the story feels quite vacant, too open to interpretation for its own good. Even in the hands of an actor as strong as Lavant, Galoup is all action and little if any motivation or context; he’s a muscled walking cipher, a stoic—appropriately, for the military—but a bizarre and blank one. His one-man war against Gilles comes out of nowhere yet gives the whole film its impetus. It works on the level of poetry, but how? Much is staked on the music of one Charles Henri de Pierrefeu, which samples Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd, and I worried at some points that I was being manipulated into showing interest and provocation at this thin plot.

Alas, here is my interpretation, and it is a subjective but valid one: Melville is thought to have had Asperger’s, and his works come up often in discussions of autism theory. Denis’ female gaze on the male body is said to lend the film a heavy homoerotic, homo-social subtext—a feminine takedown of masculine lust and aggression (which Kathryn Bigelow later riffed with The Hurt Locker) that bluntly uses feminine sexual interest to turn casual masculine/martial camaraderie on its head. The motif of oft-topless male bodies moving in harmony in the desert, performing grueling exercise, ought to make no secret of this, even to the layman viewer. Not to go out on a limb, but I as an Aspergerian have always felt a strong kinship with and esteem for LGBTQ persons and their human rights. That is not least because they grow up in a heteronormative world that refuses to contextualize their homosexuality, and that confuses and conditions them into a warped, dishonest heterosexuality. Not to mention, that same conservative world impelled the young me—a literal-thinking Aspergerian, too trusting of authority—to think that it was wrong to be in touch with myself on any sexual level, while everyone around me was throwing their virginities to the wind. Enough has been written about Galoup’s repressed homosexuality. Would it be fair to view him as an Aspergerian—cold, stealthy, loving of firm military routine, jealous of Gilles’ social aptitude? Or is Gilles the Aspergerian—compassionate in a tactless way, prone to abrupt violence, too obedient towards Galoup to protest his castigation? My reading of Billy Budd may decide how I answer these questions. Suffice it to say: I began this month’s challenge with The Rover, which had one abrupt use of pop music that was too jarring to work. The sudden soundtrack choice that concludes Beau Travail, on the contrary, is a stroke of genius, and wraps up the film on a big emotional high. Man, that song’s stuck in my head now.

Grade: A-

To Do: Reviews of Tsotsi and Eternity and a Day are imminent. Off to watch In the Name of the Father.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-One, Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three: “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” | “Nostalghia” | “Beau Travail”

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”

It opens with a lady in her room. We may not know it, but she is also the writer and director of this film, Chantal Akerman. She writes a script—maybe an epistolary one—and her voiceover narrates it. Often, she writes down stage directions in the past tense and then follows them, as if all her actions were preordained, already past—which, in the sense of the recorded film, they kind of are. Some of those directions are separated by days in terms of what we hear, seconds in terms of what we see, which means that one minutes-long shot may cover hours. Time here answers more to the functions of memory than to forward chronology, and not all that is seen is reliable. Akerman’s room begins as adequately furnished; in a few minutes, all there is in it is a mattress. She eats sugar out of a paper bag with a spoon, which I daresay would be very plausible in Belgium (and France, and Louisiana, etc.) if there were beignets in there, too. She takes off her clothes, lies on the mattress and drapes her clothes over herself. Is she naked or wearing clothes? Is she presentable? How can we be trusted to answer these questions when all we’re given to observe this woman is two-dimensional image and film?

These are the types of facts, inquiries and ambiguities that are at the center of Je, Tu, Il, Elle, a brief film that contributes to Akerman’s minimalist body of work, of which the most famous entry is the epic, near-perfect Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You have to wrestle with the nuances while watching this. Akerman’s technique is to lull you with long takes and surprise you out of your stupor with environmental shifts that start out small and get bigger. It sounds ludicrous and pretentious, but it is executed without flaw every time. Every turn of the mattress, every crinkle of the sugar bag, every change of lighting and every outdoor noise hold momentum. Even such simple revelations as a sink and a glass sliding door leading outside produce great jolts. Much of her technique torques around a scant use of close-ups and a dependence on wide angles. It is standard for a scene to begin with wide establishing shots and close in on the characters from there, but Akerman remains firmly in the wide perspective, and this permits her to emphasize how different one same room may look from a distinct standing position. The effect is disorienting, labyrinthine. Her camera looks at two walls for a long time, so when it looks at the other two walls to reveal what’s there, you feel it. And when she leaves the room—after half an hour of an under-ninety-minute film—and is next found standing by an elevated highway trying to thumb a ride, you realized that you’ve been played. You were just about ready to spend the entire film in that room, with just Akerman.

Je, Tu, Il, Elle is about the economics of art. Early in life, I was convinced that life could imitate art—that life could be free as art, that my antagonists could be impelled to see the errors of their ways with long and tenacious monologues, that the good guys always won in the end and had to win. Fuck, was I wrong, chiefly on the first point: art has myriad larger social, political and economic concerns nipping at its buds. Most artists starting out, for one, are poor—and Akerman, who was towards the beginning of her career when she made this (in 1976), is honest and vulnerable, perhaps even too much so, about her own destitution. Look at how she writes by longhand and lays each page of her script out on the floor side by side, tacking them down with some sticky substance. I can tell you as a writer that this is authentic. Everything in the film—the grainy B&W, the set designs, the actors’ acting and their bodies—is as stripped down as the title. No more is needed, really. Entire worlds are contained in that quartet of pronouns. People who are only invigorated by Hollywood melodrama are pathetic; this is a thousand times more riveting and more realistic. Using just herself and one room, Akerman demonstrates the difficulty of being an artist, creating genuine art in a Commerce-driven world and dealing with the solitude and dearth of publicity that comes on top of all that.

And that’s just the film’s first third. The rest of the film concerns her joyride with a sexually dubious truck driver (Niels Arestrup, the great French actor whom you may know from A Prophet and War Horse) and her steamy reunion with an ex-lesbian girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), when all manners of pent-up tension are at last released. Is this the film she was scripting in her room, which she is now actively creating and joining? Likely so. The takes here are longer. In one static shot in a restaurant, Akerman and Arestrup eat dinner while watching an American gangster movie on a TV off-screen. We hear the audio from it, in English, and the music and commercial excitement from it is enough to give us a break from the film’s formal rigors. Yet, in making the audience watch an audience of a genre picture, Akerman dares us to face the banality of most cinema, which we can and do frequently consume without concentration, while eating and multi-tasking and often looking away (as the director forces us to do here, placing the TV off-screen)—activities that are ill-advised while watching this particular film. There are some more arbitrary English-language media by way of the truck driver’s radio, and a couple more mundane barroom scenes. You realize what a fascinating time and place ‘70s Belgium/France was, until you realize that you don’t know where we are; it might be Britain, America, Québec. Such is the power of Akerman’s delocalization and destabilization. She brings the driver to orgasm (five minutes, one take). The driver discusses his vast sex life with her (ten minutes, one take). She meets with her ex, and after some Nutella sandwiches, they disrobe and move to the bed for an intense orgy, their bodies slamming against and pressing into each other like rubber before cunnilingus is exchanged (fifteen minutes, three takes). Not a second of this is boring.

Akerman’s portrayal of gender is curious. The masculine (Arestrup) is motional, clothed, talkative, out in the open but powerful; the feminine (her and Wauthion) is static, naked, introspective, sheltered yet—as aforesaid—vulnerable. This parallels the Last Tango in Paris of just a few years prior, and that’s a film of wanton testosterone. Is this another sign of Akerman’s humility? I don’t think so. Another strategy she uses is to only have one person or voice talking during each shot. If there are two people there, one is talking/active, and the other is listening/silent/passive. Even if these shots are meant to be in medias res—which is to say, in the middle of a mutual, two-way, social dialogue—this structure creates and implies a solipsism inherent in all monologue and hence all talk. In waxing rhapsodic, the driver exposes his narcissism, whereas the ex-girlfriend speaks little and the protagonist is virtually only heard in voiceover, in thoughts or in writing. Only through the body and through imbuing it with motion, agency, participation in life and action qua art, Akerman might be saying, can we achieve true, honest communication—and this is part of what makes the third-act Sapphic sex so refreshing. (We need much more female-mediated depictions of sex like this.) Her film only blossoms when her writing/thinking/speaking evolves into movement and action, which fosters conflict, narrative and—ultimately—preserved cinema. She throws all care to the wind and makes her movie and tells her story, in spite of—and because of—her barren poverty. Akerman is fast becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. She is an expert at using the shot to adapt, to relax, to hypnotize viewers; at using the montage to shock; and at crafting subtle, layered, precise, great performances. Je, Tu, Il, Elle testifies to that. It is equally challenging and rewarding; it is masterful.

Grade: A+

The Rest of the Week: Once again, my schedule bedevils me! Today was yet another busy day, which limited me to another shorter film, Close-up. The review on that could not come tonight, as this film was provocative enough to deserve its own post, so Close-up will be covered in depth tomorrow. I should be back on my preplanned schedule after this:
Tomorrow: Soldier of Orange.
Monday: A Woman Under the Influence.
Tuesday: Open Your Eyes.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”

31 Days of Cinema, Day Eight: “Atlantic City”

Of the four Louis Malle films I’ve seen—the other three being Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir Les EnfantsAtlantic City is the weakest, and though it is not a bad film, I found it disappointing considering how long I’ve wanted to see it and how thrilling I expected it to be. Malle was a fine crafter of war films, which is to say of urban and rural malaise in wartime, but the crime film is a different breed and I don’t think it was Malle’s strength. The narrative is of a classic mold: an aged ex-gangster, in this case Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), looks back on his glory days—to the extent that he had any glory days to begin with and isn’t deluding himself—and longs for one last chance to flex his muscles, and gets it. There’s nothing wrong with putting out your own take on a traditional story such as this, but you’ve either got to stick to its tragic, inevitable outcome (Le Samouraï, not a film about aging but still a great classicist example) or put a spin on it (Sexy Beast). Atlantic City does neither. It has a third act rife with potential for crisis and explosion—with a double murder, a guy bragging about it to everyone, a stolen car and a stolen stash of money—yet the characters walk away from the pigsty scot-free. What an unbelievable copout.

I could write that this occurs because the film has a European tone, which relies more on consistency and patience and less on notions of rising and falling actions than American cinema, but which doesn’t seem like the most proper filter for an American crime story. But that wouldn’t be a fair criticism. The script is by playwright John Guare, and the characterizations and dialogue thus come with quirks, elaborations and slices of exposition that would be fine for theatre but that don’t always work on film. At the story’s center is Lou’s friendship with Grace Pinza (Kate Reid), a widowed, bedridden, shrill hypochondriac living in a garish apartment with medicine-pink walls and the tawdriest gewgaws, whom Lou does favors for at his own expense. It’s a character you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect in a crime story, and it depends on Reid’s talents to sell it, which she does. Then, there’s Joseph (Michel Piccoli, the painter in La Belle Noiseuse, one of my favorite French films), the boss of the casino where Lou’s neighbor and love interest, the much younger Sally (Susan Sarandon), works at the oyster bar and trains as a baccarat dealer. He teaches Sally some French and tries to convince her to become a courtesan. He is a thoroughly unnecessary creation, a pathetic foil to Lou, and cannot be saved even by Piccoli’s immense stature. At other times, the acting doesn’t even bother to save the dialogue. Hollis McLaren, as Sally’s sister Chrissie, is a clichéd country girl with pigtails to boot, Robert Joy, as Sally’s estranged husband Dave, is stodgy and awkward. Fortunately, he is dispatched early on, in a deft action sequence set in a car elevator. The cocaine he stole from the Philadelphia mob—an entity represented here by a beefcake thug and a gunman in fedora and trench coat, two more clichés—ends up in Lou’s hands, setting the mob on Lou and Sally’s trail and giving the plot its thrust.

The plot is low-stakes; the script makes Dave out to be rather boorish, so his death doesn’t have much emotional impact on the ensemble, and the ending makes all that came before it look like good, clean fun. What’s more, the love story between Lou and Sally has not dated well. Oedipus complex aside, it hinges on Lou spying on Sally, through the window, going topless and exfoliating herself with lemon juice. This leads to some nifty cinematography (from Richard Ciupka), such as the opening shot that starts as a close-up on the lemons and ends in Lou’s apartment, but today, Lou comes off as a senile creeper, and the scene where Lou confesses his lust to Sally and Sally is moved to disrobe is seen for what it is: an implausible fantasy, barely rescued by Lancaster’s charisma and Sarandon’s emoting. What Malle and Guare leave us with is a jumbling of disparate genres and archetypes that don’t quite jive with each other, but that are by themselves mostly curious and well-acted enough to merit interest. So I’ll recommend this, though I’ve spent a lot of this review focused on the flaws, because I know Malle better than this. Now go watch Murmur of the Heart, and keep an open mind about the ending.

Grade: B-

Tomorrow: Another film that I have high hopes for, and that I am more confident will be a masterpiece: Marketa Lazarová.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Eight: “Atlantic City”