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

Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

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The most seismic event in cinema in 2015 was not Star Wars. We all knew that The Force Awakens was going to be a glorified New Hope retread, made by Disney for an easy billion, and somehow, we were all too happy to fork over the cash and confirm the contemptible belief of Hollywood at large that the populace cares nothing for art and everything for regurgitated franchises, so why bother with art? That was all predictable. What no film buff saw coming was the death—on October 5, by apparent suicide—of Chantal Akerman, the French-Belgian daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who broke ground in 1975, when she was 25 (almost the same age as Orson Welles circa Citizen Kane), with her minimalist epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. This film is just under three and a half hours long, and it concerns itself entirely with the title character in her apartment, making meals, cleaning up, spending leisure time with her teenage son Sylvain, prostituting herself in the most drab and unsexy way possible, and doing other tasks. And somehow, it is as infinitely, compulsively watchable as the best of the early Star Wars trilogy, if not more than—and for this alone, it is an uncanny masterpiece. I’ve only seen two Akerman films to date—this and Je, Tu, Il, Elle—yet her death was as tough a blow for me as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. I’m almost 23. In the young, creative, brazen Akerman—her brunette hair fashionably shorn off at the chin—I see a lot of myself. She is already one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

Jeanne Dielman is often named among the first great feminist films—which Akerman considered a narrow label, stemming from the fact that female cineastes like her were (and remain) scarce, as were (are) films about women, or even about one sole woman. This may be a feminist statement by virtue of its very existence, true, and it certainly functions in a feminine register, but to imply that that is its primary significance is insulting. Ivone Margulies’ Criterion essay identifies domesticity, maternity and the duties inherent in them as the film’s primary themes. I think the film’s central theme is something more abstract—focus. Let’s be honest: most movies don’t demand your attention, much less your thought. Not the case here. There’s a reason Jeanne’s address is in the title alongside her name: her apartment is just as much a character in this film as her, and it may as well be perceived as her fellow co-protagonist. Her place of residence is latched onto her identity aesthetically as it is socially and politically. By my count, the film contains 218 takes (estimates on Cinemetrics are slightly greater) in 201 minutes, yielding an average shot length just under a minute. All of the shots are static, with zero pans, and quite a few stretch to five minutes—not as long as the typical artsy shots of Tarr, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, but still rather long, thus striking a steady balance between pacing and duration. Akerman and her great DP, Babette Mangolte, construct the interior shots so that they are often at table-height, above a seat directly across from where Jeanne may be cooking, eating, etc., dropping the spectator right into her world. Even more vitally and innovatively, all but a few of the film’s shots (and I will discuss those critical few) are rectilinear, head-on, flat-planed, never straying from the four cardinal directions—north, west, south, east. They are inscribed by the apartment’s rigid right angles and thus by its sphere of domesticity. Hence, they are extremely focused. If we focus along with the camera, by film’s end, we will have a total knowledge of the apartment’s layout, and also of Jeanne’s personality as reflected by it. Indeed, focus is Jeanne’s definitive quality—focused as she is on her daily chores. It is when her focus is distracted that the film’s conflict brews.

The film opens in medias res, as Jeanne is turning to grab some garnish (or so it looks) to add to a pot. For a couple of minutes, she prepares dinner. That’s the first shot. Second shot: we look down the apartment’s main hallway. She invites a man in, takes his coat, and guides him to her bedroom. Third shot: same angle, with a light change to indicate the time change. They exit the bedroom as clothed as they were when they walked in. Fourth shot: at the door. The man hands her some cash, says he’ll return, and exits. This is all we’re given and all we need to determine Jeanne’s profession, and where lesser filmmakers would have loaded the encounter with cynicism and detached superiority, Akerman settles for a Bressonian mix of simplicity and objectivity. Fifth shot: She moves the cash into a blue-white tureen in her dining room. Sixth shot: She resumes cooking potatoes in the kitchen. To Jeanne Dielman, prostitution is just another chore that has to be done to keep up the household—just another step in the recipe. As the opening minutes proceed, her character starts to take shape. She turns on the lights when she enters a room and turns them off when she exits it, which we can take to mean she’s frugal and doesn’t have much to pay for electricity. When she bathes, she does so thoroughly, not with troubled urgency but with casual duty—as if to say, this is part and parcel of being a courtesan—with no more grace and no less stoicism than she washes dishes in her kitchen sink. The gewgaws in her dining room cabinet are curious; there’s a dog figurine, but no dog to speak of. Akerman films most of this with zero dialogue. That is a true test of a filmmaker’s talent—to harness film’s potential by communicating purely through imagery, to an international audience. You could afford to watch this film with the subtitles off.

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The dialogue and subtitles that are there, on the contrary, provide some useful background. Jeanne is a widow; her husband has been dead for six years. She has a sister, Aunt Fernande, in Canada, who informs her by letter of her isolation (comparable, as Margulies implies, to Jeanne’s economic constraints) amidst that country’s wild blizzards. Sylvain attends a Flemish school, and is starting to develop a Flemish accent. Some background on Belgium: it’s sort of a mistake of a nation, cobbled together from leftover pieces of France and the Netherlands, and there’s been a mild linguistic apartheid between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish throughout its history. (Not to mention, it’s been exploited for battlegrounds in too many wars. World War II is still fresh in Jeanne’s mind, as we’ll discuss later.) Sylvain’s scarf is a curious costume choice in this regard. It’s a grey scarf, with two red stripes flanking two blue stripes from a distance. If we may call white a substitute for grey, then this scarf basically puts the French and Dutch flags (same tricolor pattern, different orientations) side by side, succinctly summating Belgium’s fractured national identity, and underscoring the growing distance between him and his mother. For his age, Sylvain is very sexually naïve and has no goddamn clue about his mother’s profession. “If I were a woman,” he quips, “I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with”—to which Jeanne deadpans, “How could you know? You’re not a woman.” Jeanne’s kin network is hence very scattered and very unfocused; one wonders if the prostitution is meant to fill the husband’s vacancy, or if it is merely a concern of Commerce—of the basic economics of making a damn living while remaining within one’s own secure domestic sphere. This push-and-pull between aesthetic/personal concerns and capitalism is just as foundational to cinema, and thus best depicted in the realm of cinema.

In aligning with the apartment’s urban geometry, Mangolte’s camera convinces the audience to reciprocate by constructing the apartment in their own minds. One of the ways the cinematography lulls us into Jeanne’s sense of routine is by initially restricting the number of angles from which each location is shot. In the film’s first half, for the most part, we only see the kitchen from two angles: east, from the doorway, pointing to the porch door; and north, across the table, towards the counter and stove. Same with the dining room: east, across the table, looking into the main hallway; and north, gazing into the living room. (I operate under the convenient assumption that the hallway points north to the bedroom.) The bedroom is seen from three angles: east and west, across the bed; and south, on the corner of the room where Jeanne gets dressed. The exceptions occur to signal either a shift in perspective or a jolt in Jeanne’s concentration, or both. Whenever we see the dining/living room from the south, for instance, it is to reflect Sylvain’s point-of-view. This first occurs when Jeanne helps Sylvain recite Baudelaire’s “The Enemy” by memory—a very gendered moment, as while Sylvain’s male privilege gives him greater access to artistic/literary leisure, Jeanne’s interactions with language are reduced to regurgitating the contents of Aunt Fernande’s letter, which serves to make Akerman’s prolix cadences and ellipses of silence even more sexually fraught. The disconnect between mother and son is strong. Jeanne instructs Sylvain twice, “Don’t read while you eat,” yet they don’t have any productive discussions during—nor after—dinner. After, Sylvain puts his textbooks on the dinner table to study only to be forced to remove them so that Jeanne can wipe the table down. Then, when Sylvain is tucked into bed (his mattress folding out from a boxy couch in the living room), as if to make up for lost time, he blurts out all his insecure feelings about sex, which his mother has neither the patience nor the stamina to respond to efficiently.

We adapt to these regimented perspectives insomuch that when—in the second half—we view familiar rooms from new orientations, the effect is jarring. It is an immense credit to Akerman and to editor Patricia Canino that by film’s end, we’d feel very cozy in this apartment, but the journey to that end is frequently disorienting. (I’d forgotten until my second viewing that the kitchen is across from, not next to, the dining room.) For one, we’re tricked into thinking that the film is divided into three chapters for three days, when it is best viewed as a two-chapter story—each half covering an evening routine, followed by a morning routine, with the encounter between Jeanne and her third john providing a climactic coda. (In a humorous touch, it is implied that Jeanne has one john assigned to each day of the week, as with her dinner meals, hence three johns in the film.) Also, the first time the camera looks west on the kitchen—i.e. towards the hall—it indicates Jeanne’s remembering that she made the rare mistake of forgetting to turn the bathroom light off. Later that night, the east-facing camera is placed uniquely on the threshold between dining and living room—Sylvain in the latter, Jeanne in the former—to presage Sylvain reminding Jeanne to turn on the radio as she does all nights. And what to make of the fact that Jeanne sleeps facing away from the bedroom door, but has sex facing towards it?! Spaces we thought we knew are given new dimensions through such montages. Jeanne Dielman is a film better experienced than written about; it contains some of the subtlest and most effective smash cuts in all of cinema.

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As you may have gleaned by now, this is a film that accumulates its momentum from the smallest possible vicissitudes—the minor irritations that distract Jeanne from and frustrate her routine, and that build up to a catastrophe. The crack in her focus begins, I think, when she is preparing for her second john and notices a hair out of place on her rounded coiffure, which she struggles to get back into place. She never really recovers from that. From that point further, she becomes lax with her apartment’s lighting, drops objects, overcooks and runs out of food, arrives at places outside of her apartment too early and too late, neglects to put the lid on her tureen full of illicit earnings (!), makes errors in her wardrobe, etc. For all his naïveté, Sylvain’s focus starts to eclipse hers; it is he who notices in one scene that she missed a button, to her veiled chagrin. The simplest way to contextualize this shift in atmosphere is to recognize, as many critics remind us, that Akerman’s mother and aunts—the models for Jeanne—were Holocaust survivors. Is Jeanne Jewish? (There has to be some way of telling whether the meals she makes in this visual cookbook of a movie are kosher.) Was she targeted for genocide and thus traumatized by WWII? Are her isolationism, her insularity and her routines constructed to stave off and shelter herself from her trauma, and to give herself a domestic sphere of sovereignty, if not power? Is her gradual loss of focus due to the inexorable return of trauma to her consciousness, or is the trauma simply filling the vacancies in her thoughts caused by her various miniature accidents? Jeanne Dielman is in that rare tradition of postwar films (Harold and Maude is another) that manage to keep their central conflict completely latent and nuanced. It is from the total abstraction of Jeanne’s prior sufferings that it gains much of its energy.

Do not read the next paragraph unless you have seen the film. You do not want this particular film’s ending spoiled.

It is in that regard that the film’s few diagonal camera angles become salient. I counted nine diagonals total, in this film of 218 shots. Two of them are on Jeanne and her first two clients as they return to the apartment’s front door post-coitus, exchange cash, and say their goodbyes. They may indicate Jeanne’s essential autonomy as a woman to decide the parameters of her sexual relations—in particular, when they end—which liberate her just slightly enough from her rigid urban confines. Three diagonals are set on a mirror image of Jeanne as she rides the elevator in her apartment building. Mirrors of course provide Jeanne a conduit of self-reflection, which foreshadows the cataclysmic decision she makes in the film’s final four shots, all of which are oblique. In the fourth-to-last shot, Jeanne removes her clothes in front of a mirror and a framed photo of her with her husband—past and present dichotomized—while off-screen, the third john coughs. The third-to-last, which shows him and her having sex on the bed, is the film’s only downward angle; Jeanne’s body is brought to orgasm but she does not appear to enjoy it. The penultimate shot, in which all the main action is viewed through said mirror, is the film’s payoff. Where her other clients left politely, Jeanne’s third man resumes reclining on the bed, perhaps expecting more. Seeing this through the mirror, Jeanne spots a pair of scissors she left on her desk next to her husband’s photo, which she earlier used to open a gift that Fernande had promised to send her in her letter. (The gift is an ugly pink shirt that does not jibe with the deep whites, yellows and blue-greens of Jeanne’s—and Akerman’s—preference.) What happens next transforms that gift into a perfectly deployed Chekhov’s gun—a deft twist in the narrative of a seemingly uneventful film: on a whim, Jeanne grabs the scissors, and fatally stabs the third john in the neck. Coming after over three hours calculated to avoid all forms of sensationalism, this simple murder produces a staggering magnitude. Jeanne’s apartment has failed to keep her safe from the oppressions and agonies of the world beyond, and to restore her much-damaged senses of focus and security, she lashes out against the intrusive force of the john. The final, five-minute shot is of her in her dining room, alone, her clothes bloodied, breathing in and out, eyes opening and closing, head lolling once or twice, listening to the outside noises of terrain and honking, recovering from her deed. (This shot is only barely jagged; pay attention to the dresser behind her.) She has the capacity, I imagine, to complete the mundane task of covering up the murder. Then again, Sylvain is more than likely about to arrive home…

How did Chantal Akerman pull this off? These three and a half hours of a woman doing chores are seriously accessible, never boring, always gripping, and paced perfectly. Much of it is still a mystery to me—even while whatever is in this film that may be called technique is about as straightforward as Mangolte’s camera. It should not go with my saying that credit is due to Delphine Seyrig, the late, legendary Lebanese-born actress who commands almost every frame of this film playing Jeanne. Her performance does not for one second rely on anything overt to seize our attention and ease the narrative’s formalist difficulty. She works entirely within Akerman’s minimalism, channeling and creating her entire character with the quietest of gestures, interacting with the household as a narrative agent in its own right, and allowing the aura of tension around her to build up in increments. Every acting choice she makes is deliberate but never forced. This is one of cinema’s greatest performances, as well as one of its best marriages of actress and director. Jan Decorte, as Sylvain, matches Seyrig in all his scenes, bringing an appropriate note of leery, pasty-faced, smug sexual anxiety to the proceedings that in effect make him an efficient Oedipal foil to his mother and her johns. (This is Decorte’s only noteworthy film role; he has done most of his work in theatre and has also been involved in Belgian politics.) Whoever did the sound design also deserves citation; all of this film’s aural cues—from the radiator hums and exterior street sounds to the baby who only cries when Jeanne is nearby—are intentional, percussive, and immaculate. All things considered, though, the true star here is and will always be Akerman. With Jeanne Dielman, she gave herself a strict experimental challenge and executed it flawlessly, with aplomb—and that is enough for a masterpiece. As much as we crave the spectacle and bombast of franchise films, I think we underestimate our capacity to appreciate when film reflects back to us our lives as we live them, with all their blunt monotony and banal distractions. This is what makes Jeanne Dielman significant. We can neither ignore nor neglect her, because we are her. Something tells me that overall, women would understand that better than men.

In memory of Chantal Akerman, and the victims of terrorism in Brussels, the Middle East, and all over.

Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

Landscape in the Mist is elemental. It begins with two kids, an adolescent girl and her younger brother, walking towards a train station. They are unsupervised—a bizarre sight in the U.S., yet a familiar one in Europe, and as it turns out, we’re in Greece. The girl, Voula, asks her brother, Alexander, if he’s afraid; he says no, and they’re off. In two long takes, we see them head to the platform, but they’re interrupted by an adult and just miss boarding the train. We’re later given to understand that they’ve been told their father is in Germany, and they’d like to go meet him. Minutes later, they return to the station, in what at first feels like a total retread of the opening scene—only this time, there are no adult obstacles, and they board the train without conflict. This one simple change creates an exhilarating sensation. These two kids are indeed unafraid. They’re motivated, and we’re more than thrilled to join them on their journey, whatever the nature of it. Few if any films have as indelible and as effortless a hook as this one.

More through mood and implication than through dialogue, we learn early on that their mother told them on a whim that their father’s in Germany. In reality, she doesn’t know who the father is. Voula overhears an uncle speak to the effect of this—dismissively, talking to a railroad officer, while toying with knobs in his power plant—and accuses him of lying. Does she believe he’s lying? Or is she in denial of what her uncle says, and preferring to cling onto the myth of having a father? It doesn’t matter. We believe in the myth, too, because it’s what gives these scrappy young kids—and this film—their drive and their will to live, not to mention that film is myth. Landscape was made in 1988, in the twilight of the Cold War, but geopolitics mean nothing to our two protagonists and don’t discourage them. They may as well mean nothing to us, either. The USSR was on the verge of dismantling for good. Not unlike Kieslowski—who would move from his native Poland to France in The Double Life of Véronique one year later—this film’s director, Theo Angelopoulos, gazes westward. Horace Greeley’s urge to “Go West” applies well to the Europe of this time. For these kids, that urge is primal, and we root for them without thought. They are innocent, unadorned, precocious, and beautiful. No setup need be contrived to make them likable to an audience. We can jump into their lives and their travels without a second wasted.

You don’t need to be a film expert to understand why the train is the most critical symbol in all of cinema. Film as we know it owes its existence to the railroad industry more than anything else. Lynne Kirby’s Parallel Tracks, a two-pronged case study of the railroad and its rôle in developing early cinema, is a useful primer on this subject, and I will not sully it by summarizing it. (I used it extensively for my Haverford senior thesis.) So when Angelopoulos shows several interludes of Voula and Alexander riding trains through the Hellenic country—sitting in the aisle, sans tickets, cold and lonely, thinking of what they would say to their father—he’s cluing us in on how their journey is, among other things, a journey through film. The ever-forward movements of people, vehicles and film reels are one and the same in Angelopoulos’ eye, and this is the proper viewpoint. Landscape—like all, not most, all great films—is a commentary on film and hence on itself—its fallacy, its fragmentation, its sense of coming into these lives at a random moment in time, for a random length of time, only to capture an unsatisfying sliver of an eternity. Look at how keenly Angelopoulos isolates and calls attention to each of the bare bones of film production: theatre costumes hanging off a bus roof just like clothes hang off bodies, a violinist who steps into a restaurant to perform the film’s main musical theme for Alexander, a building floor plan in front of which one character holds up a scrap of film found in a pile of trash. That scrap shows a few frames of the title landscape, shrouded in mist, and we’ll see them again later, not as a separate film but as apart of this story. Like the floor plan, Angelopoulos here reveals his story’s structure: it’s a Möbius strip, allowing us to glimpse across at where the end will circle back around to the beginning.

It makes sense, too, for Voula and Alexander’s cinematic journey to intersect with cinematic journeys of past. A biker named Orestes meets them by chance on the road, takes a liking to them, and decides to guide them to the border. He’s an update of a character from another Angelopoulos film, The Traveling Players, a four-hour historical epic in which an acting troupe traverses Greece putting on productions of the show “Golfo the Shepherdess”, which are ceaselessly interrupted by WWII, the Communist coup and lesser quibbles. (The troupe itself is a modernization of the cast of characters from the Oresteia.) We of course see the troupe again here, and they’re in even worse shape than in the first story. They hold an open rehearsal for the two kids on a beach, and they don’t even get beyond their show’s prologue before the news comes that they’ve lost their venue. Later, to Orestes’ chagrin, they pawn their costumes. You see, interruptions are crucial to Angelopoulos—pitch-blackly comical interruptions that stop narratives before they can end, that mercifully stop narratives that seem to never end, yet that initiate their own Sisyphean process by which a story is repeated and dragged out for an eternity. (Compare to the kids trying to retell the Book of Genesis, then admitting, “This story will never end.”) The director’s writing partner here is Tonino Guerra, who also wrote for Fellini. Into this framework, Guerra inserts a jarringly random scene in which Voula, Alexander and Orestes watch as a helicopter lifts a large stone hand out of a bay. This is of course a riff on the opening of La Dolce Vita, in which a chopper, while transporting a statue of Christ across town, pauses above a rooftop to give the paparazzi a chance to flirt with the sunbathers. Here, the statue is reduced to a single appendage, stripped of all religious context and irony, opaquely and pathetically reaching towards land it can never grasp. The erosion of history is inexorable.

So, fragmented as it is, the story is by essence told in vignettes, which are paced with extreme care across just eighty-five takes (give or take a couple) in a hair over two hours. I could wax rhapsodic about any one vignette. Instead, I’ll focus on three, which stand out as some of cinema’s greatest set pieces:

#1: The horse. Like all journeys, Voula and Alexander’s involves experience, learning, coming of age. Film often portrays such things through sentiment and cliché. Yet, the lessons that these characters learn in this narrative are often painful and challenging, and Angelopoulos does not shy away from them. This is clear from one miniature mortality drama, in which the kids stumble into a town and find their path crossed by a carriage dragging a dying horse behind it. The horse’s suffering moves Alexander to tears. Meanwhile, a jubilant wedding party goes by, dancing, drinking, laughing, unaware of a life coming to an end nearby them. (Weddings are a big deal to this filmmaker, too.) They’ll never know that they could’ve witnessed this animal’s death, yet it is telling that Angelopoulos includes them in the scene, as he refuses to let their oblivion stand as an excuse to their ignorance. We must be vigilant, he seems to say. We must understand and never deny that there is death amidst life. Voula and Alexander understand that, and they take the time to mourn the horse and exhaust their grief, even when it hurts. The way Angelopoulos melds and juxtaposes these two spheres of feeling—joy and agony—is ingenious. 

#2: The truck. [Trigger warning.] The people who the kids encounter on their odyssey run the gamut from humane and genuine to vile and predatory. At the low end of that spectrum is a truck driver who the kids hitch a ride from in a rainstorm. The driver’s a creep—that much is made clear rather quickly—but that’s little preparation for the scene when he pulls off the road and orders Voula to get out. She senses something afoot and runs away, but the driver outruns her, carries her into the container, and rapes her. The incident takes place in one long static shot on the back of the truck, which has a tarp covering it. We see nothing. The truck itself looks hideous, but if you were flipping the channels and coming upon this scene and taking it out of context, you wouldn’t know what was going on. Nothing seems to happen. Cars keep driving. Alexander leaves the truck and calls for his sister. Two of them pull to the curb, and a brief exchange occurs between their passengers before they get back on the highway, oblivious to the trauma occurring nearby them. Our suspicions are only confirmed after the truck driver reemerges from the container, unfazed yet unsatisfied, followed by Voula, bleeding from the legs and stunned. There’s a case to be made for this being the best depiction of rape in cinema—not for the purity with which it fulfills the Hitchcockian ideal of leaving the trauma off-screen to make it even more terrifying, but for its perfect demystification of rape as a real-world issue. We as the audience are the drivers on the highway, absorbed in mundane banality. Somewhere in this world right now, as I write this and as you read this, someone is likely getting raped, and we may well never know a thing about it.

#3: The dance. Voula’s innocence protects her, somewhat. She’s been hurt physically, yes, but she cannot yet fully register the significance of her trauma, as she does not yet comprehend sex. Neither she nor the film dwell on her rape; she and Alexander abandon the truck driver and keep on heading north, pressing towards the border, eventually reuniting with Orestes. The assault is only referred obliquely, in two more scenes. The first is set on a beach, on which some furniture is set. Nearby speakers are playing a Western punk tune—of course, since as the kids go further west, so does the music. Orestes invites a hesitant Voula to dance with him, and he barely does a two-step before she is moved to run away and collapse in tears. One might think that she’s struggling to trust him because of what she has endured. But when one listens to what Orestes tells a concerned Alexander right after, another shade of meaning is added to the scene: Voula is in love with Orestes. The pain of her trauma doubles the pain she feels amidst falling in love with her guardian, and Voula—once an innocent blank slate—is transformed into a character of enormous depth and palpability. This is not least because—and I think she knows this—her romance with Orestes is doomed from the start, as he is older and intends to join the Greek army soon, and the later scene of their final parting is shattering. Oh yeah, and there’s that second scene, when Voula runs into a figure that has been called the antithesis of the truck driver, the other end of the moral spectrum, a figure of charity and honor. This scene, which I better not spoil, portrays a complex scenario of misunderstanding with little dialogue and provides a tremendous emotional payoff.

Landscape is among the rare breed of film that’s so good, you cherish all the small details: the way a snowfall slowly freezes everyone in a town, the way Yorgos Arvanitis’ camera and Yannis Tsitsopoulos’ editing juxtaposes columns on a train station platform with mammoth smokestacks, the haunting motif of long roads curving off to the right and disappearing in mists of fog and darkness. You wonder about all the little people captured on film and where they are today and what they might be doing right now if they’re still alive, as if this were a documentary. That long row of cars driving along Thessaloniki Bay as the stone hand broods over them—who are their drivers? Where did they come from? What errands are they on? Where did they go? Such is the power of this film, to seem like life even at its most fantastical moments, to make you imagine the abstract and unknowable. Even this film’s principal actors have a touch of obscurity to them, at least here in the U.S. Stratos Tzortzoglou (Orestes) has had a solid acting career, yet Tania Palaiologou (Voula) has only had a few other roles, all of them in Greece, and this is the only known film role of Michalis Zeke (Alexander), on whom the Internet hardly has any information. All three give dynamite performances here. It’s astonishing how much these young actors put their bodies into the task of fleshing out the lumbering gravitas of the journey, and the physical toll of time. It would be an honor to get in touch with any one of them today. As for the late Angelopoulos, he was and remains honored in Europe—having won the Silver Lion at Venice and the Best European Film Award for this—and has been championed by the likes of Scorsese and Kurosawa. In the U.S., he is criminally unknown; no film of his but this one has been distributed in U.S. theaters. I imagine he felt that neglect. Observe the scene where the violinist plays the main theme (by Eleni Karaindrou), and the owner of the diner kicks him out midway, favoring economy over art. A rude interruption, indeed, even if he gets some applause from Alexander. Film buff or not, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

What happens at the end is unshakable. It’s tragic, it’s beautiful, I haven’t figured it out, and I don’t think I want to. Are Voula and Alexander in Germany? Eden? Both? Their ideal versions of either? Have they left reality and entered the myth of cinema? Or where they ever in reality to begin with?

This film is available for free on Amazon Prime, with English subtitles.

Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

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”