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

Review and Script Analysis: “Shallow Grave”

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Shallow Grave is a prime example of how a director and an ensemble can turn a merely good screenplay into a just-about excellent movie. For those budding filmmakers and actors who despair at the fact that they don’t have that much liberty in deciding which scripts they’ll film, here’s a useful lesson in how to make a narrative your own. John Hodge’s script is slick and straightforward, in and out in ninety-one pages, yet somewhat too Beckettesque for its own good. Minimalism has an appeal to playwrights and screenwriters in that it gives actors the room to do their work—most of the work, in fact—and it lowers the risk of the writers’ egos worming their way into the texts. The script truly becomes the skeleton on which the rest of the body functions. Yet, there is a distinction between being minimalist and being threadbare, and some of the characters and dialogue on paper feel lazy insomuch that an actor would be vindicated in feeling (s)he was left to do too much work. And when the script does leave minimalism alone and try to inject some creativity into the proceedings, there are snatches of dialogue that seem so literary, it turns jarring and unnatural for talk—particularly for the talk of the Scottish middle-crust lowlifes at the center of this story. So the script is too simple, and even in that respect, it’s inconsistent.

Thank God it was Danny Boyle and not someone as uncompromising as me who saw the potential in this script and ran with it. Nothing in Hodge’s rapid-fire, slender prose can prepare a reader for Boyle’s trademark visual flair, which seems to have already matured by the time he made this film—his debut. The vision of the auteur who would go on to make Slumdog Millionaire was already well developed here, at once driven and focused, chaotic and under control—which is to say, the narrative is chaos, but the perception of it is control. The opening minutes make this abundantly clear. After a brief voice-over soliloquy, a main theme by Leftfield kicks in, and the camera sends us hurtling through the cobblestone roads of Scotland and up the spiral steps to the flat in which the three main characters live. Read the script’s first page, then watch the film’s first couple of minutes. The first is an introduction; the second is a hook. It’s exhilarating. Boyle’s sense of place is firm and kinetic. The script makes the flat feel like a rundown rental that one might find in a retirement community. In the film, it’s the stable residence of a trio of well-off laborers and good friends—one an accountant, one a journalist, one a nurse—and full of details on which the narrative hinges: the primary colors, the transom above a critical room, the tall ladder stretching into the loft. The normalcy and pleasantness of the space makes the story’s tragedy and its central trio’s downfall all the more palpable, descending from way up high and landing hard.

David (Christopher Eccleston) is the accountant, Alex (Ewan McGregor) is the reporter and Juliet (Kerry Fox) is the nurse. They’re looking for a fourth roommate, or are they? They treat the process of searching for a new flat-mate as a joke, a test designed to be impossible to pass, to make those who take it feel foolish. They invite prospects in, trick them into getting comfortable, and then barrage them with ludicrous inquiries and offensive insinuations. We see this in a snappy montage. Script and film alike treat this early scene as pitch-black comedy—showcasing three friends with the same mordant, self-deprecating sense of humor, who get off on alienating everyone around them, and perhaps too each other. The script seems to remain in the vein of crime comedy à la Snatch, treating everything as a madcap maelstrom into the gallows and aiming to surprise us with how insane, irredeemable and out of their depth these characters become. Boyle knows better. He deceives us with the comedy of the opening minutes, then transitions by turns into moral drama, high-stakes psycho-thriller, and ruthless Greek tragedy. A writer named Hugo (Keith Allen) shows up, and the gang actually takes a liking to him and grants him the extra room. Hardly any time passes before he is found naked and dead of a drug overdose (suicide or accident?) with a trunk full of cash under the bed—and it’s downhill from there.

Oddly and ironically enough, McGregor and Fox’s performances don’t expand from the script as much as they let the dialogue rumble through their mouths and bodies. The subtleties in the language—the farcical misunderstandings, the near-slips of tongue—often appear to go unnoticed by character and actor alike, and the ludicrous scenario that develops feels more present and immediate because of it. The Scottish accent often does a lot of the work. Neither screenplay nor actors overcompensate for each other, and this is to the advantage of both. Casting here is more crucial than acting, which is all the better to allow McGregor to flesh out Alex’s sneering assholery and Fox to inhabit Juliet’s downplayed, cool bonhomie. The most challenging role belongs to Eccleston (now a fixture on HBO’s The Leftovers). In the script, David as a character feels cluttered, joining in on his friends’ ostensible roommate vetting, then demonstrating himself as a stubborn workaholic and a man with deep pangs of conscience, before finally revealing himself as a haunting and rigid figure of willpower, cruel and disturbing. Eccleston solves this issue by layering him, depicting him first as an unknown and private man, passionate about his job and in the background, with something dangerous and evil lurking deep in his subconscious that he’d rather not unleash, for the sake of everyone around him. Only it is unleashed, and once it is…oh boy. As for the other actors, Allen is so good in his scant time on-screen that I wanted more of him, and Ken Stott provides a center of classic British moral gravity late in the film, in a small but crucial role.

There’s much about the story I’m not giving away, and you’ll thank me for that. Seeing the film before reading the script may have made the story’s pivotal shocks more jarring, but the experience was no less organic and no less harrowing. The traditional tropes of good people turned bad by money and of good friends turned enemies by money are well worn out. Shallow Grave is almost how Beckett—and for that matter his protégé Pinter—might have spun such tropes. As the narrative deepens, the characters grow more complex, every gesture they commit and every word they utter a layer cake of lies, impregnable intentions, secret motivations, and leering intrigue. They all want the money. They all want as much of the money as possible. They’re willing to do grave things to grab it. They don’t trust each other. Things come to a head; no one wins; everyone is screwed. The script’s conclusion wraps the matter up too hastily. Fortunately, in the film, it feels slowed down, the three actors engaging in a patient Mexican standoff of words, lies, insults, retreats, wheedles, cons and intimidations before exploding into violent outbursts. I’ll have to watch this film again to trace all of the layers under the surface of David, Alex and Juliet. Who are these enigmatic people? What do they want? How do they aim to get it? How does such a great friendship as the one they have fall apart so horribly? It takes a great film to make us ask questions like this—questions about the very fundaments of narrative and life. Shallow Grave is great.

Grade: A

Review and Script Analysis: “Shallow Grave”

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”

When a people, a culture, a world enters the film industry for the first time, I welcome it gladly—and part of that welcoming is a critique of that culture’s inaugural film as a film in and of itself, equal to all others, no better or worse for its foreign novelty. The Fast Runner is the first-ever Inuit film—by which I say, the first film made entirely on Inuit terms, in their language, Inuktitut—and I think that some critics were quick to hail it as a masterpiece for this reason, a tendency that indicates to me a sort of racial condescension. “Oh look!” the attitude seems to be. “The Eskimos have discovered the cinema!” I am not so easily won over and not so enamored. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Runner adapts an ancient Inuit parable in which the titular athlete beds a woman betrothed to a rival clan’s prodigal son, ends up being framed for his older brother’s murder, and flees the premises. As an ethnography, of course, this is beyond criticism. The fur coats and tattoos; the construction of igloos; the way marine meat is prepared with a hammer; the openness towards sex; the treatment of sled dogs; the migration from snow to grass and river; the way life is lived—not just survived—in such a barren perpetual winter—these are all sights to behold. Critically, the Inuit culture values sport and physical strength, as one must be Spartan and horse-like to spend one’s life in the tundra of northern Canada. There are contests that routinely test such mind-blowing corporeal skills as kicking one’s feet up to knock down a pole and trying to use the back of one’s head to maneuver an elastic band off another’s hand. Similar contests—punching and mouth-pulling matches and such—serve as set pieces here. The scene in which the Fast Runner runs away from his brother’s slaughter, barefoot and nude, pecker literally in the wind, across snow and ice and stream in freezing weather, is marvelous, and one gains an immense trust and appreciation that the actors performed all their own stunts, with no stunt doubles (those jarring, albeit sometimes necessary, blemishes on agency and performance). Yet, as with most debut films, there are novice errors. The mise en scène is often lazy and generic; the actors often stand around like middle-school kids loitering in a park after hours smoking pot. Nearly three hours of that, where there could have been two, is hard to let pass. This is mainly a fault of the direction, though I do feel that the non-professional actors are overall better at small scenes between two or three people, for which their minimalism is more fit, than larger crowd scenes, which demand more incentive and animation. There are two pivotal scenes—a love scene in a crowded tent, and a coup d’état by stabbing—that are so absurd and so badly staged, I could not buy them, try as I might, and they nearly lost me. But they didn’t; The Fast Runner’s story is plenty gripping to recommend.

Grade: B

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In Dogville, the title village is constructed on a soundstage. The streets and the buildings’ floor plans are labeled in chalk. There are no ceilings, no walls, no windows, just some furniture—though the ensemble, in the tradition of theatre and by extension of cinema, acts like what’s missing is there, in character throughout. The existence of doors is mimed with action and sound effect, with no irony. We see the entire village population going about their day, performing quotidian tasks, within their walls, unaware of what’s going on beyond them—though we are. The camera may close in on action in one house and capture mundane movement in others, as if by accident, yet the actors on the periphery never let their guard drop. An entire culture is on display; we’re even allowed into these characters’ private thoughts, via John Hurt’s faux-literary narration. It goes to support what I wrote a few weeks back in my review of In Vanda’s Room: interiors are fallacious. Walls are not structures insomuch as they are concepts, secrets, barriers from knowledge, spheres of influence. More to the point, I don’t think this is a conceit (as some critics have said) but rather a different, more multi-dimensional way of perceiving life and action. The director, Lars von Trier, has given us access to see through walls as time travel would let us break those boundaries, to be omniscient. This—in tandem with the numerous shots looking straight down on the soundstage, depicting the actors’ heads as roving Pac-Man dots—convinces me that von Trier, in another of his endless controversial moves, wants us to play God, to exercise power, to judge these characters, to decide for ourselves between justice and mercy. It’s amusing how small, even petty, actors of the stature of Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany can look through the machinations and dissections of von Trier’s ruthless eye.

Dogville is an epic set in the American West during the Great Depression. Von Trier hates America. He’s never been to America, though I’m not yet sure whether that’s because he hates it or because he’s afraid of flying (maybe both). Dogville has been called anti-American—not that there’s anything wrong with that by itself, but some have thought it a narrow position to take, and a naïve one when the lack of time spent studying the location in person is considered. To this, I advise you to bear in mind: Shakespeare never visited any of the exotic European locales he wrote about. Also: the film is kept bound within its tiny, nondescript village isolated in the Rockies to the point where I bought it. It’s an allegory of America, and it can afford to be inaccurate and even a little trite, and von Trier can get away with using it as a cathartic dumping ground for his various spites against the nation (you can get much relief out of doing that) because he is a sophisticated artist. The story he tells—like most of his stories—is simple, even when the canvas is broad and the ensemble vast. He sets his narrative up as a game, with rules and goals built to focus and challenge their characters, rules and goals that are constantly shifting but always clear. Grace (Kidman), running from the mob, hides in Dogville. She befriends the deliberately named Tom Edison (Bettany), the town’s writer—hence an inventor, so to speak, of tales and ideas—who persuades the close-knit-to-a-fault town to let her take sanctuary there, provided that she serves each of them with labor. She educates the kids, does the laundry, tends to the gooseberry bushes, acts as a surrogate to fill in the townspeople’s many disabilities and dysfunctions. She labors to survive. Who hasn’t? The whole plot jumps from there.

Von Trier is not for everyone. Not every actor wants to work with him. He is unafraid to disturb, upset, provoke, in the name of his art. On the other side of that penny, he can be soapy. Yet even the worst soap opera can be rescued by good performances (Cf. Shakespeare), and Dogville’s broad motley cast is fascinating to watch. Where else can you watch something like Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson as the ultimate mismatched couple, the husband a philandering boor and the wife a tight-assed, prudish spinster who puts up with seven kids and schools Grace on Stoicism? Not to mention Lauren Bacall as the old miser mooching off the townsfolk with her beauty products and figurines and crafting a ludicrous etiquette to observe around her gooseberry bushes? And James Caan as the mob boss with a surprising connection to Grace? Add to that Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, etc., and you have all sorts of acting styles and archetypes clashing in such fashions that one has to applaud von Trier for having the imagination and chutzpah to put it all together, and the ensemble for putting up with him. I hesitate to give away anything else about the story. I will say, though, that while the other two von Trier films I’ve seen (Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac) stumbled if not fumbled on their endings, Dogville’s denouement is a success. It is brutal, maddening, but well-earned and inevitable. Von Trier may be insane, but he has a point and he makes it well: the village’s poverty does not excuse its crimes. Grace’s ultimate actions against Dogville may horrify us, but would we judge the town differently?

Grade: A

Tomorrow: Reviews for Aguirre, and Bicycle Thieves, which I watched instead of Lore due to timing issues.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”