Saturday, March 31, 2012

Of Time and the City
















OF TIME AND THE CITY – Digital Beta video          A-                   
Great Britain  (74 mi)  2008      site       "Of Time and the City" Trailer on Vimeo 

The golden moments pass, and leave no trace.  —Anton Chekhov

Davies’ passionate documentary about his hometown of Liverpool, England is given a scorchingly personal view, blending superb archival footage with his own acerbic thoughts that he narrates, reading literary passages, poems, and using an exceptional musical soundtrack to punctuate his feelings.  Sometimes movies have the effect of speaking to you as if you’re the only person in the room.  This film has that effect.  Interesting that the writers are acknowledged throughout the film, but not the many poets who are fully integrated into the Davies narrative.  Do not miss the opening segment which is a marvel of invention, as the director lures us into his world Of Time and the City: A love song and a eulogy  YouTube (6:28), which at least initially resembles other British war documentaries of the 40’s like Humphrey Jennings LISTEN TO BRITAIN (1942) which depict a country uniting under a common cause despite obvious social deprivation.  But then we are introduced to his distinctly erudite voice, like a raspy call from beyond the grave where we hear him speak of darkness and God, as if we spend our lives learning to differentiate between the two.  Davies was a devout Catholic where the ideology of the church was not so much a religion as an imposed indoctrination, an imprinted way of life from which he could not waver, where he may as well have been born into piety.  But as he familiarizes himself with literary works and observes the trappings of the world failing to live up to those high standards, doubting the existence of God appears to be among the first places he started.

At times bitingly sarcastic, yet exquisitely to the point, Davies appears to be having a rollicking good time (at our expense) with his recollections from his own life, like the touch of a boy beside him, the sweaty warmth coming from the enormous bodies of male wrestlers, the sins of the flesh accompanied by a repressed society around him where homosexuality was illegal in Britain during the 50’s, recounting in humor a judge's definitive description of horror when sentencing two male lovers, his immersion into cinema that perhaps replaced his interest in the church, his developing love of literature, and after hearing no divine call from the darkness, his descent into atheism.  Davies paints a portrait of a once thriving working class city whose status is elevated by the religious overtones of John Taverner’s “The Protecting Veil.” John Tavener - The Protecting Veil - YouTube (6:48).  But he also shows endless rows of graffiti-laden tenement buildings where children play amidst the brokendown rubble of cracked concrete.  Davies mocks the inane immorality of such extravagant wealth spent on the British royal family while England contains some of the worst slums in all of Europe, while Peggy Lee sings to the lush, romantic tones of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Of Time and the City -- The Folks who Live on the Hill YouTube (3:36).

Perhaps his biggest ire is reserved for how it was all thrown away, how the beauty and splendor and grandiosity of art and architecture and the idea of a fraternal community of man was turned into images of factory workers going to work in the dirtiest, grimiest parts of town, where filth and factories were joined by housing projects and uniformly tasteless concrete monstrosities all of which rapidly decayed and in no time turned into rot and ruin, leaving behind no trace of the city he once loved.  Of course, the Beatles and the Hollies were from Liverpool, where the song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” Of Time and the City -- He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother YouTube (2:37) plays to images of uniformed soldiers lined up in columns marching off to yet another war, a taunt actually to the pervasive feeling after the collective international effort of fighting a war that would end all wars when all men were considered brothers and how the song was mangled into incomprehensible sentiment by the sudden popularity of rock “n” roll which he disliked immensely (eventually leaving Liverpool in 1973), where he was driven away by pop music directly into classical where he discovered Mahler’s “every overwrought note.”  Gorgeously interweaving images of everlasting immortality among those of ruin and decay, Davies uses the sublime beauty of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony (“Resurrection”) Gustav Mahler - Urlicht - YouTube (5:08), an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, where we hear the last faint earthly echo, the song of a nightingale, a hushed quiet before the final spiritual transcendence is transformed into a chorale of radiant glory that overwhelms and enthralls.  Davies does an excellent job dealing with his own wrath, the bitter pill of being human, finding cinematic expression that reaches a lofty plateau through its own intellect and self examination, a classic cinematic essay that exalts in its timeless status.    

Friday, March 30, 2012

Distant Voices, Still Lives
















DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES                A
Great Britain  (87 mi)  1988  d:  Terence Davies
Distant Voices, Still Lives Trailer - Video Dailymotion (2:54)

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er
And neither have I wings to fly.
O go and get me some little boat,
To carry o'er my true love and I.

A-down in the meadows the other day
A-gath'ring flow'rs both fine and gay
A-gath'ring flowers, both red and blue,
I little thought what love could do.

I put my hand into one soft bush,
Thinking the sweetest flow'r to find.
I prick'd my finger to the bone
And left the sweetest flow'r alone.

I lean'd my back up against some oak,
Thinking it was a trusty tree.
But first he bended then he broke,
So did my love prove false to me.

Where love is planted, O there it grows,
It buds and blossoms like some rose;
It has a sweet and pleasant smell,
No flow'r on earth can it excel.

Must I be bound, O and she go free!
Must I love one thing that does not love me!
Why should I act such a childish part,
And love a girl that will break my heart.

There is a ship sailing on the sea,
She's loaded deep as deep can be,
But not so deep as in love I am;
I care not if I sink or swim.

O love is handsome and love is fine,
And love is charming when it is true;
As it grows older it groweth colder
And fades away like the morning dew.

B.Britten & P.Pears - O Waly, Waly - YouTube in a historic live performance (3:46)

Despite being listed in 2007 as the third greatest film in British history in Time Out’s 100 Best British Films, listed after #2, A THIRD MAN (1949) and #1, DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), or listed as the 9th greatest film worldwide in the past 25 years in Sight and Sound’s 2002 poll of selected British critics, BFI | Sight & Sound | Modern Times, the British newspaper The Guardian calls the film "Britain's forgotten cinematic masterpiece.”  Set in the 1940’s post-war working class community in Liverpool, shot in washed out sepia tones, the film resembles the experience of glancing through an old family photograph album or scrapbook, offering a glimpse of faded memories.  Using a Joycean stream-of-conscious style and novelistic detail, this is an experimental, non-narrative film that works as an interactive memory play, because as the audience views what’s onscreen, simultaneously they may be lost in rhapsodic thoughts of their own.  While this is a distinct period piece that is actually two films, shot using the same actors two years apart, it begins with family portraits that come to life, moving freely between various time periods, as characters go back and forth between adulthood and childhood.  One focal point is a small photograph of the director’s real life father (who died when he was six) which hangs on the wall, often centered between carefully composed tableaux of portrait-like shots of the family facing the camera, a presence that remains even after they walk away.  Peter Postlethwaite plays the abusive wife-and-child-beating father, shown to have a dour mood, a fierce temper and quickly changeable moods, yet his impact is enormous even as he dies early in the opening segment.  His family is haunted by his absence, somehow tarnished by his wretched and miserable existence, but still a force to be reckoned with that hangs over the rest of the film like a specter of gloom. 

Opening with audio cues, Distant Voices, Still Lives on Vimeo (4:39), voices are heard before the characters appear, which typifies the unusual structure of the film, as shot dissolves move from memory to memory, largely consisting of events being recalled by different family members, creating a mysterious living theater where memories come to life, often set to song, like Ella Fitzgerald singing “Taking a Chance on Love” “Distant Voices, Still Lives” « Distant Voices YouTube (2:18).  Freda Dowie plays the long suffering mother, Angela Walsh the more reflective older sister Eileen, Lorraine Ashbourne the embittered younger sister Maisie (“He was a bastard and I bleedin’ hated him”), while Dean Williams plays brother Tony.  While the film is autobiographical, there is no one in the film who represents the filmmaker, who in real life is the youngest child of ten children.  Whatever story there is consists of a funeral, three weddings, a baptism, and an extended scene in a pub where one after another different characters break out in song, like the light and breezy  “Brown Skin Girl” Visual quote from Terence Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives - YouTube (1:40), but also Eileen singing the heartbreakingly poignant “I Wanna Be Around” “Distant Voices, Still Lives” « Distant Voices YouTube (2:27).  Characters simply blurt out songs as they would thoughts or sentences, where this unique and distinguished style reflects a continuing inner dialogue with the audience.  Davies also uses other carefully chosen pieces of music, such as Hymn to the virgin - Benjamin Britten - YouTube  (3:33), Harold Darke’s rendition of what has become a British Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” Kings College Choir, Cambridge - In the bleak ... YouTube (4:14), and the soprano section (Rebecca Evans sings soprano here, while it is Susan Bullock on the film recording) of the final movement of Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 (Pastoral) Finale - IV Lento YouTube (11:20).

A darker and more difficult work than The Long Day Closes (1992), much of this recalls James Joyce short story The Dead, especially the meticulous, novelistic detail of specific events being recalled by someone much later in life, where a similar effect is the startling naturalness of the memories, which evolve over time, as people may mature and find a way to live with the ghosts of the past.  Much of it taking place so close after the war, the entire nation was similarly traumatized by the same events, finding it difficult to rebuild their lives on anything resembling stable footing.  Davies signature move is to juxtapose moments of happiness followed immediately by incidents of brutality, where this jarring effect has a way of drawing attention to the interior worlds of the people who magically come alive onscreen.  Perhaps the most stunning is a scene of the father tenderly tip-toeing into the children’s room, sleeping three in a bed, on Christmas Eve, quietly hanging their stockings before becoming consumed with rage at the next day’s Christmas dinner.  Told as a series of vignettes all strung together, where movies and radio are captivating the nation, beautifully expressed here with the escapist romanticism of umbrellas in the rain while hearing “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” “Distant Voices, Still Lives” « Distant Voices YouTube (1:55), which contrasts vividly with the stark reality of a nation in ruins, where the men in particular are brutish and revoltingly short-sighted, where their shortcomings reflect a dysfunctional spirit even as they sit together and sing communally in the local pub, all displaying basic survivor’s instincts at their best as they try to maintain their resolve while collectively keeping their wits about them.  A poetic evocation of courage and transcendence with an utterly celestial finale, this film celebrates the humanity often thought lost when enduring horrible tragedy, something of an homage to a nation that refused to accept the humiliation of defeat, where the scars of the past become a redemptive and transformative agent of recovery. 

Declaration of War (La Guerre est Déclarée)














DECLARATION OF WAR (La Guerre est Déclarée)              C                    
France  (100 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Valérie Donzelli

A stylistically interesting but overly cute depiction of a grave autobiographical subject, the discovery of a brain tumor of an 18-month old child, told with a lighthearted flair by the parents, given a stylistically superficial flourish that simply wipes the grim reality away, out of sight, out of mind, as this contemporary love story instead accentuates the journey of the parents, focusing all the attention on them.  Written and acted by the real parents, directed by the mother, this feels like a somewhat deluded, self-congratulatory story, where the pretentious, overly exaggerated French tone feels wrong from the outset, yet this film was invited to open the Critics’ Week at Cannes, was nominated for 6 César Awards in France, the equivalent of their Academy Awards, and has received much critical acclaim.  So what gives?  One would have to compare a similarly morbid story by Gus van Sant in Restless (van Sant) (2011), a romance of young adolescent lovers where one is terminally ill, which received some of the worst critical reviews in his entire career, yet what van Sant does is reveal the fragility and tenderness of two damaged souls who have no one else on the planet, capturing their alienated spirit with a kind of clever teenage goofiness that endears us to their characters.  But these two, given the melodramatic names Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli), star crossed lovers from the outset who lock eyes across a crowded room in a punk bar, never for one second feel authentically real, always pretending to be upbeat and happy, where their romance is accentuated by the frenzied string music of Vivaldi Antonio Vivaldi - The Four Seasons: Winter YouTube (8:19) before they discover the news, where the jolt of reality takes years before it finally hits them. 

The film details every step along the way of the grim journey, including the initial medical procedures and surgery, which leads to an evolution from the less serious initial prognosis to the discovery of a rarer, more rapidly spreading kind of cancer, leading to revised doctor reports from more thorough tests, where breaking the news to the awaiting family with high hopes that gather after the initial operation is an exasperating expression of utter delusion, where the parents refuse to hear what the doctors are communicating and instead delude themselves and their entire families into believing a successful operation means a full recovery, but recovery time literally takes years, with follow up radiation and chemotherapy, where the child’s life is in danger the entire time, with only a 10% chance of recovery.  But instead of focusing on the truth, the young couple continues to lead their life as if nothing has changed, where they go out drinking and dancing and partying with their friends, visiting their son in the hospital during the day.  Eventually the economic reality takes its toll, with neither parent working, as they have to sell their home and move into the hospital wing which provides a bed for the parents.  There is little effort made by this film to come to terms with the harsh realities of cancer or death, where instead the parents put on a brave face as if nothing has happened, which hardly seems like an effective battle plan, yet it’s all dressed up in multiple music video segments which reflect a New Wave flourish, where the reckless parents continue to waste all their energy on themselves rather than save it for their child, drinking and partying until dawn, where the filmmakers fall in love with the idea of stylistic experimentation, which includes a split screen musical duet between the parents that superficially recalls Christophe Honoré, but without the novelistic detail and rich character development.

And therein lies the problem, as this is an example of a film that barely scratches the surface, that uses multiple narrations to describe the inner feelings of the lead characters instead of deeply expressive performances.  The entire cast fails to distinguish themselves, where they may have missed the boat by going for exaggerated comedic farce or lip synched musical numbers instead of drama, where at one point at a party the mother breaks into a French cancan, which is about as far removed from the subject at hand as one can get.  Lost in all the shuffle is any thought given to the kind of resolve needed to care for such a critically ill child should he survive, as no relatives or grandparents ever visit him at the hospital, which one would think would be an essential step towards a successful recovery, and no treatment plan is ever devised or shared by hospital staff.  Instead, all we see is the continued befuddlement of the parents who remain oblivious to the needs of their son, perhaps jotting down daily journals that were eventually used for the screenplay of this movie.  Who knows?  Suffice it to say, this is a comically enhanced, style over substance movie, as the heart of the matter, developing a relationship with impending death, continually gets short changed, often expressed by repetitious walks down empty hospital corridors, where it’s the daily monotony over time that eventually wears the couple down, sapping the energy out of their marriage, which eventually loses importance, something that is revealed in narration, almost as an afterthought.  The offhanded manner in which such significant personal details are revealed only distance the audience from these scarcely developed characters, whose inner lives remain a mystery even by the end of the film, leaving them complete strangers, yet they continue to be rendered as affectionate and captivating lovers onscreen, as if they visualize themselves forever lost inside a perfume commercial.   

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Whore's Glory
















WHORE’S GLORY                B                                 
Austria  Germany  (110 mi)  2012  d:  Michael Glawogger

A continuation of Glawogger’s documentation of the world’s most exploited workers stuck in the worst jobs imaginable across the globe, beginning with MEGACITIES (1998) and WORKINGMAN’S DEATH (2005), which mostly feature the hazardous and backbreaking work men are forced to endure for a paycheck, while this film highlights the debasing experience of women forced to sell themselves into prostitution, examining sex workers and their clients.   Divided into three parts, the opening section is called The Fish Bowl in Bangkok, Thailand, an upscale club where women get dressed up showing plenty of legs and cleavage and sit behind a glass enclosure, much like a fish bowl, where each have an easily identifiable number.  As customers order drinks and sit in a bleacher section across from them, they can compare girls and choose which one most interests them for sexual favors, where the level of service has an escalating pay scale.  There is a greeting host that asks each customer what they’re interested in and makes recommendations of several girls that meet the requested criteria, eventually calling out the requested girls numbers, where the couples retreat to hotel rooms.  Some are obviously more popular than others, while some unfortunately sit there all day without ever getting called once.  The ages vary from young teens who claim they are 19 to women pushing 40, where they spend a good deal of time each day in preparation for what amounts to a public beauty competition.  Interviewing both the customers and the girls, the customers offer a fairly superficial view of why they’re there, as many are married, but these girls offer a different kind of youthful beauty than what awaits them at home.  There are no illusions here, as the girls consider this just a job, where many end up spending all their earnings at a male sex club picking up guys, while a lingering shot outside the club shows a pack of street dogs humping one another.

The second section is in one of the poorest sections of the world, Faridpur, Bangladesh, where one young man indicated the need for women in the sex trade was an essential public service, as otherwise men would be raping women on the streets and having sex with cattle and goats.  Certainly one of the seediest sections of the world, narrow walkways allow men to enter and inspect the merchandise, where the girls try to pull the men inside their doors, literally fighting with one another for customers, each trying to argue they got him first.  As they interview the girls, it’s fairly typical to service ten men a day, where being treated nice is not always the norm, where the worst examples of raving lunacy are the brothel owners who subject their girls to the most humiliating tongue-lashings imaginable, saying they’re nothing special, that whore’s are a dime a dozen, that many are ugly and a waste of her time, as she could be feeding and dressing more attractive girls that will bring in more money, literally offering a full blown onslaught against their worthless character, all yelled at the top of their lungs.  This is considered acceptable business standards, where the proprietor literally buys new girls, often pre-teens, then offers them little hope for even the slightest hint of happiness, using them like sex slaves.  Perhaps the most poetic thoughts in the entire film come from a girl dressed in colorful religious garb, who asks why women have to submit themselves to so much demeaning behavior in their path for survival?  Complaining of a dreary monotony of continual personal degradation, she wonders how God could allow this and if there is any other path?   

The final section is in Reynosa, Mexico, in a desolate, unpaved street called La Zona, where trucks and other vehicles drive up and down the pot-holed filled street and check out the merchandise lined up in tiny rooms along each side of the street, where they stand in the doorway in scantily clad attire trying to flag someone down.  These are perhaps the most vulgar women of all, whose crude language couldn’t be fouler, especially their description of men, where everything is seen in the most unflattering light.  Several of the men in pick up trucks reveal these women let them do things their wives and girlfriends refuse to do, so they come here regularly for a drunken sexual escapade.  There’s a peculiar scene where a musical band down the street plays church music, supposedly ridding the neighborhood of evil spirits.  This religious aspect is common throughout, where the selected women and their customers offer a ritualistic Buddhist bow, where they light incense and pray before they go to work, while in an Islamic country they don’t provide oral sex, refusing to use the same mouths that pray to Allah for sex acts, and in Mexico they pray to a Lady Death to release them from such misery, where they have death skulls in their rooms, which are religious icons that represent the Hell from which they have no escape.  There is talk of pimps going through the villages picking up naïve girls, selling them into the sex trade where they succumb to the controlling brutality of life as a sex slave.  The raw, unsentimentalized depictions shot on 16 mm by Wolfgang Thaler are graphic enough, but Glawogger’s beautifully edited films are disturbingly realistic and harshly true, using stark imagery that captures the soulless feel of sex as a business transaction.  Underlying many of the scenes are equally unsettling musical pieces by Bjork, Antony & The Johnsons, P.J. Harvey, CocoRosie “Beautiful BoyZ” Cocorosie - Beautiful BoyZ - YouTube (4:34), and Maike Rosa Vogel and Konstantin Gropper singing “Where We Meet”  Where we meet (whores' glory poem) Maike Rosa ...  YouTube (4:38), some unusual musical choices that offer a sublime, melancholic feel.      

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo)












THE KID WITH A BIKE (Le gamin au vélo)          B-            
France  Belgium  Italy  (87 mi)  2011  d:  Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Easily the most contrived and manipulative of the Dardennes Brothers’ films, one which borders on melodrama and is likely to divide audiences, as they will either despise or feel sorry for the protagonist, in this case an 11-year-old boy Cyril (Thomas Doret), who from the outset is seen as a determined but problematic kid, one who is not likely to listen to or believe anyone else, but instead do whatever he wants with no apparent punitive repercussions.  Known for writing their own screenplays, a documentary style, the use of hand-held cameras, and complete lack of artifice in a social realist setting, this film is an extension of their previous works, where this young boy is in nearly every frame of the film, initially seen as a detestable brat who insists the world is lying to him about the whereabouts of his absent father, involuntarily placed in a boys home where his only desire is escape.  Obsessively driven by inevitable circumstances, the reunification with his father, the bare-bones plot seems paper thin, as more and more it becomes clear his father has abandoned him.  Nonetheless, Cyril continues to seek him out with relentless desperation, including multiple escape attempts.  Simply by accident, in the building where his father previously lived, he grabs and clings to a woman, Samantha (Cécile de France), to avoid being captured by the authorities, where she offers further assistance by finding the bike he reported missing, which is his only link to his father.  His bike is his only means of flight and freedom, as it can seemingly take him wherever he needs to go. 

When Samantha agrees to house Cyril over the weekends, offering no reason whatsoever for this extension of kindness, her character is immediately seen in glowing and rather angelic terms, as a guardian angel watching over an angry and dissolute child.  It’s never made clear why Samantha takes such an interest in this utter stranger whose life is a perpetual series of misfortunes, but the first thing he does is disobey her with the same consistency as he does other adults.  While she actually reaches out to him and helps find the father (Jérémie Renier), the object of his continuous obsession, who is working in a neighborhood nearby, the father simply shows no interest in seeing him again.  While it’s clear there are damaging psychological issues, no one seems to offer any assistance on that front, as it is never mentioned.  Cyril instead is left to resolve his personal issues on his own, where he gets involved with a gang of street kids who easily steal his bike (the kid never learns to use a lock), headed by an older kid Wes (Egon DiMateo), something of a dark angel who takes a particular interest in him, taking him under his wing, using Cyril’s blind persistence to hold onto his bike as a useful tool in accomplishing a secret task that he has in store for him, using Cyril to take care of some unfinished business, which, of course, he readily agrees to, as he thinks this guy is his new friend.  To a kid who has no one, a new friend has a strange and intoxicating allure, so much so that he continually lies and deceives Samantha, who mystifyingly continues looking out for his best interests, even at the expense of her own relationships, where boyfriends find Cyril nothing but endless trouble, an ungrateful and impudent malcontent who refuses to listen or learn.

Clearly, Cyril tests the audience’s patience as well, as the typically non-sentimental Dardenne approach leaves one thinking this is an unusually obnoxious and abrasive kid, one who is continually asking for trouble.  This escalating wrongward path can only have a few possible outcomes, where the narrow focus of a child’s fate becomes overly predictable, especially considering all the contrivances thrust upon the audience along the way, where this becomes a black and white existential struggle for good and evil, meaning and salvation, where Cyril is caught between the vested interests of a dark force and a guardian angel, where both are trying to tap into and redirect this kid’s inner rage and seething discontent.  The overlying reliance on maternal affection and sense of societal justice appear quite French, where both somehow miss the point, but are overly accentuated with an exaggerated power of influence.  Cyril is a psychologically damaged and extremely self destructive kid, one who would not likely succeed without intensive personal therapy, but this film bypasses the necessary hard work involved and instead would have you believe that a healthy dose of motherly affection is all he needs to steer him on the right path, which for a realist film is a bit preposterous.  Adding to the solemnity and sense of interior transcendence is a brief recurring passage from Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, Glenn Gould - Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto 3/4 YouTube (9:53), the symphonic section just preceding the introduction of the solo piano.  These brief passages hold clues and are musical road markers interspersed throughout the film, where the piano is heard only over the end credits, where the narrative finally offers a glimpse of renewal and a sparing sense of release.   

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unforgivable (Impardonnables)












UNFORGIVABLE  (Impardonnables)      B-             
France (108 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  André Téchiné

André Téchiné has distinguished himself through elegant films that delve into the complexities of human emotion and relationships.  Known particularly for his ability to draw strong performances out of his female performers, Téchiné has collaborated with some of his country's most respected actresses, and some of the best examples of his work were his collaborations with Catherine Deneuve:  HÔTEL DES AMÉRIQUES (1981), SCENE OF THE CRIME (1986), MY FAVORITE SEASON (1993), and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2009).  Téchiné has continued to make moody, dysfunctional romantic dramas that are tinged with an element of intrigue or violence and is among the most adroit social observers in the modern era, usually writing or co-writing his own films which have an intimate chamber drama quality with an understated intelligence, accentuating the performances, including the entire ensemble cast, is fond of the use of ‘Scope, and this film is no exception.  Adapting a novel by Philippe Djian, whose work 37°2 Le Matin was the basis for Jean-Jacques Beineix's BETTY BLUE (1986), this is a somewhat disappointing venture of the French culture invading Venice, full of gorgeous color and picturesque locations on the island of Sant’Erasmo, but bringing with them a pronounced inability to communicate and a baffling lack of appreciation for Italy.  Typically novelesque, there are a host of interconnected characters, each coming under the director’s scrutiny, but none that ever connect with the audience, as there’s a thoroughly unengaging sense of disconnect that prevails throughout, continually offering a foreigner’s perspective, feeling out of place, where the guiding principle seems to be a discomfort in one’s own skin and an inability to accept who you are.     

Moving the novel from the Basque coast of Spain, where Téchiné filmed HÔTEL DES AMÉRIQUES, to a remote island across the channel from Venice, the story concerns the arrival of a Parisian writer Francis (André Dussollier) looking for a little peace and quiet where he can write, initially locking horns with real estate agent Judith (Carole Bouquet), before being offered a spectacular location a mere boatride away, where of course en route their tiny motorboat runs out of gas midway across just as a giant ship is passing by, immediately suggesting imbalance as well as the lurking presence of danger, but Francis is moved to rent the seaside villa for one year on the condition that Judith live with him.  As preposterous as this sounds, the film flashes forward to the following summer where the two are a happily married couple living together on the island, where she’s continually in transit on working assignments, completely independent, with an endless history of lovers both male and female, which leaves him alone, but unable to write, as he has other pressing issues to worry about.  After a brief visit from his continually dissatisfied and overwrought daughter, the actress Alice (Mélanie Thierry), and her young daughter, Alice simply disappears, causing Francis plenty of worry, which has a way of coming between he and Judith, as if the bond of trust has been broken.  Francis decides to hire Anna Maria (Andriani Asti), a retired detective and former lover of Judith, to search for his missing daughter.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, what she discovers is that Alice hasn’t so much disappeared as escaped into the arms of a young love Alvise, Andrea Pergolesi, an aristocrat of noble parentage but currently dabbling in petty crime to cover a continual cash flow problem, where life in Venice is seen as a web of deceit.

Unfortunately, none of these new characters introduce any new life into the film, where instead the drama shifts to Francis all alone on the island, continually brooding about his wife’s excessive absences, always claiming work, but he suspects romance, especially since the intensity of their torrid romance has flickered out.  Ridiculously, he hires Anna Maria’s son Jérémie (Mauro Conte), fresh out of jail, to tail her, but his methods couldn’t be more obvious, especially when the trailing boat is following so close behind you could almost touch it.  What this really suggests is that Francis is continually driving women away, his wife, his daughter, through his suffocating distrust, unable to accept them as they are, free and independent women, always suspecting the worst.  Many of these characters have duplicitous sex lives, offering an undertone of liberal mindedness throughout, but Téchiné seemingly does so little with these characters who drift through their lives barely knowing one another.  Something of a relationship study, these relationships are defined by an inability to understand and accept the inherently shifting boundaries which are continually in flux, much like the interconnecting watery canals of Venice, which offer a stark contrast from the rigidly fixed cement and asphalt roadways back home in France, where one’s feet are firmly planted on the ground.  Of particular interest is an unexpected flashback sequence showing archival black and white images of Andriani Asti when she was a captivatingly beautiful young woman, offering perhaps the most unusual reflections in the film, the fleeting brevity of youth, all lost in the blink of an eye, where before you know it the adrenal rush of excitement in the physical attraction of love changes to a more mature understanding, older and wiser, where the earth shifts beneath your feet aren’t always a disaster in waiting, a cause for concern, but simply the earth shifting, where the rigid standards for the titled offenses become less severe, accepted as more common, ordinary occurrences.       

Back In Your Arms (Kai apkabinsiu tave)














BACK IN YOUR ARMS (Kai apkabinsiu tave)                 C+             
Lithuania  Germany  Poland  (90 mi)  2010  d:  Kristijonas Vildziunas

A common theme in former Eastern bloc Soviet nations, now that they’re members of NATO and the European Union, is to conveniently blame the Russians in all embarrassing historical references, as if they’re playing the American John Birch Society conservative card of the Republican Party back in the 1950’s, which blamed Communism for all the evils around the globe. What’s missing, of course, in this Lithuanian entry for Best Foreign Film, is any Lithuanian complicity in their own nation’s muddled affairs.  The Lithuanians were notorious Nazi collaborators in rounding up and exterminating Jews, murdering 190,000 Lithuanian Jews, which comprised 91% of the pre-war population.  Taking place in 1961, this is a historical Cold War drama set in Berlin just weeks prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall, as citizens from East Berlin are flooding to the West in record numbers, around two and a half million people alone in 1961, arousing the suspicion of both sides, but especially the Communist East German side as they need to implement a plan to keep their citizens at home.  Using archival footage of the era, what’s interesting is the picture of perceived freedom, a kind of idealized state of mind that doesn’t really exist in the East, as all citizens are under suspicion, where persons crossing the border walking on the sidewalk in the Western sector may be stuffed into a Stasi secret police vehicle taking them back into the Eastern sector where they likely face arrest on some contrived charge.  The director wrote this story, which could just as easily be a play, as except for the archival street scenes which could be projected onto the wall of a theater production, most all of it takes place in various rooms, where the tense atmosphere on both sides of the border is supercharged with paranoia and a Kafkaesque suspicion. 

Elzbieta Latenaite plays Ruta, a Lithuanian-American studying in Hamburg, who travels to Berlin with her friend Aukse (Jurga Jutaite) after she receives word that her father, unseen since age 5, would like to meet her there.  Flashback sequences show the family predicament just prior to their escape to the West, where their left leaning father stayed behind under Soviet occupied Lithuania, replaced by the Nazi’s during World War II, then re-occupied by the Russians again after the war, eventually becoming the first Soviet nation to declare their own independence a year prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union.  In 1961, a phone call could not be made from the West to the East, as calls would have to go through the embassy, so she and her father reach a state of limbo unable to contact one another.  When suspected Stasi agents arrive to pick her up to drive her to the East sector to meet her father, she suspects something is not right when her father is not with them, and is advised not to accept in order to protect herself, as people are whisked away to the East never to return.  However she is motivated to find a location where she can call her father, eventually wandering into the East section on her own, where instead of normal accommodations, buildings remain in a state of ruin after the war, never really repaired, where she ends up in a no man’s zone, a kind of empty, nightmarish dead zone.  Her call goes through, but her father is out searching for a way to contact her. 

Again, seen through flashbacks, we see that her father (Andrius Bialobzeskis) was an actor in Lithuania, seen carrying the cross during a Passion Play performance prior to the Soviets banning all crosses, icons, and references to religion.  What constitutes the narrative is the behind-the-scenes chess game taking place by both sides, each suspecting the other, each trying to out think the other side, where Ruta finds much of this nonsense, as all she wants is to see her father.  However, as people disappear without a trace, or hop into taxi’s that smuggle people back into the East, it is an uncertain time, especially for a woman on her own.  Ruta, however, has a network of friends and associates who are continually looking out for her, while her father, on the other hand, is being manipulated by Stasi agents in an attempt to lure his educated daughter into the East where she might be trained as an agent.  The film has that heavy handed treatment of Communist life under a totalitarian system, where her father may as well be in Siberia at a gulag camp by this portrayal, where all the citizens of the East live under a dictatorial police state.  The exaggerated portrayal of good and evil are a bit much, where just about anyone shown onscreen could be a spy, think Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale in the infamous Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, resorting to melodramatic stereotype and caricature instead of anything resembling social realism, which has become a lost art in the former Eastern bloc nations which, if truth be told, aren’t making films nearly as high quality as when they were under a state run Communist regime.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Aita














AITA                           B+                  
aka:  Father                 
Spain (85 mi)  2010  d:  José María de Orbe

No one lives in the house anymore – you tell me ; all have gone. The living room, the bedroom, the patio, are deserted. No one remains any longer, since everyone has departed.

And I say to you: When someone leaves, someone remains. The point through which a man passed, is no longer empty. The only place that is empty, with human solitude, is that through which no man has passed. New houses are deader than old ones, for their walls are of stone or steel, but not of men. A house comes into the world, not when people finish building it, but when they begin to inhabit it. A house lives only off men, like a tomb. That is why there is an irresistible resemblance between a house and a tomb. Except that the house is nourished by the life of man, while the tomb is nourished by the death of man. That is why the first is standing, while the second is laid out.

Everyone has departed from the house, in reality, but all have remained in truth. And it is not their memory that remains, but they themselves. Nor is it that they remain in the house, but that they continue about the house. Functions and acts leave the house by train or by plane or on horseback, walking or crawling. What continues in the house is the organ, the agent in gerund and in circle. The steps have left, the kisses, the pardons, the crimes. What continues in the house are the foot, the lips, the eyes, the heart. Ne­gations and affirmations, good and evil, have dispersed. What continues in the house, is the subject of the act.

No One Lives in the House Anymore, by César Vallejo (1892 – 1938), translated by Clayton Eshleman

A spare and stylistically unique film, one that insists it be viewed in a pensive and quietly reflective manner, something along the lines of minimalist conceptual art, as the camera lingers and hovers around every corner of an old 13th century home in the Basque region of Spain.  While it doesn’t rely upon long takes, as one might expect, it instead finds novel angles and viewpoints, where rarely do we feel like we are revisiting the same area twice.  Filmed exclusively in natural light, composed of static shots, it’s largely a meditation on death and dying, where the glacial pace and constantly probing camera by Jimmy Gimferrer may suggest every structure has a life and core identity of its own, something beyond superficial character traits, but is a part of a living history of the geographical region, a natural part of the world around it, where every structure may have its own carefully defined personality.  Part of the title may suggest the paternal responsibility that comes with each successive generational lineage as the home is passed from person to person and family to family, each with the obligation to care and look after the home, which is something of a national treasure, especially when small schoolchildren visit to hear a lecture about vying families that lived and fought nearby defending what they perceived as their own territory, using the home as a kind of fortress when it was originally built.  Mostly we see two characters, Luis Pescador as the elderly caretaker who continually tinkers around the building and Miken Goneaga is the amiable priest of the nearby church who can be seen paying neighborly visits.  

Based on the date alone, the home would have survived the Plague and the Spanish Inquisition, but there is some question as to whether it will survive the break-ins from various home invaders, largely small groups of kids that try to ransack the place in the mistaken idea they may find something of value inside.  All they really do is break a few windows and alter the existing sense of order inside, where Luis has to painstakingly put everything back together again, a constant with an old house, where leaks, decaying walls, and the constant sense of structure deterioration play a part in the overall character of the home.  What’s perhaps most peculiar are flickering lights on the wall seen initially in a lightning storm, eventually turning into projected images of heavily decomposed film, Basque found footage from the region that continues the parallel theme of aging and decay, but also the idea of human visitation, as these flickering images offer a ghostly presence, adding a dreamlike state of reality, a kind of unknown netherworld that perhaps exists only while we sleep.  Offering a peculiar sense of beauty, perhaps one that each inhabitant brings through subjective perceptions, this personifies the changing nature of things over time, where what was originally a face becomes a barely recognizable ghostly apparition, as there may be few traces of that original face left, but perhaps only a glimpse of what looks like an eye or perhaps a nose, altering the very face of existence. 

This is a somber and reflective work on the nature of time and history, a non-narrative film given an experimental and even interactive adaptation, as the filmmaker plays around not only with images on the wall but with various forms of light, continually opening doors and windows, where in one of the more remarkable transition shots one sees out of darkness what appears to be a full moon in an otherwise black sky, but slowly over time there are small almost imperceptible changes, as the slightest increases in light soon reveals a beautifully designed window, where what one thought was a moon is the opening to the world outside.  While there are occasional engaging conversations between Luis and the priest, mostly all we hear are the sounds of Luis tending to various repairs, scraping away the vegetative plant life that has overgrown several of the windowsills, measuring pieces of wood as he attempts to repair a broken window, spraying the walls with a toxic insecticide, all part of a seemingly endless process of keeping up with what’s needed to care for such an old structure.  But mostly, it’s a quietly contemplative film, where Luis can be seen leaning against the walls, where near inaudible traces of the sounds of the church can be heard playing indescribably beautiful sacred music, where the sound wafts though the house like a holy presence.  While the film is continually accessible on a number of levels, testing the boundaries of documentary and fiction, its patient adherence to an unusually curious and continually shifting perspective makes one focus and take notice, where there is certainly no pressing urgency anywhere, but instead a quietly transcendent state of mind is achieved, feeling almost like a brief cinematic prayer.     

The Graveyard Keeper's Daughter (Surnuaiavahi tütar)

















THE GRAVEYARD KEEPER’S DAUGHTER (Surnuaiavahi tütar)   D+                   
Estonia (100 mi)  2011  d:  Katrin Laur

Another wretched portrait of miserablist life in the post-Communist aftermath of Estonia, where without socialism to moderate the economic free fall of most poverty stricken families, especially in the rural areas, all that’s left are pathetic humans drenched in alcohol, where drinking is pretty much all they do.  Making matters worse are the conditions of the children, who are largely on their own raising themselves, making do as best they can while their parents are on all night benders, sleeping it off until midday.  Lucia (Kerttu-Killu Grenman) is a rambunctious hellraiser of a daughter who answers to no one, particularly not her teachers, through she voluntarily cares for Jats (Esther Koiv), a neighbor's Down-syndrome child who continually follows her around wherever she goes.  This picture of parental absenteeism is at the heart of the film, with a mother Maria (Maria Avdjushko) who’s blindly drunk most of the time and a father Kaido (Rain Simmul) who simply doesn’t wish to get involved.  While the picture is continually sympathetic to Lucia, allowing her to run free whenever she wants, answering to no rules of authority, basically eating candy bars for dinner, as she spends her entire life in a playful mode, never able to concentrate or get serious in school, where her grades are a disaster.  All the teachers look the other way, knowing the kind of trailer trash parents she has, until one orderly teacher (Eva Klemets) comes to the realization that it’s not in the child’s best interest to simply pass to the next grade without learning anything.  Complications ensue. 

While the story is written by the director, what’s really a pretentious narrative device is the attempt to heighten the melodrama by continually showing what slobs and worthless creatures the parents are, who may as well be rolling around on the ground mired in mud, as if they live in a pig sty, as every single glimpse of them shows them to be horribly crude, backward, and drunken caricatures who are worse than pathetic.  So while the story may hold some social interest, what to do with the children of alcoholics in the post-Communist world of Eastern Europe where there are few jobs to be had, where if it were a realist Romanian film they’d be selling the children on the adoption black market, Laur’s storytelling borders on the pretentious, overdoing the downtrodden factor, making Lucia’s situation downright pathetic, then eliciting sympathy for her neglected and undernourished world through an almost fairy tale effect.  While it’s plainly spelled out that none of this is Lucia’s fault, little is revealed about her parents, making it impossible to understand how they arrived at such a wretched state.  Of course the audience is going to feel sympathy for a parentless child, but the larger family questions about how they remain so isolated and cut off from the rest of their own family and the community fabric remain unaddressed, making little effort to paint a more complete social dynamic, choosing instead to highlight the sorrowful nature of a poor child’s limitations.  Despite the interest by the teacher and the social welfare authorities, no intervention is indicated as no one has reportedly been hurt, but the family is under a continuing investigation. 

In an out of the blue plot contrivance, Kaido is offered a week in Finland based on his gravedigger connections, something that is never explained or elaborated upon, making little sense to the uninitiated, but it offers the family a chance to overreact to the opportunity, where from her parent’s reaction Lucia assumes they’re moving permanently to Finland.  Once there, they discover fewer job opportunities than in Estonia, but also an ultra liberal female pastor (Ulla Reinikainen) who allows them to spend the week with her, giving Lucia a chance to see the world and broaden her horizons while her parents remain exactly the same, the one-dimensional horrible parents who would rather drink than spend time with their own daughter.  When it’s time to return home, the parents feel even worse than before, fatalistically seeing no way out, putting Lucia in rather desperate straights, especially when the welfare authorities start nosing around again.  Everyone here becomes the picture of societal blame, the parents, the neighbors, the teachers, the town welfare authorities, all somehow abandoning the best interests of the future generation, as if all are complicit in somehow denying this child a future.  But since there is little attempt to paint even the slightest picture of society’s presence other than as an authoritarian state, this is highly inaccurate conjecture and blatantly unfair, instead blurring the lines, as really what it comes down to is a resilient child who still has a future balanced against the hapless and defeatist parents who don’t really care.  Perhaps there’s a whole generation out there who have succumbed to alcohol addiction, a leftover Russian habit where currently 20% of male deaths are attributed to alcoholism, but this film fails to properly frame this as a societal issue or offer much insight into a progressively worsening social dilemma.   

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Long Day Closes













THE LONG DAY CLOSES            A
Great Britain  (85 mi)  1992  d:  Terence Davies

No star is o'er the lake,
Its pale watch keeping,
The moon is half awake,
Through gray mists creeping,
The last red leaves fall round
The porch of roses,
The clock hath ceased to sound,
The long day closes.

Sit by the silent hearth
In calm endeavour,
To count the sounds of mirth,
Now dumb for ever.
Heed not how hope believes
And fate disposes:
Shadow is round the eaves,
The long day closes.

The lighted windows dim
Are fading slowly.
The fire that was so trim
Now quivers lowly.
Go to the dreamless bed
Where grief reposes;
Thy book of toil is read,
The long day closes.

—Henry Fothergill Chorley and Arthur Sullivan, 1868, The Long Day Closes by Arthur Sullivan 2008 Prom ... The King Singers at Royal Albert Hall (2008) on YouTube (4:21) 

A heartbreakingly beautiful work, a memory play turned musical theater, where this impressionistic, Joycean stream-of-conscious Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man piece is unlike anything else you’ll see, though J. Hoberman from The Village Voice called it a “Proustian musical,” it is a follow up to the director’s earlier autobiographical work, DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988), the difference being that this is a few years after the death of his father, whose absence allows a wistful happiness.  While it is a family portrait of a distinct period in time in the director’s childhood, namely the mid 1950’s in Liverpool, shown as still life painting over the opening credits, it has an experimental feel, as there’s no real narrative to speak of, while nearly every scene is accompanied by either a TV, movie, or musical reference.  The camerawork by Michael Coulter, however, is near unforgettable, where the transitions between shots, visual and audio are spectacular.  One could easily mistake this for a Michael Powell film, as the meticulous art design is so perfectly rendered, but the yearning, atmospheric mood is all Terence Davies.  While something of a nostalgia piece, the film is more complex, mostly shot in the gloom of the everpresent rain, with 11-year old Bud (Leigh McCormack) staring listlessly out the window, the film reflects his inner thoughts and is a tribute to his recollections.  What’s surprising about this film is how much of it is an audio experience, reflective of an era when so many listened to the radio, when this experience was literally a post-war national pastime.  It’s no accident that even in pubs today one of Britain’s most unique traditions are its own citizens singing popular songs in unison, where seemingly everyone knows the words. 

As the film moves along with elegant dissolves from shot to shot, song to song, sequence to sequence, the audience is following along the interconnected, interior thoughts of Bud, where the screen is aglow with a cinematic visualization of his imagination, literally using 35 different pieces of original music, some in their entirety, where the film received a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes in 1992.  Jam packed with movie references, seen here on IMDb: connections, Davies uses various songs like time capsules, or personal markers in his life, where we hear opera singers Isobel Buchanan Ae Fond Kiss from The Long Day Closes - YouTube (3:32) or Kathleen Ferrier Blow The Wind Southerly by Kathleen Ferrier 南の ... YouTube (2:23), but also Judy Garland from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) Judy Garland - Over the Bannister (Meet Me in St. Louis ... - Youtube  (1:15) and Doris Day from LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955) Doris Day - At Sundown - YouTube (1:44) singing popular songs from movies.  In one of the more beautiful sequences, his family poses for a WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) picture postcard, where people are constantly in motion, and even though they’re all sitting inside, snow continually falls behind them.  The imaginings of things past have such a haunting immediacy that the film recalls the inner segment of the recent magisterial Terrence Malick work THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), where both blend visual poetry with personal intimacy.

What also stands out is what a perfectly behaved and obedient child Bud is, a Mama’s boy who idolized his mother (Marjorie Yates, a member of London’s Royal Shakespeare Company), often seen holding hands or sitting in her lap as she sings to him, a guy who follows all the rules and does everything he’s supposed to do, yet begins to have second thoughts early in life about the rigidity of Catholicism, where the church shows an extreme intolerance and inflexibility for homosexuality, at odds with his own budding sexual nature.  Rather than receiving a reward for his efforts of devout obedience, the scriptures all but leave him in eternal damnation.  Is it any wonder he would turn to the movies and popular songs for personal refuge?  The evidence of conformity in British life is stunning, where in school or in church they are all expected to play by the rules, as if there’s something to be gained from that.  But there’s no evidence of any reward, nor is there any sign of the insolence and rebellious disobedience seen in American films that suggest a cultural break with the past.  Instead in Davies dreamy but orderly world, being smart, respectful, and polite creates a certain inner harmony, the perfection of which is not matched by the bleak world outside where it’s constantly raining, where young men are sent off to war, and where Catholic boys fall in love with Protestants on the road to both becoming atheists. 

Davies remarkably demonstrates how each of the various social institutions from school, church, home, pub, and theater shaped and changed his life, actually framing his consciousness, where the ingenious way of introducing each sequence is like showcasing a new Broadway number with music, lighting, and elaborate camera movements, with brief pauses between sequences, shot in a sepia tone, where the colors are washed out.  Using snippets of an instantly recognizable Orson Welles narration from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), itself a modern exercise in nostalgia, “Back then they had time for everything,” Davies shows how the combining forces of art illustrate the power of the past as a living and breathing force in our lives.  While the movie is not chronologically ordered, it makes sense if one can imagine how the mind can travel from thought to thought, often on emotional impulse, where perhaps the most remarkable scene of the movie is set to Debbie Reynold’s rendition of Tammy:  The Long Day Closes with Debbie Reynolds' Tammy  YouTube (3:51), an extended overhead tracking shot where the constantly inquisitive camera passes Bud alone at home before moving to a crowded movie theater, to a packed church, dissolving into a classroom with an amusing snippet from KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), coming full circle before the camera finds its way back to where it started, as if its gone all the way around the world where poor Bud is once more isolated and alone, much like he spent a good deal of his childhood.  Davies has a way of bookending his film, where the elegiac opening song lyric “the music of the years gone by” from Stardust - Nat King Cole - YouTube (3:16) seems to match the lamenting tone of the gloriously lyric final sequence, The Long Day Closes (1992) Closing Sequence (4:18), a part song bringing a high minded sense of seriousness to a setting from an earlier epoch.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Domain (Domaine)





















DOMAIN (Domaine)          B+    
France  Austria (110 mi)  2009  d:  Patric Chiha            Domaine | Filmtrailer - YouTube

While this is basically a highly atmospheric and toxically charged character study that continually surprises us with a unique and unorthodox intimacy and continually changing narrative direction, it’s also a pedestal for the incomparable Béatrice Dalle as Nadia, where the director wrote the part specifically for her and she summons the brazen audaciousness that has defined her screen presence throughout her career, discovered as a sex kitten in BETTY BLUE (1986), which also takes an unconventional turn, she is now an aging Parisian who finds order in the universe through mathematics and logic, where to her “words are disorder.”  While a few of her friends are older, closer to her age, she’s instead enthralled with the presence of youth, in particular a young man who hangs on her every word, Isaïe Sultan as Pierre, an almost beautiful looking 17-year old boy who follows her around like a puppy dog, often seen with his friends as school lets out where he immediately gives Nadia a call telling her he’ll “be there in 30 minutes.”  They typically go for a walk through the lavishly designed natural beauty of a gorgeously immense park filled with hidden walkways, a place Nadia describes as the most beautiful park in the world, where what describes her is her walk, seen here:  DOMAINE, un film de Patric Chiha-Extrait 1 - YouTube (1:58), where she is the picture of confidence, almost strutting like a peacock, always the center of attention in her stiletto heels, where she goes on long, rambling monologues reminiscent of live theater that move effortlessly between her ordered personal philosophy to a kind of morbid view of the world that disappointedly fails to live up to her standards.  What might seem curious, the nature of their relationship, remains hidden and off limits to the audience, something that feels like a key ingredient of the film. 

Perhaps the most outstanding feature is the phenomenal use of lighting, given a German expressionist feel, shot by Pascal Poucet where the vibrant colors are accentuated by brief hints of light engulfed by a surrounding darkness that is always framing and protruding into the action.  This moody atmosphere of darkness is more than a theme, as it becomes synonymous with their ever more dour moods where they descend into the depths of a bleak, underground cabaret nightclub that resembles the decadence of Berlin, where Pierre appropriately picks out the glam clothes for Nadia to wear, seen here:  DOMAINE, un film de Patric Chiha-Extrait 2 - YouTube (2:28), where Dalle does what she does best, admire herself while lavished with attention by a beautiful young boy, but also where we first start to see cracks in her orderly perfection.  On the crowded dance floor, they immerse themselves into the mixed gay and straight aesthetic of a dreamlike world, dancing to an intoxicating techno beat that lulls one into a mesmerizing slow dance, where Pierre’s inner self is less hidden, displayed in a kind of gay awakening, a common theme in Dalle films, also expressed by the men in Christophe Honore’s brilliantly impressionistic SEVENTEEN TIMES CECILLE CASSARD (2002).  Pierre finds a lover that takes his mind off Nadia’s growing sense of obsessive self-indulgence, spending less and less time with her, where in café’s, Nadia doesn’t so much sip alcohol as consume alcohol, finding the world around her less inviting, where Pierre’s mother shows a concern, encouraging her to seek help, but Pierre protects her, where both he and Nadia live with the constant denial of their choice, hauntingly expressed in this downbeat sense of morbidity:  White Wine & Sleeping Pills (John's Song featuring Raphaël Bouvet) (2:33).

Emilie Hanak’s (Milkymee) hauntingly eclectic musical soundtrack, where one song is appropriately called “Gloom,” can be heard here along with two extended Dalle monologues (in French):  Domaine (Original Soundtrack) | milkymee.  The rhythm of the film continually seeks out the beauty of nature, perhaps the only perfect orderly existence, always shown in luxuriant shots of insurmountable beauty (unfortunately not on 35 mm), which contrasts with the theatrical feel of Dalle’s multiple monologues, often feeling like a play, becoming poetic ramblings about her deteriorating appreciation for life and the people around her, finding less and less use for them, until eventually they don’t matter at all.  Her attraction to youth and to young boys reflects her obsession with youth, where her real fear is aging and growing old, where alcoholism becomes a substitute for futility and fatalism, as she can’t reverse the aging process.  When the circumstances grow dire and she finally seeks treatment, it’s set in a magnificent upscale mountain resort setting of Austria surrounded by even more snow-capped mountains, where the prominent theme of darkness is temporarily replaced by the enveloping whiteness of snow, seen here on Pierre’s arrival to visit Nadia:  DOMAINE, un film de Patric Chiha-Extrait 3 - YouTube (1:55).  It is here that the film grows most mysterious, where Nadia appears well on the road to recovery, but she also delivers her most laceratingly pessimistic monologue, a stinging rebuke of life itself, given a sense of ambiguity as to whether it was meant for anyone else to hear.  Reminiscent of Norwegian Wood (2010), especially the bleak subject matter and the use of natural settings, along with the sudden turn toward futility, where only the intransigence of the natural world offers any hint of human transcendence.  In the end, engulfed in the naked beauty of the surrounding world, none of that matters, given an eerie and hauntingly beautiful sense of finality, boldly and dramatically poetic, yet finally unambiguous.   

Retrace (Visszatérés)
















RETRACE (Visszatérés)              C-   
Hungary  Romania  Sweden (98 mi)  2011  d:  Judit Elek          Official site [hu]

Both Hungarian and Romanian films have a consistent history of social realism, both during the Communist and post-Communist eras, usually bleak in nature without a trace of sentimentality, where truths are revealed through an unsparing depiction of reality.  That’s simply not the case here, in a dreadful stylistic misstep, as this is simply wretched filmmaking, featuring some of the worst acting on record, where the director is from the old guard Communist era of the 50’s and utilizes the heavy-handed, old-fashioned propaganda style of filmmaking, not just force-feeding the story, but browbeating the audience with what the director feels are the pertinent Holocaust and totalitarian unpleasantries she wishes to dispense.  While part of the problem may be the demands to speak multiple languages, especially the child actors, this is an overreaching and sadly melodramatic Holocaust memory tale that blends the present with the past, where the dreadful quality of filmmaking only undermines the director’s intent.  While there may be an interest in the story being told, an adaptation of two stories, Summer Night by Marguerite Duras and Winged Horses by Miklós Mészöly, the blatant stereotypical depiction of humanity simply isn’t very sophisticated and takes the audience back behind the Iron Curtain to find films that resemble this one.  Apparently growing up under a totalitarian regime leaves one desensitized and without much sense of empathy, as evidenced from a quick check of the director Judit Elek on IMDb:  For the purposes of the movie Tutajosok (1990), 14 sheep were spread with flammable substance, and then to the order by Judit Elek were burned alive.  69 scientists from the Jagiellonian University demanded that the authorities forbid Judit Elek entry to Poland.  Scientists wrote, “No director knowing his own worth would debase himself by using so primitive and cruel methods.” 

While the film is a joint effort, supposedly 70% Hungarian and 30% Romanian, it opens on location in Sweden with an unusual Jewish funeral service at sea, which sets off a chain reaction, where Katherine (Kathleen Gati), of Hungarian origin, who escaped to Sweden as a child to escape the Holocaust, can be seen early on still traumatized by nightmarish Holocaust dreams and decides to return to her birth site with her family.  What was Hungary has since been declared part of Romania after the war.  Set in 1980 when the Soviet Union still prevailed, a rural Romanian village is under police lockdown pending an anticipated arrival of President Nicolae Ceauşescu who often comes here on hunting trips, where local families must make arrangements to guarantee his trip is successful.  Openly bitter about the prospects of serving a man like Ceauşescu, a brutally oppressive dictator, Sándor (András Demeter) and his wife argue about bearing children, as Sándor refuses to bring a child into the world “for them,” a reference to the cruel, iron fisted dictatorship of the current leaders of Romania.  A horrible family tragedy occurs on the arrival of Ceauşescu’s visit, but one Sándor refuses to share with the world, maintaining his privacy throughout even as his name becomes fodder for the rumor mill, named a prominent suspect in a recently unsolved crime.  Meanwhile, as Katherine and her family sit idly in their car at a border checkpoint, once more at the mercy of Gestapo like guards, she is awash with memories of her childhood, shown in black and white, where Sándor was her closest friend.  She also recalls the street lined with Jews, all stuffed into railway cars, where the only reason she was saved was because she was small enough to fit through a hole in one of the railcars. 

Of course, she is racked with guilt for having survived when others didn’t, and has a history of suicide attempts.  As her family travels deeper into Romania, they encounter the police-state presence surrounding Ceauşescu’s visit, which parallels the world she left behind as a child.  While Katherine is pleased she remembers bits and pieces of the Hungarian language, the frightful aspect of her past is reliving itself in the present, where hotel guests are lined up on the floors in hallways making way for the potential visit of the President.  The only way out of town is through bribery, but she’s able to find her family home and a few of the people from her past.  What’s frightfully evident is that the police state she left behind as a child is still painfully present under the Ceauşescu regime, where strong-armed intimidation tactics towards ordinary citizens are the norm, leaving everyone vulnerable, as anyone can get arrested simply for the manner in which they answer police questions.  The problem here is that Elek is just as heavy handed in telling her story, continuously maximizing the melodrama, ramping up the egregious nature of the bad guys, where subtlety is obviously not her strong suit.  The picture she paints of both Romania and Hungary are so stereotypical black and white that whatever truths she’s attempting to convey get lost in the stylistically superficial depiction, as her sense of character throughout is highly exaggerated.  Anyone familiar with SHOAH (1985) doesn’t need another lecture on the anti-Semitic attitudes still prevalent today in the geographic regions responsible for sending Jews to the gas chambers, where the blatant racism from the Nazi’s still prevails.  The same could be said for the Fascist measures used by the ruling police states of the region, where Hungary and Romania serviced Hitler’s Final Solution, and neither nation has ever come to terms with their own historic complicity in eradicating Jews.