REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2009
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
There is no denying that Lorna's Silence represents a significant departure for the Dardennes, but the reasoning and overall value underlying that departure seems to be a matter of some controversy. Met with a polite shrug by critics at Cannes 08 (where it won a screenplay prize), actually passed over by the New York Film Festival (in favor, I might add, of some pretty dodgy selections), there's a general sense that perhaps the brothers had so perfected their high-wire existentialist realism that they had actually phoned one in. I think nothing could be further from the case, but I must confess that the extreme formal restraint and focus on surface incident threw me off as well, until the conclusion allowed me to evaluate Lorna's Silence as an overall gesture within the brothers' repertoire. This is not an autopilot film, but I do think it can be compared (stay with me here) with the late Cronenberg of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, in that the Dardennes do have an auteurial mark that has solidified into a system of vision, or, to borrow an architectural term, a "pattern language." And now, much like Cronenberg, the Dardennes have so perfected that language that it can now even be successfully applied to what we might call a "regular film." Cinema is all the richer when great filmmakers adopt the art of storytelling without a whit of compromise.
Perhaps the clearest difference between the Dardennes' latest and their previous films has to do with Lorna's lack of a cinephilic subtext. There is no Marxist gloss on Bresson this time, no attempt to retell religious stories with a Rosselliniesque didacticism. Instead, there is a story with contemporary political urgency. Lorna (Arti Dobroshi) is an Albanian immigrant who married Claudy (Jérémie Renier), a Belgian junkie, to obtain citizenship. Under the terms of her deal with gangster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), once she has her citizenship Claudy will be overdosed so that she can marry a Russian who is paying in turn to become a Belgian national. The wrinkle in the plan comes when Claudy struggles to clean up, eventually turning Lorna's contempt for him into genuine affection. Will she keep her end of the deadly bargain? The Dardennes' disrupted double-cross is the stuff of a more conventionally plot-centered cinema, but Lorna is hardly artless in its realization of this scenario. Far from it -- to cite only the more radical example, there is a temporal ellipsis mid-film that might've made Pialat's head swim. But Lorna's Silence, in its focus and approach, plumbs Europe's immigration issues without engaging seemingly transcendent humanist questions. What's more, the character of Lorna reflects a significant departure in terms of exactly how and where the brothers locate subjectivity. For instance, consider Rosetta. The title character (modeled in part on Bresson's Mouchette) was a manic force in her world, driven by a need to work that could only be described as physical. We saw her in her environment but never explored her inner world. Similarly, Olivier in The Son was a man almost entirely defined by his movement of objects and surfaces in the practice of his craft, so much so that even he himself is confounded by his decision to embrace his son's killer. Again, Olivier's drive is almost purely physical or instinctual, and in this way the Dardennes combined Bressonian externality and a relentless attention to the specifics of labor, to produce a deeply materialist cinema.
Lorna's Silence follows another tack altogether. For one thing, labor is minimized in the film. We see Lorna at her job much more than most any other filmmakers would ever allow, but by the Dardennes' own standard, Lorna's job (along with her interest in opening a bar with the money she makes from the immigration scam) is just part of the overall fabric of her life. But more importantly, Lorna's journey is one that is almost entirely interior. While it is undeniable that Lorna represents a material position within the unequal economy of bodies and movement within globalized Europe, Lorna's Silence chooses to depict the moral crisis that results from one woman's entrapment within that objective material structure. We see her conscience awaken, and then we observe a rather shocking rupture in her identity quite unlike anything else in the Dardennes' canon. In one sense, this move toward greater character-centered drama follows from Lorna's general orientation toward more classical story values. But seen in the context, not just of the European immigration issue but of the Dardennes' films more generally, isn't this rather bold? Who is typically granted the presumption of psychological interiority? Even though by the film's conclusion, Lorna's psyche ends up tragically split, Lorna's Silence reflects a new form of the brothers' progressivism by assuming and depicting an integration that runs more than skin deep.
...and if there's war between the sexes then there'll be no people left.[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS; AND ACTUALLY the review you really want to read is Adam Nayman's in Cinema Scope; in most respects I'm merely liming ideas he's already better articulated.]
It may be difficult to consider Villeneuve's film without the specter of Gus Van Sant's Elephant hovering in the margins of our minds. This is somewhat unfortunate; Van Sant's formalism came under fire for aestheticizing Columbine (which wasn't my own primary problem with it) and in some ways became a cinematic benchmark for a kind of humanist awe, a frank acknowledgment that something like "Columbine" can never really be understood or explained, and the effort should perhaps be circled, but never tackled head-on. (On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is United 93, which finalizes all emotional grasping in favor of a sort of national catharsis and closure of most any further signification. The fact that Greengrass does this so well makes the effort all the more suspect.) Polytechnique adopts a wholly divergent approach, one whose structural orchestration of the material at hand is absolutely determined by the tragic event it explores. What's more, it exemplifies the ethical work that representation, humanistically deployed, can actually accomplish. The massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, during which a deranged misogynist named Marc Lépine shot and killed 14 women, wounding ten others (along with four men who got in his way), has quite rightly been understood as an act of "gendercide," an instance of simmering resentment against women (particularly in traditionally male fields of study, like engineering) suddenly, spectacularly bursting forth to society's surface. Villeneuve's take on this national tragedy seems surprising at first, and to some viewers possibly even callous. But over the course of its running time, Polytechnique enacts a surprising movement through the massacre, focusing more intently on its aftermath, using its very structure to enact a possible gesture of healing.
Polytechnique refrains from naming Lépine, instead casting Maxim Gaudette as "the killer." We witness him preparing for the shooting, and engaging in more mundane acts, like washing a sinkful of dishes. Villeneuve and cinematographer Pierre Gill shoot in black and white, using Steadicam tracking shots for select portions of the university scenes, again raising the Elephant question. But in most key sequences Polytechnique employs rather common decoupage. In fact, some of its sloppier scenes, such as the pre-killing cavalcade of pre-finals student union life, are rather overly edited, condensing and confining instead of articulating coherent space. However, in moving through the halls of the university, Villeneuve asks us to adopt an uneasy, equivocal point of view, not exactly that of the killer moving in on his prey, but not entirely disentangled from it either. This is part of the film's overall strategy of refusing either to make a fetish of the serial killing that instigates its primary action, or to cordon the Lépine surrogate off from his victims like something other than a human being (albeit a deeply troubled one, whose actions the film never once condones). Upon the killer's entry into the engineering classroom, when he orders the men out so he can dispatch the "feminist" "viragos" (Lépine's words, sadly), Polytechnique splits, quite "naturally," given the situation at hand -- which is to say, with deep abnormality. (Again, Elephant's gamesmanship is clearly a different animal altogether.) The midsection of the film, remarkably, follows a male student, Jean-Francois (Sébastien Huberdeau) as he desperately tries to alert the authorities, help victims he himself stumbles upon in the melee, and eventually returns to the classroom to assess the damage. (Due to an understandable irony, he is unable to actually do this.) As Polytechnique follows Jean-Francois's life in the aftermath of the killing, we are shown the specific damage that the killer has wrought on his male psyche. Should he have left as ordered? His aim was to get help, but should he and the other men have attempted to overpower the killer? (This was an ongoing question after the École massacre, a question that reared its head again in Canadian society following the beheading of a young man on a passenger bus.) Polytechnique's second section ends with a stilted, almost classically Egoyanesque visit by Jean-Francois to his mother's home in winter, the lack of anything whatsoever to say telling all. What follows (which Villeneuve depicts with the utmost discretion) comes as no surprise, but is no less wrenching for this inevitability.
Why does a film about the École Polytechnique massacre spend nearly a third of its running time examining the event's impact on a man? Is this not to miss the point completely -- that Lépine was a man at war with the female sex, and that the killings were only the deadliest evidence of the misogyny women face every day? Well, Polytechnique makes this last point when, in its final third, the events are replayed from the point of view of a woman student, Valérie (producer Karine Vanasse). Prior to the fateful day in the lecture hall, we see Valérie getting dressed up for an interview; she's a finalist for an engineering internship, and she is subjected to almost incidental, paternalistic sexism. This is, essentially, "Lépinism" in its most benign form. Of course, Polytechnique shows us the shooting from Valérie's perspective. She survives, badly wounded, hiding among the bodies of her dead friends and classmates. The final shot of the film, presumably Valérie's POV (but also so formalistically enunciated as to belong to the film itself, to Villeneuve and Vanasse as authors) tracks upside down along the regularly spaced fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the university hallway, a gurney shot but also a set of pulsations that nearly obliterate the visual field. Valérie's memories of the event, her trauma, her nightmares, her difficulty trusting others, is the real gist of Polytechnique's final third. In a concluding voiceover, Valérie reads a letter that had to be written, but not necessarily sent. In it, she explains how she plans to address the future, and why despite her fear she will not share Jean-Francois's fate. She is figuring out how to move on.
And in the end, that is Polytechnique's most significant final gesture. Its form, and its audacity in treating Valérie and Jean-Francois as equally victimized by the killer, is a reparative act. In one sense, Villeneuve is drawing from reality, since Jean-Francois' character is based on a real student who committed suicide in the aftermath of the massacre. His name is appended to the list of Lépine's fourteen female victims, the fifteen names silently rolling out one after the other against a black screen at the end of the film. Considering that the fourteen murdered women's names appear on numerous memorial monuments in Canada, adding the name of Sarto Blais represents a radical act of counter-memory. But, just as Polytechnique had to experience a formal split in its action between the men who left and the women forced to stay, the film also reflects a desire to heal that split, to absolutely reverse the sick divisiveness Lépine embodied. Make no mistake, the École Polytechnique massacre was above all an act of violence against women. But it was also a crime against humanity. And, if in the name of learning the massacre's vital political lessons, we allow fear and distrust between women and men to persist or even thrive, then no one wins except Lépine. Polytechnique attempts to work through trauma, so that while lessons can indeed be learned, Lépine and all he represented can eventually be forgotten.
When I was studying Christian Petzold's films recently, it occurred to me that Laurent Cantet's 2001 film Time Out [L'emploi du temps] bore some striking resemblances to Petzold's recent work. Some are rather superficial, like the fact that Time Out's lead actor, Aurélien Recoing, went on to work with Petzold on Ghosts. But on a deeper level, Time Out was a film in which Cantet examined the deep psychological toll of neo-liberal economics in the New Europe, a stark, shiny world of NGOs, venture capital, urban dissolution, and the increasing prevalence of what Marc Augé called "non-places." He was mostly talking about conduits such as highways and airports, but as Time Out demonstrates, the lone office park in the middle of a cemented exurb, awash with weeds and surrounded by nothing, also counts. The connection to Petzold's cinema is rather obvious if one knows his films; he's about the most Augéan director working.
Well, two films later and it's clear that Cantet will never make another film like Time Out. I quite admired the film he made prior to Time Out, the minor-key labor drama Human Resources, which found a working-class father and his middle-manager son on opposite sides of a downsizing struggle. In it, Cantet wove a deft social tapestry while at the same time zeroing in on its reflection in familial microcosm. The father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has worked in the factory for over 30 years. His son Frank (Jalil Lespert), whose college education has produced an inevitable distance between he and his family, is brought on to conduct worker surveys regarding the recent changeover to the 35-hour work week (a major rupture in French life occasioned by globalist demands to compete with exploited Americans, to say nothing of rising Latin American and Asian manufacturing sectors). Frank the blinkered technocrat learns too late that his industrial psychology project will be used to assist in implementing upcoming layoffs. Frank the college-educated lefty tries to rouse the workers, and some follow suit. But his own father is so devoted to a quiet, conflict-free existence (as well as his own inculcated place in the social order) that he refuses to strike, even when his son virtually drags him from his work station by brute force.
If there is a film that The Class most resembles in Cantet's oeuvre, it's certainly Human Resources. (I say this with the proviso that I have yet to catch up with Cantet's debut, Les Sanguinaires.) It's shot and edited in an unobtrusive, gentle handheld style -- a kind of post-Direct Cinema realism that underplays the extreme craft required to successfully pull it off. And, what's more, the factory workers and union reps are real people essentially playing scripted versions of themselves. Lespert is the only name-actor in the film. This realist mode employed in conjunction with non-actors can be somewhat refreshing for audiences accustomed to festival cinema, since "non-professional" has typically come to mean flat, blank Bressonian delivery. Instead, Cantet's sociological found-objects give it all they've got. And Human Resources's confrontation of materialist labor trouble with an Oedipal conflict provides plenty of drama which requires no overplaying to achieve its inevitable pathos. Of course, Cantet has very deliberately put this structure in place, and in so doing so hones in on what has to be the key problem of European leftism since the 60s, whether or not anyone still realizes it. Why does the working class so often fail to do its duty and uprise? Because human beings are complex, you can't account for that complexity without coupling your Marx with some serious Freud and allowing that desire is a contradictory, often inexplicable thing, subject to no dialectical "science."
But as much as I admire Human Resources, I had some problems with it as well. Cantet's structural conceit sometimes meant that characters behaved in ways simply to drive the engine of conflict ever further toward its inevitable goal. Frank's blinkered naiveté, in particular, sometimes rang false. It made a certain sense in that he was blinded by the almost pathological break he was making with his working-class past. But would anyone as intelligent as Frank become a tool so easily, if, per Cantet's larger point, we are truly irreducible to our class positions? I realize that I may be less forgiving of Human Resources's flaws than others, since in many respects its father-son class dynamic mirrors my own. But at base, Cantet falls prey to some of the limitations that plague the post-structural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu, all too often the lower classes have magical abilities which allow them to transcend ideology through complex maneuvering, while the upper classes (the managerial, particularly) are structurally determined from the top down. His book Distinction exemplifies this tendency, where working class taste in simpler arts is regarded as a pure, practical expression of an integrated aesthetic, whereas the petit-bourgeoisie work overtime to convince themselves they actually like Kafka, Kandinsky, and Webern, just in order to put on airs. Similarly, Cantet's assumption in Human Resources is that Frank's dad may be wrong, but he's "right to be wrong," since at least his failure to achieve class consciousness is sincere. Frank, meanwhile, has lost something essential and irretrievable through his book-learning.
So, at long last, we come to The Class. (Sorry, I skipped Heading South.) Like Resources, The Class is chiefly populated by non-actors playing characters who essentially represent themselves. It's a ground-level look inside an inner-city junior high school, mostly from the perspective of a French teacher named François Marin. He's played by François Bégaudeau, the teacher whose nonfiction book is the basis for The Class. Cantet adopts an even more unobtrusive, semiotically unmarked style of realism here, combining Direct Cinema and televisual techniques to create an undeniably impressive, even unsettling fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Like the films of Frederick Wiseman, Cantet provides a subtle but unmistakable part / whole structure, moving us from the wide view of the schoolyard and the faculty meeting into the synecdoche of Marin's classroom, and back again, with an extended third-act sidebar involving a disciplinary committee. Throughout the film, Cantet and Bégaudeau hew to a close specificity in detail and character, but the larger purpose of The Class is always evident; it's a microcosm for the beleaguered and in some respects irrelevant public education system in France, where traditional social structures have largely failed to adjust to accommodate shifting demographics as well as "the times" more generally.
Part of this is inevitable, since, as The Class makes apparent from the get-go, inner-city Paris now reps a largely immigrant population, mostly African and Arab, with some other ethnic minorities in the mix. (One key member of Marin's class is Wey, a Chinese boy whose distinct cultural manner throws some of the more aggressive students' behavior into relief.) A discussion of the imperfect subjunctive tense centers, logically, on why such an arcane construction is worth learning, for anyone, really, but surely for a young population who is taking up the French language and making it their own in a new century. (Marin just kind of answers that we learn it because it's part of French, and you might find it in an old novel one day. Great.) These sociological aspects of The Class should surprise no one, but watching them in operation is the film's draw. Here, however, is where the trouble starts, and why Cantet's observational realism, seductive as it is, also seems designed to smooth out anomalies and permit rigged outcomes to slide by uncontested.
Now, comparing The Class with Wiseman's films may be setting the bar unfairly high. But the representational mode Cantet adopts, as well as the story he and Bégaudeau choose to tell, makes such comparisons somewhat inevitable. And while Wiseman's cinema never fails to exemplify openness, curiosity and discovery, it's hard not to feel like The Class proceeds from its own foregone conclusions. "The school system is fucked up." "Generations will largely fail to listen to one another." "Institutions are incapable of accounting for individual needs." And so on. How else to explain certain rather shocking events which may seem unforced and even natural (not to say "naturalist") in context, but look rather flimsily defined in the light of day. [SPOILERS BEGIN HERE] For instance, Marin's entire downfall in credibility concerns a situation in which he calls two girls in his class "skanks." (Or, if we adhere to Marin's line of sophistry, claimed they were "acting like skanks.") But there is a staged, highly performative element to Marin's "loss of control" (very much mirroring a fellow teacher's raving breakdown in the lounge earlier in the film) that strikes me less as self-indictment on Bégaudeau's part than a form of smug retention of rhetorical mastery after the fact. It is as though both he and Cantet arrogate to themselves the decision as to how and when the French power base will crack its facade. Or, "we know we have to look bad, but on our terms only, and only in the best possible light." But even more than this, the incident escalates because Marin, inexplicably, refuses to send Louise (Louise Grinberg) and Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), the two student reps, out of the room when they are clearly breaking protocol, divulging potentially hurtful comments from a student's end-of-term evaluation in a public arena. This is to say nothing of why the pair were not asked to leave the meeting in the first place, until they could stop cutting up and behave like the student reps they ostensibly were.
And what of Marin's engagement with Souleymane (Souleymane Keita)? In some ways, The Class's bi-directional critique of French education's stalemate hinges on this depiction of a troubled, belligerent kid from Mali who shows flickers of promise but simply cannot be reached, by Marin or anyone else. The film's five most pivotal events all center around Souleymane: his unwillingness to describe himself in class, citing the Koran (via his tattoo) that "if what you have to say is not as profound as the silence, hold your tongue;" Souleymane's eventual construction of a photographic self-portrait, a rousing success that Bégaudeau enthusiastically champions; Marin's very lackluster defense of his prospects at the faculty evaluation session, where he eventually calls him "limited;" Souleymane's embarrassment at the "limited" remark made public, along with chivalrous anger at Bégaudeau's "skank" remark, which prompt him to walk out of class, whereupon he accidentally hits Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) with a metallic object in his backpack; and finally Souleymane's disciplinary hearing, where he marshals virtually no defense, is forced to translate for his disgusted and disappointed mother, is permanently expelled, and presumably must leave France to return to Mali. In a sense, The Class is fundamentally about Marin's inability to help Souleymane achieve his potential, and Souleymane's failure to drop his bitter resistance to French culture and authority in all its forms so as to let in the presumably benign influence of Marin.
It seems rather clear that Cantet and Bégaudeau are at pains to emphasize that where Marin fails, those failures are the result of his constraint by institutional burden. When he diagrams a sentence with the name "Bill" and is challenged for not using a name like "Souleymane," and always going for "honky names," Marin replies,"If I tried to account for all of your ethnicities, I'd be here all day." This remark essentially encapsulates The Class's view of its own politics of bombardment. It's jarring in its honesty, "sad but true," since what it metonymically means is that is Marin (or, really, Bégaudeau) struggled to save every Souleymane, he and the system would collapse. And yet, the manner in which this hard truth is depicted is, I believe, highly suspect. Would it have been impossible for Marin to find some way to incorporate Souleymane's challenge into the self-portrait project? His philosophical and religious objection is not just valid but profound. What does it mean for institutional authority, which already demands so very much of you, to suddenly demand your "self"? Marin just glosses this over, but always under the pretense of "discussion." Likewise, how can Souleymane be "limited," when Marin himself has just seen that, given the right conditions, he can flourish? The Class seems to ask us to sympathize with the fact that Marin cannot stand up against the machinery of the entire rest of the school, or that he is too exhausted to try. But Marin does give up, and in the end, everything hinges on Souleymane's angry walkout, the "smoking gun," the "third strike." And arguing about this is rather pointless since, as I stated above, the fact that the inciting incident ever went as far as it did beggars belief.
But nothing quite "beggars belief" when filtered through the cinematic truth-machine of Cantet's realist style, which not only encourages but inculcates the most generous possible reading from its audience. The film's invisible stylisitcs hardly prohibit critical viewing, but they do shift our attention elsewhere, only questions of battling individuals or functions of systems, and not on how Cantet and Bégaudeau are actively shaping the material at hand. We are, in a way, invited to come down to Bégaudeau's class and hang out, see what the kids are up to these days, and, as Bill Cosby used to say, "if you're not careful you might learn something before it's done." My only question is, when the deck is stacked well in advance, what does it mean for a filmmaker to don the cloak of process-based, live-wire, experiential cinema? The Class had our report cards in the mail before we even enrolled.