REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN FROM THE CANNES 2013 LINE-UP

All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)

 

[8]

 

Bastards (Claire Denis, France / Germany) [UCR]

Cheating a little bit here, since I'm reviewing one single film that, by popular acclamation, ought to have been in the 2013 Competition line-up. (And besides, I will happily allow Denis' latest to stand in for A Castle in Italy, which there's a good chance I may never see.)

 

In certain ways Bastards took me aback, because even though it is every inch a Denis film in many respects, it is also a significant departure in terms of tone and construction. There is no mistaking Agnès Godard's cinematography, which is an inseparable component of the Denis style. As usual, she favors low-light situations, especially nighttime exteriors under amber street lights as well as the shadow-inflected corners of French apartments -- spaces that are wholly visible but give an impression of people or events hiding in plain sight, a sort of mental oubliette. The lower light conditions also induce a high degree of grainy abstraction, and tend to bring certain colors and tonal values -- brownish-reds, hot whites, and golden yellows -- forward while cooler colors are engulfed by the swell of black. This darkness, which we have seen in films as varied in atmosphere as Friday Night, Trouble Every Day, and 35 Shots of Rum, has an unexpectedly straightforward application here, since Bastards is as close as Denis has come to making a film noir. Like some of the director's recent features, Bastards has the outward appearance of being a linear narrative, which is an odd and daunting proposition from the woman who made Beau Travail and L'intrus. This isn't because Denis somehow shouldn't be making films with more accessible plot structures. It's a question of authorial signature, the artistic ethos she has established with her audience. Even though Bastards is a film with certain mysteries at its center, it is difficult to watch Denis unfurl the film in time without suspecting that, on a formal level, some other shoe is going to drop, that things will go haywire very soon.

 

[SPOILERS FOLLOW] In the final 15 minutes of Bastards, Denis reveals a family secret which is not just torrid but revolting. In the course of doing this, she makes a gruesome visual reference to Faulkner's Sanctuary. We could say that this image, which clarifies virtually everything that the film has been leading toward, for both the viewer and the primary investigator / protagonist, Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon), is simultaneously a kind of horrific pun -- a sign of phallic power as the natural order of things -- and a signal of that power's nauseating arrogance, that its horror and dehumanization would be subject to a parody of itself in the form of substitution. That is, its breakdown (or the need for the phallus to farm out its prerogative when the actual organ is incapable of adequate violence) in no way diminishes its force. Marco sees the filthy corncob, used to rape his niece, and all the scotomas that had defined his vision throughout the earlier portions of Bastards are retroactively punctured. Marco came back, to land from sea, to set his family right, assuming that an outside agent (Michel Subor) had invaded -- literally penetrated -- the sanctity of his brood, only to learn that Subor's rapacious industrialist Laporte ("the door") had been invited in. The exploitation of Marco's loved ones was, inevitably, an inside job, something Marco could not recognize due to his faith in conventional moral structures that capitalism had long since transgressed.This film is indeed Denis' neo-noir: it's a critique of male arrogance and its destructive inability to perceive the rot in which it is already implicated. It's her Chinatown.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, U.S. / France)

[SPOILERS AHEAD] It's not a gimmick or an ironic twist that a shadowy figure of Bob Dylan appears onstage in the final moments of Inside Llewyn Davis. On a certain level, the sight of the man can provide a certain trainspotting amusement for viewers who have enjoyed the Coens' exacting reconstruction of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. (It could also function as the Coens' nod to their colleague Todd Haynes. Dylan doesn't need to play any explicit role in their film because, intellectually, ILD is a kind of prequel to Haynes' Dylan film I'm Not There.) But more importantly, Dylan appears on the stage of the Gaslight as a harbinger. Dylan is a world historical figure, and if Llewyn Davis cannot quite understand why his music fails to connect (with audiences, with record buyers, with Chicago impresario Bud Grossman, played with benevolent imperiousness by F. Murray Abraham), the Coens understand all too well. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is seen by those around him as a loser and an asshole, but Inside Llewyn Davis never falls into this trap.

 

Yes, he sometimes does rotten things. He is reflexively contemptuous of those mundanes who don't "get" his art, even those, like the Gorfeins, who feed and shelter him. Granted, these middle-class intellectuals do collect people like Llewyn as zoo animals, totems of a bohemianism to which they themselves have but a tangential relationship. And his behavior at the Gaslight amateur night, when he heckles a middle-aged farmwoman playing the zither and singing unreconstructed, Lomax-field-recording hillbilly music, is appalling. But both of these outbursts point to one of the central conflicts within both Llewyn and Llewyn. The shift that is happening all around this community, the one that Llewyn can feel but cannot articulate, is one of belief, a crisis of authenticity. This is the cultural problem to which Dylan is one enormous answer, certainly within this demimonde. Llewyn's classic folk music -- "it was never new, and it never gets old" -- is becoming crushingly irrelevant, particularly as the political turbulence the the 60s are gathering steam. Others around Llewyn have negotiated their own path through the end of the authentic. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) become a slick pop-folk duo. Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) may be bland, but as a soldier, he at least seems to be in touch with reality. And Al Cody (Adam Driver) is making his way as a session musician, singing backup on "Please Mr. Kennedy," written by Jim. Perhaps it's most significant in terms of this question of authenticity and integrity to note that Jean, the one character who indicts Llewyn most directly, is the single biggest liar of the bunch.

 

What Dylan contributes to this milieu, and what Llewyn and the scene must relinquish, is an absolute fixation on identity and interiority. Dylan radicalized folk with his "finger-pointing" approach. While he certainly returned to subjective concerns in time, he scrubbed folk music of its precious inward gaze. There is a reason why this tale of noble failure is titled Inside Llewyn Davis. Like his real-life model Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn and his art are the final gasp of a certain insularity, folk as an inside job. There is also a reason why the Coens show Llewyn's clearest humanist emerge while interacting with and trying to help Ulysses, the Gorfeins' wayward tabby. He is an audience whose responses are unknowable. He is fascinating and soulful, but he refutes any attempt at going "inside."

 

The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France / Italy)

[SOME SPOILERS] I realize that I am breaking with conventional wisdom (and, according to Farhadi mega-booster Mike D'Angelo, fundamental sanity) by preferring The Past to A Separation, the director's Golden Bear-winning previous film. Granted, my preference for the newer film is incremental at best, since I admire A Separation a great deal as well. I can't really say the same for the film Farhadi made before A Separation, 2009's About Elly, however, and my sense of steady improvement (or at least gradual evolution in a particular direction) has everything to do with my visceral connection with The Past. Many critics embraced About Elly as a rare, free-form glimpse of ordinary bourgeois Iranians, whose lives were perhaps more immediately relatable for the average Western arthouse filmgoer. But Farhadi had not yet abandoned a certain didactic staginess, as well as a post-revolutionary narrative reflex to demonstrate, at the end of the day, that Elly's urban professionals were indeed sullied and corrupt, bearers of a disease that had claimed the life of an innocent. A Separation, in all respects, was a great leap forward. Not only did Farhadi render a literate, elegiac Kammerspiel for a bourgeois family, without a hint of judgment or class resentment. He also provided for the social intersection of this family's milieu with that of the lower, deeply religious classes without guaranteeing the moral fiber of one over the other. Where A Separation faltered, to my eyes, was in some basic plot mechanics -- a near-fatal flaw in a film that banks virtually everything on its storyline. And, it should be said, the film's mysteries due tend to point to malfeasance in one direction (that of the lower-class domestic worker) than any other, a sort of reaction-formation against About Elly's biases. But we can see Farhadi relaxing, showing us that it is with the urbane internationalists of Tehran and elsewhere around the globe that Farhadi feels most at home.

 

It stands to reason, then, that his next (and best) film would be about cultural intersection and transit, in this case between Iran and France. The opening scene is every bit as well-crafted (and patently allegorical) as anything in A Separation. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has just arrived at Charles de Gaulle, and his soon-to-be ex-wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) is there to pick him up. As he retrieves his bags, Marie sees him, and the two of them attempt to communicate as an apparently soundproof glass partition divides them. We could waggishly dub this (and the whole film) "Another Separation," I suppose, but Ahmad and Marie do end up on the same side of the glass, and in Marie's car, soon after. Ahmad has come to finalize the divorce that Marie has requested, after Ahmad left her several years ago to return to Iran. So in this case, the separation is less spatial than temporal. Ahmad (who admits he could have express-mailed the papers but felt he should do it in person) is a figure from the past who is now walking like a ghost into Marie's current life. This life includes Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin), Marie's daughters from a relationship prior to Ahmad, as well as Samir (Tahar Rahim), Marie's live-in fiance and his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Perhaps as an act of passive-aggression, or just mere flightiness borne from a lifestyle set according to different rules, Marie brings Ahmad into the house during his visit rather than getting him a hotel reservation.

 

One of the few flaws in A Separation is the fact that, near the film's conclusion, a major character admits to having done something that retroactively explains virtually everything that has been uncertain up to that point in the story. It isn't a "twist," exactly, but it's also an 11th-hour admission that feels like a deus ex machina, especially in a film that is otherwise so meticulously constructed. Those who tend to feel that The Past is essentially a retread of A Separation have been pointing to a similar admission made by Lucie, relating to her decision to contact Samir's wife. Like Marie, he is still married when the two of them begin their relationship. Lucie's action may seem like melodramatic contrivance, but it has a basic emotional logic. This isn't just because kids understandably want stability, and have a low tolerance for adult hypocrisy. Lucie's choice pertains to a desire for firm boundaries that Marie's life choices can't always provide. But seen in a larger formal framework, The Past can perhaps be seen as a film about a crisis of permeability, of insufficient boundaries between timeframes. If A Separation is about firm lines and portals, and what happens which you let someone who "doesn't belong" enter your threshold, The Past details the dangers of ragged endings, things that cling and hang on, people as ghosts and vestigial appendages. Farhadi even illuminates this change of emphasis with his choices of architectural mise en scéne, the crisp glassy interior of the earlier film contrasting dramatically with The Past's French semi-craftsman home, with its open spaces and shared common areas. There is, if anything, insufficient separation in The Past, which is ultimately the cause of each and every tragic miscalculation in the film. So yes, both films are highly similar in theme and approach. But Farhadi very skillfully shifts his attention between one and the other, like the careful adjustment of a camera lens. And, although it's a fool's game to try to impute authorial motive to any work of art, Farhadi the cosmopolitan artist does seem somehow more comfortable within the eased confines of the French social (dis)order, something he manages to intuit even without benefit of speaking the language. "Home," after all, is always a matter of degree.

 

[7]

 

Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Arnaud Desplechin, France / U.S.)

There are a number of different Arnaud Desplechins, it seems. The kind of filmmaking that has become his signature style, the work that has consistently gotten the most attention from audiences and critics, is perhaps best exemplified by three of his major works: My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument), Kings and Queen, and A Christmas Tale. In my discussions with a number of critics and friends (including Mike D'Angelo, Steve Erickson, Ryan Wu, Victor Morton, and others), we ended up using a jokey shorthand for these Desplechin films: "bursting with fruit flavor." The idea was, many who grooved on this style were grooving on its disjointed unpredictability, the sense that Desplechin was creating chaotic worlds in which a convenience store heist, a pet monkey, or a sudden breakdance routine were as likely to show up as a serious father-daughter confrontation or an intense lover's quarrel. Each film was a freestyle universe that generated its own logic and yet, in the end, seemed to somehow resemble the world in which the rest of us lived. Skeptics, like D'Angelo, argued that this "bursting" style was no virtue in and of itself, that tonal inconsistency was no feat. The real matter was whether Desplechin had or had not accomplished something profound by the end, something greater than the sum of his film's wackadoo parts.

 

But then, there are Desplechin films that don't operate within this schematic at all. Major works, like Esther Kahn (possibly his greatest film to date), and decidedly minor efforts such as Playing "In the Company of Men," both share a relative commitment to the elaboration of a single story in reasonably linear fashion. This is not to say that radical tonal shifts are excluded. Esther Kahn's infamous dream sequence, in which she is beset by balloon-headed adversaries, seems to come from nowhere, so out of keeping is it with the tamped-down poetic realism of the rest of the film. But Desplechin is following the Surrealists here, presenting the pressures of the psyche as every bit as palpably real as the waking, material world. Jimmy P. is in some ways a bracingly conventional film for Desplechin to make, but it shares many traits with Esther Kahn. Like the earlier film, Jimmy P. is a profile of a near-outcast, someone whose subject position has marked them out as incomprehensible to the dominant order. Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro) is a member of the Blackfoot Nation (or tribe, in the parlance of the times). He is also a World War II vet, and he appears to have returned home with crippling PTSD. He suffers from excruciating headaches, panic attacks, and a general depression and rage. Of course, in the post-war period, many soldiers returned with psychological conditions, but the concept of posttraumatic stress was not formulated until the 70s. (Many responses were attributed to "shell shock.") Complicating matters is the idea that Picard, as an Indian, does not have the same emotive or expressive responses as a "white man," and so his presumed stoicism has to be disentangled from his mental illness. In other words, what part of Jimmy is sick, and what part is just Indian?

 

Enter Georges Devereux (Mattieu Amalric), an anthropologist specializing in Mohave Indians. He is brought in by the Menninger Clinic to evaluate Jimmy through a combination of psychoanalysis and ethnographic interpretation. What ends up happening instead, however, is that Georges is a broad-minded and jovial humanist whose breadth of knowledge about First Peoples, along with his self-deprecating manner, encourages Jimmy to open up. Unsurprisingly, we find that the roots of Jimmy's troubles are only partly linked to his war experiences, and have much more to do with his dysfunctional family, a series of mistakes he made regarding love and parenthood, and the basic struggles of negotiating his Blackfoot identity through the white man's world. Although the therapeutic sessions between Picard and Devereux comprise perhaps two-thirds of the film, there is a strange air of unreality to Jimmy P. Perhaps it has to do with the necessary artifice of the therapeutic dialogue, the friendship that is always truly something else. However, Desplechin saturates even his most banal, ostensibly realistic sequences in a kind of even, amber light. The talky, static quality of Jimmy P., along with its general tone of minimizing racism through small acts of understanding, makes Jimmy P. resemble a conscious throwback to the social-problem films of the 1940s and 50s. Even in the choice of lead actors -- Del Toro the perennial hangdog, Amalric the twitching bundle of energy -- Desplechin has arranged a sort of verbal / visual shorthand for liberal dialectics, men from radically different walks of life coming together and learning from one another. Is this ironic on Desplechin's part? I don't really think so. But there could be a hint of nostalgic skepticism, since the ideal, movie-perfect pairing of lost-man and shepherd depicted here is sort that almost certainly never happens in reality, and would be inescapably ensnared in power differentials if it did.

 

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Payne's last film, The Descendants, was also his most transparently mainstream effort. I mean that in no way pejoratively, and while I had decidedly mixed feelings about that film, there was quite a bit that it got right. In particular, Payne is getting good at observing the timeworn dynamics that define families, the way that we leave those spaces and come back to them only to find that superficial changes are outweighed by decades of shared history. This can be a comfort, like a baggy leather chair that conforms to your shape, or it can be a straitjacket, and the difference has to do with where we are at the time of re-entry. Nebraska is perhaps Payne's finest work yet. This is partly because he has minimized the cheap sub-Coens yokel humor to the point that it's almost negligible. A few vestigial rube gags remain, most notably in the form of the overweight cousins who bully David (Will Forte) and eventually try to strong-arm Woody (Bruce Dern) out of his supposed million-dollar prize. Payne seems to finally realize that this kind of "Hee Haw" pseudo-comedy undercuts his higher aspirations. (I realize that some others found June Squibb's performance as Woody's wife too broad by half, seeing her character as another symptom of Payne's condescension to Midwestern folk. I mostly disagree, because her passive-aggression struck me as just the kind of long term solution one would devise for coping with the problem of being Woody's spouse.) Those aspirations are realized not only in the figure of Woody, an iconic American figure who is also made recognizably human, but in Payne's orchestration of the slowly unfolding Woody-David relationship. The fact is that this father-son road trip is pretty obviously an allegory for generational rapprochement between the last of the unreconstructed, war-forged hard men, and my peers, the post-60s group who have adapted to diminished expectations by turning inward, arguably luxuriating in introspection and choice. Nevertheless, the actual immediacy of Nebraska -- the gradual dissipation of David's insecurity, and Woody's pride evolving into a shared familial love rather than a private fortress -- is always fully present. So much of this is due to Dern's patient, deeply responsive performance. His roughness adds grain to the film. He moves and speaks and thinks like a man not just from another time but moving at another speed, waving in the wind like stalks of corn while everyone around him whizzes by on a two-lane highway. Key moment: looking out over his parents' farm, David asks his father if he'd wanted a place like this. His reply is heartbreaking. "I don't remember. It doesn't matter now." Woody Grant, an entity jointly forged by Dern, Payne, and the hard physicality of Phedon Papamichael's cinematography, is a man beyond desire. He would like a new truck. But even if there were a million dollars, Woody could not afford to dream.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, U.K. / Germany / France / Cyprus / U.S.)

Centuries-old vampires setting down roots in Detroit, the contemporary exemplar of an undead city. Jarmusch's guiding metaphor is so bang-on that the film makes no effort even to remark upon it. Instead, Only Lovers (quite wisely) treats it as warp and woof, the fundamental overtone of a film organized primarily around mood and texture. This is not to say there is no plot, although it is rather minimal. Vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) seems to have sent out a long-distance soul-call of aching psychic need to his grosse liebe Eve (Tilda Swinton), who returns from Algiers to reconnect with Adam. At present, he is a musician; she has been a world traveler and, most recently, a caregiver to Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who is dying following the ingestion of some tainted blood. It is highly telling of Jarmusch's agenda when we see Eve pack her suitcase for the trip to the States. It is all books: great novels, historical tomes, catalogues raisoneé of major artists. As we learn, vampires are the keepers of human culture. As the planet devolves into a sad breeding ground for "zombies" (the vampires' ever so revealing word for living humans), polluting their blood and bodies and distracting their minds, it is up to the undead to collect books, amass rare musical instruments, and perhaps above all to listen. One of the things Jarmusch achieves so remarkably in OLLA is the creation of a palpable sense of time, not in the usual avant-garde mode of meditative stasis but instead as a kind of hypnotic, humming longeur. Adam and Eve are in a kind of opium den of intellection; they are the last stand of swoony aestheticism in an age governed by use value. In this respect, Jarmusch is providing a loving portrait of his ideal audience. As we know, this curatorial cocoon cannot remain impregnable. Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) drops in as a gauche, party-girl houseguest. (She is clearly a young vamp.) After consuming Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam's zombie friend and point-person with the outside world, she splits, leaving the older lovers to clean up the mess. In a way, the aftermath and conclusion of OLLA, which again could be construed as a bit of a sop to narrative convention, does make philosophical sense. The impurities in normal zombie blood, to say nothing of the violence involved in extracting it, parallel the collapse of Kantian aesthetic distance. Adam and Eve are not expelled from "the garden." (It's Detroit, after all.) Rather, they must decamp from the rarefied non-time of art and knowledge and walk the streets. This is the start of the decline, the tide Jarmusch perhaps knows we cannot stem. If art fails, politics is next, and so we could perhaps consider Only Lovers Left Alive as a kind of quasi-prequel. These ancient lovers have indeed discovered the limits of control.

 

Shield of Straw (Takashi Miike, Japan)

Here's an odd little factoid for ya. As of this writing (mid-April 2014), Miike's Shield of Straw and the universally reviled A Castle in Italy are the only two Competition films never to have received North American distribution. Granted, Shield's reception at Cannes was chilly indeed, but this strikes me as rather unfair. I'm prepared to accept that my liking the film is a minority opinion, although I'd make no great claims for it. But here's an instance in which a film is judged less on its own merits and more on the basis of context. This "isn't Cannes material," or "not good enough for Competition," etc. More to the point, Miike's film took a slot from a more "deserving" film. Then there's the whole other issue of whether genre films, or pure pop cinema, or Takashi Miike films in general, have a place in the rarefied aether of Cannes. Okay. But Shield of Straw itself has a lot going for it, particularly a very basic scenario that allows for the concatenation of a great many set-pieces and not a lot of unnecessary connective tissue. It's about getting from Point A to Point B without getting killed, and without knowing who is going to turn on you at any given moment. This fundamental purity, a hallmark of genre work from Walter Hill and John Carpenter straight through to Kenji Fukasaku and Edgar Wright, is exploited with grace and economy here. Kunihide (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a psychopathic child murderer who must be escorted to Tokyo by police. Kazuki (Takao Osawa) heads up the team to get him there, but a wealthy industrialist, whose granddaughter was Kunihide's last victim, offers anyone a billion yen to kill him. While a agree with Keith Uhlich that SoS is front-loaded (the explosion sequence is a pip), I found more than enough to keep my attention buoyed throughout the picture. The supposed disquisitions on vengeance and justice I didn't so much notice, apart from the fact that Kazuki (not unlike the John Anderton character in Minority Report) struggles with his own grief while demanding of himself a standard of ethical service. His partner Atsuko (Nanako Matsushima) has motives that are far less clear. But above all, Kunihide is a Class-A scumbag, utterly smug about his pleasure in killing the children, ungrateful to the officers working to keep him alive, and above all a sniveling coward. He was fun to hate, to the very last.

 

Venus In Fur (Roman Polanski, France / Poland)

A naughty director tries to lord it over a woman and ends up getting justifiably put in his place? Even though Polanski adapted this highly theatrical two-hander from a play by David Ives, it's difficult not to read Venus In Fur as at least partially self-critical on the director's part. Those who think Polanski identifies with his persecuted protagonists might need to look closely at Venus, which strikes me as an acknowledgment that even though he (and Samantha Geimer) may feel that his legal prosecution has gone far enough he will always have something to answer for in the court of feminism. After all, how can we stop ourselves from reading theatre director Thomas Novacek (Mathieu Amalric) as a kind of Polanski stand-in? Amalric resembles the young Polanski, and he is a French man of letters with a distinctly Eastern European name (Czech in this case, not Polish), a variant on Polanski as the learned Pole steeped in Francophone culture. But these particular clues -- and the casting of his own wife of 25 years, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, in the role of Vanda -- have less to do with any sense of personal meaning than the overall tone of Venus. From the beginning of the film, Thomas insists that his interest in Sacher-Masoch is purely literary, that there is no desire at stake in his creation. He is claiming, in other words, to be rooted ever so firmly in the Kantian analytic of beauty. This raises the question, first of all, of how and why "Venus in Furs" would be regarded as an aesthetic object. Thomas makes no convincing claims for its textual value. Nevertheless, Vanda, who immediately presents as a crass lower-class broad with nothing but her instincts to go on, continually outsmarts Thomas. She has been playing a role from the very moment she walked in, late and rain-soaked and eliciting Thomas's gruff paternal pity. She not only blindsides him with her complete grasp of the text, its master-slave dialectic and its subtle ruptures in historically defined gender roles. Vanda is able to penetrate Thomas (mentally speaking) through her ability to slide almost imperceptibly from actress and director (a kind of bickering Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn dynamic) to seductress and helpless quarry. The camera angles and shot lengths change in very small ways, to unconsciously signal that a different register of reality has taken hold. Polanski articulates this slippage, but Vanda always controls the switch. She is the point of enunciation, and so we are at her mercy, not unlike Thomas (and Polanski). Some may think that the final scene goes too far, gilding the lily in its explicitness. I disagree; Vanda could be misconstrued as a natural manipulator, which is precisely the anti-feminist (and, well, misogynist) ideology Venus In Fur seeks to unwrite. The female of the species is not deadlier than the male -- no more bullshit. Rather, she's really tired of being messed with. Polanski, for all his faults, is to be admired for giving Vanda / Seigner her victory dance.

 

[6]

 

Behind The Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)

There are times when you just can't be certain what you're looking at. Michael Douglas's performance as Liberace manages to avoid all easy caricature, showing him to be vain, materialistic and somewhat Machiavellian, but also funny, clever, sexually liberated (at least in private), and unexpectedly clear-eyed about his overall place in the entertainment firmament. Instead of a career-spanning biopic, Candelabra zeroes in on his tempestuous relationship (a marriage in all but name, really) to Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a lonely pretty boy who had little in the way of family and allowed Lee to take him in. What's really odd about this film is that, in various interviews and at awards shows and during his "I ate too much pussy and got throat cancer" disclosures, Douglas did almost everything he could to mock this performance, and effeminacy, and being gay generally. So where did this performance come from? Did Soderbergh "defeat" Douglas by extracting everything between the mincing, to produce a flesh and blood man? Was Damon such a consummate foil that Douglas's Method training kicked in, regardless of any personal discomfort about the role? Or was Douglas fully committed to the Liberace character, and then felt he had to make a large display of pulling back from it, either because it touched a nerve or the fear that others might "get the wrong idea" was too much to bear? In any case, Soderbergh deserves unambiguous credit here since, once again, his late work tackles one of the major problems of our times. How do bodies exist, and how are they conditioned, by late capital? In Liberace's case, he made himself a gargantuan spectacle, all feathers and fur, to distract not just from who he was underneath but what he was. We see Lee the old, balding, wrinkled figure, stripped of his armor, in bed with Scott and fucking him hard (he had a penile implant, this being the pre-Viagra days), or luxuriating in the bath. But he is still protected by opulence. Liberace's wealth was predicated on making his body an exotic object, and this permitted him to wall himself away in Vegas, his fortresses as open or as impregnable as he desired. At the film's conclusion, when Scott visits the dying Lee, Soderbergh affords this moment a remarkable degree of dignity, as we see that in death, Liberace has returned to human scale.

 

The Immigrant (James Gray)

In films like The Yards and We Own the Night, Gray has proven himself to be a master at revivifying a lost demimonde, one we might call "deep New York." By this I mean that Gray shows us different facets of a general undertow characterized by family and tradition, particularly as they inscribe themselves on men and women who attempt to move forward into modernity. Interestingly enough, Gray has repeatedly found his avatar for this fraught dialectic in Joaquin Phoenix (in Little Odessa, We Own the Night and Two Lovers), casting him as the man who dares to dream beyond his Eastern European roots, his desires not so coincidentally accompanied by a (racially) improper love object -- the Puerto Rican Amada in We Own the Night, and Gwyneth Paltrow's shiksa in Two Lovers. In some respects this set of relationships is altered in The Immigrant, from one of origins to one of status and, more than anything, time. Phoenix's Bruno Weiss is a small-time burlesque impresario and whoremaster, himself perhaps only one generation removed from the Old World, if that. But this (and, of course, patriarchy) is enough to afford him the power to manipulate young, troubled women fresh off the boat at Ellis Island, probable deportees who will do anything to avoid being sent back in steerage or worse. So he singles out one such victim, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), who traveled from Poland with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Since Magda is quarantined on the island for six months as a possible tuberculosis risk, Ewa is essentially stuck in New York, forced to accept whatever terms Bruno dictates. In a sadistic bit of irony, she is assigned to play Lady Liberty in his grotesque girly-show of women from around the world. But then Bruno, as we soon discover, has no sense of humor, much less any cruel poetic streak. In his warped vision of things, he actually is affording Ewa a kind of freedom. He has a sick obsession with her that he confuses with love, which Gray -- an artful filmmaker but never a particularly subtle one -- allows us to understand as an allegory of sorts for America's psychological ambivalence toward its immigrant population, the "native" need to possess the other through violent, often sexualized domination. As we can see with Bruno, this mania can be even more intense in those who are newer Americans themselves, eager to erase the taint of the foreign by foisting it onto the body of someone else.

 

The Immigrant complicates this pattern, of course, with the introduction of Emil (Jeremy Renner), Bruno's cousin, an itinerant performer who seems far more comfortable in his skin, and his country, partly because he has no interest in setting down roots. As we know from other Gray films, the concept of patrimony, the (male) need to establish something, is the conservative force that inevitably pulls good men into crisis. And as The Immigrant makes clear, Bruno is hardly a good man. (His final speech / rant to Ewa has the trappings of a confession but lacks contrition or even self-awareness. He merely describes his mistreatment of Ewa like an objective fact.) Although Gray's films have always been constructed along the lines of Greek tragedy or the bold strokes of Shakespeare, earlier films have combined this grandeur and artifice with a lived-in feel, the locales and general habitus of downtown environs that Gray clearly knows well. What's more, the timeframes of his other films are firmly situated within Gray's living memory, even though he was able to render them with a kind of brown, leathery timelessness. His best film, in my view, is We Own the Night, partly because it so successfully negotiates the late-70s / early 80s ambiance of Disco-era New York with the hard-bitten, generational stasis of career cops. The Immigrant is often dazzling in its sweep and depth, able to articulate peeling, ramshackle 1920s interiors of the newly-arrived with the still fresh heroism of architectural modernism. Even the sterile symmetry of government hallways bears a Kafkaesque gleam, impressive after a fashion. At the same time, these visual motifs frequently feel brittle and textualized in a manner that I haven't encountered before with Gray's cinema. Calling it second-hand would not only be too harsh; it would be fundamentally incorrect. Better to say "second-order," one remove from palpable reality. Instead of conjuring a world, per se, much of The Immigrant elicits feelings of Sergio Leone and Michael Cimino showing James Gray how to go about conjuring a world. This is a common enough postmodern dilemma, but it counts for something when it arises. Some films indicate that they want to be read as intertextual constructions, and others send signals to the viewer that they are to be taken, not at face value exactly, but at least as texts without a multi-faceted code. The Immigrant's muted melodrama, which erupts only at the conclusion, never indicated to me that it was a film about the representational distance between now and then. And so these movements of "pure cinema" (to say nothing of Renner's unnerving contemporary performance style) stood out like boom mics in the frame. While it's true that one could give these boundary-busting effects a theoretical reading -- immigration is, after all, a question of borders, permeability and patrol -- this strikes me as special pleading for a fascinating yet flawed film, one whose maker went far outside his comfort zone and came up with mixed but admirable results.

 

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

It's a kind of lazy critical shorthand to say that Kore-eda is the heir to Ozu. First of all, there's hardly a modern filmmaker working today, Japanese or not, whose practice couldn't be traced back to Ozu in some fashion, however obliquely. He's simply an axiom of the art of cinema, so unless you're Dennis Dugan or somebody like that, there's going to be some tiny hint of the master in there. Having said that, it's true that some folks are more beholden than others, and Kore-eda does like to draw in the specific formal homages -- the architectural frontality, the hemmed in, almost boxy framing of exterior shots, and of course the commuter trains slicing through shots, like ceremonious banalities that remind us that the profilmic drama is but a tiny fragment of Life In General. But if we wanted to really take this inquiry seriously, and not just drop it like a cliché of nodding familiarity (literal trainspotting!), we would have to consider how Kore-eda does more than "update" Ozu for contemporary Japan. More than this, Kore-eda's films represent a kind of inversion of Ozu. Think of it this way. Ozu's greatest films are ultimately about family and tradition undergoing the quiet storm of modern change. But those older ways always retain their legitimacy. The family evolves, not always well, but it ultimately survives. In Kore-eda, families are always already broken. Widows are suspended in melancholia (Maborosi). Families breed terrorism, and those left behind must seek out alternative means of emotional support (Distance). Mothers abandon their children (Nobody Knows). Even a "healthy" family seethes with disappointment and resentment (Still Walking). The only unequivocal good comes when we are dead (After Life), and even this is managed not by loved ones rejoined in heaven but by angelic bureaucrats.

 

So in a way, we could understand Kore-eda's art as being radically post-Ozuian, even though the films seldom behave radically. There is no loss of stability; rather there is the anxious work of shoring up fragments, of working to reassemble family and community in the face of their ongoing dissolution. But unlike so many of his contemporaries (Kurosawa, Aoyama and Miike in particular), Kore-eda doesn't assume that the task is impossible, or that our last resort is a staving off of nihilism. The framings remain solid. The trains still run through the landscape as reminders. We are not alone.

 

There's something a bit schematic about Like Father, Like Son, although it falls very much in line with Kore-eda's master plot. Two couples are contacted by the hospital where they gave birth and informed that their infant sons were switched at birth. The Nonomiyas are upper-class, largely due to the drive and ambition of Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), a partner with a development firm. The Saikis are solidly middle-class. Yukari (Yoko Maki) runs a bodega across town. Ryota's wife Midori (Machiko Ono) is shy, although not exactly subservient. But she doesn't obviously object to the fact that her husband is never around for her and their son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Meanwhile, Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky) is much more outspoken and seems to be the more forceful member of the marriage. Yukari is a fully present and involved dad. He wants all his children, including the disputed son Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen) to feel loved above all. Ryota, meanwhile, is distant, and pressures Keita to succeed. (Keita is actually an average student; upon learning of the switch, Ryota lets out an unthinking, involuntary "that explains it!") Kore-eda could not make the two families more different if he tried, barring variables like prison time or sexual orientation. Like Father, Like Son is ultimately a wobbly proposition because its nature vs. nurture thematics are so front and center. Nevertheless, the manner in which the plot develops cannot help but engage on a primal level. When both families start sending the boys to the other households for weekend visits, the obvious confusion they feel -- "If this is a sleepover, why isn't he staying?" -- speaks to the bizarre lengths people go to when trying to solve an unsolvable situation. (If it seems a bit implausible to even consider switching the sons, this tells us that we have already decided on the nurture side of the equation. Which we'd have to, yes? Otherwise, every adoption is doomed to fail...?) Despite the shakiness of Kore-eda's philosophical thought experiment (rigid cinema, questionable premises), Like Father, Like Son ultimately touches us because it's about fathers facing their shortcomings on the precipice of unthinkable loss. A Spielbergian streak, then, may be Kore-eda's plan for putting the shards of a post-Ozu universe back together.

 

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)

Ever since I first saw A Touch of Sin, it left me in a state of deep ambivalence. Jia's direction is customarily masterful, and this exactitude is perhaps even more evident here since Sin is a larger, more expansive film than others he has assayed thus far. This isn't to say that films such as Still Life or Platform were somehow "small," or that they lacked ambition or epic scope. In fact, both of those films found Jia tackling much broader swaths of Chinese history and socioeconomic inquiry than anything one finds in Sin. However, in its multi-story, four-part structure, Sin provides Jia with the opportunity to incorporate somewhat different tonal approaches and slightly different styles to a single work. All of them are loosely connected not only by the crisis of late modernity in China -- Jia's Great Subject -- but by sudden outbursts of violence as the end result of systematic ongoing oppression. So Sin kind of functions as Jia's self-contained anthology of Chinese rebellion, often lapsing into bloody Charles Bronson revenge fantasy. I found this incredibly offputting to say the least, but I find myself still grappling with exactly why. For one thing, I have no real sense of moral outrage about A Touch of Sin, some sense that it is shocking or inappropriate. If anything, I suppose I have to reluctantly admit to a kind of middlebrow film festival pleasure-seeking, which is all about my own position of privilege. I want to see Jia do a certain thing, and while I very much respect his need to shift gears, I find Sin's focus on gunplay, rape-revenge, and crime-and-punishment to be a rather dull, rote expenditure of his talents. Nevertheless, I recognize that I come to this as an American viewer, saturated with the kind of images and themes that Jia is exploring in a very different context. For a film to show characters actively resisting against the Chinese power structure, be it governmental, patriarchal, or gray-market monetary, represents a substantial transgression against the national image-bank. Composing the film as Jia does, with each explosion of violence coming at the end of the segment, as the final dam-burst of years of pent-up anger and frustration, is quite obviously a gesture of political allegory -- a touch of sin after a lifetime of horrors. Besides, this kind of cataclysm is hardly unprecedented in Jia's filmography. The World, after all, concludes quite unexpectedly with a deadly bang, as though shoddy construction will always find a way to eliminate nascent happiness. At any rate, even as I find myself bending over backwards to grant all due respect to Jia and to A Touch of Sin, I keep finding myself thinking back to Ying Liang's exceptionally powerful film When Night Falls, which addressed the Jang Yia case not by reenacting Jang's murders but by exploring their negative space, the repercussions on those around them, his mother in particular. Granted, Ying's film is based on a true story, and Jia's is not. But I don't think is necessarily makes me a prude to wonder what exactly A Touch of Sin gains by painting the screen blood red.

 

[5]

 

Blue Is the Warmest Color [La vie d'Adèle] (Adellatif Kechiche, France / Belgium / Spain)

A critic and friend I deeply respect, Andreas Stoehr (who blogs alongside Ashley at the exquisitely named Pussy Goes Grrr), addressed a frustration regarding Blue in their Twitter feed not long after the film's U.S. commercial release. I'm paraphrasing their remarks, but essentially Andreas's point was that too many liberal-humanist critics were choosing to disregard the lesbian specificity of the love affair at the heart of Kechiche's film. Instead, those critics were blanding out their observations (and their praise) by noting something along the lines of, "it's a passionate love story that just happens to be between two young women." By making this universalizing move, liberals are able to overly identify with an experience that, for many of us, is quite distinct from our own (and should perhaps be valued for that reason). Furthermore, those same non-lesbian critics are occluding the social and political specificity of contemporary lesbian experience, of the surprise and anxiety that Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) feels upon realizing her immediate, unmistakable attraction to Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the sense of revelation, of almost unmediated corporeal satisfaction that accompanies her initial sexual encounters with Emma. Having said all this, I find myself taking issue with Andreas's point to some extent. It's not so much with the shortcomings they locate in the critical response, which I think is not only accurate but quite typical of a homogenizing tendency in liberal discourse. If anything, though, I think that Blue (and especially Kechiche) go so far in terms of underlining and circling and dog-earing the absolute particularity of lesbian desire that the film reifies it and its characters. The film becomes a fetish operation. We see this from the very moment when Adèle passes Emma on the street. This random fleeting moment is more than a meet-cute; it's like a a chemical reaction has just exploded in the middle of the city. In visual terms, the bobbing and weaving of the handheld camera and the overlit haze of the exteriors are suddenly arrested by Emma's azure hair glinting in the sun. And, as for the sex scene, whose length and explicitness has been duly remarked upon elsewhere, there is a rather preposterous animalism to the whole thing. True, we cannot generalize. Is this the way some people go at it with a brand new lover? Perhaps. Is it likely to the the way Adèle (inasmuch as she is characterized) would approach her first lesbian encounter? Again, it rings false but it is difficult to say for sure. What we can say, from the evidence provided by Blue Is The Warmest Color as a complete text, is that Kechiche regards this sexual union as somehow preordained, not just spiritually -- an almost epic love affair whose birth and death we will witness in the form of a jury-rigged soap opera -- but as something secret and special about lesbians. "They" have feelings and desires that the rest of us can't understand, emotions and needs that are just so powerful that they overtake all reason. It's amour fou squared, basically, and leads us back to tired, oppressive notions of women as being closer to nature and irrationality. (Thankfully Julie Maroh's graphic novel was there to keep Kechiche nominally grounded, lest he offer us a sight of the lovers' periods synching up and the two of them howling at the moon.) It's true, I joked on Twitter that this film's idea of lesbian sex resembles a pie-eating contest. Truthfully, I have no personal experience with the matter, something I probably needn't point out. But I guess the main point is, I think I have an eye for fraudulent human behavior, not because all humans are the same but because humans always act from a place of conflicted motivation. The idea of sex as madness, of sex without thinking, is an age-old Western trope, and at its root is a fundamental fear and even hatred of sex. But that's okay, it's all for show (like the equally fraudulent scene in which Adèle feels snobbed out by Emma around her artist friends, a kind of class-anxiety "porn"). Kechiche arranges the sex as a performance of hysteria, so that we never need to identify with it. And that means, ironically, that Blue keeps us safe from lesbianism. Instead it offers its viewers that same old tired sex-position that is not one: "Can I watch?"

 

Heli (Amat Escalante, Mexico / France / Germany / The Netherlands)

Three films in and I find myself unsure about Escalante. As was the case with Sangre and Los Bastardos, the new film opens with an exceptional instance of formal control. Moving the camera first behind and then above the flatbed of a moving pick-up, then taking us up, over and around an overpass, Escalante displays impressive skill in describing cinematic space. And while some would probably disagree, I didn't find this unnecessarily showy; the tension between the brutal architectonics of the cinematography and the dusty, nondescript Nowheresville of the Mexican highway were a perfect match. That is, this opening scene told us that we were going to be observing very specific events removed from the overall chaos of the narco-wars, enframed not only for better understanding but as an artistic and editorial gesture. Sadly, Heli veers from this path fairly quickly, as Escalante chooses to hone in on a set of plot mechanics that will put a single family in the crossfire. This means that the generalized horrors of contemporary narco-politics turn into a kind of hard luck tale (sort of A Simple Plan in reverse). Furthermore, almost on cue, the focus on a set of hapless innocents coincides with a slackening of formal rigor. It's almost as though Escalante fears that we'd miss the true meaning of the violence he displays if he went too medieval-Haneke on our asses. (The exception is the soon-to-be-infamous lighter fluid scene, which Guy Lodge waggishly dubbed "Your Sex is On Fire." But that happens to a 'bad guy,' so I guess it's cool...?) As with Los Bastardos, in which the film adopted a clean, reserved style until its hamstrung characters made choices that were a tad too desperate, Heli has more than a whiff of moralism permeating its ugly, arthouse-approved worldview. Considering just how doggedly Escalante remains at ground level, without a glimpse at broader power structures, this feels cheap and easy. Heli makes me want to see Miss Bala again, because I think I may have sold that film short.

 

Michael Kohlhaas (Arnaud des Pallières, Germany / France)

[NOTE: For the purposes of this exercise, I am sticking with the film's original Cannes title, and ignoring the inscrutably pompous one slapped on the film by its U.S. distributor. After all, if it was good enough for Kleist...!] Within the rarefied ether of Cannes, it's a frequent topic of discussion -- in fact, an initial kick-off point for the insta-pundit analytic process to which each film is subjected -- whether or not a Competition film deserves its berth in the line-up. This is a kind of self-fulfilling hypocrisy, of course, since there's also the perennial complaint that Competition is a the place for an unmovable Inner Circle, a rogues' gallery of the Establishment that seldom welcomes new faces. Michael Kohlhaas by longtime French B-lister Arnaud des Pallières is a good representation of the conundrum this kind of thinking (both on the part of the festival itself and the people who cover it). Taken on its own merits, this latest film adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's renowned novella is a solid and engaging piece of work. Des Pallières is quite adept at roving the surface of Kleist's text and drawing out specific narrative beats for the cinematic medium. You could easily envisage des Pallières inserting chapter headings: The Dishonor; The Grievance; The Envoy; etc. There is no denying that a great deal of Kohlhaas's success as a film emanates from its star Mads Mikkelsen, particularly his natural capacity for cutting a physical figure on screen, his face as leathery electric geometry. Nevertheless, des Pallières deserves much of the credit for delineating what is essentially a medieval action movie and weaving through that overall tapestry the sort of slow-cinema passages that qualify Michael Kohlhaas as a serious work of art -- the assembly and preparation of weapons, for example, or Kohlhaas' lengthy chat with the priest (Denis Lavant) who urges Michael to abandon his armed revolt. (The scene was vaguely reminiscent of the chat between Bobby Sands and his priest in Hunger, incidentally.) But does Michael Kohlhaas "deserve" a Competition slot? Part of such thinking, of course, means holding fast to fading notions of a cinematic meritocracy. It's not always the best films that get shown, but the ones that satisfy national quotas, sales agent demands, as well as the need to keep the red carpet interesting. Still, there is a grave, plodding seriousness to Michael Kohlhaas that frequently makes it seem like an inert cinematic object, as though its sense of its own importance were being borrowed chiefly from the literary source material, and driven home by the rugged dignity of its leading man. Put another way: there is absolutely nothing wrong with Michael Kohlhaas. But it will make no lasting impression, either on the viewer who screens it, or the larger film history of which it is inevitably a part.

 

Young & Beautiful (Francois Ozon, France)

A reasonably intelligent experiment that Ozon can't quite pull off, Young & Beautiful is being sold in the States with a trailer that makes the film look exactly like what it's not. This is a common enough problem, of course (films have to be marketed) but it also goes to the core of what Ozon can and cannot do with this material, and what one could reasonably expect from such a project. Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is a 17 year old petit bourgeois high school girl who has a relatively stable, supportive family life and a solid set of friends, none of which has any bearing on the fact that she decides to lead a secret life as a high-end call girl. The first half of the film observes Isabelle's emotionally detached maneuvers, both in her "normal" life and with her clients. Then, in a complicating incident straight out of the daytime soaps, her kind elderly client (Johan Leysen) dies of a heart attack during sex. After some failed CPR, Isabelle flees the scene but is caught on CCTV, so her tricking is exposed to her family. The second half of the film is about the fallout from this discovery, primarily in regards to Isabelle's strained relationship with her mother (Géraldine Pailhas). There's "reintegration" counseling, the question of what to do with the money Isabelle earned, how the knowledge of Isabelle's prostitution has effected her adolescent brother (Fantin Ravat), and other matters which, while fraught with the requisite baggage, are addressed by Ozon in a relatively straightforward manner befitting French post-Pialat realism. The strategy, then, is to depict the danger and romance of the hooker-by-choice in the high-toned, sophisticated atmosphere of European eroticism -- Buñuel's Belle de Jour being the obvious point of comparison -- and then to collapse the "cinematic" fantasy by bringing Isabelle back down to earth. This doesn't work, in part because Ozon lacks the control and the commitment. His fancy-schmancy music cues ("Midnight City," again?) and general preference for luxuriating over Vacth's obvious star quality make it impossible to really convey the quotidian with any conviction. Whereas Ozon the shape-shifter could convincingly appropriate Sirk (8 Women) and Antonioni (Under the Sand) to make his best films, Young & Beautiful's Buñuel riff is not only divided against itself, but divided even in that very division.

 

[4]

 

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy / France)

Paolo Sorrentino has become a sort of go-to Italian auteur for the current regime in Cannes without having a great deal of support elsewhere. Unlike some members of the International Cinema Scope Cabal™, I have remained somewhat agnostic toward Sorrentino, who is undoubtedly talented but committed to working in a highly unfashionable mannerist mode. (We could perhaps slot him alongside such wide-angle saxons as Terry Gilliam and, when they’re in extremis, the Coens; Kusturica is a distant Serbian cousin.) The style is distracting and frequently obscene, but that’s not necessarily the mark of a charlatan. Occasionally, as in Il Divo (Sorrentino’s best film), a funhouse distortion of reality is what’s called for. The writer-director’s predilection for gargantuan, fascist space and disorienting, dipsy-doodle camerawork is pretty clearly his response to Berlusconi’s culture of all-consuming hideousness, an attempt to plunge into the ugliness and come out, if not on the other side, at least more undeniably at the center of hell.

 

It’s not coincidental that Sorrentino’s most poetic film, This Must Be The Place, was the result of his sojourn to the good ol’ U.S. of A. Freed of the weight of Italian bunga-bungocracy, he could explore open spaces and, finally, kill the Nazis where they slept. It was an empty film, convinced that it was replete with meaning, but it was certainly a noble failure. By contrast, The Great Beauty finds Sorrentino going so far into the mythologies of his nation that he loses all perspective, spitting out an incoherent pastiche of Fellini (La Dolce Vita in particular), with a dash of accidental, toothless Tomas Gutierrez Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment) dropped in as counterpoint. The story of washed-up writer and professional partier and gadfly Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), The Great Beauty is also an alleged condemnation of the decadence of Rome and its high society. But inasmuch as it approaches coherence at all (and indeed, parts of this film are “elliptical” to the point of incompetence), Jep is a sexist, classist fool whose point of view Sorrentino never bothers to problematize.

 

We can tell he is an unreliable enough narrator. But The Great Beauty clearly wants us to believe that Jep’s disaffection is a perfectly logical response to the rubbish of modern life, and that his sudden emotional breakthroughs are reason enough to hold him in higher esteem than the phonies surrounding him. Sorrentino’s ultimate point seems to be that contemporary Italy has become a kind of Spring Breakers for the geriatric set, and only the man callow enough to recognize how pathetic it all is deserves our respect. (Also, he prefers classical statuary to performance art, so clearly he’s our designated crap-cutter.) What nonsense.

 

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, France / Thailand / U.S. / Sweden)

With people turning against Winding Refn en masse on this one, I hate to join the dogpile. However, watching Only God Forgives, I wasn't surprised by the specific ways in which I found it wanting. I was a dissenting voice one Bronson, which many folks considered highly innovative filmmaking, and not just because of Tom Hardy's star turn. There was a sense of awe at the unconventional choices NWR made, like setting a slow motion fight scene to the Walker Brothers' "The Electrician," or employing lots of bare-stage tableaux and direct-address. But I found Bronson agonizingly inert, a series of well-appointed but disconnected pictures that had no cinematic motility. Jump ahead a few years, and Drive (which I stand behind) looks like the anomaly. Only God Forgives seems dead-set on emphasizing Ryan Gosling's new-found meme status as a structural principle, setting him up in scene after scene as though he's there to glower and stare. True, Winding Refn provides quite a few shocking red neon interiors for Gosling's poses. It resembles Gaspar Noé's eyeball searing faux-Asiania in Into the Void, which was certainly problematic in itself. But at least Noé understands the value of keeping the camera moving, plunging into impossible visual situations, so as to provide some semblance of psychological frisson (Is this a dream?) and avant-garde showmanship (The banal event resolves into Pure Light). But Only God Forgives breaks up the monotony with Kristen Scott Thomas's evil-mommy Cruella deVil, practically leading her son by the balls with a truly revolting Oedipal ooze. And, as a sort of B-roll refrain, the pilgrim's progress of Det. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), slicing and dicing his way through the men who sell their daughters into sexual servitude. Chang, it seems, is our "native" interlocutor, and he has the unenviable task of trying to stave off sexual violence and pedophilia in a country whose poor have been dominated by Western sex tourists and a local aristocracy who don't much care. But the film broaches this topic with zero compassion; it's just the pretext for a lot of the old ultraviolence. Chang's machete swings, blood spatters and spreads, and then it's back to the grim Gosling stare. It's almost artistic just how extraordinarily Only God Forgives thwarts every meaningful canon of cinematic expression. It's a highwire blunder, just a few kilowatt-hours shy of a total brown-out.

 

[3]

 

Borgman (Alex Van Warmerdam, The Netherlands /Belgium)

There's something puny and petty about a film like Borgman, and not only because it so tediously rehashes themes and formal tropes that have been better explored by the likes of Dogtooth and Funny Games. No, the real shame about Van Warmerdam's film is that, like those other films but with a fraction of the panache, it insists on locating the decay of contemporary Europe on the well-manicured lawns of the upper bourgeoisie, those upwardly mobile middle managers who bought into deregulation and neoliberalism and tried to play the game to their own advantage. As per usual, the mega-rich are entirely absent from these purge-parties, either because the artists in question have no idea what they look like, or else that echelon of the super-elite is seldom found in Greece, Austria, or the Netherlands. So, lacking a true target for their ire, filmmakers like Van Warmerdam torment the hedge fund managers, the ad execs, the university professors, the minor league sub-elites who are within striking distance.

 

So what does Borgman give us? Initially it provides a rather stark and somewhat original visual metaphor for both a (literal) sub-urban underclass and a fomenting "underground" revolt. In the woods, a network of men and women live in dugout hovels beneath the forest floor, until they are snuffed out by hunters and a vigilante priest. One of them, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) appears to be a leader of some sort. He flees to a "nice neighborhood," and when he asks to come into the home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis) to take a bath, Richard refuses him entry. Upon implying that he knows Marina, Richard beats Borgman up, prompting Marina to let the bum stay in the garage. From this point, Borgman is "in." Like the stranger in Pasolini's Teorema but with a purely self-serving agenda, the man has infiltrated the family, will seduce Marina, indoctrinate the children, and usurp Richard's patriarchal authority, with the help of others in his (revolutionary?) team.

 

I'll freely admit to being unfamiliar not only with Van Warmerdam's other films, but with contemporary Dutch cinema more generally. (John van der Keuken is the last filmmaker from the Netherlands to whom I paid consistent attention.) So it's entirely possible that AVW is tapping into a national mood or partaking of a broader movement, and I am ignorant of all of this. At the same time, Borgman scans as a piece of by-the-numbers Euro-pessimism. The beginning of the film pays thematic lip service to concerns with the underclass, and the middle and end provide an image of some sort of organized unrest, but these two trajectories don't connect in any logical way. If Borgman and his people can afford weapons and mobile phones, then where exactly are they on the economic ladder, and whose interests to they represent? Naturally, Van Warmerdam need not articulate any coherent social statement. Borgman crosses all boundaries by flashing the transit-papers of "allegory." Nothing is "real," nothing is intended to be taken at face value, and nothing has any direct meaning. Power switches placed between two tribes, and all the indiscriminate killing, so immaculately staged, must have some higher philosophical purpose. We are "free" to fill in the blank.