A former philosophy professor who learned filmmaking by directing industrial shorts, Bruno Dumont exploded on to the film world little over a decade ago with his first feature, La Vie de Jésus (1997). It was apparent from the get-go that Dumont was a profoundly physical filmmaker whose 'Scope compositions and atmospheric soundtracks have a visceral impact on the viewer. His favorite sounds are grunts, engines and the splat splat splat of provincial brutes walking in the mud.
His second feature, L'Humanité, was a surprise winner at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, taking home three awards (the Grand Prix, Best Actor and Best Actress). Although reviled by most reviewers at the time, it's a lot more interesting and memorable than the popular favorite, Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother. His follow-up, Twentynine Palms (2003), also divided viewers when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but without David Cronenberg around to give it a major prize or three, it attracted much less attention. I was glad to see Dumont stretching himself by making a film outside France and casting a professional actor (Claire Denis regular Katia Golubeva), although not everyone agreed; Jonathan Rosenbaum for one felt that Dumont had lost his moorings.
Flandres (2006), which won Dumont his second Grand Prix at Cannes, is a war film about French soldiers fighting in a vaguely defined battle somewhere in the Middle East. The opening scenes in the French countryside are lovely, but once the men ship off, the story loses its way.
The film opens on a farm where Demester (Samuel Boidin), a large man with an unshaven Neanderthal face, receives a letter informing him he's been drafted. This being a Dumont film, it's not long before Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), a pale girl with heavy eyelids who lives on a nearby farm, shows up for some anti-erotic coupling in a field. It's winter so they both keep their coats on. Later in a pub, when asked about their relationship, Demester says they're just friends. In revenge, Barbe walks over and introduces herself to a man, Blondel (Henri Cretel), who's been staring at her from the bar. Demester seems to accept this, and the three of them come to a Jules and Jim-style arrangement. Up to this point, Dumont has yet to take a wrong step.
Then Demester and Blondel go off to war, finding themselves in the same squadron. The film purposefully doesn't explain why this war is being fought or what either side hopes to achieve. If you think this is a cop out, ask yourself what the US is doing in Iraq.
The episodes are so disconnected that, for a time, I thought Dumont was simply refusing to narrativize the war. A white soldier gets into a fight with a black one for reasons that are never explained. I suppose it doesn't matter since, soon after, the black soldier gets shot in the head. Is that a spoiler? The film presents it matter of factly and it's never mentioned afterwards. When the French kill two child soldiers, Dumont lingers on the men's blank reactions. Meanwhile in France, Barbe has an abortion and is later put in a psychiatric hospital for her nerves. Things just happen without any apparent cause or effect.
A plot does begin to take shape. The French soldiers rape a woman who may or may not be a soldier, although they agree later that it doesn't matter either way. "A hole is a hole," one of them says. In retaliation, the French soldiers are kidnapped and tortured. Like Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007), the film put images in my head that I don't want to have in there.
There's no doubt that Dumont is an important filmmaker, but Flandres isn't one of his great films. The storytelling is disjointed, and apart from Demester who's features are too singular to be mistaken, I started to lose track of which soldier was supposed to be which. It treats war so generally that I'm left wondering why Dumont would allude to specific wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would the film lose any thing if the characters were fighting in Sweden? At the same Cannes Film Festival where Flandres won the Grand Prix, the Palme d'Or was awarded to Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley and the Best Actor prize went to Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes (both 2006), two vastly superior war films that are as concrete and historical in their approach as Dumont's film is abstract and ahistorical. Those are the films I would recommend you see instead.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Friday, October 3rd
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, South Korea/USA)
From the program: "Six-year-old Jin and Bin are sisters. Their mother sends them to their aunt’s house in the countryside since she can’t afford to raise them. However, the alcoholic aunt cannot take care of the sisters, and they are sent to their grandmother again."
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
"Giulio Andreotti served as prime minister of Italy three times, and has been in politics for over sixty years. The Cannes Jury Prize winner scathingly chronicles a career of corruption, power, influence and mystery, and a man as grotesque Machiavellian caricature who left an indelible signature on Italy’s collective consciousness."
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
"En route to a lucrative job in Alaska but stranded in Oregon, Wendy is faced with some dire financial consequences and forced into some difficult decisions. Relying on the humanity found on the fringes of American society, she struggles to make things better for herself and her dog—Lucy."
Saturday, October 4th
Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
"An ordinary family tries to hold itself together amidst lies and deceptions, told to cover up failings and appointments. Ignoring the truth in order to endure misery by neither seeing, hearing or speaking it, however, does not make it go away. Or does it?"
Rembrandt's J'Accuse (Peter Greenaway, UK)
"As a follow-up to his artistic mystery hinging on Rembrandt’s 'The Night Watch,' Peter Greenaway directs this dramatized documentary about the enigma at the heart of the murder. Theorizing on the anti-Rembrandt conspiracy and possible motives of the painted characters, Greenaway arrives at some unlikely but highly plausible conclusions." (I'm rushing this so there's no guarantee I'll get in.)
Lost Song (Rodrique Jean, Canada)
"Elisabeth and Pierre, a couple in their thirties, move into a cottage with their newborn for a summer. All is peaceful until feelings of isolation and the weight of motherhood bear down on Elisabeth. With no one fully comprehending the depth of her emotional tress, violence looms on the horizon."
Sunday, October 5th
Routine Holiday (Hongqi Li, China)
"National holidays are when most people go traveling or shopping. A young man who enjoys neither decides to spend the holiday at home lounging in front of the TV. A series of lonely friends drop by, and that’s when things really get out of control."
35 rhums (Claire Denis, France)
"After his wife commits suicide, Lionel raises his daughter, Josephine, on his own and cultivates such a tight bond with her that they begin to resemble a couple. When the time comes for him to teach her to live her own life, the unshakeable strength of their relationship interferes." (I'm rushing this so there's no guarantee I'll get in.)
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, Canada)
"French teacher Sabine assigns a translation exercise to her class based on a news item. It details a man’s plot to bomb a plane using his pregnant girlfriend’s baggage. Simon, one of her students, reinterprets and internalizes the story, and in doing so exposes the dangerous power of learned truths." (I'm rushing this so there's no guarantee I'll get in.)
Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, UK)
"Returning the Liverpool to the screen that made Davies a major force in world cinema, Of Time and The City is an ode to the city and simultaneously a eulogy. It is also an examination of memory and loss for a time of massive—and swift—urban change."
Monday, October 6th
Two Legged Horse (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran)
"A boy wins the right to take care of another boy who can’t walk. In exchange for a dollar a day, the boy carries the disabled boy to school every day. But the hired boy doesn’t turn into a horse, as the disabled boy had wished.
Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, USA)
"Ray and Lila, two desperate women, transcend their differences and enter a dangerous game smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River in an attempt to make some quick money. One last run brings them to the brink of aster and forces some hard choices." (I know, but there's nothing else playing. Why they didn't add an extra screening of Steve McQueen's Hunger is anyone's guess.)
Le Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
"Lorna, a young Albanian woman living in Belgium, becomes mired in two scams in order to become the owner of a café. With her citizenship and future hanging in the balance and armed with deadly information, Lorna must decide whether to stay silent or do what is right." (I'm rushing this so there's no guarantee I'll get in.)
Revanche (Gotz Spielmann, Austria)
"Robert and Susanne are the owners of a tranquil lakeside house. Alex and Tamara work in Vienna's sex trade. Their lives collide following a desperate bank robbery when the aftermath of a tragic death will have far-reaching and devastating consequences that none could have foreseen."
Tuesday, October 7th
Le Frontière de l'aube (Philippe Garrel, France)
"Garrel’s latest film is a romance of sorts, in which Carole enters into an affair with photographer François. But Carole is mentally unstable and drink all the time. After she set house on fire, she is sent to Rehabilitation. In contrast, François gets back together with his ex-girl friend."
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
"A typical dysfunctional family, bonded by love as well as resentments and secrets that start to unfold as they gather to commemorate the death of the eldest son who died in a terrible accident fifteen years ago."
Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)
"Farrel, a sailor for twenty years, goes ashore when the freighter he’s on reaches port. The location is Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina and it is the home he left long before. Checking in on his mother, he makes a covery about his family he didn’t expect."
Wednesday, October 8th
Francaise (Souad El-bouhati, France/Morocco)
"Sofia is a child living a happy life in suburban France with her North African-born parents. When her father starts feeling nostalgic, Sofia finds herself on a Moroccan farm. Feeling located, Sofia vows to return to France one day, but her plans—and her life—don’t quite go her way."
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
"Kim Sung-nam, an artist who flees to Paris, becomes attracted to You-jung, a young art student. Learning that his wife is pregnant, he returns to Seoul. Hong Sang-soo's eighth film unfolds another story of desire. This Hong Sang-soo adventure continues beyond Seoul to Paris."
Jerichow (Christian Petzold, German)
"Thomas, honorably charged from the military, Turkish businessman Ali, and his troubled wife Laura stumble into a fateful encounter that provides the security they all desire at a hefty personal cost. Jerichow is a complex love triangle drama where success equates with escape and betrayal."
Monday, September 15, 2008
The first few minutes of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), leading up to the arrival of Major Strasser/Conrad Veidt, establishes the setting through several channels. Following the opening credits, there's a brief narration, an establishing scene, exposition, a montage, a comic vignette and a crowd scene. It's unlikely that any of these things were in the source play, and the sequence points to how the film elaborates on the bare bones of the plot.
The film opens with a map of Africa behind the credits, with the title providing a more specific clue to the film's setting. These visual clues are reinforced by Max Steiner's typically obvious score in which an exotic, African-sounding theme segues into "La Marseillaise."
In the next sequence, the soundtrack dominates and even seems to dictate the imagery. As the solemn off-screen narrator describes the path of refugees hoping to fly to America from Lisbon, the camera moves in on a slowly rotating globe. As the camera arrives on Europe, the film dissolves to a flat map with a line moving from Paris to Marseilles to Oran to Casablanca. The camera begins close on Paris, moves out take in the Mediterranean Sea, and then moves in on Casablanca. Superimposed over the map are stock images of people walking, then boats crossing the sea, and then more walking. Here the images neatly illustrate the text.
As the name of the city fills the screen, the film dissolves to a skyline. The narration continues as the camera moves down to street level before being over-taken by the ambient audio of a crowded market. The score switches from portentous to an exotic, Arabic-sounding motif. In the foreground, two men silently haggle over the price of a bird. The narration never discusses the Moroccans themselves, who merely provide an exotic backdrop to the action, and all the speaking roles are for American or European actors.
With another dissolve, the score turns portentous again. The scene opens on an insert of a hand taking a message coming over the wire. The camera pans left to a medium close-up of a uniformed man with a slight French accent who reads the contents of the message into a microphone. Again, the imagery neatly illustrates the text with the following sequence, a montage of arrests motivated by the uniformed man's order for police to round up "all suspicious characters."
Both the tempo of the editing and the score increase dramatically. In quick succession we see: (1) a police office in medium shot blowing his whistle while looking off-screen left; (2) the camera panning left with a police car speeding down a busy street in long shot as the sound of the officer's whistle continues on the soundtrack; (3) a bearded man in medium close-up turning and looking off-screen right (it's not clear whether he's looking at the police officer or the car); (4) the police officer again; (5) a clean-shaven man walking towards the camera and looking off-screen right in medium close-up; (6) the police officer stops whistling and shouts something in French to some one off-screen left; (7) in medium long shot, a man standing an outdoor market is grabbed by a police officer in an Arabic hat; (8) another long shot panning with the police car; (9) the police car coming to a stop and police officers wearing French hats jumping out, exiting the frame right; (10) moving left, police officers in Arabic hats fighting their way through a crowd in medium long shot; (11) moving left, as if continuing the same motion, police officers in French hats grabbing a man in a grey suit and hat; (12) looking off-screen left, as if observing the previous shot, a man in a white suit and hat in medium close-up turning and running away from the camera where he's quickly nabbed by police officers in French hats; (13) the camera panning right with a French police officer in a black suit as he leads two suspects to a police van in medium shot with more suspects following behind. This sequence is pure montage, juxtaposing various elements rather than constructing spatial continuity through matches on action or matching eye lines.
At first, the next scene appears to be a continuation of the previous montage but arrives at a different place altogether. Two police officers in Arabic hats ask a man in a light grey suit for his papers. When one of the police officers says his papers are expired, the man in the light grey suit tries to run away. The camera pans left on the action, resting on Annina/Joy Page and her husband, who will appear again throughout the film. They look off-screen left. In long shot, the man in the light grey suit continues to run. The police officers in Arabic hats enter the frame on the right. One draws his gun and fires. On the sound of gun shot, the camera cuts to a closer angle of the man in the light grey suit as he falls down in front of a mural. The film cuts to a tighter shot of the mural. As the police officers in Arabic hats enter the frame, the camera pans down to the dead man's body. One of the police officers in Arabic hats takes a piece of paper from his hand and hands it to the other officer, who holds it up to the camera so we can see that it reads "Free France," identifying the dead man as a member of the resistance. Here again the tempo of the editing and the music quicken as the drama intensifies.
The film cuts from the Free France poster to a sign that reads "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" that hangs above the doors of the Palais de Justice. The camera pans down to show the men who were arrested in the round-up being brought inside. This associative edit is reinforced by the use of "La Marseilles" again on the soundtrack.
The film cuts to an outdoor café adjacent to the Palais de Justice, although we cannot see the building in the shot. A British woman and her husband in the bottom center and bottom right corner of the frame are trying to get a look at what's going on, their backs to the camera. The woman turns to ask her husband what's happening, revealing her face to the camera. A sneaky-looking man in the bottom left corner of the frame interrupts, and both the woman and the man turn to face him, making the husband's face visible for the first time. Explaining the situation to them, the man stands up and all three turn away from the camera. The sneaky-looking man turns to face the couple, making his face visible again from the side-on, and the woman turns to look at him, making her face visible again. Since she is facing the camera front-on, and she is located in the center of the frame, we are apt to look at her reactions even when the sneaky-looking man is speaking. The film cuts to a shot of suspects getting out of a police van, following by a match on action as the suspects move towards the doors of the Palais de Justice. The film cuts back to the outdoor café where the sneaky-looking man is now sitting beside the husband in a medium close-up. As he rises, and puts first one hand on the husband's shoulder and then another on his chest, the camera dollies out to a medium shot. Putting out his cigarette, the husband stands and calls for the waiter. He touches his chest, realizing his wallet's missing. The waiter enters the frame from the right and stops in the center of the frame between the woman and her husband. Here, the film displays a light touch: we don't see the sneaky-looking man taking the husband's wallet yet we comprehend that he took it from the way he puts his hand on the husband's chest.
On the soundtrack we hear the sound of an airplane, and both the woman and her husband look off-screen right. The airplane sound continues as the film cuts to a crowd gathered on a sidewalk looking up and off-screen right. A plane flies across the screen from left to right and down. The film tracks across the crowd, moving like the plane from left to right. In the reverse angle, a row of people standing at the bottom of the frame are turned away from the camera towards the plane which continues its descent. In medium close-up, Annina and her husband stand in the crowd looking at the plane with hope in their eyes. "Perhaps tomorrow we'll be on the plane," she says. As the plane continues its descent, it passes Rick's Café Americain, establishing the film's principal location. As the plane touches down, we can see that a swaztika is painted on the side. The sequence ends with a wipe to a high angle establishing shot of the air strip. Although the people standing in the crowd see the plane as a beacon of hope, it is ironically bringing Major Strasser, the film's Nazi villain, to Casablanca. This image is echoed in the film's final scene as Victor Laszlo/Paul Henreid, the film's resistance hero, and his wife, Ilsa Lund/Ingrid Bergman, leave Casablanca by plane for Lisbon.
As the title suggests, Casablanca is a film in which the setting plays a significant role. It's worth noting that the title of the play it was based on was "Everybody Comes to Rick's," and it was promptly forgotten. Although there were no doubt changes made to the story in making a film, more importantly, what the film has that couldn't exist on the stage is its atmosphere. I doubt anyone would remember Rick/Humphrey Bogart's speech to Ilsa at the airport if there wasn't all that atmospheric fog behind him.