Saturday, April 25, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Two

Tulpan (2008), Sergei Dvortsevoy's film about nomadic sheep herders in the deserts of Kazakhstan, contains some of the most sublime images ever captured on film--most memorably, the birth of a sheep filmed in a single, unbroken take. It's a messy, ugly affair with the film's hero, Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), violently yanking the baby from its mother's womb and giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Working in a virtuoso long take style with a handheld camera, Dvortsevoy contrasts the cosy, colourfully decorated huts where the characters live with the vast, barren landscape that surrounds them. And the film has a dense ambient soundtrack of animal noises, harsh winds that never let up, and the singing of Asa's young niece, who isn't allowed to sing but does so anyway. (The film makes its Jane Campion points about how women's voices are silenced in patriarchal societies without bludgeoning the viewer too much.) Like Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat (2001), the film immerses the viewer in a way of life completely cut off from the modern world.

In the opening sequence, Asa and his brother-in-law, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov), pay a visit to the parents of a young woman named Tulpan, whom Asa has never seen, to ask them for their daughter's hand in marriage. Tulpan watches the proposal from behind a curtain, and on the way home, Ondas reveals that she turned down the proposal because Asa's ears are too big. There are no other unmarried women in the region, and without a wife, Boss Comrade (Zhappas Zhailanbeaev), won't give Asa his own flock of sheep. Meanwhile, the sheep in Ondas' flock are all giving birth to dead children. Curiously, however, this situation never seems very dire. The film is beautiful to look at and to listen to, but I was never that involved in its story.

Having served time as a teacher myself, Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs (2008) seems as close to home for me as Tulpan seems remote. Of course, nothing in my experience was as dramatic as what happens in the film, even before the plot kicks into high gear. At first, we merely seem to be eavesdropping on a series of lessons. François (François Bégaudeau) is a French teacher in the Paris suburbs whose students are mainly from immigrant families and are learning French as their second language. The class is extremely difficult to control, and the film alternates between the lessons and teachers' meetings, where François and his co-workers discuss what to do about the more disruptive students. It usually comes down to a disagreement between François, who wants to do what will help the students, and another male teacher who's more of a disciplinarian. And the movie presents both points of view so well that it's hard to side with either one. The lessons and the teachers' meetings are seen as separate spheres, and it's only when one intrudes upon the other that it leads to crisis.

This is Cantet's fourth feature after Resources humaines (1999), L'Emploi du temps (2001) and Vers le sud (2005). I've seen all but the first, and what's become clear is that his style is entirely functional, and he's totally at the mercy of the scripts he chooses to work with. In Entre les murs, the film's pseudo-documentary aesthetic, which favors handheld medium shots and close-ups with a shallow depth of field (a break from Cantet's two previous films), is completely self-effacing, turning the camera into an invisible observer of reality. But what Cantet's camera records here is fascinating. Working with Bégaudeau's autobiographical book (which I haven't read) and a cast of non-professional actors, many of them playing versions of themselves (only one of the teenage actors doesn't use his own name), the film has a freshness that was missing from Vers le sud. The film would make a swell double bill with Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky (also 2008), another terrific movie about teaching in a multi-cultural city, but where Leigh's film is about the teacher, Cantet's is really about the students.

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