Thursday, November 12, 2009

Montreal Film Diary

Coming six years after her previous film, In the Cut (2003), a commercial thriller starring Meg Ryan that was panned by nearly everyone and which I haven't seen, Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009) is striking in part for the absence of both big stars and an original score (and for the most part, music in general)--the very elements that made The Piano (1993) so commercial. Not that I missed them, mind you. This intimate and subtle film about the unrequited romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) shows that Campion is perfectly capable of getting on without either. The scene where Keats and Brawne kiss for the first time literally made my heart race because the film up till then had been so chaste. And their final goodbye, before Keats sails for Italy (where he would die at the age of twenty-five), is devastating because neither party has any illusions about his coming back. Such exquisite agony doesn't require musical accompaniment.

What's the point of allegory? Does Neill Blomkamp, who directed District 9 (2009), really think that the best way to confront South Africa's Apartheid history is to cloak it in the trappings of an SF-action movie, or is he merely being opportunistic? In the film, aliens arrive in Johannesburg, and a sinister multinational corporation moves them into a slum outside the city. Early on, in an obvious allusion to Apartheid, we see signs forbidding the aliens to enter certain areas. To point out that the film's allegorical approach dehistoricizes Apartheid (the film's backstory has no equivalent for British colonialism) almost seems beside the point, since Blomkamp isn't particularly committed to pursuing the parallels between his story and Apartheid anyway. Unlike the aliens in the film, South Africa's black population didn't have any cool space weapons, and once the characters start talking about (and inevitably using) said weapons, the Apartheid allegory is dropped for the sake of mindless splatter. This shift is even reflected in the style of the film, which begins as a pseudo-documentary with intentionally bad sound and talking head interviews. Gradually, however, this self conscious approach gets phased out in favor of a more conventionally invisible style that at times mimics the look of a video game (a soldier's point of view shot, with a gun protruding into the frame, looks like something out of Doom). The implication is that no one wants to see a film about Apartheid unless it has a ton of violence, and that even if people did, Blomkamp had no real desire to make one.

An anguished cry of "Oy vey!" into the metaphysical abyss, Ethan and Joel Coen's A Serious Man (2009) starts out semi-realistically, but grows increasingly surrealistic as its hero, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulhbarg), a Jewish physics professor from the midwestern United States, is hit with one crisis after another. Eventually, the accumulation of misfortune becomes a kind of referendum on the universe itself: Is there some kind of divine purpose and meaning in Larry's suffering, or is everything one big cosmic accident? More than anything, Larry desires certainty. Where exactly is the property line separating Larry's lawn from that of his deer hunting Aryan neighbor? Did a South Korean student try to bribe him after failing the midterm? Is his wife leaving him, or are they getting back together? In desperation, Larry turns to a series of rabbis, each one hilariously less helpful than the last. When one rabbi tells him that one can't know everything, Larry fires back that he doesn't seem to know much of anything. The point seems to be that true wisdom consists of accepting how little you really know, and learning to live with this uncertainty.

As impressive as the Coens' earlier films are, with Burn After Reading (2008) and now this film, they've really become master stylists. The confidence and Kubrick-like precision of their framing and editing is almost scary. There's a simplicity and elegance in the way they set up each shot; nothing is done merely to grab our attention. The film has the same rightness of each shot that one finds in great classical studio films by Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, and more recently, James Gray. Which is not to say that their filmmaking lacks flamboyance. If anything, this is probably the weirdest movie the Coens have ever made. It opens with an entirely self contained sequence involving a Dybbuk (Fyvush Finkel), which is shot in a narrower aspect ratio and with an extremely shallow depth of field, like an early sound picture. Larry's dreams are so whacky they make the dream sequences in The Big Lebowski (1998) look downright sane. And the ending is radically ambiguous, upping the uncertainty level from No Country for Old Men (2007) and Burn After Reading. I don't expect to see a better American movie this year.

An Education (2009), the second English language feature by Denmark's Lone Scherfig, is obviously an improvement in craft and storytelling on her earlier films, Italian for Beginners (2000) and Wilby Wants to Kill Himself (2002), even if the screenplay by Nick Hornby demands almost as little of the viewer as District 9, underlining points that have already been well established. As David, the cultured creep who's such a smooth operator that he not only seduces Jenny (Carrey Mulligan), a bland and anemic-looking piece of shiksa jailbait, but her parents as well, Peter Sarsgaard acquits himself nicely. But his mate's girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), is forehead-slappingly stupid, and not in a funny way like Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin' in the Rain (1952). And we get a reminder of this fact in every single scene in which she appears, which is surprisingly often for such an unimportant character. When Jenny's grades start to slip in Latin, Helen reassures her that in fifty years it'll be a dead language anyway (the film is set in 1961). Ho, ho. And I'm afraid that Alfred Molina, as Jenny's fuddy-duddy father; Emma Thompson, whom it seems hasn't had a good role since Remains of the Day (1993); Olivia Williams from Rushmore (1998) in schoolmarm overdrive mode; and Sally Hawkins for all of thirty seconds fare little better.

Still, this is decently engaging, though not enough to justify the ecstatic reviews it's been getting, which would only make sense if every reviewer in North America were somehow Mulligan's over-supportive father--something like that movie Twins (1988), where Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger had seven fathers. I kept waiting for David to do something really horrible to Jenny, to damage her permanently some how, but it just never happened. (That the film is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber begs the question: How on earth did she fill an entire memoir with what would make for, at best, an okay short story?) If ever a film needed a rewrite by Lars von Trier, this is it.

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