Wednesday, September 22, 2010

AFF #3: A Woody Allen Classic

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) is one of Woody Allen's best and most fully realized recent pictures, a multi-protagonist romantic drama set in London that paradoxically handles a serious subject with a light touch. The film begins with Helena (Gemma Jones), an elegant middle-aged woman going to see a fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), as we come to learn, because she was so devastated when her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), left her that she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Going to the fortune teller gives Helena some measure of comfort, so her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), indulges her illusions, but Sally's American husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), a struggling writer with a background in medicine, doesn't like it one bit--especially when Cristal predicts that Roy's publisher will reject his latest book.

I was surprised at first that the film ended where it does, because it doesn't wrap everything up very neatly, but then, as I thought back on it, I realized what Allen was up to, and it actually changed in retrospect my whole understanding of what the film was about. This is a film that works through misdirection, so that the real subject of the movie sneaks up on you, even though it's right there in front of you the whole time. It only seems to be about romance--Helena's new relationship with a widower, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who shares her spiritual outlook; Alfie's sudden decision to marry a prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch); Sally's crush on her new boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas); and Roy's infatuation with the South Asian girl next door, Dia (Freida Pinto). But the film is really about the certainty of death, and how people try to deal with that fact by having children, making art and literature, believing in an after life or reincarnation. And yet, even though it's a movie about death, and even though what happens to the characters is pretty harsh, as I left the theatre I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction, having seen a film that is so thoroughly entertaining and so cleverly written. This is Woody Allen at the very top of his form.

Les Amants canadienne

The first thing one notices about Xavier Dolan's Les Amours imaginaires (2010) in relation to his earlier J'ai tué ma mère (2009) is that, on this film, he had considerably more money at his disposal. And the characters in this movie--a stylish, funny, beautifully color-coordinated comedy about a trio of Montreal hipsters--are accordingly a good deal more affluent, even though none of them appears to have a job. (One gets an allowance from his mother; and though the other two have frequent sexual encounters with various strangers, we never see any money changing hands, so it's possible they're just sluts.) For better or for worse, Dolan establishes himself here as Canada's answer to Sofia Coppola, and the real significance of the film's epilogue, in which Louis Garrel makes a brief cameo, and which brings the narrative full circle, is that it extends Dolan's cool beyond Quebec's borders, putting him on the same plane as Christophe Honoré, another Nouvelle Vague-inspired movie brat (one who, incidentally, owes his entire career to Garrel).

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film--in which best pals Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) vie for the affections of Nico (Neils Schneider), while outwardly pretending to be uninterested--is how much comic mileage it gets out of such a threadbare scenario. There's a fine line between knowingly making a film about vapid characters and simply making a vapid movie (for instance, I disliked Coppola's Lost in Translation when I saw it at the film festival in 2003, but I loved Marie Antoinette [2006] enough to put it on my list of the decade's best movies), but I'm pretty sure that Dolan knows that these people are idiots. And as we know from J'ai tué ma mère, he's not particularly concerned with playing characters that are likable. However, although the film's central ménage à trois is calculated to remind us of Nouvelle Vague landmarks like François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964) (Chokri has a face like Jeanne Moreau and hair like Anna Karina), the story lacks the serious undercurrents of those films.

J'ai tué ma mère established Dolan as an eclectic stylist, apparently willing to try anything once, and though that eclecticism is still apparent here, Les Amours imaginaires is a much more deliberate film. It feels like the work of a director who knows what he wants to do and how to do it, rather than a novice still feeling his way around. Again there are direct-address confessionals, but this time Dolan doesn't embed them within the narrative as a video journal, or bother with the redundancy of filming these scenes in black and white in order to distinguish them from the movie's dramatic scenes. Also, there are several speakers instead of one, and none of these characters appear in the narrative proper. And again Dolan employs slow motion like it was going out of style, and his debt to Wong Kar-wai is even more apparent here when he films Francis and Marie walking to various dates with Nico in slow motion, scored to Dalida's "Bang Bang." What's new is Dolan's frequent recourse to a more handheld style of shooting (rather than the sustained static two-shots of his debut), and a fantasy insert of marshmallows raining down on Nico (but then, it may be the case that there were similar scenes in J'ai tué ma mère that I'm forgetting). This is one scary talented kid.

The Kids Are Pretty Cute

Speaking of kids, Ingrid Veninger's low-budget Canadian feature Modra (2010) is a cute movie about a pair of cute kids from Toronto who spend a mostly cute time together in Slovakia, which is evidently so safe that they can sleep outdoors on a public bench without anyone harvesting their organs (as would surely happen on any street in Canada). As the film opens, Lina (Hallie Switzer), a seventeen-year-old girl, decides to take Leco (Alexander Gammal), a boy she barely knows, with her to Slovakia when Lina's boyfriend suddenly breaks up with her the day before her flight. ("Have fun in Slovenia." "It's Slovakia, ass-hole!") At times, the film suggests a children's-strength version of Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972), but with fewer plot contrivances. It's not particularly ambitious or original, but after a somewhat heavy weekend (A Film Unfinished, The Illusionist), I was in the mood for something light and beguiling, and on that level, Modra delivered.

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