Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two Films of Some Intrinsic Value (Dogtooth, Blue Valentine)

Songs of Innocence

A sicko incest fantasy with shocking bursts of violence, full frontal nudity, and symmetrical framings reminiscent of Chantal Akerman, Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth (2009) is, to start with, a curious movie for Greece to choose as its official submission for the Oscar for best foreign language film. Seeing as it doesn't have any stars and evidently didn't cost very much to make (it has only a few locations and a small cast), it's not the sort of film that usually wins industry awards. As a rule, instead of going to movies like this that achieve a lot without very much money, such awards typically go to films that cost a great deal and do virtually nothing.

By way of contrast, Canada's official submission this year was Denis Villeneuve's Incendies (2010), a Canadian-French co-production shot partly in Jordan about the civil war in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims. It's a good film, though not Villeneuve's best work (I prefer Maelström [2000]), and next to Dogtooth, it looks rather insignificant and square. Nevertheless, I don't need to tell you which movie is widely expected to win the Oscar.

Of course, the real question is: How did Dogtooth get an Oscar nomination in the first place? When Greece picked it as its official submission, I didn't think it had a chance. When it subsequently turned up on the nine-film shortlist, it seemed like a random anomaly rather than a meaningful sign. And now that it's been nominated, I frankly don't know what to think. Might Academy voters be a lot hipper than I've been giving them credit for?

The movie is a deadpan fantasy about three young people in their late teens or early twenties, who still live at home with their parents, whose house is surrounded on all sides by a tall fence. They have no neighbors, and it gradually becomes evident that the three kids have all never been outside, having been brainwashed by their parents to fear the outside world generally and cats in particular. In one of the film's funniest sequences, the father (Christos Stergiolou) convinces them that a nonexistent older brother, who disobeyed him by going outside, was mauled to death by bloodthirsty kittens. None of the children have names, so the older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) is simply referred as "the eldest."

The father occasionally leaves the house to go to a nearby factory, where he has a desk job (or perhaps he owns the place). On a regular basis, he brings home one of the factory's security guards, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to sexually service his son (Hristos Passalis). This arrangement has been going on for some time already when the story begins, so we never learn how Christina got involved with the family. (The film is as stingy with its exposition as '90s Kiarostami.)

Living in captivity has not only made the children infantile but polymorphously perverse. Early in the film, when the son refuses to satisfy her pleasure, Christina offers the eldest a shiny trinket on the condition that she "lick" her. Having grasped the basic concept, the eldest is soon bartering with her younger sister (Mary Tsoni) for licks on the shoulder.

After letting go of Christina, the father decides that one of his daughters should take over her duties. And to decide which one should do it, the kids come up with a means of choosing between themselves that is probably the simplest and most logical. Needless to say, this is profoundly creepy on number of levels, yet the young actors in the film are all so attractive that much of the movie seems intended to titillate. One comes away from the film feeling slightly dirty for liking it, as opposed to a more nobly intentioned work like Villeneuve's.

The picture takes a largely modular approach to storytelling, in which each event is of roughly equal importance, and the scenes could be shuffled in almost any order. As in Akerman's even more radical Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), narrative progression is evident only in the slight variations on rituals repeated over the course of the movie, such as Christina's regular visits to the house. (It's her worldly influence on the kids that leads to the breakdown of paternal order, while in Akerman's film, it's the monotony of the heroine's daily chores that's driving her nuts.) Ultimately, both films build to desperate acts of violence, reminding one of Mark Peranson's term, "the cinema of orgasm," which he used to describe such films as Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny and Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms (both 2003).

(Again, compare this with Incendies, where the characters--both in the present-tense scenes and the flashbacks--have clearly defined objectives, and each event follows logically from what happened before in a tightly ordered sequence of causes and effects, leading ultimately to a big revelation that answers any unresolved questions and provides catharsis for the characters.)

In keeping with its approach to narrative, the style of the film tends toward static tableaux--often shallow, planimetric images of the characters framed against a wall (see above). The critical cliché about directors like Akerman, Douglas Sirk, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder "imprisoning" their characters in the frame, thus reflecting their metaphorical imprisonment by society, fully applies here. Rather than striving for naturalism, nearly every shot is composed and colour-coordinated in such a way that we're constantly being reminded that what we're seeing isn't a naturally occurring event, but something that's being done consciously for the camera. What's impressive about the movie is that there isn't a single composition that's predictable, yet every shot feels inevitable, and many of them are beautifully sustained over time by Lantimos' creative staging.

The very fact that the Oscars are treated as a news event, rather than simply a TV show, just goes to show how little difference there is between sycophantic "entertainment reporting" and bought publicity. At least the latter is honest about what it is, but the former--and the Oscars themselves--are closer to Stalinist propaganda, designed to trick us into better serving our corporate masters by rushing out to see the latest releases. You want to know what everyone's talking about, right? Well, they're talking about the Oscars--I know, I saw it on the news. So go see The King's Speech (2010) and watch the Academy Awards, or else you won't know what people are talking about at work on Monday morning.

In Canada, the news media has been trying to sell us on watching the Oscars by talking about the nominations for Incendies and Barney's Version (also 2010) as if they were a matter of national pride. When Roger Ebert predicted both films would win in their respective categories, the headline on CTV News was, "Ebert Gives Thumbs Up to Canada." The implication is that every person in the country has some personal investment in whether or not these films win an award, and it's our patriotic duty as citizens to watch the Oscar telecast. (Aren't we all living in a version of Dogtooth?) On the other hand, even if Lanthimos' film had never been chosen to represent Greece in the first place, and regardless of what country you happen to live in, it's still worth seeing for its intrinsic value. At the very least, it's a lot more fun than watching the Oscars.

Songs of Experience

A more traditional Oscar nominated film, Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010) shares with both Incendies and David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) a flashback structure with two forward-moving timelines. And as in those films, the present-tense scenes are more concentrated, taking place over two days (and one night), in which a married couple, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), whose marriage is disintegrating, leave their young daughter with Cindy's father (Jerry Doman) and spend the night in a cheesy sex motel in an attempt to reestablish intimacy with one another. The romantic evening is a miserable failure, and the morning after, Cindy gets a call from the hospital where she works as a nurse and leaves before Dean wakes up. (Dean then follows her to the hospital and causes a scene.) Finally, they go back to Cindy's father's house to pick up their daughter, where they get into an another argument and breakup for good. The film basically consists of a series of escalating arguments spaced out by flashbacks to happier days.

While the first two flashbacks, which take place prior to their first meeting, seem to belong exclusively to either Cindy or Dean, the subsequent flashbacks don't privilege one character's perspective over the other (at one point, the movie even cuts between them in separate locations). And the film's pseudo-documentary aesthetic (handheld camerawork, low lighting conditions) adds to the sense that these scenes are meant to represent an objective history of their relationship, rather than either one's subjective memories. However, unlike Incendies and The Social Network, here the flashbacks are not only expositional, explaining how the characters got to where they are (and in particular, the events that poisoned their relationship before it even started), but also comparative, so that we see young Dean getting beat up by Cindy's jealous ex-boyfriend (Mike Vogal) just before old Dean punches a doctor (Ben Shenkman) who's been putting the moves on Cindy. And later, the film cuts back and forth between the couple breaking up in Cindy's father's kitchen and the first time that Dean met Cindy's parents, when he came to the house for dinner.

What's interesting about the movie is how the flashback structure plays with our sympathies. When Cindy runs into her ex-boyfriend at a liquor store early in the film, we don't know anything about their past relationship, and it's hard to say based on their brief interaction whether or not he's a good guy. Subsequently, when Cindy brings it up in the car, Dean gets really upset. In that moment, we're likely to sympathize with Cindy, but as we learn more about the characters' past, we come to understand retrospectively why Dean reacted the way he did. If the movie ultimately seems to side with Dean, whose desire to keep his marriage together is what drives the entire plot, on a scene-by-scene basis, the film's mode of inquiry remains open-ended.

Notwithstanding the rather lovely final image, shot with a telephoto lens, of Dean walking away from the camera in the middle-ground, while people set off fireworks in the background out of focus, Cianfrance isn't doing anything very interesting in terms of mise en scène. So how much you like the movie is dependent largely on how you respond to the story and performances. Of the two leads, I found Dean the more sympathetic, simply because, as played by Gosling, he's this goofy, charming guy who's like a big kid--whereas Cindy, particularly in the present-tense scenes, often seems irritable and depressed (albeit justifiably so).

While both actors give very strong performances, knowing their past work in movies like Half Nelson (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), one is rather disconcerted by the absence here of politics of any kind. As with a lot of movies that come out of the Sundance Film Festival, it's refreshing to see a blue collar milieu portrayed in a mainstream American movie, especially when it's done as sensitively as it is here, yet the story is so specific to these two characters that feels like it's been neutered of any critical edge.