Archive for September, 2009

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“Three Colors: Blue”/”Trois Couleurs: Bleu,” dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski

September 29, 2009
Juliette Binoche in "Blue"

Juliette Binoche in "Blue"

Blue is the first installment of Kieślowski’s Three Colors, where the ideals of the French tricolours are explored in a personal context, and when I first saw it as a teenager, I focused on the conceptual framework and not much else. The picture’s immaculate construction suits it for that sort of analysis – the color motif is very easy to pick out and just as easy to dissect. It was a nice way to approach film for the first time, but it was limiting, reducing it to an academic exercise.

For that reason, Blue seemed more like a picture to admire than something I’d ever relate to. Watching it now, it carries much more heft.

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The film centers around Julie (Juliette Binoche) and how she copes with grief. It’s almost enough to drive her to suicide, but when she rules that out as an option, she copes by running away. The first time I saw Blue, the logic seemed opaque and took some effort to understand, but now it seems very instinctive, not a matter of rationality but impulse.

Openly mourning feels too overwhelming, so she tries leaving behind all the things that fuel her pain – the memories that keep it in place and the marred emotional attachments that feed it. It’s even understandable when she tries destroying a commissioned work that she may have written (IMO, she probably did). It’s cauterization through withdrawal, removing all passions from her life to extinguish any raw sense of feeling.

When she tries living alone as a stranger, it doesn’t seem so odd anymore. Binoche’s performance always conveys torment that’s never far from the surface, and when reminders of Julie’s past life chip away at her protective anonymity, the moments are so agonizing, you almost hope she remains lost and invisible.

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She doesn’t, not for long. Her love for music stirs her too much, and eventually her withdrawal’s snapped by several key moments that set her on the way back…

Plenty of great films have covered similar territory (Last Tango in Paris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind), but as much as I liked those films, Blue cuts a little deeper, really understanding the collateral sacrifices made when anyone deals with pain in that manner.

Binoche said her performance was inspired by a friend who had suffered a similar loss, and she kept that a secret until the end of the production. Her performance is not only a remarkable gift to her friend, it’s a moving display of empathy that should leave anyone feeling a little less alone in their toughest moments.

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Juliette Binoche at BAM

September 22, 2009

Tonight, I saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue as part of a Juliette Binoche retrospective at BAM. First time I saw it was 1994, when I was just getting acquainted with film, and at the time, it was like solving a puzzle: every detail had to be broken down and analyzed over and over again until the characters and the whole picture could be easily explained. 15 years later, there wasn’t any need for analysis – everything was recognized and understood, easily and immediately. I credit this to familiarity, not from repeated viewing, but from experiences since then…

I’ll write more about this later (and about two films by Martin Scorsese – time for me’s a rare commodity these days), but I want to share one shot before moving on to Binoche:

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

I’ve never noticed this until tonight, and it’s further proof of how much is lost when you see a film on a television set (or a computer screen). Projected in 35mm, the detail was obvious: Binoche is soft while Régent is in razor sharp focus. (FWIW, I doctored the image above to make this more apparent.)

The one on the left is escaping an enormous amount of pain and will leave behind memory and emotional attachment. The one on the right is in love with her.

The depth of field is so shallow, Régent only needs to be placed a few inches to Binoche’s right, allowing her shadowed features to dissolve ever so slightly, inching towards anonymity.

•     •     •

Binoche is currently performing a dance-theater piece at BAM’s Harvey Theater, just a few blocks down the road, and she showed up after the screening to discuss Blue and her career. She was kind to the audience and very articulate (not to mention radiant).

Possibly the most surprising revelation about Blue was that Kieślowski preferred ONE take; Binoche had to push for two. His initial excuse was to simplify the editing process with less options, but Binoche pointed out that Kieślowski made most of his films in Cold War Poland and tight resources in that environment would have influenced his work ethic.

When shooting for Blue began, Kieślowski apparently rehearsed each scene as many as five times before turning on the camera for a final take; towards the end of the film, Binoche convinced Kieślowski to flip the ratio around. (Binoche joked that whenever an unsatisfactory take fell short of a standard met in rehearsal, she would needle Kieślowski that they would’ve avoided the problem had they filmed their later rehearsals as actual takes.)

She also talked briefly about Michael Haneke (who saw right through her in Code Unknown but to her surprise couldn’t seem to read her in Caché), about Abbas Kiarostami (who offered to develop one of her ideas, a proposal she hasn’t quite accepted yet) and the creative freedom Hou Hsiao-Hsien gave her in The Flight of the Red Balloon (which apparently was improvised all the way through, with complete freedom given to the actors and the cinematographer). She clearly enjoyed working with all of them.

Her most striking comments involved the filmmaking process in Hollywood. For starters, she didn’t want to differentiate between American filmmakers and others because each individual director was different for personal reasons, not just cultural. Having said that, she echoed the same sentiment I’ve heard from many veteran actors – that filmmaking had become more and more of a technical craft, to the point where it’s dissolving the relationship between directors and actors. Twice she mentioned “TV controllers,” and initially, I thought she was referring to video assists. The second time, she sketched out more details, of directors spending more time in a separate room, lined with monitors, while consulting with script assistants. Paul Newman used to lament this trend; it made it easy for an actor to feel lost right before a scene, as if they were abandoned by the director. This set-up was unusual to Binoche twenty years ago, and she compared it to Kieślowski’s presence on Blue, where he, like most of her directors then, would stake his place next to the camera. (Kieślowski also trusted his cameraman to follow through on their plans, enough that he rarely monitored his work.) The same with Hirokazu Koreeda – in a recent conversation with Binoche, he agreed with her sentiments and revealed that he never directs his films that way, preferring to stay next to the camera as well.

Technology was supposed to make filmmaking easier, to make it more accessible so that it can truly become an art form the way Godard once defined it (something as affordable as paint and brushes rather than an endeavor for the wealthy). In Hollywood, the tools seem to be taking over, inflating costs and dictating the methods of the filmmaker instead of the other way around.

When Binoche talked about her experience making a Hollywood film, she wasn’t trying to be critical, but she described a process that felt stifling creatively. She detailed a slow and bloated procedure weighed down by the demands of rote coverage (shooting a standard laundry list of shots as if they were following an instruction manual). This was in stark contrast to Kieślowski, who knew exactly what he wanted and filmed only those shots before moving on to the next scene. With the larger production, “making” a film was more like making a product.

To be fair, she did mention that Haneke’s methods were equally elaborate as well (I might have misheard, but it sounds like he uses some sort of sophisticated modeling to plan out his films). But I came away believing that filmmaking had become too dependent on its technological trappings, that it was time to shed them.

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“The 400 Blows”/”Les Quatre cents coups,” dir. François Truffaut

September 7, 2009
Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows"

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows"

The 400 Blows was the first film on adolescence that meant anything to me. By the time I saw it, it was almost 40 years old and Truffaut had long since passed, but it was a better reflection of childhood than anything I had seen before. It stripped away the phony nostalgia usually imposed on youth and came up with something raw and honest.

Technically, it isn’t an autobiography, but the story draws liberally from Truffaut’s own childhood, much more than he originally let on. The lead character, Antoine Doinel, doesn’t know his biological father, and even though his mother’s eventual husband gave him his surname, he was passed off to be raised by others – his parents didn’t take him in until he was ten years old, and his presence is treated as an enormous burden.

His adopted father tries, but he’s never a strong father figure, and parenthood doesn’t suit his mother at all. She bemoans any work that’s needed to raise him, as if inflating her efforts will excuse her frequent lapses and repeated neglect.

It’s telling that a filmmaker as sentimental as Truffaut would make a feature debut so scarred with bitter memories. For Truffaut to show those experiences in a way that can feel so cutting and exposed decades later, I suppose he’d have to emerge from them with his tenderness intact.

Antoine Doinel stealing some milk in "The 400 Blows"

Antoine Doinel stealing some milk in "The 400 Blows"

Having said all that, I don’t want to leave the impression that The 400 Blows is a thoroughly wrenching experience. Far from it, because most of it bounces between anarchic pleasures and authoritative repression, with each experience feeding the other.

The first scene opens in a classroom run by a school teacher who puts more effort into castigation than education. To be fair, the kids don’t give him an easy time, but then again, with a nickname like “Sourpuss,” it’s obvious why they don’t. Up against this backdrop, Truffaut scatters dozens of gems, moments of rebellion that are worth the inevitable disciplinary action even if the gratification is fleeting. If any one of them stands out, it’s the mass escape from gym class, captured brilliantly in (more or less) a single, overhead shot.

Eventually, a failing Antoine has to regain his footing in the classroom, and an opportunity arrives when Balzac delivers him some much-needed inspiration…or at least that’s how it should’ve played out. Instead, his teacher brands his clumsy attempt at homage as cheating (more precisely, plagiarism); he doesn’t see potential or consider why Antoine would repeat Balzac verbatim, he only sees reason for punishment. Antoine knows that’s all he’ll get, and not surprisingly he runs away.

Truffaut’s own experience with education was hardly different. Soon after watching Abel Gance’s Paradis perdu, he became infatuated with cinema at the age of 8, but there was no place for it in school. Instead, the usual rote expectations were placed on him, and when Truffaut failed to comply, he was expelled. Fortunately, his removal actually freed him to pursue his own passions in full force. (He claimed to have seen a minimum of three films every day.)

Antoine Doinel and his classmates in "The 400 Blows"

Antoine Doinel and his classmates in "The 400 Blows"

That’s one autobiographical element missing in The 400 Blows: cinema is never Antoine’s salvation. Even if his relationship to the artform isn’t extraordinary the way it was for Truffaut, it still does plenty for Antoine and everyone else: his family’s only moment of harmony involves a trip to the movies. But like everything Antoine enjoys, it’s a fleeting diversion, not a way out.

When he escapes school over Balzac, he lives freely for a very short time. Eventually, he needs to get money, and eventually, he’s apprehended. This time, his father settles for an easy solution with nominal concern for proportion, and Antoine is thrown into jail. Truffaut’s stepfather put him through the same ordeal, and he convincingly recreates that experience here. The details feel real in the way the grown-ups handle Antoine with indifference, and the way Antoine quietly goes along with the charade until the reality of the situation sinks in and breaks him.

From there, it only gets worse at the labor camp where Antoine’s detained. Punishment is not only more severe but even crueler in how its methodically delivered. When Antoine fails to show the table manners no one bothered to teach him, he pays for it. The scene doesn’t last very long, but it’s enough. This is how it will be: under an authority with unspoken rules you don’t necessarily understand, and where every mistake, including the smallest missteps, lead to the same enormous pain.

He has one legitimate path to freedom, but his parents take that away from him in a sadistic, selfish act. So not surprisingly, Antoine runs once more, and we see it more or less in one continuous shot. As the landscape changes next to him, sketching the growing distance between him and that prison, it relaxes like one long exhale. It’s absolutely liberating, but the feeling doesn’t last. Eventually Antoine reaches the sea, the first time he’s ever visited it, and it’s pretty cruel that he can only see it as an endless boundary.

While shooting that final scene, Truffaut allegedly ran out of film, but one shouldn’t make the mistake of dismissing the closing shot as a product of necessity – Truffaut chose to use a freeze frame, stopping the scene cold before blowing it up on Antoine’s gaze.

Antoine would later appear in four more films by Truffaut, grown-up then married (then divorced). But as good as some of those films are, they’re worlds away from The 400 Blows. Even with the knowledge of what lies ahead, the final shot is still startling, not as a stylistic breakthrough, but as a lasting impression of a boy trying to survive adolescence and realizing it can’t be escaped, only outlasted.

Still taken from the final shot of "The 400 Blows"

Still taken from the final shot of "The 400 Blows"

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“Happy-Go-Lucky,” dir. Mike Leigh

September 5, 2009
Sally Hawkins as Poppy in "Happy-Go-Lucky"

Sally Hawkins as Poppy in "Happy-Go-Lucky"

Unrelenting sunniness can be very irritating. At first glance, it can come off as unnatural, most likely forced, and given closer scrutiny, it can be much worse. For some who insist upon acting in a state of perpetual cheeriness, it can feel smug – an enforced disconnect with the rest of the world, self-serving in the way it fosters one’s own gratification without engaging others beyond a superficial level.

The great beauty of this film is how Poppy is none of these things. Characters like her court disaster, especially when they comprise an entire picture, but Sally Hawkins and filmmaker Mike Leigh have created someone that’s bright and engaging as she is rich and complex.

Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky"

Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky"

The film has certainly drawn its share of detractors, but I don’t think they’re giving Poppy enough credit. There’s nothing insular about her nature – her blissful disposition is marked by a deep curiousity towards others, one devoid of condescension. It’s especially clear in key private moments, when there’s no one else but her and someone she doesn’t easily relate to. She puts up no walls and rarely treats anyone like a peripheral figure merely passing through her life.

In what’s possibly the oddest, most memorable scene of the whole film, a rambling vagrant is neither the subject of open amusement or something to be avoided. Her curiousity towards him becomes as much about caring as anything else. It’s these people, the “difficult” ones, that she ultimately connects with, or at least tries to with absolute sincerity, and the same quality in her gives full weight to the picture’s climax, when a complete lout’s heartache is actually felt as real tragedy.

Happy-Go-Lucky may seem atypical of Mike Leigh, better-known for dark, brutal masterpieces like Naked and Secrets & Lies, but the harsh lessons in those films make this one possible. Real happiness doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor does it get forced into being. Its realization is a road marked by pain, not just one’s own but others’ as well. For Poppy to acknowledge that and, in her kindest moments, to reach out to those lost in darkness is a remarkable display of compassion, the kind that’s always in need but rarely asked for.

Alexis Zegerman and Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky"

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“Before Sunrise” & “Before Sunset,” dir. Richard Linklater

September 1, 2009
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"

I’m not a big fan of date movies. Most of them feel like bad Hallmark cards. Shallow, fake…something misguided fans would watch to distract themselves from the gray reality of their own relationships.

I didn’t feel that way about Before Sunrise. It’s utterly romantic, but despite the familiar set-up (two strangers meet in a foreign land), it doesn’t give into the usual artifices associated with romantic films. Instead, it builds a bare-bones plot around an overnight courtship, where both characters reveal how their ideas of romance colors everything else in their lives.

The dialogue is intoxicating in its sense of discovery. There’s no barrage of one-liners – that would’ve been too fanciful. Instead, the conversation unfolds casually, and neither character is afraid of taking a ludicrous turn. Pretty soon, their words overflow with sensuality, and it’s exhilarating how they never tire of each other’s thoughts. Their exchanges may be cerebral, but they’re not the least bit academic. Their intellect fuels their passion, and it relieves them of their rational inhibitions while keeping them within their senses.

When Before Sunrise closes, it leaves their story unresolved and hints at endless possibilities…

Then nine years later, in Before Sunset, everything’s finite. What was once promising feels out-of-reach. The characters have really aged and not just physically: they’re marked by nine years of pain and disappointment. Experience has left them apprehensive over the consequences left by their actions. Everything they do betrays a fear bred by that awareness, and the pacing fits this mood perfectly. The story moves in real-time, and the characters know they’re trying to outrun a schedule that will inevitably catch up to them.

The whole concept of romance lends itself to escapism, but nothing’s more detrimental to romance than self-deception – it could mean unrealistic expectations, bloodless compromise, settling for less or settling for something that isn’t there. Nine years after Before Sunrise, the characters take refuge in rationalization. “Maybe we would’ve hated each other,” they say, but it’s not an idea they fully embrace.

They can’t return to the same romantic ideals of the past, or live with the same reckless abandon, but they can’t let go of their idealism altogether. They hold on just enough to doubt their pragmatism, and maybe enough to ask for more.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset"

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset"