Saturday, April 28, 2012

#509: Ossos

(Pedro Costa, 1997)

There is an unmistakable distance between the viewer and Ossos.  It permeates every frame of the film, and makes forming a connection with the characters and their world an almost impossible task. This means its difficult to know if I liked or even understood the film: is this distance intentional, or have I placed a separation there that doesn't really exist? Is this a film where style is meant to separate its narrative from the viewer?

Tourist films come in many shapes and colors, but nearly all of them in one way or another attempt to draw you into the world they are depicting. High tourism, which is the category Ossos falls into, is often meant to call attention to the universality of humanity. At the very least, films of this nature bring you into a world you wouldn't otherwise be exposed to: think City of God, Ratcatcher, or Winter's Bone. Ossos certainly appears to be this type of film when it begins, taking us through the Fontainhas, a poor neighborhood in Lisbon. But it quickly becomes apparent through pacing and editing that understanding this world is going to be far more difficult than we had imagined.

This is the first film I've seen by Pedro Costa. It's also the first film in Criterion's boxset of three of the director's films, all focusing on the Fontainhas, and it makes a pretty powerful case for the director as a singular voice. Costa lets his camera sit on faces that don't want to be seen; they try to will away prying eyes with an absence of external emotions. In one scene, the father of an unwanted baby goes to a busy square downtown and begs for help for the baby from passersby. We don't learn much more about him than these people do - in fact, some of the people he asks are given as much attention as he is. Costa is not interested in skewing our perception towards the experience of living in the Fontainhas, of asking for money when you are desperate. He doesn't give us a window into these people's lives, he gives us a wall. Where there is usually translation, Ossos forces us to acknowledge our inability to relate.

Ossos is a slow movie. Not much happens, the editing is loose (understatement), the camera often unmoving. Costa concerns himself with textures and glances rather than motion and interaction. There is probably five minutes of dialog in Ossos's 97-minute running time, and even these conversations are clipped and enigmatic. Combined with the film's distance from both its characters and its viewer, this glacial pace is sure to frustrate most people, just as it would hypnotize countless others.

This might all be to say I don't really know what to think of Ossos. It's certainly unlike any movie I've ever seen before, which could be a good thing but isn't necessarily. It's also beautifully made with clear intentionality. Costa's vision was quite obviously realized. But I can't help but feel like I'm missing something knowable here. Sometimes you think you are lost in a movie, only to get to a certain point and discover you knew what you needed to know all along. Ossos had that feeling to me until it ended and I was left with more questions than answers and a deep sense of frustration in my ability to understand these people, so different from me and presented in a way that is so foreign. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Costa's trilogy is that Ossos is supposedly the accessible one! If this really is true, I might not know what I'm in for from the last two films.

Friday, April 27, 2012

#384: Vengeance Is Mine

(Shohei Imamura, 1979)

Vengeance Is Mine is a messy beast of a film, a sprawling neo-noir with a cold tone and a defiant narrative structure. Knowing only Imamura's other films in the collection - the triptych of Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes and The Pornographers - I was curious to see how Vengeance Is Mine - made a decade after those films and clearly focused on a male protagonist in a neo-noir context - would fit into his style. No surprise: there's plenty of gender and sexual politics here, from the killer's deserted wife desperate for her father-in-law's embrace to the lonely and abused innkeeper he slowly cons into his life before coldly strangling her to death in one of the most harrowing moments in the Collection. Imamura's eye towards the downtrodden and the overlooked remains ever-loyal, and consequently Vengeance Is Mine serves less as the crime docudrama it pretends to be and more as the confirmation of everything Imamura fears and loves about Japan, depicting the forgotten and the damned with equal objectivity.

I really loved the comparison of Imamura to Sam Fuller in the accompanying essay. Both directors produced work that walks the line between subversive and exploitative, and while Fuller could occasionally lapse into Freudian psychobabble, both directors were much more interested in shining a light on the overlooked questions of their respective societies than in answering them. Here, Imamura has taken a Fulleresque true crime story and made it his own - somewhat similar to what fellow new-wave Japanese director Nagisa Oshima did with the equally (if not exceedingly) disturbing In the Realm of the Senses just a few years previous.

Unlike Oshima, however, Imamura chooses to present his film as an unfocused (yet roughly linear) journey. Iwao is certainly the protagonist, but he's hardly the end goal. The finished product then is both confidently steered by a master at the top of his game and deceptively rudderless. This primarily stems from Imamura's refusal to take a stand against his protagonist or explain his motives with anything more than half-hearted flashbacks to travesties past. Throughout his other films in the collection, Imamura has shown no sympathy for Japanese men, and not much has changed here - no surprise when the film is about a charming lady killer that fascinated his nation. It makes for a dark epic that could easily seem unworthy of the journey required to digest it, but skates by on Imamura's supreme talent and irrepressibly twisted wit.

Monday, April 23, 2012

#593: Belle de jour

(Luis Buñuel, 1967)

Before it was announced last year, Belle de jour was often tossed around liberally in conversations about the most surprising omissions in the Criterion Collection (ignoring the cold hard facts of rights). This is both because the film is an acknowledged classic and because it's arguably Buñuel's best-known film from a decade where every other film he produced is in the Collection (this pattern, by the way, is similar to that of another Criterion fave, Bergman, who's most famous 60s film, Persona, is also non grata (puns!) to the Collection). That Criterion finally got the rights to the film, then, was something of a big deal among the so-and-sos that follow this sort of thing.

But even without the historical significance of the film and its importance in Buñuel's catalog, it was also a real coup for Criterion on a purely cinematic level. The politics of sexuality aside, Belle de jour is one of Buñuel's most entertaining films. Similar to his next smashing success, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de jour takes a sly whip to the sexuality of the contemporary French leisure set and - though the film is largely presented as a drama - delivers a slanted comedic tone that is uniquely Buñuel.

Then there's Catherine Deneuve, one of the great French stars of all time, looking completely gorgeous and serving as the film's burning sun, taking up everyone's attention both in the film and in the audience. Séverine allows her to combine a porcelain veneer with a twisted undercurrent that underscores the star's status as a modern icon. It's probably the first film people think of when they think of Deneuve, no small feat considering her catalog over fifty years.

Then there is that pesky matter of sexual politics, and that's where the film trips up a bit for me. Buñuel has always had an obsession with Catholicism and its discontents, and here he seems to be merging his uniquely Catholic sexual hang ups with a cold - and often backwards - depiction of female sexuality masquerading as subversive content. Séverine lusts after men, but feels unable to express her true sexual feelings towards her husband, whom she insists she loves but acknowledges she is cold towards. Becoming a prostitute helps her "understand" him - presumably because she can understand male sexuality better - but it excites her own sexuality even more. She is both terrified and intrigued by the male presence - her two flashbacks to childhood consist of a vaguely pedophilic encounter with an older man and her own rejection of the Eucharist. Is the assumption to be made that Deneuve's sexuality was formed by a perversion of man and a rejection of God, or does the director have more surreal reasons for these moments? Similarly, Séverine seems to be a representation of the conflict between innocence and confidence in sexual appeal while simultaneously serving as the suffering Jesus figure in Buñuel's sexual New Testament, setting herself spiritually free and then sacrificing for her sins (of course, like the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, it could all prove to have been just a dream). Either way, Buñuel's main thesis seems to be that underneath every bourgeois housewife there's a saucy little minx, which in 2012 comes off more like a tired yearning of a dirty old man than a sly takedown of European piety.

I couldn't help being reminded throughout Belle de jour that this was a movie about a woman directed by a man. The fact that we never explicitly learn why Séverine wants to be a prostitute was a deliberate choice by Buñuel, but the absence of this motivation makes her character seem that much more like a fantasy devised by a man on the outside looking in. The original novel upon which the film is based (written in the 1920s by a man) was much more straightforward and clearly gave Séverine her motivation by having her molested as a child (it also makes the masochism of her fantasies more explicit). Buñuel certainly made the right decision by keeping this out of the film, but its absence leaves the viewer with little to grab onto with regards to Séverine's inner-life. It leaves us with a complex character that nevertheless feels just as surreal as anything Buñuel has made. The film ends up saying a lot more about its creator than about its protagonist.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

#614: Summer with Monika

(Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

Hmmm... I really didn't like this movie. This is surprising considering a number of things:

1. I'm a sucker for Bergman.
2. I rather enjoyed Summer Interlude, which Criterion is releasing as part of a one/two punch with this film.
3. Summer with Monika is not only considered better than that movie, but is widely heralded as an early triumph for Bergman, who gained international fame with its success.
4. The cover has boobies on it.

And yet, I had a couple of problems with the film. (These problems were unrelated to the boobies - though, again, how sad were people's lives that they had to go to an Ingmar Bergman melodrama to see a little (emphasis on little) sex?) First of all, Monika was a ridiculous character who felt extremely simplistic and veered slightly into sexism. Coquettish and demure to reel in the man, bitter and hateful to ruin his life, Monika comes down on our solemn stand-in with a vicious fist that seems almost premeditated. The clear lesson of the movie: don't be nice and sacrifice everything for your hot girlfriend, because once you marry her and have a baby, she's just going to bitch and moan about how you can't buy her nice things.

(I would like to qualify these complaints, however, by giving credit to Bergman for at least depicting with tragic detail how fucked Monika was with regards to the way men treated her throughout her life. The girl is practically raped at her job, beaten by her father, and basically told she won't amount to much. These conscious inclusions do at least paint a stronger picture of her justifications - or at least motivations - for what she does later in the film. That said, I don't necessarily know that these elements were meant to explain her irrational "womanly" behavior, as they could just as easily have been included to show just how shitty the lives of the two protagonists are before their dalliance in the summer of the title.)

My second huge problem with the movie was the simplicity of the plot. The story is both depressingly  predictable and structurally boring. We all know things aren't going to end well, but I don't like being hit over the head with it, either, and the cliche nature of Bergman's plotting cuts into the emotional impact of his more abstract choices, such as the opening quiet shots of the harbor or Gunnar Fischer beautiful cinematography. Unlike Summer Interlude, which was similarly nostalgic and rather basically structured, the narrative is chronological and the emotional arc preordained. Just look at the cover and think about the fact that this is a Bergman movie; you've probably figured out the whole movie.

This is all kind of surprising for me and rather disappointing, but I can't expect to like every Bergman movie - especially pre-Seventh Seal before he kicked into high gear. Jean-Luc Godard loved Summer with Monika, weirdly comparing its influence and importance in cinema to Birth of a Nation, but Godard was/is crazy, so you should probably just watch the movie and make up your own mind.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

#612: Certified Copy

(Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Occasionally, the selection process of Criterion becomes the subject of controversy. This is usually related to the films they select (see: Armageddon, Tiny Furniture) rather than the films they pass on, since the rights negotiations are often kept secret until films are actually announced. Certified Copy was the subject of a rare non-release controversy, however, as a rumored exchange between one internet poster and Criterion's Peter Becker revealed that the latter supposedly considered the film "minor Kiarostami." A few months later, when Criterion did finally announce the film's imminent release, they referred to it as "a major work" on their Twitter account, a sly nod to the uproar caused by the rumor.

As someone who had yet to see the film - and who had admired Kiarostami's other works in the Collection, particularly Close-up - I listened to the complaints with a great deal of interest, and was excited to see the film announced if only because it made my drive to see the film that much stronger. After watching it, I can see what all the fuss was about: Certified Copy deserves a place alongside L'Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad as one of the great cinematic mysteries in the Collection.

The basic premise is as simple as the one at the center of those films: an author comes to Italy to give a talk on his new book where he meets up with a woman who was interested in speaking with him about his thesis. They engage with each and take a brief excursion around the countryside a la Before Sunrise/Before Sunset. As their meeting goes on and the film gets deeper, there begins to seem like there is more to their relationship than has been revealed.

I won't go too far into the "Are they or aren't they" debate at the center of the movie; needless to say there are bits and pieces here or there which make the case either way, and I don't think that's the point of the film any more than the end of The Sopranos was about whether or not Tony died. Certified Copy is about the nature of art just as much as it is about the nature of relationships. The film has an oddly cool tone that is countered perfectly by a consistent struggle by the two leads to break through and make an emotional connection. This effort is much more obviously made by Juliette Binoche, who once again gives a spectacular performance. But William Shimell's character is the more interesting specimen, and his emotional arc in the film is much more difficult to pin down. On the surface, his demeanor matches the film's tone, particularly at the beginning when he seems to be simply passing time before his train. But regardless of one's opinion about the nature of their relationship, there must be a point at which Shimell's character is no longer along for the ride, to observe and dissect - or perhaps, depending on your viewpoint, merely dismiss and ignore - his companion. If he is playing along with her, what is his fascination with their game? If he has conversely finally given up their charade, is his contempt an indication of his failure or of hers?

The movie is deepened by the questions of authenticity that are presented at face value. Just as we question the nature of their relationship, we question the nature of the film. This uncertainty is doubled over on itself by the intellectual argument within the film that the fake can be just as satisfying as the real - even more so. Like the ending of Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry, this film is constantly reassuring the viewer that they are watching a movie. The fact that our protagonists have become unreliable midway through the film only enhances this reminder. Again, the film doubles over on itself, exponentially increasing its layers until all that is left are the questions.

Like Last Year at Marienbad, Certified Copy is a movie that needs to be seen more than once to fully digest it, and I plan on watching it again soon. For now, the questions linger in my head, and Kiarostami's unique eye and amazing ability to mine new material out of arguments that many consider passe (or at least precious) continues to impress me.