Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#749: The Soft Skin

(Francois Truffaut, 1964)

A few weeks ago, a fellow Criterion completist posted a quote from Truffaut that basically invalidates my whole blog. As revenge, I thought it fitting that I should queue up Truffaut's follow-up to the masterpiece Jules et Jim, The Soft Skin, the only film of his in the Collection that I have yet to see (Day for Night was released after this one, but I have seen that film a couple of times, though it was years ago at this point). The film was poorly received when it was released, and despite some vocal proponents it remains a lesser entry in the director's catalog. I've had it in my Hulu queue since it appeared there and I was pleased when it received a proper release because it would force me to watch it sooner rather than later.

The Soft Skin is an odd film. On the surface it's a French morality tale that nods to the country's history of domestic melodramas. Yet this might be Truffaut's most technically sophisticated and rich cinematic display to this point in his career. Though the film provides little of the flash and overt style of earlier films like The 400 Blows or Shoot the Piano Player, the way Truffaut uses the basics of framing, shot selection, pacing, and the underrated POV makes it his most assured and neatly composed film.

Because of the narrow focus of the story and its traditional arc, Truffaut could focus entirely on these technical elements; Molly Haskell notes in the Criterion essay that Truffaut was working on his Hitchcock book at the time and it certainly shows. Look at the way Truffaut shoots the scene where the two lovers stop for gas and Françoise Dorléac sneaks away to change into a skirt - although the stakes seem as small as possible, the tension in the way Truffaut cuts back and forth from the characters to the car to the road to the meter on the pump is more reminiscent of the final sequence in Fat Girl than of a typical trip to the gas station. There are plenty of moments like this elsewhere: the claustrophobic style of the dinner Desailly finds himself trapped at while his mistress waits in the hotel room, the extended build of tension from the moment we see the gun to the final explosive act, even the way Desailly is filmed once he realizes he's been caught in a lie by his wife - all of these sequences are treated as high suspense when even the gun would barely register in other hands as anything other than a domestic detail.

The Soft Skin reminded me immediately of Tarantino's films. The way pulp is elevated by style and technique in QT's work makes the act of movie watching interactive and expectation-defying. Here, Truffaut's dedication to the story extends beyond his deft hand behind the camera by consistently damning Desailly's celebrity professor through his actions. But it even extends beyond the scope of the movie, as Truffaut himself would go on to leave his wife shortly after the film's release. In fact, a close look at Lachenay makes his similarities to the director (who was himself a celebrity who initially stood on the shoulders of artists before him to catapult to fame) seem hardly more obscured than those of Fellini or Allen to their respective alter-egos in 8 and 1/2 and Stardust Memories. The more Desailly seems like a stand-in for Truffaut, the more the film feels like a self-loathing confession and punishment, though just as Godard would long to be Belmondo in Breathless, so too would Truffaut be thrilled to die in a hail of bullets, sacrificed for the tragic passion of an ill-fated affair.

Despite the impressive execution of The Soft Skin, I have to wonder if this effort wouldn't have been better served with a stronger story. I don't think Truffaut earns Franca's choice to take up arms, just as Nicole's immediate turn on Lachenay (and his implied contempt toward her) felt more like a plot device than a realistic depiction of the end of an affair. Similarly, the depiction of Lachenay's adolescent impulses and his evolution as a husband and lover doesn't break any new ground. An A+ presentation of a B- story can't save the overall impression from being one of a missed opportunity, and The Soft Skin becomes a mid-level Truffaut film, a must-see for fans of the director but well behind the timeless masterpieces he made before and after.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

#743: La Cienaga

(Lucrecia Martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a well-crafted melodrama in the grand tradition of Central and South American cinema (and television). Martel's abilities as a filmmaker can often conceal this classification, and its the strongest moments in the movie - most notably the surreal and oddly disturbing opening sequence - that have brought the film to the Collection. But ultimately, I don't know that it is able to overcome this DNA, which has been baked into the acting, backstories of the characters, and ultimately the tragic and overbearing ending.

This is disappointing when you consider this is the first not just Argentinian film but South American film in the Collection - a massive hole in a 700+ film catalog. With Africa entering through the Scorsese boxset, that leaves just Antartica as the missing continent (Happy Feet?), but the absence of more South American film at Criterion points to a lack of high-profile directors from even the more established filmmaking communities (how many American filmgoers can name a South American movie other than City of God?).

Martel herself made her debut in this film, though you wouldn't know it from her sure hand behind the camera. There were many moments here that reminded me of directors with maturity and confident style like Pedro Costa, Buñuel, and Lynne Ramsay, but that South American brand lack of subtlety prevented the movie from fully coming together for me. I don't think this is objectively a bad thing, I think I just haven't gotten the hang of it. The film is dreary and rough going for a lot of its running time, and though it runs just 100 minutes it feels twice as long, simply because Martel takes her time getting from place to place and isn't especially interested in making sure you're coming with her to the next stop.

One thing I should note before I make it seem like I've totally written the movie off: this probably has a much different impact on people from Argentina. There's so much detail and dwelling on the small things that its surreal specificity must speak to people who are in the know. It can be very odd to watch a movie like this that is so specific to its very foreign locale, it feels like visiting an alternate universe. It's hard to remember in the US sometimes that more of the world looks like this portrait of Argentina than anything I've experienced living in four of the biggest cities here. Regardless of how I feel about the execution of any story, it's always one of film's strengths to provide this window into another world. I hope to see more South American films in the future both for this reason and for the simple fact that ignoring an entire continent's worth of output means you are certainly missing out on a lot of good films.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

#695: Blue Is the Warmest Color

(Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

I am not a lesbian. This is probably obvious to anyone who has read this blog before, but it's worth noting here because it's especially essential to understanding where I'm coming from in this response to Blue Is the Warmest Color, one of the more fascinating, controversial, and enigmatic recent entries into the Criterion Collection.

By its very nature, film is an interaction with the Other, most literally with the past, but often with different cultures, locations, people, realities. It might seem like a (kind of) lesbian love story should be no different than a Japanese domestic drama or a Swedish medieval parable - as a white straight American male, there is always the risk of translating the themes and politics of a film poorly, of valuing its "otherness" as a fetishized progressive ideal instead of meeting its humanity head-on with balanced perspective.

Yet some films are especially hard to evaluate, even for viewers who identify as belonging to the world the film is attempting to depict. Blue Is the Warmest Color has an unfair weight placed on it simply because there are so few films with which to compare it. The number of lesbian love stories in mainstream cinema in any country is almost criminally small, while the number of those films which attempt to depict sexuality in explicit and authentic terms is, well, seemingly non-existent. When something like this happens, there's nowhere for a film to hide, nothing to place beside it. Some reviewers clumsily stumble toward The L Word, a show with a deeply conflicted fanbase, saddled with a flawed show that is nevertheless the only thing they have to point to in the culture at large.

It is not Blue Is the Warmest Color's fault that it must carry this weight, but there are other strikes against the film that make it difficult to love. I begin with the rareness of Blue's subject matter because it is a tragic state of affairs, a black mark on cinema that raises the larger issue of the dominance of male voices in the medium - particularly straight white ones. This stems entirely from the enormous amount of money required to produce a film, which places more prejudices in play - a gay woman can sit down to pen a comic book memoir quite easily, but it takes many wealthy men making big decisions to greenlight the same story's big-screen adaptation. The easiest response to the criticism that Kechiche shouldn't have taken on content that would almost certainly have been better produced by a woman is to say "look around at who gets funding - if he didn't do it, who would?"

The other strikes I mention are perhaps just as complicated, but more common and certainly not singular. There are three basic areas of controversy surrounding Blue Is the Warmest Color, though all have deep roots in gender politics: the treatment of the actresses on set (and how it relates to Kechiche's general approach to filmmaking), the depiction of women in the film (both in the technical tradition of "the male gaze" and in the specific presentation of Adéle), and the more specific depiction of lesbian sex (few critics have complained about the general depiction of lesbians beyond these explicit scenes, so the controversy extends beyond the bedroom only insofar as these intimate moments inform one's viewing of the larger picture). Many articles on the movie have confused the two latter topics, preferring to think of the film as inherently about lesbians rather than women. I think this is a mistake that damages an investigation of the first topic, which is to say that assuming the film is a mere attempt at a lesbian love story (or even one at all) gives short shrift to all three issues and misses both the conscious and subconscious point of the film.

I'll begin with the controversy surrounding the making of the film, both because it is the easiest to dismiss and because it informs the way anyone sees the other issues. Although there were some serious labor allegations already brewing, the bulk of the controversy came out of an interview in The Daily Beast shortly after the Cannes win (where the actresses shared the Palmes D'Or with the director, a move that speaks to the uncomfortable politics wrapped up in the film's power dynamics), where the two leads discussed their negative experiences on the set of the film. Initially much of the criticism seems to come from their (understandable) embarrassment over the emotionally raw and explicit sex scenes, but it quickly opens up into more serious descriptions of abuse that depict working conditions that sound certainly toxic if not borderline criminal.

As a leader of an actor's guild, an activist focused on developing healthy gender-safe working conditions, or perhaps a studio executive considering bankrolling the next Kechiche film, these testimonials would merit more concern. As a filmgoer, I'm not sure they are worth very much. Obviously the limits of cinematic exploitation exist, and there's a line at which the story behind the making of a film can overrule any of the artistic value of the finished product (the most extreme being snuff films, but really any film in which intentional physical suffering with long-term damage is difficult if not impossible to accept). But these stories seem more like the psychological scorn heaped on Shelly Duvall by Stanley Kubrick in the making of The Shining than anything approaching dangerous. Without evidence of wrongdoing that goes beyond someone being a terrible person who treats everyone like garbage, wholesale dismissal of a movie seems understandable but hardly mandatory. The grand example of hating the artist but loving the art is either Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, and in both cases the flaws are so baked into the work itself that it's impossible to avoid. Blue Is the Warmest Color may be fatally masculine in its perspective, but it would be harder (though not impossible) to argue that the film is misogynistic.

So if the film is to be taken for what is on the screen and nothing else, what is to be made of the three-hour personal epic that is Blue Is the Warmest Color? The first thing to note about the film is something everyone notes about it: Adéle Exarchopoulos is a movie star of the highest order. Though this isn't the grandest performance (she's still very young), she's in nearly every scene and it's impossible to look away - nor do you want to. Adéle has that incredible pull in front of the camera that is only tangentially related to beauty, an excitement about what she'll do next that feels dangerous and exciting at the same time. It's fitting that she's making a movie with Sean Penn, who shares the same talent as an actor, and she's the one piece of Blue that needn't be debated.

The next thing everyone notes about the film is that, despite the hype, the sex scenes take up about ten percent of a three hour movie. That means there's a whole (pretty long) movie here that has no sex whatsoever. Once the first blush of the love affair has faded, there's about an hour and a half of the film without any sex at all (though it features a handful of gratuitous ass shots that Manohla Dargis rightly took offense to). I think this is most important because the movie's most complex gender issues are revealed outside of the bedroom, as are the true intentions of the film. The movie certainly wouldn't have received as much attention if it was not for the lengthy sex scene that is the center of the controversy surrounding the movie, but if the film treated this aspect of their love story in an honest way that asserted the importance of sex in the role of relationships, is it the movie's fault that countless other films have had the same opportunity but, fearing the backlash and pigeonholing that comes with explicit sex, have timidly faded to the morning after?

There is no denying the significance of the sex scene, though, and here is where the movie gets into hot water. As someone with no lesbian-sex experience (yet!), I can't tell you how "authentic" the sex is. I can say, however, that the scene felt pretty fucking awkward. In fact, the scene it reminded me of most was the horrible, wonderful waterfall sex scene in Showgirls, which is so special that if you haven't seen it you should really do yourself a favor. That film's sex scenes were odd because it frequently felt like the movie had been made by ten-year-old boys who not only had never had sex before, but had never seen anyone have sex, had never been to Las Vegas, and seemingly believed a "showgirl" was someone who got aggressive about french fries. Needless to say, the fact that I was reminded of this while watching Blue Is the Warmest Color is not good - I guess what I'm saying is that intrinsically I felt this wasn't how any real person had sex. I don't think that's just because the movie is depicting such an unusually passionate encounter - I've seen In the Realm of the Senses, and while the sexual scenes in that film were certainly umm.... interesting? and significantly more plentiful than they are here, they never felt inauthentic.

That said, I have a really hard time making any sort of universal judgment about the scene, because this is where I think many of my straight while male co-conspirators have gotten into hot water. I'm not about to bust out the "mansplaining" headlines, but I tend to think that if you are in a position of privilege and someone calls out a depiction of their gender, race, or other oppressed class as potentially troublesome, it's a good idea to shut up and listen, instead of thrilling at the opportunity to shoot down their concern. Is the sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color unrealistic, pornographic, doomed by "the male gaze"? Perhaps. But the only way I could come to a better conclusion on that is to engage, to discuss, and to read pieces like the wonderful and provocative one by Manohla Dargis.

What's most disappointing about the debate over the sex scene is that it obscures what I see as the more significant problem with Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is its depiction of women, like Dargis points out, not as they are but as they are seen. There are a number of revealing moments throughout the movie that give me pause, but the one that is most apparent - and has been discussed most frequently elsewhere - is the scene in which an art director explains that he believes the female orgasm is magical, that women can experience much more pleasure than a man, and essentially describes the role of the director in the very sex scene that just happened in the film.

It's telling that the secret theme of a film that features two lead women with a focus that almost never strays from their relationship is delivered by a male character we hardly know and never see again. This stand in for Kechiche has just given away the game, and his sly insertion into the love story at hand is most troubling because it is done so consciously, like a gleeful criminal daring us to catch him.

The uncomfortable male gaze of the film doesn't stop there, it's infused in nearly every frame of the movie, from Adéle's casually drooping cigarettes to the camera's remarkable ability to be where her body is going before she gets there. Even as I dismissed the backstory of the filming, it's impossible to overlook the fact that Kechiche has a history of casting beautiful young women in his films. When combined with the pure physical passion of Adéle's character, this fact sticks out in my mind, and the eroticism of her story threatens to overthrow her humanity at every turn. Even a beautiful scene like the art party, infused with empathy and authenticity, artfully paced and shot, can be ruined by a boorish speech or a juxtaposition of Adéle's jealous stares at her girlfriend flirting with an ex and a man she has just met doing the same to her, fascinated by her unattainable status as "Lesbian." The men in the film, constantly sexualizing Adéle, might feel more like critical commentary on the state of men if the film didn't seem so fascinated with the same things they are (and if the implication of the ending wasn't that Adéle would eventually end up with one of them).

These concerns have been obscured by the sex debate, so that moments that have troubling implications and reinforce one of the oldest, most disturbing power dynamics in cinema are overlooked by defenders who dismiss critics as prudish, close-minded, overly sensitive. This is especially a mistake because the lesbian nature of the sex scene obscures the fact that the movie itself is neither about a lesbian (Adéle is bisexual, or at the very least confused about her sexuality) nor is it a lesbian film - which is to say that it is not presenting a lesbian or queer perspective and, illustratively, its director does not consider the movie to be about lesbians. By fixating on the idea that the movie is about lesbians, the conversation has overlooked the larger question of femininity and its role in male-dominated cinema.

I've written a lot here because I am fascinated by the absence of female voices in cinema and dedicated to re-engaging with film in a way that challenges conventional notions of what women should look like on film. Blue Is the Warmest Color stirs up these issues both intentionally and unintentionally, and in many ways its difficult to determine where the film lands on these ideas. There is real truth in many of the moments between Adéle and her lover, and Kechiche's dedication to perfection is apparent throughout the film. Immediately after watching the film, I thought it was a worthy inclusion in the Collection and a noteworthy - if flawed - film in cinema history. After reading about the movie and writing this piece, I'm not sure that the film's most notable achievement isn't that it was able to deliver 20th century gender politics with a 21st century façade.