Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Uninvited Guest

Dunst conducts in Lars von Trier's Melancholia. 

*** 1/2 (out of five stars)  Melancholia. Written and directed by Lars von Trier.

Danish director Lars von Trier got himself into trouble at the Cannes Film Festival last spring with some rambling, intemperate remarks about Nazis (“I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi…I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathize with him…I am of course, very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence? No, I just want to say about the art, I'm very much for Speer...”). Trier’s bold foray into no-go territory got him personally banned from the festival. It also led many to wonder if the maker of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville was being a sly provocateur, or just a fool who, if entrusted with a shovel, couldn’t resist digging himself deeper and deeper.
            In fact, the answer to this question is right where it should be, in the very film he was presenting at the festival. The elegiac and utterly crackpot Melancholia once again shows von Trier to be a visionary AND a fool, for it is if nothing else — a meditation on why being “exceptional” and “an exceptional pain in the ass” must often correlate in art.
            Melancholia is a boutique end-of-the-world movie, far from the routine apocalypses offered up by Hollywood. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an advertising executive who is getting married to what seems like a decent guy (Alexander Skarsgård) at the palatial abode of her future brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The latter is the kind of rich guy who regularly reminds her that the splendor of his generosity comes at a high cost. But despite the top-flight wedding planner and convenient golf links, Justine is perversely determined to be unhappy, smiling what everyone can see is a threadbare smile and spurning her groom’s advances in favor of some random guy in the sand trap of the 18th hole. “Sometimes I hate you!” cries her faithful, exasperated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to which her sister replies, “What did you expect?”
            The wedding is a disaster, but is only an appetizer for ensuing, radical shift in the film’s tone. The existential cause for Justine’s misery, you see, is a rogue planet that has left its hiding place on the far side of the sun and may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. Sutherland’s John, who stands in for the kind of cocksure rationality von Trier despises, is thrilled by the passage of the planet “Melancholia”. Justine expects the worst, and more seriously, thinks a collision may be for the best. “The earth is evil,” she declares. “No one will miss it.” No credit for guessing which character — the technocrat or the lissome Cassandra — turns out to be right.
            The juxtaposition of tragedy of manners and sci-fi spectacle, with the orb of Melancholia gradually filling the sky over John’s empty estate, seems awfully contrived. Yet the mood von Trier builds here wins you over with its power and utter lack of compromise. Justine is von Trier himself, a depressive barely able to function under normal circumstances, as when she weeps with despair at the prospect of climbing into a bathtub. Yet when it comes to facing universal mortality she, the archetypal artist, is unflinching. The edge of the knife is where she lives, after all, and the sense that something is indeterminately “wrong” is her accustomed mode.  Von Trier perpetuates the metaphor with a long sequence at the opening of the film, depicting a series of static tableaux of Justine waterlogged, Ophelia-like, and Justine with spikes of electricity leaping from her fingertips—not unlike the filmmaker with his bag of special effects tricks. Meanwhile, planet Melancolia stalks the earth, promising the ultimate rolling of the credits.
            While von Trier seems ferociously anti-commercial in his choice of subjects, he has a way of patiently building suspense that is compelling from even the most conventional perspective. Similarly, though he seems to identity most with Justine, the heart of his film is given to Charlotte Gainbourg as the rock-solid but increasingly desperate Claire. Gainbourg—who was spookily good in von Trier’s Antichrist—plays the emotional anchor this time, although anchored in ground that is itself losing solidity.
            It is tempting to dismiss both this film and its maker as completely nuts, but there are rewards for sticking with both. Afflicted as we all are by forebodings of melting ice caps and the next, inevitable pandemic, it would be a lie to for any of us to claim we can’t understand the disquiet of someone like Justine—or the despair of artists like von Trier, whose circle of compassion seems to include, yes, even Hitler. Somehow, in a medium where our collective imaginations are straitjacketed by the bounds of PG-13, his flaws don’t look so dangerous after all. 
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Procrustes on the Ganges

Time for negotiations is over in Tarsem Singh's Immortals.

* 1/2  (out of five stars)  Immortals. Written Charley & Vlas Parlapanides. Directed by Tarsem Singh.   

In Greek myth, the hero Theseus met a nasty customer named Procrustes. The latter was a demonic craftsman who invited weary travelers to rest on his custom-built bed. But when his hapless guests lay down, Procrustes made them exactly fit the bed by any means necessary, including stretching their bodies or chopping off their feet. Deviously, to make sure everybody needed an “adjustment”, Procrustes kept two beds of different lengths, always offering his victims the mismatched one. Of course, Theseus turned the tables on old Procrustes, making him lie down in the bed he made. Thus we get the get the English adjective "procrustean", for the quality of forcing something to meet some arbitrary standard.

            Tarsem Singh's sandal epic Immortals is procrustean too--but not in an interesting way. In these times of severely reduced expectations at the movies, is it worth mentioning that Singh's film is a lot less imaginative than actual Theseus mythology? Singh, who made his name with eye-popping visuals of The Cell (2000) and the frantic invention of The Fall (2006), breaks no narrative molds here. Instead he has produced pretty much what we've come to expect from the genre--the kind of thing that either delights twelve year-old boys, or makes the rest of us feel aberrant if we don't share the tastes of twelve year-old boys. Both the audience and the mythology (which bears scarcely any relation to the script by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides) are forced to fit the arbitrary standard of bloated, hyper-produced Hollywood action. Procrustean indeed.  

            The story is basically the same as the one in every other recent mythological/superhero/fantasy epic: in pursuit of his ambition to destroy the world, a nihilistic villain seeks the Ultimate Weapon, opposed only by the usual feckless organs of good (let's call them "justice-pussies"), and a rag-tag band of rebels led by the usual super-warrior. Here, the blanks are filled in by Mickey Rourke (as Hyperion, the nihilistic villain), something called The Epirus Bow (the ultimate weapon), and Henry Cavill (from The Tudors, and soon to be the new Man of Steel) as the hero, Theseus. The justice pussies prattle on about appeasing the Dark Lord by negotiating, but the hero knows better, that there's no negotiating with Hitler/Bin Laden/Sauron/Hyperion/The Joker/Red Skull/et al. In this procrustean school of storytelling, every conflict must be resolved with a mailed fist to the face (and add your Herman Cain “period!” right here…)

            To be sure, Singh does dress up the proceedings with his usual multi-culti drapery--touches from his native land including Indian drip-molding incongruously set in supposedly "Hellenic" temples, priestesses bedecked in lamp-like headgear as if they've floated out of the Thar desert. The story is set in some indeterminate past when all interiors look like slick layouts for upscale spas. Singh's "Taj-Minoan" aesthetic at least has the virtue of uniqueness. But in the service of a depressingly familiar story, the visual innovations feel wasted.

            Under all the rippling abs and empty tumult, Immortals does have subtext. Most obvious is its comprehensive sadism: not only must our adversaries be vanquished here, but Singh slows down the action to show the exploding heads and dismemberments in tender, loving detail. True, he’s just following the lead of Zach Snyder, who pioneered the aesthetic of hyper-bloodshed in 300. But when Gerard Butler kicked that Persian emissary into the pit in Snyder’s movie, we got the passion, and we got the bluster, but we didn’t necessarily think King Leonidas was getting off on it. Here, Singh never misses an opportunity to eroticize the dispensing of pain, as when Hyperion verbally humiliates a turncoat before he crushes his testicles with a mallet, or when Theseus, as he lies on top of Hyperion, dirty-talks him to “look into my eyes” as he penetrates him with his blade.

            Potentially more troubling is Immortals’ recurring appeals to ditch reason and “keep the faith”. Theseus, you see, starts out as a rational, skeptical fellow, taught by bad luck to depend on himself, not the gods. That’s when Singh, pointedly unlike Wolfgang Petersen in Troy, dares bring in the actual gods. Mount Olympus looks, well, like an upscale spa--but at least the gods aren't the tottering codgers of Clash of the Titans, but as young and jacked as anything from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The pantheon is somewhat abridged here--there only seem to be a handful of gods in residence. But that’s enough to teach Theseus the error of his agnostic ways, and to sneer at the King of the Hellenes when—in typical secular-humanist fashion—the justice-pussy argues that the gods don’t really exist, but are “just metaphors”. Pretty soon the “metaphor” called Ares is intervening on Theseus’ behalf, pulverizing his enemies’ heads with a club.

            In the myths, Hyperion is not a scungilli-sucking mafia don—as Mickey Rourke plays him here—but one of the more intellectually accomplished Titans. The Titans, moreover, aren’t a platoon of nameless, mud-daubed monkey men, but the full and equal adversaries of the Olympians. (Indeed, that’s the whole point: though the Olympians win the battle, they are not necessarily more deserving to rule.) And you’d never know from this movie that Theseus is actually the mythic founder of Athens—the city that epitomized the kind of talk-heavy democratic politics Immortals has only contempt for. Along with faith, there was room for rationality and even atheism in Theseus’ city—but not here.

            What’s tragic about Immortals is not that its makers play with the myths, changing them around and using only the bits they need. It’s that they alter the myths to such little dramatic effect, trivializing and truncating them for no more reason than that they trust nobody will care.

            Somewhere in Hades, Procrustes is smiling.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Through a Canvas, Darkly

Rutger Hauer in Bruegel-space in The Mill & The Cross.

* * * * (out of five stars) The Mill and the Cross. Written by Lech Majewski & Michael Francis Gibson. Directed by Lech Majewski. 

The way they tell you to look at art in museums is all wrong. The preferred approach, certain experts say, is to forget about names, dates, and labels, and just look, letting the work “speak” to you directly. In other words, to stand back, relax, and let the latent power of the object simply wash over you. This is the attitude that makes us guilty when we read the labels at exhibitions before we’ve really confronted the artwork.
            But the problem with this purely aesthetic approach is that art never speaks for itself. In most cases, it is the product of many particular choices, all of which were made in specific contexts that are personal, social, technological, political, etc..  To try to understand art without awareness of these choices—of who the artist was, when he or she lived, what he loved and what he loathed—is as absurd as, well, trying to understand a Renaissance nativity scene without any knowledge of Christianity. For this reason, I’m a believer in labels.
            It may still be possible to appreciate Peter Bruegel’s 1564 painting “The Procession to Calvary” without seeing Lech Majewski’s remarkable The Mill and the Cross first—but I wouldn’t recommend it. Using CGI, Polish director Majewski lets us into the masterpiece in the most literal sense possible, by rendering it into a three-dimensional world in which Bruegel’s figures live, love, and die. Indeed, Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) himself is a character here, puttering amongst the tortured denizens of his passion landscape, sketchbook in hand, explaining his thoughts and purposes to his nervous patron (Michael York). It may be the most elaborate museum label yet devised.
            In subject and tone, Majewski’s film is reminiscent of the art historical phantasmagoria of Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). And certainly, in the way Majewski and screenwriter Michael Francis Gibson reflect how Bruegel mashes up his vision of the Roman-era Crucifixion with the politics of Flanders at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Mill has a kind of period timelessness, a temporal indeterminacy, that is vaguely Greenaway-eque. But unlike Greenaway, Majewski isn’t fond of dropping allusions or posing riddles. Instead of graduate-level intellectual self-importance, Mill aims at an elegant, almost architectural concreteness. “Like the spider web, I will build my composition from certain anchoring points,” explains Bruegel. And so he does. “Instead of God looking down disapproving from the clouds, his place will be taken by the miller,” he says, indicating the wind-mill that looms over his otherwise godless composition, grinding away its harvest of human misery.
            Fair warning: Mill isn’t for everybody. Though it features a cast of internationally recognizable actors like Hauer (Blade Runner), York, and Charlotte Rampling, there are no dramatic scenes here, no dialog except interior monologs. Nothing really happens. Like a painting (and paradoxically for a film), it unfolds more in space than in time.
            But as a sensual experience, this is something truly unique. Majewski has not only put us into “Bruegel-space” here, with the artist’s signature mountain-scapes stretching into the distance. He also painstaking recreates the colors of a sixteenth-century painting, with their particular kind of purity and saturation. All this is thanks to the use of CGI not to destroy the Earth for the umpteenth time, or make hobbits come alive yet again, but in a truly imaginative way. Not to be missed.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lovers and Other Partisans

Sarah Forestier and friends in The Names of Love.

*  *  *  (out of five stars) The  Names of Love. Written by Michel Leclerc & Baya Kasmi. Directed by Michel Leclerc. Available on Netflix.

Here’s a hypothetical exercise for you: take a jar, and for every political argument you have in your life from birth to college graduation—every dorm room bull-session and internet flame-war and debate over the Thanksgiving dinner table—drop a penny in. Then, for every political discussion you have after, for the rest of your life, in which you actually convince your opponent to agree with you, take a penny out of the jar. If you do this faithfully, what will you have on your deathbed?
            A jar full of pennies, of course.
            Which is a roundabout way of saying that in politics there is no reason, only temperament. The old metaphor of citizens as shoppers in a “marketplace of ideas”, rationally weighing the relative merit of the wares, is as dead as William F. Buckley. This is especially true in the age of the internet, when it more convenient than ever for folks to cherry-pick statistics, anecdotes, and other bits of informational detritus that confirm what they already believe. Instead of being objective shoppers in a marketplace, most people are ideological nest-builders, constructing the political roosts they prefer, and then hunkering down in them.
            In Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love, pretty anarchist Baya (Sara Forestier) has found a way to up-end the nests of fascists, technocrats, and other right-wingers: she seduces them. (“There’s a point right as they climax that they’re susceptible to persuasion,” she explains.) Leclerc’s comedy was a hit in France last year, and won Forestier a Cesar for Best Actress. It also happens to be amusing in translation, in a breezy, insouciant, French-comedy sort of way—as long as you don’t think too much about the tragedy at the root of its premise, the demise of actual political reason.
            Alas, we never see Baya put her techniques of persuasion into effect here, for The Names of Love (actual title, Le nom des gens, is better translated as “the names of peoples”) is less about the psychology of politics than about the politics of ethnicity. Baya, as the child of a love-match between an Algerian immigrant (Zinedine Soualem) and a French hippie-chick (Carole Franck), is deeply allergic to the images and expectations that come with being a Muslim female in France. Arthur (Jacques Gamblin), the older man who finally inspires her to end her career as a political missionary, is a Jew whose mother (Michele Moretti) concealed her religion during the German occupation. Where Baya openly flouts her Muslim heritage—not just eschewing a headscarf but absently going out in public stark naked—Arthur hides his under a façade of anodyne Frenchness (his full name, Arthur Martin, is a corporate brand name in France).         
            The lively script by Leclerc and Baya Kasimi plays out the paradoxical truths of race and identity in these times, where they count for less institutionally than they ever have, yet in other, less formal ways they matter more than ever. The labels are deceptive, of course, but as precious to Baya as to the “fascists” she converts—as when, for instance, she learns that her college scholarship was not sponsored by a proper Socialist but by a conservative she detests. Instead of making her reexamine her politics, the news makes her weep with horror.
            Your particular enjoyment of this movie will depend on your taste for piquant comedies of ideas. That, and your reaction to Forestier, who plays Baya as the kind of mercurial child-woman who buys live crabs at a market just to set them free at the beach. Whether her utter lack of self-consciousness will seem refreshing to you—or just deeply manipulative—is, like your politics, probably a matter of temperament.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro