Sunday, March 28, 2010

Low Life

Jacques Audiard’s Un prophete, given its consensus status as one of last year’s best European films, delivers some surprisingly conventional pleasures at times. As narratively meaty as The Godfather, it centres on Tarik, a young Moslem (although of no great devoutness) starting out on a six-year sentence in a French prison, quickly forced by the dominant Corsican clique to bump off an informer. When he pulls it off, he wins their protection, and gradually starts to rise within the inmate hierarchy while also (through a series of one-day leaves) making himself a player on the outside. It’s a strong, nicely complicated plot, with lots of muscular confrontations and interactions, and Audiard is right in the middle of it; the violence here, although sporadic, is extremely intimate.

Un prophete

The movie’s real impact though – which, I found, becomes increasingly satisfying in contemplating it afterwards – comes from its implications for a Europe in which the old guard’s power becomes increasingly hollow and formal, a vestige of past glories, plainly unsuited to the complexities of the new economy. The title comes from another criminal’s wonderment at how Tarik seems to straddle dividing lines that used to be inviolable, something he expresses in quasi-mystic terms (and for which Audiard conjures up a suitably startling, inexplicable image). But the protagonist never struts around like a creation of cheap melodrama (such behavior also belongs to the old timers); compared to, say, the trajectory of Pacino’s Michael Corleone, his conscious plotting and mastery of the game still coexists with a certain near-guilelessness. The final image, as he walks free at the end of his sentence, captures this superbly, and Audiard stirs the pot further by overlaying a raucous version of “Mack The Knife” on the soundtrack – obviously in its core content a link to a long line of thuggery, but still a beautifully strange and disconcerting cultural mash-up. Un prophete is full of moments like this, reminding us of the deadening precision of the conventional “well-made” film.

Nick James of the British film journal Sight And Sound recently blasted Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars for denying Un prophete a best film nomination, going instead for “an incredibly lazy…list of the most promoted good US films” (plus An Education). Among these was Precious, which he said “has gut-wrenching performances, but is otherwise limited.” Of course, the film’s had a high profile over here too ever since the Toronto film festival, where it won the People’s Choice award; for a while after that people mentioned it as an Oscar front-runner, although it ultimately came in a bit short (it won for its screenplay, and for Mo’Nique as supporting actress). I avoided the film for a long time, suspecting a wallow in sentiment and freakishness, put off by some of its key selling points (the aforementioned award, which hasn’t usually gone to the most challenging works; Oprah’s involvement as executive producer and general drum-beater).


I finally got round to it, and admit to liking it more than I expected. I certainly liked it more than critic Armond White, who called it a “carnival of black degradation,” and went on: “Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés…it is a sociological horror show.” Well, it’s certainly a spectacle at least. Precious is a grotesquely overweight 17-year-old, impregnated for the second time by her own father, physically and psychologically abused by her lazy wretch of a mother, weighed down by learning difficulties and chronically low self-esteem. Things start to turn around when she enters a special education program, developing a better relationship with the teacher and the other girls; also in her corner are a nurse and social worker played by Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey respectively.

My positive reaction was partly relief that the “sociological horror show” aspects, which I’d rather been dreading, counted for less of the film’s overall impact than I’d expected (and ultimately, the most disgusting thing about it all may have been the close-up shots of the hideous food Precious and her mother live on). A lot of it’s pretty conventional bonding and discovery stuff, and while the psychological revelation at the end is rather grotesquely fascinating, it seems to come out too easily. This aside, the movie often feels like a scrap book of ideas and quasi-experiments (some think it’s best taken as a comedy – Jim Emerson on his Scanners blog said it’s a “virtual remake of John Waters' 1974 Female Trouble”). Precious imagines herself in various glamorous situations, and Daniels puts them up on screen, but only to drive home the obvious point that she imagines a better world for herself (the device only becomes forceful in the scene where Precious imagines her reflection to be thin and white). At one point, reaching for his inner Spike Lee, Daniels swirls the camera around Precious while replacing the background with a montage of Martin Luther King and other images of changing times; it looks good, but if the point is that Precious represents some kind of witness to or reflection of history, it’s not at all clear how.

Strenuous Impact

At other times, Daniels certainly seems to frame his shots to emphasize Precious’ bulk, and Gabourey Sidibe, the lead actress, talked in an interview about how he pushed her to assume an ugly, blank expression. Of course, the film has an in-built self-defense, that those who find grotesque the portrayal of Precious merely reflect the attitudes that suppress her (and all the world’s non-conformists). But as White points out, when Daniels even includes an episode of her stealing and then devouring a bucket of fried chicken, it seems that at the very least, the director is using cliché to provoke us. I don’t know what the provocation amounts to though. It would certainly be legitimate to posit that poor food choices and culture constitute a form of ongoing abuse against and within the lower classes, but the film doesn’t have any interest in that topic.

It’s plain we’re meant to reserve at least a little sympathy for Precious’ mother, an ignorant woman who knows no better. But when we see the teacher’s domestic life – she’s a beautiful and cultured lesbian living in a dream apartment – Daniels’ obvious comfort with this stratum of society (you can almost feel his relief at being able to ease off for a few minutes) underscores the strenuous “impact” of the lower-rent material. In summary, it’s a film of moderate interest and impact but almost no lasting importance, and the comparison with Un prophete tells you something about the distinction between unfettered, intuitive artistry and (albeit somewhat fearless) gimmickry.

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