Sunday, April 17, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

Clean (Olivier Assayas)
Assayas’ last film, the 2002 Demonlover, played at the Cinematheque earlier this year after a long delay. It’s an amazing creation, straining what you’d think would be the edges of someone’s creative prowess. The first half is a precise, superbly executed drama of high finance (perhaps the best since Alan Pakula’s Rollover); the second half deliberately sheds all coherence, taking on the dream logic of a David Lynch film as alliances and understandings persistently redefine themselves. The film exhibits a cacophony of interests and influences, all spinning off the cultural, personal and sexual perils of high-tech globalization, opening up unimaginable wells of neurosis. The film’s visual precision evokes Bresson at times, reminding me that I saw Assayas at the festival some years ago introducing Bresson’s L’Argent in the “Dialogues” series.

Assayas has made several other great movies too, none of them as well known as they should be. Irma Vep, in particular, is a gorgeous essay on making movies. Assayas’ married that film’s star Maggie Cheung (watching the sequences where she prowls around in her black leather bodysuit, you feel that just about anyone in the world would have wanted to marry her) but they divorced after a few years. Now they’ve made another film together, Clean, and it’s tempting (although I know fanciful) to think there might be some commentary on their relationship in there somewhere.

The movie begins with a shot of the industrial landscape of (of all places) Hamilton, and ends with another landscape, much softer and more scenic, across the San Francisco Bay – knowing what we do about Hamilton, it’s appealing to see this as a handy encapsulation of the film’s journey from the lower depths back up to redemption. Actually, the Hamilton scenes may provide some of the most strangely beautiful architectural compositions since Antonioni. But the very use of Hamilton gives you an example of how Assayas looks in places other filmmakers (even Canadian filmmakers, let alone French ones) don’t think of. His film embraces relatively straightforward material – it’s a much simpler plot than Demonlover – while idiosyncratically ventilating and shaping it at every turn. The locations (which also include Vancouver, Paris and London) never seem like globetrotting for its own sake, but rather as an expression of the multiplicity of modern existence.

Maggie Cheung plays an addicted musician whose husband (also an addicted musician) overdoses in Hamilton; she does six months for possession, then moves to Paris to rebuild her life, always dreaming of repairing her broken relationship with her son, who’s in Vancouver with his grandparents (the grandfather is played by Nick Nolte, with remarkable tenderness). Cheung never seems to entirely fit in, no matter where she is (least of all when she briefly takes a job at a Chinese restaurant), and the rootlessness at the film’s centre is augmented by any number of conversations about differing perceptions. The film never loses its basic forward momentum, but peppers its fabric with odd digressions and characters that aren’t integrated into the whole (in particular, a long section built around a glossy feud between two female lovers). It drags at times, but on the whole it’s a highly intriguing experiment, a worthy follow-up to Demonlover, and a major revitalization of a clapped-out concept.

Anatomie de l’enfer (Catherine Breillat)
The program book quotes Breillat as follows: “There are, every time, only two possibilities. Either we talk about it, try to understand, and abolish; or we respect and live in absolute denial…” This presumably explains something about Breillat’s rigorous (detractors would say obsessive and morbid) preoccupation with female sexuality, but of course cannot explain all of it – we’re defined by the choices we make, and the time we spend on one battleground means that we decline the battles elsewhere. And the clearly declining cachet of Breillat’s work (not to mention the intractable nature of the subject) entails that the warrior gradually appears more neurotic than brave. Having said all that, I like her films much more than not. A ma soeur (which caused a stir in Ontario when it was originally banned from release under the title of Fat Girl) was a masterpiece - more cunning and insinuating than her best-known film Romance, with several sequences that perfectly fulfill the director’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics. The film’s major impact comes in the startling finale - a moment brilliantly gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.

Her most recent film Sex Is Comedy (depicting the fictionalized story behind the filming of the most controversial sequence from A ma soeur) was relatively light and whimsical by her standards, and never received a commercial release. But Anatomy Of Hell is back to full-bore Breillat. At the start, a young woman wanders distraught through a gay nightclub. She enters the washroom, where she slits her wrists with a razor. A man she brushed against on the stairs comes in after her. “Why did you do that?” he asks. She replies: “Because I’m a woman.” How could this be a film by anyone else?

Eventually the woman pays the man to come every night and watch her – to see her as she cannot see herself. He soon exceeds his mandate as mere voyeur – the woman is mainly passive, as he prowls around her, figuratively and literally probing her identity. The film becomes a tactile and somewhat explicit dialogue, primarily and specifically on female genitalia – their appearance, function, symbolic impact – and on menstrual blood. The film is thus frequently more medical than it is erotic. It’s suffused in expressions of disgust or ambiguity – the blood stains and repels, but its avoidance perpetrates a lie (at one point she speaks out against the abomination of tampons). The only true path is to assimilate all indices of womanhood and cleaned-up soft-focus deceptions. She asks if she should have shaved her armpits; he says there would be no point, for the skin would still be as bumpy and repellent, like a frog (“except that at least frogs have the decency to be green”). “The lie about the softness of women,” he says, “is hateful.”

The film takes place in a large remote house that resembles a theatrical set. When it’s over, the film stays with the man rather than the woman, watching him work through his reaction. But Breillat herself speaks his words on the voiceover, so the appearance of a male perspective is illusionary. In fact both characters are little more than ciphers or symbolic devices, but then the director isn’t aiming for psychological plausibility – it’s plainly a polemical work, a Fahrenheit 911 for below the female belt. Is it a good film? Frankly, I don’t know. It surely achieves Breillat’s purpose – it talks and promotes understanding. Abolition, I fear, will have to wait.

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