Sunday, February 2, 2014

Men and women

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

Agnes Jaoui’s film The Taste of Others was one of my favourite releases of 2001.  The film always stays in familiar, easily assimilated territory, juggling various stories of relationships; it’s often funny and ironic in a pretty straightforward way, it’s unobtrusive in its style and acted in a pleasant register. Yet I found it as scintillating as the best recent work by Alain Resnais or Andre Techine. The title has a double meaning, incorporating both a subject and an object, and the film wholly realizes this duality as it examines in surprising detail a range of shifting tastes and possibilities.

Look at Me

Jaoui’ follow-up film Comme une image (Look at Me) won the award for best screenplay at last year’s Cannes festival. Like The Taste of Others, Jaoui co-wrote it with her husband Jean-Pierre Bacri, and they both also act in it. Bacri plays a famous, acerbic author and publisher, living with a much younger wife and small daughter, maintaining a fractious relationship with his grown daughter by his first wife. That daughter (played by Marylou Berry) is training to be a classical singer, and (not incidentally to her relationship with her father and others) is on the heavy side. Jaoui plays her singing coach, whose husband is also an author; in the course of the film he goes from struggling to successful, and becomes ensconced in Bacri’s entourage. This group also includes a man whose precise function is unclear (even to those in the film), but whose even-keeled, mostly sycophantic counterpoint to Bacri’s moods provides some of the film’s best laughs and (in one astute close-up) its most delicate poignancy.

Bacri‘s character is functionally a monster, and the film’s rough measure of its other characters’ spiritual health lies in the distance they manage to put between themselves and him. But the film understands that such monsters are created as much by the structures around them as by rampant pathology; the title (Jaoui and her translators are a whiz with titles) suggests how identity is as much social as personal. The characters are articulate enough in explaining themselves, but these explanations don’t necessarily bear much relationship to what they’ll actually do, or why.

Jaoui’s interest in the gulf between interior and exterior lives lends itself well to a milieu in which most of the characters are artists of one kind or another. Someone says that a book of Bacri’s has “humanity and conscience,” although the man himself seems far from those qualities. He suggests that his daughter’s devotion to singing is merely that of a dilettante, an opinion that appears at least plausible for much of the film. Jaoui’s husband, at the height of his theme, appears on a gloriously tacky TV show which despite the host’s stated admiration of his work seems implicitly to mock the very notion of an inner life.

Renewal and Revision

This all gives the film a pervasive existential doubt: when one character says of something that “it’s no big deal,” the response is “no, nothing is.” But this doesn’t negate their vividness, or their alertness to possibilities of renewal and revision. There’s a beguiling moment where Jaoui’s character goes to a party and falls under the intent gaze of a younger man. We see them dancing together, but nothing more. Who knows what was said, what might have transpired? Likewise, an underwear model and flagrant object of desire haunts the film’s fringes and appears in person near the end; Bacri habitually remarks on the attractions of various women; and even the insecure Berry character has two (sort of) boyfriends. These alternate possibilities show up the ambiguity of prevailing arrangements. It’s utterly unclear, for instance, what Bacri’s young wife sees in him (he quotes her as saying that his face terrifies her). She leaves for a while, but returns. This all leads to a finale that pulls off the expected balancing act, allowing a sense of resolution while giving no ground on anything that’s gone before, and allowing considerable remaining ambiguity.

In this brief space I’m merely picking out some of the patterns and themes that struck me,  and sometimes I wonder if Jaoui isn’t working in a sort of high-toned semi-freeform style, out of which certain shapes fall as they will. She seems like the most reticent of directors, so it’s hard to say.  The Taste of Others created such high expectations for her next film that Comme une image can’t possibly carry the same element of surprise, and this is perhaps the reason why the earlier work remains slightly higher in my memory. But Comme une image is certainly one of the year’s most pleasurable viewing experiences so far. Sadly, I’ve been reading that Jaoui and Bacri have now broken up, so it will be interesting to see how this affects her artistic equilibrium.

Sin City

Sin City lies at the opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum. This is based on a comic book by Frank Miller, whose fidelity to his vision is such that he apparently rebuffed more than ten previous attempts to film his work. Robert Rodriguez (director of El Mariachi and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) won him over, and even gives Miller a co-director credit. So I guess we know we are watching Miller’s true vision. It’s narrow and sordid, with hardboiled men and mostly slutty women strutting round in violent but vaguely idealistic circles against a corrupt background. It’s a world that’s mostly recognizable as our own, but with considerable elasticity at the edges – the darker emotions are magnified, and the laws of nature a bit more pliable.

The film has three main plot lines, starring Mickey Rourke , Clive Owen and Bruce Willis. All three stories are extremely similar – hard-boiled, fatalistic tales of personal exertion (the details are often gruesome, but it practices a certain restraint in the depiction). The film looks pretty good – shot mostly in pristine black and white with the occasional careful insertion of colour – and technically it’s just about immaculate, but the general monotony and lack of true inspiration or purpose prevent it from generating much substantial interest; it’s just inherently second rate. The rather amazing cast also includes Benicio del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba – Miller’s conceptions of the men are simplistic enough, but seem quite nuanced next to those of the women. On the whole, it’s less interesting to watch Sin City than it is to daydream (illogically, I admit, but not unprofitably) about what Agnes Jaoui would make of it.

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