Monday, August 29, 2016

Movie expeditions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how I saw the first few minutes of Raising Victor Vargas. It was a Saturday matinee at the Varsity. They went straight from the trailers into the movie, without the “Feature Performance” logo that normally lets you know the preambles are over, and since the movie has no opening titles or credits, I initially thought it might just be another trailer. The film starts with a disembodied shot of the title character Victor Vargas, traveling up his body as it might in some kind of commercial, and then launches right into the middle of a scene, so you could almost think they’d omitted the start of the movie. On top of that, the sound was way too low, so you really had to strain to hear it, and there was a major distraction involving what looked like a couple of cops and other guys searching the theater (maybe on a manhunt, for someone who’d slipped past the ticket taker?) In total, there was none of the easy promise that normally accompanies the start of a new movie. Raising Victor Vargas seemed like hard work.

Raising Victor Vargas

But this was all exhilarating, because it caused you to approach the film as an expedition rather than as a glide, which was exactly the attitude it needed. The movie, a simple story of young love in New York’s Lower East Side, has some moments of observation that are just gorgeous, and I found myself utterly transported by them, in a way that might not usually have happened. In one scene Victor invites a girl to dinner with his family; just straightforward burgers, and nothing really happens for a while except the stilted conversation you’d expect. It’s captivating, to the point that it’s actually rather disappointing when something relatively dramatic then takes place.

The movie has great verisimilitude, but there’s no question that it’s somewhat sentimental at times, going for emotional effects that, however well disguised and hidden under a layer of urban grime, are fundamentally hokey. But I don’t know to what extent life in that community is pervasively shaped by that kind of outlook. Raising Victor Vargas doesn’t have the knowing irony and glibness common to other branches of the teen movie genre. The movie isn’t overly political, but the community’s apparent homogeneity and insularity suggests that access to America’s vaunted upward mobility is uncertain here.

The two main female characters start off mutually reinforcing their indifference to men, then both surrender over the course of the film. This could be read as a filmic convention, or as sheer sentiment, or as a shaking off of impractical youthful idealism. I think it’s all of these – but it’s also a depiction of the mechanisms that may keep the women’s lives, and perhaps those of their children and grandchildren, not far from the block where they started. Young love is terrific and inevitable, but it comes with a price tag visible only with hindsight.

Swimming Pool

So I obviously liked the film, but it’s the work of a young director, and not completely sure-footed at times. For me, circumstances definitely helped. Contrast this with Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, which could hardly be more assured. If you watched it projected onto a sardine can, it would still seem unbowed. Ozon’s a young director too, although already with five features and many shorts under his belt. A few years ago I wrote a mixed review here of his Water Falls on Burning Rocks. Since then Under the Sand and 8 Women have boosted his reputation considerably. I liked, but didn’t love, both of them. But Swimming Pool is the first of his films that I think will grow in my mind. After I saw it, I kept mentally turning it over, thinking with delight of more nuances, more complexities.

My initial reaction though, when the movie ended, was slight disappointment that such a poised, allusive work had turned out to be yet another “meta” movie with a surprise ending that amounts to a cheat. The film, Ozon’s first to be filmed substantially in English, has Charlotte Rampling as a prim English mystery novelist who, suffering from a deep malaise, goes to stay in her publisher’s French summerhouse. Her peace is shattered by the arrival of his 17-year-old daughter (Ludivine Sagnier), a force of nature who lounges around the house naked and brings home a different guy every night. The two women initially clash, but Rampling eventually realizes she’s being provided with a better narrative than the detective story she originally had in mind. So their relationship grows more complex, but is everything what it seems?

Well, you know the answer to that one already. But I don’t think it’s too productive to worry about that the film’s ending actually means, or whether it “works” in terms of tying everything up. Viewed as a whole, the film’s a superb depiction of repression (which the film pretty much seems to peg as a specifically British malaise) gradually loosening up under the French sun; of a woman slipping out from under the patriarchal thumb and reinventing herself. For sure, Rampling’s character is a bit too much of a device – an extreme of self-denial postulated only so she can be melted by the film’s machinations – and everything that follows has a resulting artificiality. You watch it as a clever piece of work. But Ozon’s mastery is so exquisite that the reservations normally attaching to such material are heavily muted here.

Open mind

Towards the end, it becomes reminiscent of Mulholland Drive as identities shift (the wizened dwarf woman in one scene certainly seems like a Lynchian touch): the film connotes the freeing of Rampling’s psyche by visibly breathing out, allowing coherence to fray. The symbolism is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, such as in the equation of writing with self-determination, or in how the film marks Rampling’s transformation by giving her a nude scene to blow all of Sagnier’s away. And if you think about it too much, you might conclude that the movie is more truly about nothing than Seinfeld ever was. So the trick is to think about it just enough and no more.

Which must be a measure of what Ozon has still to achieve. The Swimming Pool is the kind of film that barely seems to need a spectator. Although I have no doubt it’s a better film than Raising Victor Vargas, there’s something truly endearing about the latter movie’s cross of sentimentality and naturalism – it seems to acknowledge some sense (maybe, admittedly, a naïve one) of the viewer’s humanity. Of course, that train of thought could lead you to awarding points for mere pandering, which is why heart-tugging movies perhaps tend to be overvalued in middlebrow circles as long as they carry a minimum veneer of intelligence. But once in a while, I guess that’s not such a major crime.

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