Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)

 


One can’t think of nothing, states the maxim at the start of Eric Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife, and the movie encourages one to view the assertion with some regret, to muse that if one could transcend one’s daily clutter of interactions and obligations and desires, and all the stresses and anxieties that accompany them, one might attain something fuller and purer, in which thinking of nothing would constitute the ultimate fulfilment. As it is though (and in contrast to a pivotal earlier work like My Night at Maud’s) the characters in The Aviator’s Wife never approach such thoughts, being consumed entirely by that daily bric-a-brac, by the false narratives built upon it and their vast consumption of time and internal space (the title artfully sums up this state, referring to a person who’s not in the film and whom a couple of key characters fail to correctly identify). Almost as hard as thinking of nothing, perhaps, is looking while seeing nothing, and the film is driven by several incidents of one character observing another (a young man seeing his sort-of-girlfriend emerge from her building after apparently spending the night with her supposed ex, then later observing that same man with another woman) and then becoming wrapped up the implications of what was witnessed – this can be a liberation of sorts, as illustrated by the film’s lightest section, an extended interaction in the park between two people who’ve just met, but (as the film also illustrates in its final moments) not likely a lasting one. As always in Rohmer’s films, the film is marked by great emotional delicacy and versatility, the tone and dynamic of conversations often turning on a dime: there’s an aspirational quality to it, in how even the frustrations and disappointments are more eloquently embodied, and by more beautiful people, than normal life generally allows, but never to an extent that constitutes mere fantasy or denial of possibility.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Adoption (Marta Meszaros, 1975)

 

Marta Meszaros’ Adoption is a tale of improbably connecting female lives, distinguished from splashier instances of that structure (take Desperately Seeking Susan) by its intense attention to the intersection of society and biology, and by its ambiguous arrival points. Kata, a factory worker in her early 40’s, wants to have a baby, but her married lover doesn’t want to help, despite her intention to bring up the child alone. She meets a teenager, Anna, from the local “boarding school” (which in mid-70’s Hungary seems to carry major elements of a state prison), lending Anna a room in her house to get-together with her boyfriend Sanyi – viewed from different angles, Kata’s relationship to Anna may appear like that of a hard-edged mother, an obliging sister, or even a giggling lover, even while the real-world possibilities for change and growth remain limited. Ultimately Kata is instrumental in allowing Anna to realize her dream of marrying Sanyi, but under terms which amount to a bill of sale, and our last view of Anna is far from optimistic; the relationship allows Kata to see past her own ticking clock and to embrace adoption, but here too the process carries mercantilist elements, and the final shot emphasizes her isolation and dependence. That may make the film sound like a study of weakness, but on the contrary, both women are marked by their strength and spirit; they’re in a time and place though that imposes severe parameters on how far those qualities can take you. It’s telling then that when Kata meets her lover’s wife for the first time and provides an invented version of herself, it’s an account (husband, two kids) that sounds much like the other woman’s clearly unfulfilled life – even fantasy here tends to reinforce and diminish, rather than to facilitate even momentary escape.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)

 

Death Watch is one of the stranger entries in Bertrand Tavernier’s somewhat underappreciated oeuvre – a work of speculative fiction set in a world where death has been all but removed from public view, inflation and poverty are running riot, and various population controls are in place, but which looks and feels just like then-present day Glasgow. Romy Schneider plays Katherine, a woman dying of an unidentified disease, a rare enough event that a TV producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) seeks to build a nightly show around her (the film is prescient about the pending ascendancy of the intrusive reality genre, although the show depicted here is more dour than anything likely to occupy network prime time); to facilitate the production, his cameraman Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has a camera embedded in his eyes, which will render him blind if he’s ever exposed to darkness for more than a few minutes. The film is hard to place, dispensing much of its information just in passing, although there are some extended depictions of marginal people living in makeshift camps or sleeping in charitable shelters: the main focus is on the growing relationship between Katharine and Roddy as she flees from attention, not realizing that her traveling companion is broadcasting her suffering to the world, a moral transgression for which he eventually pays a predictable but still strikingly depicted price. The final stretch reflects on the allure of withdrawal, of immersion into culture and into the past, providing Katherine a small moral victory over the cynical Vincent that nevertheless seems unlikely to have a lasting impact. It’s hardly a satisfying arrival point in conventional narrative terms, but in its mixture of absence and displacement and blindness and hopelessness, supports the film’s central self-reflective ambiguity - that of whether we’re primarily watching Katherine’s death, or our own.