Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas movies, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005)

A Very Long Engagement

My favourite movie experience of the holiday season came in New York, where a theatre near Greenwich Village was playing Jacques Demy’s 1971 Donkey Skin. The film is a musical (like Demy’s best known work The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) , a fairy tale about a princess, played by Catherine Deneuve, who must flee her kingdom and work as a scullion, disguised beneath the donkey skin, to find her prince. I loved every minute of it. I won’t spend too much space on a film that can’t readily be seen here, but Demy had a wonderful sensibility: Donkey Skin demonstrates both an utter conviction in the story’s screwy inner logic, and a contemporary awareness (albeit a quirky one) of foibles and complexities. The film suggests he would have had trouble in the digital age - you get the feeling he loved the immediacy of his props and devices (people in simple masks; horses painted red or blue), and it’s an exceptionally earthy and immediate evocation of a magical kingdom. The film also has numerous allusions to Jean Cocteau, placing it in a glorious tradition of involved poetic cinema.

Donkey Skin came to mind several times when I was watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film – sadly not as a direct point of comparison but as a measure of what Jeunet’s film lacks. A Very Long Engagement is the follow-up to Amelie, a wildly imaginative, whimsical crowd-pleaser, and one of the archetypal foreign films for people who don’t like foreign films. The new film also stars Audrey Tautou, but it’s a more sombre effort overall. She plays a woman whose beloved is declared killed in World War One, but she doesn’t believe it, and launches her own investigation to obtain certainty. The film weaves together a substantial number of subplots and secondary characters, sometimes using the Amelie approach of shooting off on a tangent; it’s consistently handsome if not beautiful, contrasting a pristine vision of rural France with grimly vivid visions of the trenches.

But I never found any way into the film. I didn’t once feel any of the immediacy and involvement that made Donkey Skin so beguiling. In that film you feel Demy alongside the camera, personally guiding his vision, whereas you get no feeling of Jeunet other than as a disembodied presence, hidden behind layers of computers. The central character is barely defined except by her very determination, and the film takes from her an abstracted sense of sheer momentum. As such it no doubt reflects a self-aggrandizing French fantasy of feminine indomitibility – it touches both the endurance of cultural tentpoles and the transcendence of resourcefulness over institutional stone-walling. None of this is very interesting as a theme though, and for all its assurance, the film only reflects a glossy aesthetic as familiar now in European as in American movies. You might enjoy the movie, but there’s no conceivable reason to watch this rather than any classic work. Donkey Skin is merely the one I had in my mind that day, but then later on I watched Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which beat the pants off it too.

Red Lights

Cedric Kahn’s unheralded thriller opened in the Carlton on Christmas Eve, which against so much high-profile competition seems like a ticket to oblivion. That’s a shame, because the film is much more involving than most of the American movies currently on show. It stars the unprepossessing Jean-Pierre Darroussin as an insurance middle manager on a road trip with his higher-achieving wife (Carole Bouquet). He’s drinking wildly, picking fights with her; as night falls and his recklessness increases the point-of-view shots of the road are already edge-of-the-seat tense. When he stops at a bar she takes off, leaving him a note that she’s taking the train; he picks up a passenger, and the suspense escalates.

The film ultimately ties its various strands together, in a way that might be regarded as a vindication of the put-upon male; Bouquet’s metaphorical wings are distinctly clipped, and the final sequence sees Darroussin in control, his chaotic mental state having resulted in a display of potency that magically pays off for him. But this can also be read as a displaced fantasy, a bucolic sun-baked dream of redemption contrasting with the precisely life-defining and –diminishing architecture that plays under the opening credits. The movie weaves in some semi-fantastic encounters reminiscent of David Lynch, along with some bourgeois squirming worthy of Chabrol. I haven’t seen any of Kahn’s previous work, and one could wish for Red Lights to go a little further, but it’s enough to mark him as yet another more than promising European filmmaker.

In Good Company

Another tale of male self-actualization, Paul Weitz’s gentle comedy is an easy pleasure. Dennis Quaid plays a 52-year-old advertising executive who after a corporate takeover suddenly finds himself reporting to a hotshot 26-year-old, played by Topher Grace. Further, his wife is pregnant, financial challenges are piling up, and then Grace starts dating Quaid’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson). It’s a mellow movie, mostly conventional in its approach to characterization and mood and pacing, but it benefits tremendously from the actors. Grace gives an outstandingly off-kilter performance, and after this and p.s. seems like a major prospect (the only question is whether enough scripts exist to accommodate him). Quaid is nuanced and incredibly interesting  (see comments on Flight of the Phoenix last week).

The film takes a conventional populist approach towards business, relentlessly mocking and exposing the heartlessness of the new media synergy-obsessed paradigm and its trappings, and holding up the old-fashioned virtues of honest transactions based on things that matter. Coming from a Hollywood studio this seems suspect, but the ultimate trajectory of the characters is surprisingly graceful (each moves along the spectrum of self-awareness without necessarily ending up exactly where you’d expect), and earns the movie considerable goodwill. Weitz also made American Pie and About a Boy and seems to be following a graceful ascent both of subtlety and substance.

Meet the Fockers

Jay Roach’s sequel to his 2000 hit Meet the Parents has quite a bit less comic invention, and makes very little sense as a whole, but coasts along thanks to a dream cast – or at least it would have been a dream cast circa 1976 – Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, in her first film since 1981 that she didn’t also direct. She’s extremely natural and earthy and appealing here, confirming my thesis that through over-deliberation she’s long been her own worst enemy, cinematically speaking. Hoffman is also surprisingly light and peppy, whereas as for de Niro...well, I’ve long given up trying to understand what makes him tick. See him hosting Saturday Night Live recently, for the second time? Singing with Kermit the frog, dressing up as an old woman, delivering a bunch of “Islamic terrorist” names that sound like toilet jokes...he looked miserable and out of it (was there ever a host so dependent on his cue cards?) but there he was anyway. No wonder Scorsese doesn’t use him any more. Anyway, back to Meet the Fockers – given the cast, much of it resembles a loose “hanging out” kind of feeling, which is enough to get by.

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