Sunday, December 20, 2015

Spousal care

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

The protagonist in the new film My Wife is an Actress is a sports journalist who has the good luck to be married to a beautiful and famous actress, and the bad luck to be driven half-crazy by it. They can’t walk a block without being interrupted by autograph hunters, and he’s increasingly bothered that she kisses other men and appears in the nude. All of which seems like a plausible set of concerns, no doubt one of the many reasons for the famously high mortality of celebrity marriages. But there’s a twist to My Wife is an Actress – the couple (called Yvan and Charlotte) are played by Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are married in real life, and Attal also wrote and directed this film. Which seems to mean there must be some autobiographical background to this. And yet when Gainsbourg is naked in this film, it’s at Attal’s own behest.

My Wife is an Actress
I could fill an article just listing filmmakers who trained the camera on their wives or lovers. Some of them, like John Derek parading his wife Bo in Bolero and Tarzan the Ape Man, seemed at least in part to be massaging their own egos. But there are many examples where the director’s love of cinema intertwines with his (I can’t think at present of any instances involving a female director) love for a woman, creating something distinctly personal: Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. I remember a critic who wrote how Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry was filmed with a special glow that only occurs when a director is falling in love with an actress, as Richard Brooks was at the time. I could never figure out what that actually meant – how there was that direct a relationship between Brooks’ state of mind and the technicalities of lighting, focus, etc., but it’s a beguiling concept.

Unfortunately, My Wife is an Actress has little to add to this history. Attal plays the film for easy, soft-centered comedy. A weird subplot, in which is Jewish sister argues with her goy husband about whether to circumcise their unborn son, suggests distinctly that he views himself as a sort of French Woody Allen. Also Allen-style, he casts a celebrity in his movie: Terence Stamp, who plays the star of Gainsbourg’s latest movie. Stamp is very good, but the film holds him at arm’s length, as though the real Attal were as leery of him as his character is. The film opens with a series of photos of famous screen sirens, as though intending to place itself in the tradition I mentioned, but exhibits little substantive interest in cinema, except for a rather incongruous scene where the crew strips naked, to help Gainsbourg over her misgivings. Actually, the only character in that scene that isn’t nude is Attal himself, revealing as little of himself physically as he does emotionally.

Swept Away
Someone else whose wife is an actress, British director Guy Ritchie, also directs her in a new film. She is Madonna, who in her latest incarnation lives in London, reportedly speaks in a faux British accent, and likes to be called Mrs. Ritchie. The new film is Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 Italian film about a rich bitch cast away on an island with a rough-edged sailor. On board the ship she abused and belittled him, but now he has the upper hand: he slaps her around, generally treats her like a dog. She rapidly falls in love with him.

I can no longer remember anything about the Wertmuller film, but I’m certain it was a little more assured than the Ritchie version. The opening scenes of the new film are particularly bad, with Madonna very ill at ease in her brittleness. Later on, it becomes mainly bland. Still, I have some sympathy with Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe, who called it “a curiously affecting document of a director trying to show the world why he loves his wife – not the changeling pop star, but the actress.” Despite the layers of misogyny and brutality (which are somewhat soft-pedaled here), the film is basically about a lost woman who finds fulfilment where she least expects it, and Ritchie seems in tune with Madonna’s softer side (it would be rather surprising, of course, if he wasn’t).

I certainly didn’t find Swept Away as laughable as many critics did. I think it misses most of its opportunities though. Given the inherent eroticism of the premise, the film is definitely too decorous – presumably a downside in this case of a director watching over his wife. And you wonder what drew Madonna to this material in the first place. Such a tale of role-reversals and recast lives should have struck a chord with a performer who’s made herself over so many times, and the film should surely have been able to find a way to draw more effectively on that history. As it is, Madonna seems “herself” only in a misplaced fantasy sequence where she performs “Come on-a my house” in front of a big band.

Punch-Drunk Love
The current movie that best delivers what you’d expect from having an astute spouse behind the camera is Punch-Drunk Love, which doesn’t actually fall into that category of movies. It’s just that director Paul Thomas Anderson executes a weirdly narrow ambition, one that only a lover would normally concoct – to reveal the subtleties and complexities that underlie Adam Sandler’s screen persona. He does it brilliantly, but I do wonder how highly one can really value such an esoteric exercise.

The film takes Sandler’s familiar nasally goofiness, and its short-fused underbelly, and as if by applying some chemical agent disentangles and clarifies them. Sandler has never seemed so intelligent, so sweet, or so dangerous. The film shows how great love dwells disturbingly close to great anger; how non-conformity from another angle resembles madness. Anderson has come up with a deliberately slight story that perfectly facilitates his central project, with Emily Watson nicely playing his new love. The film assiduously avoids the familiar – perhaps too assiduously. At various times I tired of the music score, the locations, the widescreen framing, and in general of the whimsy. Still, it’s hard not to admire a movie that at various times reminds you of Robert Altman, Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tati, Blake Edwards, Quentin Tarantino and others, while always seeming distinctly itself.

It’s unclear whether this is a new start for the much-derided Sandler, or whether the film will stand as an aberration. His performance in the film doesn’t seem to me like great acting, but rather as a great piece of engineering on Anderson’s part. No future director will ever make the same effort for Sandler, unless he marries one.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

This is the seventh and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)
De Palma’s closing gala feels like a self-parody even by his standards, although with him it’s hard to know whether that’s an insult or a compliment (I mean it as the former). Starting with an intricately choreographed jewel heist at the Cannes festival, it jumps forward seven years as one of the perpetrators (Rebecca Romjim-Stamos) finds her past closing in on her; Antonio Banderas is a photographer who gets caught in the web. The film must have less dialogue than almost any Hollywood work since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie – it’s pure design. In something like The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, you accept De Palma’s set pieces as a complement to the film’s central thrust, but in Femme Fatale there is no thrust. You register split screens, and camera angles, and references to Vertigo, and clever juxtapositions and logistical daredevilry, but it amounts to nothing. Towards the end, the plot twists become particularly dumb, but I’ll at least give the movie credit for a striking finale. As with anything else, you start from your own aesthetic ground rules in judging cinema, and you can certainly imagine a set of such rules under which De Palma’s fetishization of style would render him the best director in the business. Trouble is, I think the last person to hold that opinion died around the time of Blow Out.

Le Fils (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardennes’ latest documentary-style film belongs in the Howard Hawks tradition of men expressing themselves through their work, although there’s nothing Hawksian – nothing at all Hollywoodian – about the Dardennes’ minimalist approach. Olivier Gourmet won best actor at Cannes for a role that’s famously observed in large part from behind the back of his head – he’s a carpenter and instructor of delinquents who takes into his class the juvenile killer of his own young son, five years earlier. There’s some suspense attached to the question of what he’ll do with this knowledge, but the film doesn’t play that up. Even compared to the Dardennes’ previous films La Promesse and Rosetta, this is an extremely low-key work, the larger part of which consists of Gourmet and his charges handling wood. It finds its way to a note of renewal; le fils refers primarily to the dead son, but the killer (not knowing his teacher’s identity) also asks Gourmet to be his guardian, and the man’s morbid fascination with the kid expresses itself in a way that overlaps with paternalism. The title could also allude to Gourmet himself as a disciple of his own methodology and minimalism. I found the film very interesting, but it’s too narrow and circumscribed to be considered a major work.

Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat)
Breillat’s last film A ma soeur (Fat Girl) was banned in Ontario because of an extended sex scene involving a teenage girl. Her latest is built around the filming of that scene, with Anne Parillaud playing a proxy for Breillat herself and actress Roxane Mesquida repeating her role. The movie illustrates the tensions and mixed motivations that underlie the portrayal of desire in cinema; the director’s rapport with the male actor in particular veers across the spectrum from near-seduction to open hostility (but then, we’re told “antagonism is a tonic for desire.”) It’s just a job of course (he refers several times to being well paid for it) but the demands it makes verge on cruelty, even if you momentarily think yourself their master (she says actors frequently accept a part for the nude scenes, but then fear always sets in). The final scene sums up the film – the actress seems genuinely traumatized through identification with her character and the direct demands that have been made on her, but this suddenly melts into sheer satisfaction at a job well done: pragmatism and joy virtually coexist with self-loathing. Prior to that, viewers may get some easy laughs from the actor’s prosthetic penis, and the film is certainly one of Breillat’s lighter works, but it’s as troubling as it is funny.

Festival Summary
There are a million festival stories in the big city, and here’s mine. Objectively, I was probably too busy to take time off this year, but hey – it’s the film festival! So I decided I’d stick to a disciplined routine of three movies a day, no more no less, and then go into the office at least once a day. As it was, I generally ended up going in twice a day – zooming in for an hour, hurling through messages and five-minute meetings, then zooming out – or else catching up late at night. On one occasion I came in at 5 am, before the movies started, and passed a presumably festival-related party still in full swing at the Rosewater supper club.

My work objective worked – I didn’t fall behind on anything. And I saw those three movies a day – no more, no less (if you noticed I’ve written more than thirty reviews of film festival movies across these seven articles, it’s because I cheated by adding in a few that I saw afterwards, in commercial release). Not surprisingly, I tired myself out to a possibly hazardous extent, and dozed off for a few minutes during a dozen or more movies (usually about twenty minutes in, regardless of their quality). Does this sound like a recipe for misery? If so, the cake didn’t rise: it was probably my best festival ever.

I stayed pretty close to my basic strategy – brand name directors, not necessarily avoiding movies that might open later, but privileging those that likely wouldn’t, adding in some choices based on strong advance reviews, and a few wildcards based purely on the time slot. I only saw a few American films, and they were mostly disappointments (In America, Femme Fatale, Auto Focus). My favourite was Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls, a movie that hasn’t received the attention it deserved (I didn’t see the People’s Choice winner, Whale Music). Others in the top flight include Talk to her, Lilya 4-Ever and 9/11/01. Lost in La Mancha, for a movie fan, was one of the festival’s most straightforward delights. Many others had numerous points of excellence. If I were doing it all over again, I’d probably have avoided La derniere lettre and My Mother’s Smile, but that’s about it. I especially regretted not fitting in Divine Intervention and Chihwaseon, and it took substantial discipline to wait for the commercial release on a few others (particularly Far From Heaven).

Well, bring on 2003!

Monday, December 7, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Dolls (Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano’s stone-faced action films have always incorporated a deep vein of lyricism, if not sentimentality (see especially Kikujiro), although his last film Brother was something of a regression to deadpan violence. Dolls takes Kitano to an astonishing new level – it’s unabashedly romantic. The film loosely intertwines three stories. A man abandons his fiancée and she ends up brain-damaged after a suicide attempt – he returns to her and they end up wandering the country, permanently attached by a rope tied around their waists. An aging gangster rediscovers the love he left behind long ago. A pop star’s career is ended by accident: a devoted fan blinds himself and then forges a relationship with her. Even that brief synopsis indicates the film has a perverse streak, but that’s merely seasoning to a banquet of color and design and balletic juxtaposition. The film has one memorable image and idea after another, often tossed away with the confidence of a real master. The theme is the fragility of human interaction, how the heart jerks us around like puppets; not such a revelation in itself, but there’s never been a treatment of it quite like this one. Possibly the best film I saw at the festival – certainly the one I have the most immediate interest in seeing again.

(NB December 2015 update – I never did see Dolls again, and can’t imagine it would be as striking now as I thought it was then, but it would be nice to be wrong about that)

Moonlight Mile (Brad Silberling)
Silberling’s gala presentation has already opened commercially, to a lukewarm reception. It’s hard to imagine anyone having strong feelings either way about this movie – it attempts to touch bases with all available emotions, but ends up occupying some neutral zone where they all cross each other out. The film follows the parents of a young woman shot dead in a random shooting, and her fiancée who’s living with them, and it’s apparently based on a real incident from Silberling’s life. The movie is distinctive enough that you accept it as the record of a personal response to a personal tragedy, but this is something you note academically, not emotionally. It has a dream cast – Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, all of whom seem to be doing their own thing, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the fiancée; he’s a sweet enough but overly mannered centre. The film is visually quite delicate – I registered any number of pleasing compositions, but all in isolation, like photographs from an album.

Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan)
This is the first film I’ve seen by Gopalakrishnan – actually I’d never heard of him before, although the Festival slotted this one into its “Masters” category. The picture doesn’t quite confirm him as a master; it has the feeling of a relative diversion from someone capable of much more ambitious work. It follows an aging executioner who must do his duty even though the burden of the task has almost eaten away his soul, and he’s become a drunk. Halfway through the film, on the eve of an execution, a soldier starts to tell the story of a young girl’s rape and murder, and we’re taken in another direction. The film has a stark, divorced, slightly dreamlike feel, with intensely rich colours, and it has an undercurrent of acute pain; it feels torn from a volcanic imagination kept here within unnatural constraints. The ending feels hurried, and I think more people walked out on this movie than just about any other I attended during the week. Still, Gopalakrishnan’s work is clearly worth seeking out further.

La derniere letter (Frederick Wiseman)
Certainly the simplest film I saw at the festival in terms of its raw ingredients, and running just one hour, this is legendary documentarian Wiseman’s first “dramatic” film. It’s a monologue performed by actress Catherine Samie, taking the form of a last letter to her son from a Russian-Jewish woman trapped in the ghetto and expecting to die at the hands of the Germans. She performs on a blank stage, with no props, only shadows – sometimes multiple shadows that eerily evoke her experiences reflected through multitudes of others (at times, this evokes the expressiveness of something like Dreyer’s silent films). Wiseman does an able job of varying the film’s visual impact, although the array of angles and fades sometimes seemed to me rather arbitrary (such as the moment when she’s describing the massacre in the ghetto and her hands seem to be showing rabbit shadows). For all its inherent power and evocative scope, the text itself seems to me unexceptional, and Samie’s performance is a standard-issue theatrical display. Still, no one could be completely unmoved by the film, or by her final exhortation to her son.

8 Women (Francois Ozon)
Ozon is widely regarded as the most promising of young French directors, although his diverse body of work so far includes a disproportionate amount of overdone trivia. 8 Women is that too, but here it evokes a blissfully, indulged kid who shows off his surplus of toys, wearing a huge grin: how irritated can you be at him? With a dream cast of French actresses (including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart), it’s a murder mystery confined to a single country-house set: Deneuve’s husband has been killed and everyone (daughter, mother in law, maid etc.) has at least one motive. Revelations fly in all directions – it’s as if none of them had talked for a day before this. The piling-up of taboos causes hardly a dent in the glamour – actually it serves as a liberation to several of the characters. It’s a complete contrivance of course, but Ozon’s delight is infectious. The eight musical interludes, one for each actress, cap this off as the kind of music they just don’t make anymore (and insofar as it contains same-sex kisses, they never did).

Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov)
Sokurov’s film consists of a single 96-minute shot. There are other long-take films – Andy Warhol kept the camera going five times as long on the Empire State building; Mike Figgis in Time Code did it simultaneously with four separate cameras – but I doubt it’s ever been attempted on a project of such complexity. The camera travels through 200 years of cultural Russian history – through theatres, art galleries, grand balls, a meal at the table of the last Tzar – tied together by a European diplomat who wanders through it all. The choice of a European guide is significant, for the film evidences some regret – however knowing – for the loss of a certain grand sense of what it was to be Russian, of a certain cultural sensibility. The film indeed resembles an “ark,” a store of fragments of imperiled memory. At the end the camera travels out through a window to stare at the sea, and the narrator says “We are destined to sail forever…to live forever,” but this may be as much wish as prediction. Sokurov’s films can be heavy-going, and his technical feat here makes demands on the viewer – you realize how easy it is to let yourself be guided by traditional montage. If a conventional film is a journey, Russian Ark is a privilege.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

9-11-01 (Amos Gitai, Youssef Chahine, Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Shohei Imamura, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Samira Makhmalbaf)
Eleven short films by eleven directors from eleven countries, taking vastly different approaches toward the basic mandate of commemorating/commenting on September 11. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable how subtly balanced it feels as a whole (compare to the other anthology package at this year’s festival, Ten Years Older: the Cello, in which the broad subject of “reflections on time” failed to inspire most of the participants to anything worthwhile). Penn and Lelouch both provide intimate stories of loss taking place in the shadows of the twin towers – Penn’s is especially lyrical and surprising. Tanovic, Gitai, Loach and Chahine contrast September 11 to other atrocities. Chahine’s piece, weaving in fantasy elements and evoking past American atrocities, is a particular reason why the project’s been accused of anti-Americanism; his segment is unfortunately the clumsiest of the bunch. Loach much more cogently contrasts 9-11-01 with 9-11-73, on which the Chilean army (with American backing) rose against the elected Allende government. Inarritu immerses himself in the event itself, generating a shocking aural collage against a mostly black screen. Makhmalbaf and Ouedraogo see the event through the eyes of children in Iran and Burkina Faso respectively – Ouedraogo’s piece, about five boys who think they’ve spotted Osama bin Laden, is especially engaging. Nair’s story of a woman whose missing son was wrongly accused of being a terrorist is one of the less subtle contributions. The movie ends with a typically weird story from Imamura, set in Japan after Hiroshima and apparently relevant to September 11 only in the very general sense that it points out the horror of war. All in all, the film places 9-11 in context without diminishing it; only the most supremely self-righteous could seriously object.

The Eye (the Pang Brothers)
Screening as part of the festival’s Midnight Madness section, this horror chiller almost blows all its energy on a great opening tease in which the film seems to be burning in the projector (“Bummer,” said the woman behind me). A young blind woman receives a cornea transplant, but she now sees not just people from this world, but also from the next. The opening aside, the film is best when establishing the initial creepy mood (Kiyoshi Kurosawa may have been an influence for some of this, but The Eye is a more calculated, straightforward entertainment than his allusive genre work). The more it gets into plot mechanics, the more it loses its initial grip, although it regroups for a good finale. Other strong elements include a sympathetic heroine, a pounding music score, and general technical finesse. I never see more than one or two of the Midnight Madness selections every year, and this is par for the course – better than average genre fare, but not really deserving of the sobriquet “madness,” and not likely to keep a weary festival-goer awake past midnight. Fortunately for me, I saw it at 11 am.

Ken Park (Larry Clark & Ed Lachman)
Larry Clark seems to regard himself as the prophet of some dismal truth about teenage suburban America – they have sex, they take drugs, they’re alienated and screwed-up to the point that they could kill you as easily as look at you. And by the way, the parents are no better. Ken Park (the title refers to a character who shoots himself in the head at the start) doesn’t even have as much plot as Kids or Bully – it’s perhaps the ultimate undiluted Clark experience. Ironic then that he has a co-director here for the first time, but maybe noted cinematographer Lachman mainly contributed to the film looking more proficient than Clark’s previous work. A plot summary would sound like no more than a list of sleazy fantasies. The most interesting aspect of this is in how the adults are deeply unnerved/threatened by/envious of the kids’ sexuality and set out to appropriate it for themselves, thus precipitating the very consequences that they claim to fear. If they left the kids alone, everything would work itself out. The film then does have some thematic merit, and some real sadness. But Clack ups the ante of explicitness with every movie he makes, and it’s awfully hard to get past that surface.

L’homme du train (Patrice Leconte)
A charming anecdote about an aging bank robber who comes to a small town to pull off a job and crosses paths with a retired poetry teacher living a faded bourgeois life (“except for needlework,” he says, “I have all the skills of an early 20th century woman.”) They develop a mutual envy and each starts to move in the other’s direction: the gangster starts wearing slippers, reading poetry and smoking a pipe; the other fantasizes about being a tough guy, and gets a new haircut (“somewhere between ‘just out of jail’ and ‘world class soccer player’”). The amazingly facile Leconte keeps generating these beautifully constructed, nicely shaded curios at the rate of one a year (they include Ridicule and The Widow of St. Pierre). Like Louis Malle, he thinks his way picture by picture, and will never make it into the pantheon of auteurs, but he’s the best there is nowadays at the archetypal well-made foreign film. This one has an effective steely gray texture, lots of good one-liners, and ideal performances from Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday. On the debit side, it’s overly schematic, and sentimental too in the end.

My Mother’s Smile (Marco Bellocchio)
Veteran director Bellocchio disappoints with this turgid melodrama of an artist whose dead mother (murdered by his brother) is under consideration by the Vatican for canonization. A non-believer, he’s appalled at the prospect – far from venerating his mother, he remembers her as a “stupid woman” with an “indifferent, lethal” smile (rather than beatific, as others claim). However, his relatives – regarding the prospect of a saint in the family as a good business proposition and useful spiritual “insurance” – connive and lie to get it done. Meanwhile, he’s separated from his wife, helping bring up his young son, and maybe falling in love with the boy’s religion teacher. The film stars Sergio Castellitto, magnetic star of Va Savoir and Mostly Martha, lacking his usual twinkle here.  The film gets in some good potshots at the saint-making industry, such as the mass production of stupid photographs purporting to depict the mother’s martyrdom, and it’s darkly handsome, but Bellocchio applies a heavy hand from start to finish, and the story never ignites.