Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Tale of Springtime (Eric Rohmer, 1990)


Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime may bring to mind the maxim driving his earlier Full Moon In Paris –“He who has two women loses his soul, he who has two houses loses his mind.” Jeanne, a young philosophy teacher, can’t stay in her own place because she lent it to a cousin, and doesn’t want to sleep at her messy boyfriend’s place while he’s away, so she accepts a sleepover invitation from Natasha, a music student she meets at a party, and then remains for a week, getting drawn into the complications between Natasha and her father and his younger girlfriend Eve, whom Natasha detests, suspecting her in particular of stealing a family heirloom necklace. Despite the promise of the title, the film is among the more withholding of Rohmer’s late works, partly reflecting the relative severity of its protagonist – when philosophy is discussed here, it’s as much for display as anything else, with Eve flaunting how her knowledge is greater than Natasha’s. The film develops a sense of escalating pressure – the larger the canvas of possibility that Natasha presents for Jeanne (including the notion that Jeanne might replace Eve as her father’s partner), the more restricting it starts to seem; release only arrives through a freak event that absolves everyone of guilt, emphasizing the prominence of chance and caprice in our lives, and the traps inherent in human intellect and perception. Still, when in the end the film realizes its title by having Jeanne return to familiar territory, replacing a vase of withered old flowers with some bright new ones, it’s a less satisfactory arrival point than Rohmer customarily provides, with the nature of Jeanne’s inner renewal rather hard to glean (other than that, in some general sense, she’s found a way to modestly evade the inner confinement that arises from a life hemmed in by logistics and infrastructure).

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)


Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town might seem overly self-referential in numerous respects: it’s a risk inherent in movies about movie-making, amplified here by the use of Minnelli’s own The Bad and the Beautiful to denote former and perhaps no longer attainable glories. The film transcends that trap partly because its love of the cinematic process is so palpable, immersing us in the atmosphere around the set and such things as the mechanics of dubbing; more broadly in the way that even a once-great filmmaker might lose his way with actors, with the cinematic apparatus itself. Minnelli himself of course evidences no such decline here, generating one amazingly expressive widescreen composition after another, culminating in a wildly self-purging nighttime car ride staged as a deliriously abstracted, swirling spectacle. It’s a work built on multiple personal fragilities, Kirk Douglas’ Jack Andrus leaving a high-end clinic (shades of Minnelli’s earlier The Cobweb) and coming to Rome (depicted here as a site of churn and displacement and shifting relationships) in the hope of resurrecting his Oscar-winning but now devastated acting career under the guidance of Edward G. Robinson’s legendary director Maurice Kruger. Virtually from arrival, Andrus is taunted by actual or metaphoric reminders of past traumas; the elements aligning, as if guided by a therapeutic universe, to allow him a chance of comprehensive personal and professional renewal, before further setbacks point the way to a final equilibrium. The Andrus-Kruger interactions provide a memorably toxic central plank, the two men loving and resenting each other in roughly equal measure, Kruger’s outreach at once redeeming and destructive – he’s last seen in bed staring off into space after delivering his final blow, like a man imploding from the force of his own impossibility (and left under the thumb of his wife, with whom he has – if it’s possible – an even more spectacularly passive-aggressive relationship).

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Conte d'hiver (Eric Rohmer, 1992)

Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’hiver starts with some of the most carnal moments in all his work, of a young couple plainly in love and lust, naked in and out of bed, seemingly at utter physical and emotional ease with one another; we rapidly discover it’s a vacation romance, with only the address Felicie gives Charles at the end to ensure its continuity (he doesn’t have a fixed address, and she can’t even accurately recall his surname). Five years later, we learn she mistakenly gave him the wrong information, and they haven’t found each other since, even as his picture dwells in her daughter’s room, so that the girl will always know who her father was. Even as she juggles two other men (dumping one in order to impulsively move out of Paris with the other, and then changing her mind and returning after two days), Charles and the possibility of reuniting with him remain preeminent in her mind – Rohmer’s gracefully involved dialogues explore whether this is mere romantic folly, or a mark of faith that might even be rooted in the immortality of the human soul. Felicie regards herself as relatively stupid, especially compared to her bookish friend Loic, but through her commitment to her own instincts and ideals ultimately evidences a greater capacity to shape her world – he’s professedly religious and she isn’t, but she’s the one who prays in the course of the film, and urges him to go to Mass on Sunday (Pascal’s wager, much discussed in Ma nuit chez Maud, also comes back under the microscope). Against this backdrop, the statistically improbable ending hardly needs to be emphasized as a happy one, with an immediate sense of life moving on. In the end, the narrative distance traveled perhaps isn’t much greater than a carelessly calculated romantic comedy might traverse, but it’s a far greater journey in all other respects.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1986)


Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls might be one of the finest-ever studies of a workplace, regardless that the work in question is prostitution, sold out of a discreetly upscale apartment; in just an hour and a half, it encompasses an astounding range of incident and interaction and attitude, facilitating an improbably complete sense of the establishment as a multi-faceted meeting place and as economic matrix. It convincingly captures the mundane rhythms and rituals of the place: the different practices that kick in when the boss isn’t around, lunch orders, runs to the pharmacy, breaking in of new recruits, requests to stay late; all as naturalistically textured as if Borden had been observing it all her life. The women are convincingly diverse in their race, motivations, attitudes toward the job (some hide it from their significant others, some don’t; some use their real names, some don’t), where they draw the line with the clients; the clients in turn range from needy (there are frequent requests to meet the women outside, based in a belief that these are real connections, held back by the artificiality of the setting) to entitled to entirely businesslike. The film is explicit about the job’s physical requirements, meticulous in tracking the money (the central character Molly enters everything in a little book, depositing her takings on the way home); it’s often funny in the way that workplaces usually are, and of course deadly serious. While Borden’s style is generally intimately naturalistic, the scenes between the women and clients are sometimes consciously posed, coaxing us to view those encounters as structural constructs, and to interrogate our own gaze on them. Her amazing film ends as it began, in the midst of domestic intimacy, establishing all that we’ve seen as a common extension of that state, and uncomfortably sharing many of its attributes.