Wednesday, January 25, 2023

IP5: the Island of Pachyderms (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1992)


In its strenuous bringing-together of disparate elements, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s IP5 may paradoxically seem to demonstrate a creative fountain too-rapidly running dry, forcing the director into attempting to find magic through near-random alchemy. In his last role (and therefore inherently quite moving, even if his character makes only limited sense), Yves Montand plays Leon Marcel, an escapee from the institution into which his relatives confined him, on a journey to close a romantic narrative left incomplete decades earlier. Olivier Martinez plays Tony, a virtuoso graffiti artist on the trail of Gloria, the woman he loves (Geraldine Pailhas), knowing only that she’s somewhere in Toulouse, accompanied by his much younger sidekick known as Jockey (Sekkou Sall), among other things a supposed mystically-gifted predictor of horse racing results and an ace car thief; it’s in the course of practicing the latter that they find Marcel asleep in a back seat and their trajectories eventually merge. Beineix’s sense of composition is evident throughout, and the clashing of aged gravity and contemporarily rooted multi-culturalism makes for some easily entertaining, if repetitive, dynamics. But the film ultimately seems arbitrary and pointless, weighed down by that tedious quasi-mysticism (Marcel appears to possess the divination skills that Jockey lasts, as well as being able to walk on water in one scene, and suchlike). For all the film’s professed belief in fated romance, it has little interest in its female characters: based on what’s shown, Gloria’s disinterest in Tony is visceral and well-founded, yet melts away based on no more than her succumbing to his willpower (or something like that). In such respects the film sporadically evokes Beineix’s earlier Moon in the Gutter, another rather heavy-going narrative built around another hard-to-buy romance, in that case though benefiting more fully from the director’s flair for imagery and mild subversion of expectations.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Four Friends (Arthur Penn, 1981)


Arthur Penn’s Four Friends starts with the arrival of young Danilo and his mother in America, after traveling from Yugoslavia to join the steel-worker father he’s hardly ever met; ten years later, in the early sixties, Danilo and his two best friends are giddy with music and their shared love for the same girl, Georgia, trying to push away the father’s insistence that college isn’t for the factory-bound likes of him. By the film’s end, some eight years later, Danilo will have made it to college, but hardly as part of a smooth upward trajectory; he’ll have gone from being so patriotic that (we’re told) he goes to football games just to sing the national anthem, to a more nuanced, fluid, sometimes pained view of the country and his place within it. The film’s title serves as a symbol of its evasiveness, of the difficulty of summing up even the simplest aspects of American life, in that after the first twenty minutes or so, two of the four friends are pushed to the sidelines of the narrative, receiving far less screen time than a fifth friend, Louie, who is Danilo’s college roommate. It’s through Louie that Danilo gains entry for a while into the milieu of the super-rich, an expedition that takes in some perversity-tinged dysfunction and then ends in grotesque tragedy; from there he goes to driving a New York cab, apparently embracing total personal disrepair, a pivot that brings to mind the audacious narrative and tonal shifts of Little Big Man, perhaps Penn’s greatest film. It comes to mind at the end too via a culminating remark that one day they may look back on all this and not remember a thing, echoing the earlier film’s resigned conclusion that sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t. By conventional measures Four Friends often stumbles, but then, how would a smoother film have been truer to such a fraught time and place?

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel, 1964)


Diary of a Chambermaid is yet another mesmerizingly well-controlled, implication-heavy Luis Bunuel masterpiece, and one of his most underrated works. Celestine (the ideal Jeanne Moreau) comes from Paris to take the titular job in the provinces, almost immediately pegging the woman of the house as a “cow,” and rapidly becoming an object of desire for almost every male in sight, the nature of those desires varying from an old man’s foot fetish to a co-employee’s plan of making her a partner in a business venture; she fairly rapidly quits, but then changes her mind after the brutal murder of a little girl of whom she was fond. The film evidences throughout Bunuel’s uncanny facility to electrify the cinematic space by heightening our sense of objects and relations, and is full of bitingly concise character studies; for instance, the husband (Michel Piccoli) is increasingly exposed as a desperate husk, all financial resources controlled by his wife, desperately searching for validation (when he finally gives up on Celestine and turns his attention to another, less self-assured servant, the poor woman’s quiet tears devastatingly drive home his calculating cruelty). Celestine ultimately finds a way to ascend within the local bourgeoisie, but then the final scene provides a classic Bunuelian swerve away from the main narrative, putting her machinations in vicious perspective: individual fortunes may rise and fall, but history meanwhile marches on, and the lascivious pleasure on one character’s face in the closing moments may be the film’s scariest image, seeming to look ahead to our own age of narcissistic strong men. For whatever reason, the film isn’t typically included in a summary of Bunuel’s greatest films (which admittedly is some pretty crowded territory), but it’s suffused in his unique mixture of ruthless elegance and cinematic grace, allowing us to cross off familiar Bunuelian targets while remaining constantly surprising, even startling.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)


Concluding Arthur Penn’s amazing peak period, Little Big Man is an indelibly daring and captivating work, immersed in American history and myth as both tragedy and farce, as an endlessly shifting, unreliable narrative. The framing device of narrator Jack Crabb, claiming to be 121 years old as he recounts his life and times into a visiting researcher’s tape recorder, alerts us to the possibility of tall tales: his story kicks off with being orphaned in a Pawnee raid and then raised by the Cheyenne (or “human beings” as they refer to themselves, in contrast to the “white men”), subsequently spending time as a gunfighter, an Army scout, a shopkeeper, a traveling confidence man, a deadbeat drunk, and more; the tenor of his life varies from outright farce to chilling bereftness, with Penn engineering some masterful tonal shifts, perfectly in tune with an ideally cast Dustin Hoffman. But however large and varied the canvas of Jack’s life, the underlying force is toward repetition and withdrawal: time and again, he finds himself back with the beleaguered Cheyenne, at the side of his adopted grandfather (Chief Dan George); time and again, characters that seemed gone from his life suddenly reappear, for better or for worse; however much America pushes outward and upward and burnishes its legend, the ultimate trajectory is toward settling, reduced mobility, calcified attitudes and forgone dreams. There’s no possibility of narrative or thematic closure - the film’s final observation is merely that “sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t” - and it withholds any sense of what Jack’s story can accomplish at this distance (no less now than then, one could endlessly debate the virtue of the ends to which the country deploys its distorted grasp of its own history). On the debit side, and like many works of its period, the film seems most dated now in its sexual politics, its women mostly conceived in one-note terms, the note of course being a sexual one.