What will the Europe of the future look like? In the opinion of the great Dane Lars von Trier Europe will be polluted, plagued, and riddled with an existential numbness preventing connection of any kind between its inhabitants. Life for Europeans will vacillate between madness and extremism and boredom and anonymity. Von Trier’s prognostications are manifested in his Europa trilogy: The Element of Crime (1984) set in the future, Epidemic (1987) set in the present, and Europa (1991) set in the fall of 1945 after the German surrender to the Allied forces. In Europa, von Trier extrapolates his fears for the future of Europe from its past, finding parallels in the alienation and chaos of post-war Germany replicated in the angst of modern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western Europe was facing the same problem of the Allies after WWII: now that you’ve won, how do you turn the enemy you vilified into a trustworthy ally?
Von Trier describes the theme of the Europa trilogy as “the story of an idealist who tries to save people, but it all goes wrong.” Element of Crime features a cop intent on proving the viability of the controversial, psychologically debilitating crime-solving techniques of his mentor; in Epidemic a director (played by von Trier) wants to bring to life the story of a doctor (also played by von Trier) intent on stopping a deadly plague who ultimately turns out to be the carrier of the disease. Europa is less conceptual and is in fact the most conventional of any of von Trier’s films. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is an American of German descent who travels to Germany just after the war’s end with the vague goal of showing kindness to humanity. Kessler soon gets a job as a sleeping car conductor with the help of his fellow conductor uncle, so apparently showing kindness includes taking a job that could have been filled by a starving German. Kessler is soon invited to dinner at the house of Herr Hartman, the former Nazi collaborator who owns the Zentropa rail company where Kessler is employed. Kessler soon falls for Hartmann’s daughter, Katie (Barbara Sukowa), a sexpot who isn’t hesitant to admit that she was also once a collaborator. Kessler’s desire to save Katie from her past pulls him into a milieu of intrigue and betrayal that pose the ultimate challenge to Kessler’s altruistic weltanschaung. In plot, Europa is a Nazi spy thriller in the vein of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Hitchcock’s Notorious, but because of a strong technical choice, von Trier gives it a new, singularly postmodern collage aesthetic.Continue Reading
Delicatessen: A Pound of Perfection HUNGER: I hate waiting to eat. Especially when I'm starving. I become cranky. My cinematic appetite has been drooling for the domestic DVD release of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's Delicatessen for years now. Fortunately my French film fast has come to an end. ODD STORY SHORT: An out-of-work circus performer shows up at a butcher shop in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland to answer an ad for a handy man. The Butcher, also the landlord, has an agenda and a clumsy yet adorable wallflower of a daughter. The neighbors run the eccentric gamut. Have you ever met a troglodyte? And more importantly, what do you eat after an apocalypse? Let's just say few things go as planned. THE GOODS: Coming from the worlds of animation and advertising most likely gave Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro much time to experiment with various aspects of film design. This is put to the test on screen to great effect. Amazing sequences are played out like well-crafted jokes or the tumbling of an elaborate domino configuration. I can't help but feel one or both of the filmmakers are Charlie Chaplin fans. The visual landscape is rich and lived-in, drenched in musty browns, reds and greens. The characters can be quite cartoonish at times, only adding to the over-all oddity of this world. I believe in this "strange France" even though I can only visit via my DVD player. EXTRAS: Aside from the film the DVD includes some interesting tid bits. Included are: all the trailers (including teasers), a document of the filming, Jeunet's own archive footage and best of all a director's commentary track (in French with subtitles). The commentary track is done solo by Jeunet. It would appear for whatever reason that Mr. Caro has excluded himself from all the extra features. He is virtually not seen or heard outside of the...Continue Reading
With his 2005 film Caché Michael Haneke established himself as the most viciously insightful critic of the liberal educated class and he identified the demons that lurk beneath the surface of even the most enlightened and attractive among them. Seeing as his movies play to a pretty discerning worldwide audience it seems that the kind of people who love Haneke might also be guilty of having a serious masochistic streak. He does not soften the blow. Instead, he refuses, almost sadistically so, to cater to the expectations of the audience by following conventional genre ideas about how to construct a psychological thriller. Haneke is more interested in the deconstruction of why we feel it so necessary to have our impulses for “entertainment” rewarded. With the disorienting glitches that he throws into his film throughout —such as scenes that improbably begin to rewind out of nowhere—it’s as if he’s surgically removing the audience’s comfort zone one layer at a time until you are left with what he considers to be the truth of the matter. His films have a dry, suffocating, almost clinical feel that can give them the ambience of an extended lecture. He is a provocateur but he has his reasons.
Caché is a politically charged thriller but it might make sense to forget about what “politically charged thriller” typically means. This is not the Manchurian Candidate. Caché is about a well-to-do Parisian couple with seemingly perfect lives. The husband Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) are the toast of the Parisian literati. They live in a townhouse. They have a teenage son on the swim team.Continue Reading
While there are about a hundred reasons why this is one of my top five favorite films, it is one of those underground gems that might never be discovered. For this reason alone, it is difficult to choose which aspects of it to praise. So instead of simply stating why you should hunt down this particular movie, I’d like to cross-reference other Brazilian films from the same time. Hopefully this will inspire others to get a glimpse of a few rarities that are amazing, but unfortunately only on VHS or very hard to come by. Surely the most popular films from Brazil, made with much better technology, are Elite Squad and City of God. While these still attract a lot of attention, their popularity has not unearthed any sort of general fascination with the cinema of Brazil’s past.
Brazilian films, in general, have always fascinated me. Many of them deal with poverty, violence, political exposure and, oddly enough, satires. Bye Bye Brazil is another from the ‘80s that is definitely worth seeing. When I think of these two films, the style of them can be compared to a blend of Jordorowsky (particularly Santa Sangre), Fellini (La Strada) and David Lynch, more so in the line of haunting characters and the use of color. The early cinema of Brazil suffered from financial setbacks and were made on the lowest of budgets. Yet, the aforementioned films were made in the peak of Brazil’s cinematic exploration. The financial crisis of the nation explains the lack of archives and preservation of films done decades earlier. Brazil also imports a large amount of films from America and other countries, which blows most of the low budget ones out of the water—assuming they even make it into the theater.Continue Reading
Playing with sound and image, image without sound and sound without image. White text over black. Questions answered by the opposite sex in the form of questions. French New Wave icons. Gunshots and the symbolic separation of fifteen acts. In classic Godard narrative form, the film searches for the line between the male and female and proposes a parallel of these relationships to social problems in contemporary times.
Godard has the ability to make a conversation half a film. That’s not exactly the case here, but I’m not far off. Sometimes scenes like that may seem long and tedious but here, somehow, it’s never dull and never without style. Meet Paul and Madeleine. Hardly ever in contemporary film can we observe and study characters in such casualty. Yet even in casualness their interaction bridges on the topic of more tangible matters – Bob Dylan, her reaction to his approach, a play on words... Later, Paul’s interrogation towards other women explore heavy topics – from sex to birth control, to views towards Capitalist America, to the concerns of Vietnam War. We may not agree with Paul’s views or the female’s answers, but Godard’s antics do leave something to be desired. Society is reviewed in a brutally honest form in this modern time and still to this day I can relate.Continue Reading
Merci Pour le Chocolat (a.k.a. Nightcap)
I must admit this is the first Chabrol film that I have seen, and what a delight it is! Browsing the racks of the Foreign DVDs I couldn’t help but notice how many of his films star the charming Isabelle Huppert (8 to be exact), whose performance as the Yin to Dustin Hoffman’s Yang in I Heart Huckabees took me aback. Coupled with Mark Wahlberg’s role, this was the most enjoyable factor of said film. Back to Merci...
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the plot logistics, so I’ll try and make a good assessment of the main themes. Primarily this film’s story is about trust, deceit, and the malleability of the family unit. It doesn’t tackle these topics with too much severity and, in conjunction with its beautiful locations, soft colors, and hazy look, the whole thing goes down very smoothly, like a warm cup of hot chocolate. I need to hand it to Chabrol for portraying such heavy topics in a light manner, which is a rare feat to pull off.Continue Reading
The 4th Man
Castration, murder, bisexuality, a man posed suggestively on a crucifix, and the line of dialogue, "Through Mary to Jesus," during an orgasm are just a few highlights from what I think might be one of the most devoutly Catholic films I have ever seen: Paul Verhoeven's The 4th Man. Actually, the film might just be trying to make some sort of statement about the "artist as Christ." I can't be too sure. Either way, and more importantly, it's a richly atmospheric thriller that's as unforgettably funny as it is horrific.
Jeroen Krabbe stars as Gerard Reve, an alcoholic, Catholic novelist from Holland who has risen to considerable fame for being an artist who "lies the truth." After an egotistical Q&A celebrating his work in Vlissingen, he is seduced by Christine Halsslag (Renee Soutendijk) who insists that he spend the night at her hotel/hair salon before returning home. While drawn to Christine ("You have the body of a young boy"), Gerard immediately receives both symbolic and blatantly grotesque warnings of danger through his dreams and encounters with some of the town's people. He chooses to ignore them; however, when he finds out that Christine is also involved with a man named Herman (Thom Hoffman), the writer decides he must have Herman even if it kills him. While sort of playing Christine to get closer to Herman, Gerard stumbles onto some information about the woman's past that might unveil a more terrifying reality than any of his fantasies.Continue Reading
Few directors choose to take risks within cinema, and when they do, they reveal ideas in the most intriguing and significant ways. Michael Haneke, in his film Code Unknown, definitely gives his viewers something to take home, long after they’ve watched it. Like a string of Venn-diagrams, the film is a series of segments loosely tied by the intersection of characters in Paris, France, and the subtext goes far beyond just that. The scenes allude to the missed communication within a society blinded by tension caused by differences in race, age, class, and backgrounds in a disheveled European nation. Here is the rare portrayal of Paris as an intellectual discourse, and while less violent compared to Funny Games or CachÃ©, the film is still pointedly bold, high-minded, and socially aware.
What does “code unknown” really mean? We find out a glimpse of this answer in the beginning scene, set in a school of deaf children. A girl is acting out a scene in front of her classmates. They guess what she is attempting to convey: “Alone?” “Hiding in place?” She shakes her head at each conjecture. The simplicity combined with mystery of this scene is an appropriate overture for the rest of the film.Continue Reading
Blood of a Poet
Jean Cocteau, one of the great multi-talented artists of the 20th century is given free reign in his first film. His approach is whimsical and free improvisational; a childlike freedom hangs in the air of this film, even as it addresses rather dark subject matter. The result is a series of powerful images that still seem fresh nearly 80 years later.
Experimental and surrealistic in nature, Blood of a Poet is not a film for individuals who seek clear and definite story lines, to say the least. Rather this is a film that should be considered as a work of art, and not as a traditional movie. That is not to say that these are a series of meaningless images - this is essentially a poem in the form of a film. A series of Cocteau's own reflections...as Cocteau puts it ,"a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body."Continue Reading
The Mirror is absolutely the most poetic film I’ve seen. Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia’s famous director, sewed the film together like fragments, creating a loose, non-linear, autobiographical tale full of childhood memories. The film contains newsreel footage and poems by Tarkovsy’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky. It is a personal, unique film, now highly regarded as one of Tarkovsky’s best works and masterpieces. His work, often a struggle with the Soviet authorities, is well-realized and committed – he has only made seven feature films out of his 27 years as a filmmaker, and each one of them is finely crafted and boldly uncompromised. Here is one of my favorites.
The film begins with Alexei’s son Ignat. The film revolves around his thoughts and his world, and the narrator reads poems reminiscent of a man’s relationships with his mother, ex-wife, and son. The mother, Maria, is a proofreader in a printing press. She is first shown in the countryside during pre-World War II. The rural countryside is one of Tarkovsky’s landscapes – the homes and the land featured in the film are gorgeously drenched in nature, yet also contain an element of isolation. Tarkovsky’s use of nature refers to his childhood memory of war that caused many to evacuate Moscow to the countryside.Continue Reading