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
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
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
The 400 Blows
The power of black and white film in an autobiographical story never ceases to be emotional and meaningful. The English title of French New Wave director FranÃ§ois Truffaut's film The 400 Blows is unfortunately a literal translation that overlooks the meaning of the phrase "faire les quatre cents coups." The main character of the film is a thirteen-year-old boy named Antoine Doinel, who does exactly that – raises hell, or causes disruption within a society of order. Truffaut has a unique and undeniably intelligent way of filmmaking that is showcased in this personal film.
Our protagonist is as mysterious as he is mischievous. That is his essential charm – a young figure full of paradigms and intrigues. The beauty of the film lies in the fact that we follow him without obvious or over-the-top plot moves. The viewer is able to simply observe and be with Antoine in his exploration of a being a French adolescent. Antoine enters a life of crime and trouble making. He is scolded by his teacher, he discovers his mother is having an affair, and engages in stealing. He is punished and misunderstood by adults. There is no perfect answer for this boy, and this film proves there is no need for that. Truffaut allows us instead to enter a boy's intimate moments in visceral and dreamlike states.Continue Reading
Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) went back to his native Holland to make this stylish and subversive action adventure movie about a WW2-era Jewish spy who lives by her wits as a member of the Dutch resistance as she navigates a treacherous world of sympathetic enemies and dubious allies. As usual with Verhoeven there is a layer of social commentary to Black Book that lies beneath the glossy surface. This is old Hollywood spectacle with depth. Best movie of 2006!...Continue Reading
To Joy (Till Glädje)
"Music is the goal, not the means."
Few films capture the simplicities of what is important in an artist's life. The title is taken from Schiller's "Ode to Joy," fitting for this story concerning two orchestral players. Stig is a dissatisfied musician, hating the idea of living in mediocrity, while Marta is a beautiful lady who basks in the simple joys of life. She steals Stig's hardened heart in spite of himself, and they eventually get married. He struggles with his ability to play as a violin soloist. His ambitions consume him to the point where he loses sight of his wife's patience and care. We've all seen this inner torment from the viewpoint of a husband/musician plenty of times – any biopic of an artist will tell that story. Yet what stands out about this film is Bergman's ability to portray the main character in all his flaws and weaknesses, and there's absolutely no glamour or flashiness attached. The result? Honest, rich sentiment.Continue Reading
Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)
Atanarjuat is set roughly 1,000 years ago in the Inuit village of Igloolik. The plot is based on an ancient legend about a community under the curse of an evil shaman and torn apart by human failings. One man, the heroic Atanarjuat, goes on a Homeric quest and offers change.
The screenplay came from writer Paul Apak Angilirq’s interviews with eight Inuit elders whose stories he combined and fleshed out and added personal touches. Sadly, he died of cancer during production. The film, shot on digital cameras, takes a Dogma-like approach that places the viewer in the middle of the action. The affect is akin to watching a pre-millennial episode of COPS set in the tundra.Continue Reading
Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales
French New Wave director Eric Rohmer possessed a literary side not to be ignored. He wrote Six Moral Tales before he became a director. The six stories, included in the DVD box set, are perceptive modern age sensibilities dripped with moral reservations. They end without euphoric conclusions; more of wordless losses or gains, and yet that is the charm of them. They leave you with a sense of discomposure, like dreams cut off at the strangest moment, trailing into a world of thoughts nestling within oceans of principled questions.
This literary side of Rohmer's became a flourishing group of work when, upon entering the world of filmmaking, he decided to turn them into films. Each film in its own entitlement has a unique feel and purpose. When placed within a collective, the themes are stronger, more contemplative, and the characters more complicated in the tangle of moral dilemmas. And the films are steady, paced as humanly possible. These stories are vignettes of French young life in the 60s and early 70s through the eyes of Rohmer, who delightfully posits philosophical and intellectual challenges with the characters' accounts. Also notable is his careful style that is subtle and devoid of classic cinema's devices – lacking non-diegetic music, avoiding the full-face close-up, engaging the viewer in a character's everyday lifestyle, etc.Continue Reading
Even Dwarfs Started Small
There are some films that are so disturbing and bizarre that you can’t rationally explain them, you just have to experience it for yourself. Even Dwarfs Started Small is precisely one of those films. But seeing I love this film so much I’m going to try to describe it to the best of my ability.
Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog’s second feature film, is about a group of dwarfs confined to an isolated institution of sorts. At the film’s start, the dwarfs find themselves left unattended at the institution they are confined to. The dwarfs feel unhappy and trapped in their surroundings and decide to rebel against their authorities. Over the course of the film, the dwarfs destroy anything they can get their hands on at the institution. The rebellion escalates to absurd and disturbing levels as the film approaches its bizarre and hysterical conclusion.Continue Reading
Signs of Life
Signs of Life is Werner Herzog’s first feature, and it is also my personal favorite out of all his films. In Signs of Life Herzog introduces many of the themes and techniques he would elaborate upon with each successive film. His cast of rebellious misfit characters, the remote exotic locations, and his hauntingly poetic images are all introduced and fully utilized in this film.
Signs of Life is the story of a soldier who is wounded during a war and reassigned to a remote Greek island with his wife and two fellow soldiers. Their task is to guard a useless munitions dump in a ruined fortress located next to the harbor in a small village. In an attempt to escape his feelings of entrapment, Stroszek goes out on a patrol of the bordering hills where he is gripped by madness at the site of something he sees over the horizon. This encounter drives Stroszek to madness propelling him to lock himself away in the fortress and declare war on both man and nature.Continue Reading