Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été)

Jean-Luc Godard, a passionate fan of Chronicle of a Summer and its creators, famously said that “style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” The style of this film, defined by Jean Rouch himself as “an experiment in cinema vérité”, serves as a complement and a helping hand to its content, and the opposite is just as true. It starts with the very question it wants to pose, asked by its own directors in front of the camera, and ends with the directors themselves trying coming to terms with their experiment by the end of it. Such a self-reflexive experiment would later go down as one of the best and most original documentaries of our time.

The question, which unfolds in excerpts of unscripted debates, direct interviews and voice-overs, is whether a person can act sincerely in front of a camera. Since the veracity of a film’s subject and the relevance of its main topic is always at the center stage of such any film experiment and every good one, this is arguably one of the most important questions in the history of documentary filmmaking. And the film’s uncompromising quest for cinematic truth, which relies on the immediacy of its answers and the slow buildup of consensus – or lack thereof -, is what makes this film a must-see.

Led by leading ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, the film is deceptively simple in the way it is conducted: informal conversations and non-intrusive observations of everyday life, the duo draws a cross-section of the France of their time, the 1960’s themselves and even of contemporaneous urban life altogether in its most natural and recognizable. And the result, a spontaneous and energetic manifestation of humanity with a refreshing sense of immediacy, is a marvel to behold in its delicate balance of optimism and pessimism, acceptance and indifference, prejudice and compassion. From the opening question regarding whether they are living happily or not onward, the interviewees set a wide spectrum of the multiple ways with which society looks at modern life – all still very familiar and almost depressingly relevant after decades of social, cultural and historical changes.

Here lies this deceptive simplicity and its transcendent outcomes: the film’s overall structure, easy to imitate and very effective, would be the matrix of countless derivations and replications, all attempting to experiment with film form and use the medium as a way of encompassing everyday lives. But it’s amazing to realize that the core of its experiment – the human faces provoked by the interviewers – feels like it could have been achieved at any time in the last few decades. Their lifestyles and perspectives of the world ring as true to our times as anything spoken today by our friends and relatives.

As one bloc of film leads to another and yet another back, forth and sideways in various documentary templates, the experiment proves the differences that stand between the multiple forms of non-fiction filmmaking developing at the time and in later years. While the Direct Cinema of Canadian and American directors of the time proposed that real truth could only be achieved with minimal interference – the “fly-on-the-wall” concept –, Rouch and Morin believed in directorial interference, since provocation lead to “to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of all of us,” which in their vision was “the most real part of an individual”. This relates to Herzog’s recurring attack on Direct Cinema that a film should rather be “the bee that stings”.

Chronicle of a Summer, unlike many documentaries that demand absolute realism, understands the questionable concept of cinematic truth and plays with it to its very end; using universal topics such as happiness, ideal living and current social and political conditions, it displays real people living their lives and talking about themselves as truly as they can, but even that is put into question. The subjectivity that surrounds these real and fictional truths, in the end, is an inevitable result in a film that constantly comes closer and further away from its idealistic goals. But the sting is there regardless of the limits of the film’s reality: notoriously refusing to shy away from then violent topics like the Algerian War and the Holocaust – one episode in particular, involving main interviewer Marceline, is as poignant as everything you could see in a documentary.

Divisiveness is ever-present in the film’s style: Rouch, the filmmaker wants to use the film to explore cinematic form through lightweight cameras, synchronized sound and long scenes filmed outdoors; Morin, the sociologist, wants to create culture clashes and bring people together as a friendly test. Content also goes both ways: some interviewees believe in happiness, some in unhappiness, some in both of them together; later in the film, part of the interviewees believes that the film speaks with true words all along, while the other part feels repelled by it and claims the footage destroys its own purpose. In a way, this divisiveness mirrors the very polarizing nature of cinema and its fierce debates over whether a certain film is good or bad, realistic or otherwise.

More importantly, it reveals, in what was a shock and a disappointment to Rouch and Morin, how hard it is for people to understand one another, and how certain things hardly ever change in society’s collective thinking and acting. But for all that seems to be lost by the end of the film, this film makes me feel better about life than otherwise. In the unforgettable faces captured, the bursts of sadness and joy that collide with one another in a race with no particular favorite, and the audacity of a film that wants to be a chronicle of an entire summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin create a documentary that, like all great ones, proves that reality is often stranger and more beautiful than fiction. Few films go so deep into the spirit of human lives.

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Chronicle of a Summer

Year: 1961

Director: Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin

 

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This Week at The Hand Grenade’s Headquarters #25

Moving on to May! Away with the 1930’s binge watching and the overly controversial movies; now it’s the time of documentaries and 1940’s binge watching. And likely, new features and some special categories are coming to The Hand Grenade, a bit of movie flavor to be sprinkled over the film-review cake. Feel free to add suggestions of what could improve your Hand Grenade experience: does it need more reviews of mainstream cinema, or that one movie you love so much? Could it use some interviews or videoessays, or maybe topic lists? It’s your call!

I hoped to talked about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice this week, but I had such a hard time with understanding it that I had to reset my brain’s movie lobe and move on to an easier subject.

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)

Errol Morris’ groundbreaking documentary is the sort of film that is delivered with such clarity in such a powerful style is not only sent the world a message, it inspired actual change and became a touchstone of its genre, proving that style can often make a good story great. Morris’ case study is his belief that Randall Adams, a Texan prisoner who almost got convicted under the death penalty and was serving a lifetime sentence, didn’t commit murder in cold blood and is the only innocent man in the whole process that put him in jail. This is a story we’ve already seen in countless variations in Law and Order episodes and court drama films, but the Adams case in particular was built on top of so many errors it’s almost unbelievable that actual people could do justice that way. Point taken, Adams was released a year after the film’s release.

The power of The Thin Blue Line lies in its dedication to make its viewers visualize the problem in question: a miscarriage of justice so big it serves as a cross section of a number of legal malpractices and their consequences to the justice system. Using vivid reenactments of various testimonies, penetrating framing on his interviewees, testimony-driven continuity (no narration) and a thrillingly kinetic musical score by Philip Glass, Morris never lets us lost in translation and addresses each subtopic in his defense without hesitation. He creates a visual map of clues and facts where even written statements assume a palpable form, and a work dedicated to nonfiction that unwraps with the energy of a narrative film. One his major points in the film is that it takes a greater prosecutor to convict an innocent man, and he’s great enough to reverse the process.

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)

Having just read an article about how we should treat old movies as product of their time, I couldn’t help feeling guilty about not appreciating some of the old classics (curiously, the article mentions From Russia with Love when I was only mildly satisfied with Dr. No). I guess I’m spoiled by contemporaneous examples that are actually timeless, next to which some “outdated” classics fall short: after you watch film noir, Scarface seems too stiff; after you watch Frankenstein, Dracula seems too loose and slow; and after you watch Duck Soup and Trouble in Paradise, a classic like The Thin Man seems to have too offbeat a comic timing. It’s just not the masterpiece trying to come out of its screenplay.

The Thin Man, for what it does and what it tries to do, is a lovely film: it’s based on a Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon) novel; it has great lines, marvelously delivered by William Powell and Myrna Loy (“They say you were shot five times in the tabloids”, she says; “It’s not true,” he answers, “he didn’t get anywhere near my tabloids”), and provides a great (and authentic) twist on the detective story by adding a light touch of comedy. But it lacks many things to be a satisfying comedy, mainly a spot-on array of supporting characters and the sense of lunacy and absurd that makes the comedies of the 1930’s so appealing despite their excesses. It’s down-to-earth and too anti-climactic to provoke the laughs it should be giving.

L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)

Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante is a film about finding love, happiness and peace of mind in an world largely undiscovered by its universally appealing protagonists: a man (Jean Dasté) and a woman (Dita Parlo). The man is a barge dweller whose fear of mistakes makes him demanding and jealous; the woman, his wife, doesn’t feel well with the way things are and would rather look at her maritime life with other eyes. They have recently married, and they have to learn quickly about how to keep their love alive, as we all have in order to have some fun. L’Atalante is a simple film about the happily ever after, and in its accurate simplicity it is one of the greatest films of all time, an invasion of poetry into everyday life that outmatches any other screen romance.

Triumph of the Will / Triumph des Willens (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will will not convert you or anyone who doesn’t already have a tendency towards right-wing extremism, and for a multitude of reasons: it’s slow, it’s dull, it doesn’t cover all the necessary ground, and the rhetoric power of Hitler is glossed over for gratuitous sequences of marching troops and waving swastikas. But to look at this documentary is to witness the control that Hitler, the Nazi party and the SS had over Germany, and the enormous support it had in response. The numbers, endlessly exploited by Riefenstahl’s uncompromising cameras, are shocking, and to watch actual footage of how they formed is terrifying.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (various directors, 1937)

If D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is the birth of cinema, then Snow White is the birth of animation, a beautiful, heart-warming, unforgettable one. A bit sappy here, a bit sexist over there and a bit silly over here, Walt Disney’s overdose of cuteness is also a landmark of animation because like most musicals and most animated movies do, Snow White is a colorful living universe of its own, exploding with singing and dancing: look at how the birds chirp, the deer tiptoes and jumps, the raccoon hug each other and the turtle stumbles down; how the dwarfs, whose names we all know by heart (*cough* take that, Peter Jackson *cough*), yodel and snore; how the Queen erupts with evilness so evil it made children pee their pants in the film’s first release. It’s the sort of feel-good movie that people used to get all the time during the 1930’s, when Leo McCarey and Frank Capra were on a row and cinema was doing everything to give something to be cheerful for in Depression-era America. And it’s one of the best.

Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

War had just broke out in Europe, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, which started out as a spy thriller enjoying the heat of the moment, became a downright anti-isolationist propaganda film, which plays safe but gives us historical shivers anyway. In the film, Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) plays an American newspaperman imbued with the mission of reporting any possible outcomes of the ongoing peace treaties and the possibility that England may engage into war with Germany. The plot thickens when one of the leaders of a major peace organization is shot in plain view, and the killers get away freely. Or don’t they?

Not only the outcome of the story favors the idea that Germany was to be stopped, the very idea of an American reporter (whose inexperience in the field makes him more tolerant to the idea of intervention) siding with the British is just as strong as political propaganda. The film isn’t as biting or snappy as Hitchcock’s later efforts, but the suspense it builds until the astonishing final sequence more than compensate for the lukewarm performances (George Sanders as a hero? Bollocks!)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

Like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like The Dark Knight, like The Desolation of Smaug, like The Two Towers, Age of Ultron is that obligatory big, bold and dark sequel that picks up the bright days of innocent joy of the first installment and unleashes hell upon them. The darkness of The Avengers 2, however, is made to match the size of its predecessor, so instead of killing a few people with a basilisk or blowing up some favorite parts of Gotham, it wants to extinguish the entire human race. “Why?”, you might ask, having your innocent popcorn time as the world is turned to ashes; Ultron, in its Joker-like apocalyptic wisdom, will answer, “Ask Noah.”

See more in The Hand Grenade’s full review coming soon.

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)

Blackfish, as you may have heard before, is an alarming, game-changing documentary about the mistreatment of orcas at SeaWorld and their potential to act dangerously with their trainers. It end on an upbeat note of hope that the situation might be reversed and that one day we’ll give these animals the freedom they deserve, but the bulk of it is shocking to say the least. It does send an effective message for good and for sure, but the way it sends it – verging on painstaking details of the orca attacks and their brutal outcomes, often following video footage and word-by-word descriptions -, feels almost like something of a snuff film. Blackfish famously served its purpose, and SeaWorld has gone through worldwide backlash for its negligence, but I certainly feel that the film manipulates the viewer too much with its horrible images to compensate for a lack of substance; I miss some extra biological background, some debating on why SeaWorld and other institutions go to such absurd lengths in capitalizing with animals, something that sends a bigger message to be taken from this single story. I admire Cowperthwaite for her effort, but I do wish she crafted it better.

For Shot of the Week: L’Atalante’s closing shot of one of the most poetic scenes in film history, that starts with a man in a desperate underwater search and ends with his ultimate discovery: a close-up.

Film Socialisme

Throughout the 101 minutes I spent watching Godard’s Film Socialisme, I could hardly avoid thinking about the Ylvis trailer for Jacques et Florine, a “story about nothing” (which points out to the overlooked fact that the Norwegian group is actually sending messages in its brainless video clips). I knew beforehand that the Godard film would repel any definite conclusions I could derive from it in a first impression, but so do many other films that I nevertheless enjoyed and accepted without understanding them entirely. If a film like The Mirror, Persona or Sátántangó is thoroughly watchable because it seems to be inventing fresh, new rules and breaking conventions for the benefit of storytelling, and a film like Un Chien Andalou is equally compelling through creating anti-narrative in narrative form, Film Socialisme seems to have abandoned all rules of visual language.

There’s no context, no sense of linearity, narrative or self-contained universe, no direct path to a center theme, no reality. Usually, when I watch a film and conclude I have felt too much and defined too little for a film review, I write about emotions and leading impressions I’ve had on it. Film Socialisme doesn’t allow that, because, for starters, I’m not even sure of what I’ve felt towards it. What I’ve read the most about the film, beyond endless references to novelists, philosophers and filmmakers, is that it tells us, provocatively so, that we are unable to achieve socialism and that the debate surrounding the socialist movement has always been too confused with too distracting branches of arguments to move forward.

Since materializing this idea feels like the cinematic equivalent of losing your buoy in the middle of open sea (the film does start with a cruise trip), I’m not sure if this conclusion comes from an unrelated state of mind indirectly achieved from watching this film, or from a deliberate success by Godard’s latest phase. The film, divided in three surreptitiously interconnected episodes, is visual anarchy at its best (or worst, or whatever): it’s so loose and so disconnected if feels like an art installation creeping through what probably was a feature film essay in the likes of Chris Marker (La Jetée, Sans Soleil).

You know what? I was gonna finish this review in a serious tone, but this film was just too much for me. When you watch Film Socialisme, you don’t let yourself go to its abstraction, you give up and look for compensations. I was gonna write more paragraphs about how complex and twisty it is, and how deeply I felt that I’ll have to watch this one again, but I quit. One digital film switches to another, sound comes on and off, and no piece of dialogue constitutes a single definite and understandable idea. It’s just philosophy thrown in the air and rearranged, and while it’s good philosophy, the film never feels finished; it’s as if Godard had gone so far in exploring the film form that Film Socialisme is a straightforward anti-film, a weapon for cognitive masturbation. It’s just mind-fucking for two hours. You’ve been warned.

Next time I’ll redeem myself.

Film Socialisme

Year: 2010

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Olga Riazanova, Élisabeth Vitali, Eye Haidara, Patti Smith

Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard (nominated)

Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi)

“It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old […] isn’t it remarkable that no film since 1972 has been more sexually intimate, revealing, honest and transgressive than Last Tango?”

Roger Ebert

I have often made the case to myself – but rarely here – that Richard Linklater is right, that if a film is like a painting, time would be the paint itself. A film can be elevated to the form of art through several different strategies, but time is always involved. When looking at a painting, you shouldn’t look at it in terms of beginning, middle and end or first, second and third acts; it should be a seamless and inexplicably emotional experience, something beyond life. In cinema, great films are in many ways measurable and analysis-friendly, but the masterpieces are never only about what is inside the frame, but also about what is left out and the new dimensions that this they reach for. They stop being any number of frames per second and simple pieces of film to become something that touches your inner self like nothing else can.

The time you spend watching a film is no longer a block of time, but a long train trip that stretches for hours and hours, a dream that penetrates your mind and never leaves, a moment of levitation that takes you in a journey that disregards roads and speed limits. Real time should make way for unreal time, surreal time, existential time, extra-terrestrial time. If there are waves of rave reviews when a film goes to unprecedented heights in search of realism in film, there should be oceans of praise when a film suspends any notions of reality and you feel as if you’ve witnessed something larger than life. The secret of cinema as an art form is in films that don’t pass, but glide, fly away, levitate, magnetize, suspend motion or move in free-form, friction-free steps.

I have seen films that created these forms of movement and many others, and I rest my case here for the first time in this blog because Last Tango in Paris has showed me another form that I had never seen. I grant that this is not the apex of its own nature, and that this is not a perfect film, but Bertolucci is not craving for perfection or for exactitude, and you shouldn’t look for such things in order to truly admire this work. Tango is a film born of shapeless ideas and wild emotions, and as a result it is the thing of poetry: the story comes from a dream Bertloucci had of himself and a nameless woman in a relationship that offered no answers and few questions. The cast is composed of an actor (Marlon Brando) who has never quite admired his own profession despite his genius, an actress (Maria Schneider) whose breakthrough she could never equal, and another actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) famous for incarnating the life of his own directors on screen while distancing his character from his audience.

Most universal stories, especially in cinema, are songs of two humans, be them a man and a woman, an old man and a kid, a mother and her son, a father and his own father. This one is about a man and a woman, and their relationship is so solely dependent on themselves it happens in an exclusive world with its own rules and its own definitions of things. It could be wrong to say that it seems like the romance of a lifetime, because in movies this device is wasted so pointlessly it always sounds like a childish fantasy that will grow in their minds as a stupid burst of escapism. But there is such raw intimacy, such freedom of action and such mutual understanding between this man and this woman that the impression is that yes, they will never forget it. More often than not, the lovebirds of stories like these think they’ll always remember before they forget and move on; this time, learning new dance moves after the last tango comes before everything else.

The city is Paris, France (not Texas), the place is a large and hollow flat, he is American, she is French, and they don’t know nor want to know everything about each other. Mystery is the air that they breathe, and the sidewalk that holds their steps. There’s something of a French New Wave love story or a John Cassavetes apartment drama in it, but there’s also an unforgettable painterly look that defies explanation in its simplicity and its effortless beauty. The world they inhabit is an off-bounds experience, and there is such an urge to live and let the emotions flow and take control that Paul and Jeanne are seen not as the artists of their own lives, but the art itself. Forget about images that you see coming from miles away and words you can shout before the action has even started: the film, which never brags about its beauty and its floating clouds of conversation, is paintings in motion and brushstrokes of pain and pleasure.

Paul and Jeanne live an accidental romance just like any other, say things that you’ve most probably said before (some exceptions aside), and live as freely as any youthful couple would in such a lost corner of Parisian descent. It’s a relationship that tolerates, but disregards, thoughts about past and future; and the outside world can’t be trusted, and that includes their own histories and mysteries. But they aren’t escaping from grounded commitments and down-to-earth facts of life; instead, they’re living an alternate affair in search of things they’ve never seen or touched before: freedom, irrational love, timelessness, poetry, transcendence, deep happiness. It’s probable that they won’t find it: he has seen much ugliness in life, while she hasn’t seen any; she is offering thorough affection and consideration, he sees the bonding experience as a form of emotional relief; she is coming with great expectations, and he sees everything as downhill from where he stands.

In one of the most notorious film reviews ever published, Pauline Kael called Last Tango in Paris “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made”; several critics corroborated that statements (though not without reservations), but many others saw it as a biased overstatement of a film that they called “pornography as film”. The audiences of the 70’s weren’t ready for Last Tango in Paris, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange or In The Realm of the Senses, because before such films, violence and sex were rarely treated that fairly in mainstream – and art-house – cinema. While other films, much better received, were highly successful in their exploitative treatment of taboo subjects, Tango embraces sex as something inherent of the dynamics of any relationship, as aggressive or explicit as it might be. Sex, Kael explains, “expresses the characters’ drives”. More than that, it materializes things that are only hinted in people’s talking and gesticulating.

And how, without the intimacy and the unspeakable language of Paul and Jeanne’s intimate relations, would Bertolucci enlighten the passionate tragedy that the film so beautifully embodies? Look at Marlon Brando and the way he interchanges weightless poetry with blunt machismo, and think of Paul’s demanding rules without the emotional turmoil that he causes through sex. And look at Maria Schneider and think of her ingenious yet profound commitment to him without the naturalism with which she accepts their behavior together and walks freely and carelessly without any shame or hesitation. To dismiss the story as abusive trash and her nudity as misogynistic is to miss the point of the film and to be unaware of the rules that govern the “love” of Paul and Jeanne. You have to understand that it’s not about relationship of fairness and equality, but one of tragic misunderstandings and their outcomes. And yet there is more to love and cherish here than in countless other romances of the movies.

Readers who take a look at this review and compare my vision to their vision of the film itself may think that I’ve exceeded myself in my love for it and have seen too much magic in a film that doesn’t have it all. I prefer to believe that such magic is there for you to find it, and justice can only be done to it if I overpraise the story overall. There’s an essence here that I’ve only found in films that transcend others for what they do so beautifully, and my ability to explain what this essence is escapes me, as it does when I watch Vertigo, The Mirror or Sátántangó. Last Tango in Paris is a flawed but fascinating tribute to filmmaking as art, and it must be recognized as such. I’m not giving all the details about the film here because it must be seen to be fully understood. But I hope I did enough to tell you that it’s well worth the time: you can’t find films like these anymore.

 

 

Last Tango in Paris

Year: 1972

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Maria Michi, Massimo Girotti

Academy Awards: Best Director (nominated); Best Actor (nominated)

Irreversible

One fire extinguisher in one scene, one rapist in another: that’s everything Gaspar Noé needed to make one of the most visceral and gruesome, and divisively so, films of the twentieth century. It’s aggressively stylish, and it excels at that in a way that few films can. As a consequence, the film may be either a violent form of modern classic or a despicable piece of overestimated exploitation – hardly something in between. The film’s polarizing nature comes from the way it handles violence: raw, unsettling, “realistic”; it takes violence for what it is. That could be the end of it, since many movies get rave reviews for its realistic and highly contextual depiction of violence, but Noé’s film is so extreme in its violence that to decide whether it’s fair or exploitative becomes an obligatory quest for the viewer. Films like Irreversible make me wonder: is this the most intelligent choice a filmmaker can make for the sake of art?

The film, one of many wild entries of the French Extremity movement, is something of a technical tour de force, a bad boy’s version of sex, drugs and electronic music that blows its narrative arc to bits and flips our frame of reference whenever we feel safe and comfortable in our seats. Told in thirteen episodes presented in reverse chronological order, the film ends at the beginning and begins at the ending, both unnerving, destructive sucker punches that prepare you to enter the film with an adapted stomach and leave it euqally disoriented. The beginning is a series of twists, turns and blinks, an explosive introduction to a film that is even rougher; as far as I can tell, it’s brilliant, and it has no fair adversary at what it does. The middle, the film itself, is the collection of episodes, semi-improvisational and digitally built as unbroken scenes, each creating the necessary context for the next. Each of these episodes is a layer of the vengeful quest of Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who aimlessly look to find the man who raped the former’s girlfriend, Alex (Monica Belucci). The ending draws back to a conflict-free past of tranquility and innocence, a painful contrast to the blood and sweat so pervasive in the rest of the film.

If the film is radical on its narrative style, the camera follows it with uncompromising explosiveness. The only moment of true stability comes in the film’s middle, the traumatizing rape scene that divides the first six-and-a-half brutal episodes from the pre-game that encapsulates the last six. This scene, terrifying to look at the more you think of it and the more aware you are of its brutality, is almost entirely shot from a static shot of pure voyeurism: in every other scene, the camera wildly explores the film’s corridors and endless rooms without ever really giving us a break. While there’s less agitation in Irreversible’s second half, the first half is pure adrenaline and rage. Noé, who was also the camera operator, completely brushes aside any sense of equilibrium that we may have: horizontal becomes vertical, up becomes down, inertia becomes movements and vice-versa. What feels like a gimmick in so many action blockbusters, with their shaky cameras and their pointless cuts, is a triumphant advantage for Irreversible, because the action remains both disorienting and legible. It’s a devilish, unnerving anti-adventure; to put it simply as a crossover of Birdman and Memento would be putting it mildly.

The visual brilliance is further supported by a vibrant use of color and sound to enhance the sense of disquietude that the film so passionately provides. The soundtrack by Thomas Bangalter, half of the Daft Punk duo (which has more than once ventured into film soundtracks), gives the film pulses and beat that trap its subjects in a mixture of psychedelic effusiveness and visceral confusion. From the closing credits to the film’s extended party scene, the film has a remarkable resonance. This resonance is something inherently connected to the social scene which Marcus, Alex and Pierre are part of, and it’s the very reason why raves and parties in general are so entrancing and so lively. The colors, which range from deep red to light greens to blue and yellow party lights, are just as pulsating. It’s only when the calm follows the storm that we get a chance to return to some sort of visual safety, a soothing glimpse of real life.

But with all that visual splendor, one might ask if it’s not a dirty gimmick, one of the many attempts at throwing every trick in the book of non-linear flairs that has given us so much trash in recent years. It’s not, and Roger Ebert makes a solid case for Noé’s reverse narrative: revenge, and the violence it creates, is not the payoff, but the set-up. By starting the consequence of Marcus and Pierre’s quest, the film reveals its stupidity directly, and gradually reveals the stupidity of their solution (which I do find exaggeratedly violent, and I sense some pride in the scene from Gaspar Noé); we’re introduced first to the revenge in ts raw form, separated from its causes, and later we see everything they put at stake and everything they got to lose.

The problem of the film, and the obvious reason why it’s attracted so much criticism, is the fact that the elimination of catharsis is much blurrier when it comes to Alex’s violation. Since there’s no real set-up for the revenge per se, it becomes exactly what it is: a mindless, pointless discharge of anger and hatred that brings no benefits to the avengers involved. But there is a set-up for the rape scene; in fact, it consumes half of the film. By avoiding to introduce Alex anytime before her major appearance, the film leaves us anticipating her defeat, and when it comes, it’s as horrible as we’d imagine it, or even worse. It’s as if we were only waiting for it to happen; the rape scene is horrendous, to say the least. Whether all this helps us feel for her that she only enters the story after her rape or backfires against the film’s intentions by implying that she’s slightly more than a meat bag is up to interpretation, but the divisiveness and the ambiguity of the film is so exaggerate it becomes unwanted.

Another complication of Irreversible is that the film deliberately dumbs down its story by refraining from giving its characters the substance that they so deservedly need to compensate for their animalesque traits. For a filmmaker that clearly knows what he’s doing, Noé is doing us a disservice here; the Kubrick and Nietzsche references are spot on, but the way they’re reference makes them sound like the beginner’s philosophy of a Matrix installment. Out of the three main characters, only Pierre has an interesting character development from the beginning to the end of the story: he oscillates from cold rationality to sexual curiosity to explosive rage, and he has an interesting background that puts him under a new perspective in each and every scene. The rest of the film is the kind of drunk, pointless dialogue that predominates at parties and other social encounters, when the boozed and the tipsy randomly discuss sex and relationships as if they had an instructions manual memorized. But the film could use a more sober script, since that alone only makes for an above-average experience: there’s no exuberance or deep rationality, only sexual desire and nerves. After all, if there’s no brain in the story, isn’t it exactly what its detractors claim it to be – violence and sex?

There’s no denial, however, that Noé is aiming for a vicious critique of the troublesome attitude that defines so many mainstream, that soften male and female rape and treat it with kids gloves. It seems that many directors, even the most talented, are not minding the trauma that it inflicts on these people: think of Back to the Future or Saturday Night Fever, films adored by countless fans in the whole world but extremely offensive in the way they gloss over their rape scenes. Nothing should be clear by the end of the film but that the rape it’s depicting, just as much as Marcus’ revenge, is irreversible, destructive to the core. Its preceding aftermath couldn’t be more painful, and it’s even too sentimental for its own sake – it keeps trying to draw anti-parallels between Marcus and the rapist, most of them for shock value alone.

Irreversible, I believe, means well. I didn’t find it homophobic, as it many critics did; instead, I believe it simply shows another facet of aggressive sexuality among many. I also didn’t find it purposefully exploitative, as much as there’s ground for this argument. But my inevitable conclusion is that the film also doesn’t do much to avoid this label. It could’ve been much more than what it actually is, and that is an unforgivable letdown.

Irreversible

Year: 2002

Director: Gaspar Noé

Cast: Monica Belucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia

Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or (nominated)

This Week at The Hand Grenade’s Headquarters #12

After writing about very few movies in the last two weeks, I wondered whether I should really stop watching films as often as I did, and thus I decided that if I feel I’ve done all the work I needed to do that day, I’d reward myself with a film; if not, then no extra film. I believe that keeps me busy when I’m not out or anything similar and it helps me get to know more about cinema as long as I’m studying it from literary methods.

I also replaced my shot-by-shot analysis of this week by a film marathon of directors I decided would take me an extra time that I didn’t have (considering that I return to Penn in August). I decided as well that I would explore some various films before proceeding to directors I haven’t fully explored: the first director for the month of February is Tarkovsky, cinema’s most poetic filmmaker. Thus here is a much longer list, because movie lists should always be big and rich of material and joy.

The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)

Stephen Frears’ The Queen is quite an interesting period piece: while it plays safe in its approach to the incidents following the death of Diana with solid arguments, devoidance of tension and not so subtle points of view on the matter, it also offers a fresh, conscious perspective of the popularity and the modernization of the monarchy in the United Kingdom. Lead by many pieces of footage from the Princess, Helen Mirren’s delicate performance, Michael Sheen’s fine but unimpressive performance as Tony Blair and James Cromwell as an annoying Prince Philip, The Queen, more than anything, feels like a docudrama, a retelling of a much known story in dramatic, theatrical terms. It’s a cold film, but one worth watching.

Kadosh (Amos Gitai, 1999)

Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) is married to Meir (Yoram Hattab), a Yeshiva student, and they haven’t had a children in an otherwise dedicated and loving marriage of 10 years. Malka (Meital Barda), Rivka’s younger sister, is in love with Yaakov (Sami Huri), but is bound to marry another man whom her family accepts and sympathizes with. Both sisters are stuck in an unbalanced situation in the rough conditions for women in a Haredi society, a stream of Orthodox Judaism that sets them as child bearers and housewives. As shown by director Amos Gitai, they don’t exactly think critically of the traditions that surround them, yet such traditions put them into complex situations: one is trapped because she’s in love with her husband and sees this love crumbling down, the other because she wants to embrace her fate but can’t.

Confidently slow and quiet, Kadosh is a slow burner with great performances and a very moving story, never melodramatic in spite of its particular subjects. It’s told with slow zooms, very delicate pans and tilts and masterful, effortless long takes that barely call attention to themselves, and as a result, the film manages to be as spiritual and humble as the characters depicted. I believe it may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a great film.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)

Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen’s most iconic and most acclaimed creation, is the king in the castle of risky comedies, brave and respected (it has a score of 89 on Metacritic, a critic’s score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a top critics score of 98%) for standing astonishingly close to the division between satire/parody and gross-out exploitation and remaining on the former side. It’s movie with a very interesting resulting reaction from audiences and critics: most people who hated the movie did so much less because of some of its uglier jokes (most of the too scatological ones… and that naked fight before the final act) than because it’s “shamelessly prejudiced and politically incorrect”, when in fact it isn’t. Some could say that it goes too far (and it does sometimes), and that it creates too big a contrast between the uneducated interviewees of this mockumentary and the film’s viewers (some of them probably deceiving themselves by feeling superior to the others on the screen), but the thing is, this film is still hilarious and it certainly does not defend the racial and social stereotypes it depicts.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Borat (the film) is the mafia film from inside the institution and its fellow insider films: it shows us through the words of those confronted with prejudice the prejudice in themselves – and in ourselves as well. The way Sasha/Borat and the film do it is enough reason to understand that this is a film far above some of the attributions given to them. It’s sort of a trap for those who take political correctness for granted: often you’ll laugh before you can ask yourself whether you should.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983)

The Meaning of Life was one of my first reviews (now updated, as I did with Casablanca), and returning to this film is a pleasure and a reminder that such comedy doesn’t exist in such a strong form as this one. Borat here is an exception, and still it doesn’t feel as universal and artistically brave (one of the reasons is Borat’s deliberate documentary style, but there are others). This is why we’ll always need some Monty Python in our lives, and that’s putting it mildly, since the Meaning of Life doesn’t come near the heights of Holy Grail and Life of Brian.

Beauty and the Beast / La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Strange that a film would have to argue that we must embrace the imaginative vision of children before we watch it, and yet how wonderful it is that it asks us to do so and bravely answers with a beautiful portrayal of fairy-tale storytelling. Beauty and the Beast, in its ultimate version of utmost superiority, is one of the most gorgeous and magical tales and certainly one of the most visually poetic. It precedes the Disney version of the story by 45 years, but it still feels like an art-house reconstruction of the story through practical effects, bold symbolism and smooth, almost fantasy-like camera movements, like the eyes of a poet passing through the universe created. Pure and simply a masterpiece.

Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)

The best film of the week (and the best film out of the 30 I saw in January – you can check the list here), Once Upon a Time in America is an all-time greatest, a masterpiece in every possible level that embodies the emotions of a lifetime of art and storytelling on the outside and a lifetime of characters on the inside, thus creating a powerful drama worth every second of its 251 minutes, probably the largest number the film’s going to get. Sergio Leone’s final film, a gangster city epic opposed to its countless masterful Westerns, started at 269 minutes, then edited by Leone to 229 minutes, then butchered by American distributors to 139 minutes, then restored to its original release length and finally to the 251 minutes currently available. It’s a lesson that lengthy efforts should be respected for what they are and what they can be to others.

The film tells the story of Noodles (Robert De Niro), a Jewish New Yorker who emerged as a mobster from a tough, reckless childhood and, along with his friends and acquaintances, rose to uncertain (and perhaps partially unwanted) power and luxury. As the film flashes back and fort through his memories, there’s a sense of friendship, betrayal, loss, violence, greed, and ultimately that of an emotional scar so painful and so moving words cannot describe it. There’s glorious nostalgia and compassion in this film, supported by a fistful of great performances (De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, a young Jennifer Connelly and whoever else you want to pick), a beautiful partnership between Leone and Ennio Morricone (which, I believe, tops Spielberg and Williams, because Morricone wins the race by a nose, and Leone by many more), an indescribable collection of close-ups and some of the most beautiful shots of New York you will ever see. Perfection finds a home here.

Yojimbo (Kurosawa Akira, 1961)

Yojimbo, Sanjuro‘s twin brother, tells the story of a nameless ronin (a samurai without a master) who ends up by fate in a hell hole of a provincial city lead by two rival clans in the end of the Tokugawa period and decides to have them fight against each other for the good of the city. While Sanjuro is lighthearted in its humor and more explicit in its criticism of violence, Yojimbo is far darker and more adventurous on the matter (for starters, I think of the iconic entrance of the samurai in town, and his reaction to the passing dog). It’s cleverly arranged in simple but beautiful horizontal and vertical lines (according to Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie, it’s his most beautifully shot film), and Mifune does a classic performance as the good people’s devil in a city where everything is drenched in greed and self-interests. It doesn’t beat the lesser-known Sanjuro and its haunting finale, though.

The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)

A man is found floating adrift in the Mediterranean in the brink of death. He wakes up with no memory of who he is, what he does for a living or what brought him there. After he returns to land, he finds out that he is unconsciously a master of martial arts, a target from local and American police and a highly trained escape artist. He also learns that he has a chip under his skin with a laser that indicates the number of a bank account in Switzerland, full of multiple passports, 4 digits worth of cash and guns. Still, he never even tries to guess who he is, because, after all, there are so many possibilities, including even a spy and an assassin – who knows?

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) hasn’t watched many action movies, but most people certainly have, and I have too. Still, the movie with the most orange-and-blue poster in movie history (curiously, the movie looks more than fine) is well above average in what comes to aesthetics and authenticity, and although it doesn’t crave for much, it’s thoroughly watchable and exciting in many ways. It feels like an exercise for the sequels (which I haven’t seen yet) in its simple-minded action sequences and thrills, but these thrills are well executed and driven by entertaining characters, mainly Bourne and his CIA counterpart, played by Chris Cooper (who would win the Oscar for another 2002 performance in Adaptation). Plus, you get the cinephiliac thrill of watching Jason Bourne AND Franka Potente from Run Lola Run together on the same mission.

That’s it for the month of January! February should be more much exciting, though: short paragraphs for all films from Andrei Tarkovsky (with the exception of Solaris), a generous load of silent films, full reviews for the five remaining Best Picture nominees (I can tell from my first viewing of Boyhood that it’s probably the best film Brazil has seen in 2014), and the eight usual full reviews (two parallel special themes, four reviews each).

Any suggestions of movies to watch or to review? Please let me know in the comments or visit our page on Facebook.

This Week at the Hand Grenade’s Headquarters #10

As expected, this week will offer a much less generous list of movies, especially because my working cycle has begun to assume its full form, even though it occasionally backfires. Since I remain analyzing Annie Hall this Friday and probably the next one and I decided to leave my review of Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (which I intend to use for a shot-by-shot analysis) for next week, I’m left with three movies.

Clouds of Sils Maria / Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

Currently in theaters in Brazil and in the United States, Clouds of Sils Maria, unlike Summer Hours and Something in the Air (the two Assayas film I’ve already watched), benefits from how it blends the classic French style of filmmaking, very dialogue-oriented, full of psychological layers and strong, analytical main characters with the traditional Hollywoodian style of focusing on a few powerfully pivotal characters on a central simplified theme. Since the film refers to many countries and their cultures and deals with the change in perspective and maturity that affects actors and actresses throughout their careers, such choice fits perfectly with the story, and thus we have both a personal film with very strong performances and an almost confusingly intricate set of generational gaps and emotional layers. This is my favorite Assayas so far, mostly because his usual refrain from overtly dramatic stories is only hinted here, and Sils Maria, which has considerably more medium shots and close-ups and uses Hollywood stars in its main cast, manages to please both sides of the emotional spectrum.

The film pays a tribute to the great female performance powerhouse films, including All About Eve and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and offers a modern take on it that, in a particular directorial fashion, is used to reflect how the passage of time changes things and how important it is that we get used to it. The aged movie and stage star is now Maria Endres (Juliette Binoche), a great actress who got herself a long, steady career after a breakout role as a lesbian young  assistant who gets involved with her boss, an emotionally unstable businesswoman. After the director of the original play passes away, the latter role is offered to Maria by a new director, who’s trying to explore new themes and new interpretations of the story by casting the former young assistant as the older woman and a new figure, sci-fi favorite Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Moretz) as the newcomer.

As Maria revisits both roles again and gain with her assistant (Kristen Stewart), both their identities and the identities of the characters they play are questioned and we start to realize how easy it is to offer and assume multiple interpretations for the same characters as long as their bound by long last memories and simple lines of text. Moreover, it’s great to realize that Maria’s early and late impressions of the character are bound by the lack of confidence the older generations have in the younger ones and the educational gap that she and many other people fail to fill when the world is constantly and rapidly changing. It’s a self-referential film that shows true acting power in the widely accepted figure of Juliette Binoche and the seemingly risky picks of younger actress like Twilight’s Kristen Stewart and Kickass’ Chloë Moretz, who surprise us with very strong performances that are just as meaningful and articulate as Binoche’s. This is a film to visit and revisit, guys. Maybe I’ll  address it in a full review when time comes.

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)

Often an underground favorite among the fans of film noir, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat comes this close to being a masterpiece and then pushes itself farther away. On one side, the film is gritty, acid and tough in its realistic portrayal of violence and its bad town mood, but on the other the film doesn’t explore this evil universe and doesn’t create the necessary plot (far less convoluted than what it deserved) and good-versus-evil contrast to fill it up with energy. Glenn Ford plays David Bannion, a rough but hard boiled cop who loses his wife to a crime syndicate, goes rogue and hunts it down step by step, regardless of what he finds ahead. The issue here is that Ford, unlike his supporting fellows, isn’t convincing as either a grieving man looking for justice or an enraged tough guy looking for vendetta. Here’s a guy that loses his wife in an ugly way and creates as much destruction as he fixes things, but we feel very little of it. More than that, his character seems to be immediately aware that he cannot collaborate with anyone from the very beginning, meaning he knows far too much than the audience knows and for no clear reason.

The film, however, has true power in its great moments, through the performances of Gloria Grahame as the only one above her script and Lee Marvin as an impersonation of evil even better than Liberty Valance. The film is also worthy of praise for giving a brutal realism to the inner and outer violence it portrays, surprisingly shocking for any standards.

Wild Tales / Relatos Salvajes (Damian Sziffrón, 2014)

Everybody’s been loving Damian Sziffrón’s Wild Tales, a now Oscar-nominated black comedy that brings chronicle-sized stories about violence, revenge, getting pissed off and Argentina’s best curse words (namely pelotudo, pelotas, pelotuda and mierda). Starring Ricardo Darín (by far the owner of the best story’s best character) and other non-obligatory Argentinian actors (there’s an unwritten law which says that all national films must star Ricardo Darín), it oscillates between slapstick and quiet visual comedy with some irregularity and some gracefulness, and that’s about it: there are great moments in bad sequences, bad moments in great sequences and some sort of a way with dark humor from the director, a name to write down and register. While there’s predictability and some unfunny jokes (reminding that people have to get mad out of something or be at least relatable in their madness), the way darkness is posed with day-to-day activities, such as serving french fries at a restaurant and serving fancy dishes at a wedding, is truly remarkable. Perhaps the big problem here, however, is that crowded theaters usually get a lot of people who laugh at everything they see, whether it is funny, sounds funny or is supposed to be funny.

And that’s it for the week! Next week there’ll be a richer summary and more reviews. Expect at least one 2014 Best Picture nominee, a Bresson film and the promised Summer Hours.