Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Potiche















For French writer/director François Ozon and his countrymen, Potiche is, among other things, a political satire that lands some good jabs at current leaders. “There are many lines which come from the mouths of French politicians,” he told me when I interviewed him last month about the film. “But you need to be French to get that.”

That sailed right over my head, but the film worked for me as a tasty little fortune cookie with a surprisingly moving message. A heartfelt girl-power personal empowerment story played mostly for laughs, Potiche includes glittering shards plucked from Hollywood musicals, broad French comedies, and the farcical play it’s loosely based on. That mash-up of styles and tones might feel merely manic or disjointed in the hands of a lesser director, but Ozon makes it work.

It starts almost like a live-action Disney classic. Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve), the 1970s potiche, or trophy wife, who is the movie’s heroine, is out for some exercise in curlers and a brightly colored track suit. Jogging down a sunny path to a bouncy soundtrack, she pauses only to commune with one of the cute little animals she passes along the way.

But this is an Ozon fairy tale, as the two little bunnies whose humping the camera pauses to capture remind us. So our power-walk toward Suzanne’s happy ending makes a few unexpected stops, from light comic references to adultery and gay incest to serious explorations of betrayal and forgiveness within Suzanne’s family. There’s also a tender subplot about her gentle snuffing of an old flame.

In the end, Ozon’s bemused humanism embraces even Suzanne’s patronizing and womanizing husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who is revealed to be a lonely weakling yearning for his wife’s love and approval after she comes into her own. But for most of the movie Robert personifies everything Suzanne rebels against, from misogyny and greed to disrespect for and mistreatment of the workers in her father’s umbrella factory, which Robert has mismanaged for years.

When he gets injured in a strike, Suzanne reluctantly takes the reins, and the social changes that have been unfolding outside her calm, perfectly appointed mansion start to penetrate its thick walls. Suzanne’s sensitive and sensible approach to management proves far more effective than Robert’s bullying and bluster, and her lack of drama makes her accomplishments that much more impressive. She deals with striking workers with the same quiet confidence she brings to everything else, simply finding a new use for skills she honed in years of running a household and raising her children. She even effortlessly blends the two worlds, bringing her spoiled adult children to work with her and giving them responsible roles in the company in hopes of waking up their dormant talents.

Her son Laurent (the always excellent Jérémie Renier, playing against type as his mother’s sunny sidekick) blossoms, finding his bliss by creating new designs for the factory’s umbrellas, He also comes out of the closet – although, as is often the case in Ozon’s movies, Laurent’s gayness is simply a fact of life, a plot point but not a complication.

Suzanne’s daughter Joelle (Judith Godrèche) is a harder case, her Farrah Fawcett hairdo and smile turning out to conceal a hard heart and an adamantine resistance to change. Married to a clone of her father, Joelle is reproducing all the worst parts of her parents’ marriage, right down to an unquestioning acceptance of male dominance that leads her to betray her own mother – and herself.

The preternatural calm and air of supreme self-sufficiency that can make Deneuve seem icy, even wooden at times works well here, playing as self-knowledge and grace under pressure. It also helps color the actress’ scenes with her old screen partner Gérard Depardieu. He plays Babin, a labor leader Suzanne finds herself in partnership with more than two decades after the clandestine love affair of their youth. When Babin asks Suzanne to marry him, telling her she’s the love of his life, she dismisses the notion, kindly but quickly. It’s too late for all that, she says.

You’d think subverting that classic happy ending would leave us frustrated, but Ozon pulls that off too, with an ease that mirrors his heroine’s. After all, with Deneuve in the part, it’s easy to believe that Suzanne will be just fine – maybe even better off – on her own.

Written for TimeOFF

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Five Obstructions

















Danish director Lars von Trier reminds me of my Finnish friend Matti, with his trickster sense of humor and sharp eye for hypocrisy and other stupid human tricks. They’re both allergic to clubfooted sincerity, preferring to express their love and concern in the form of teasing insults. And they both revel in a challenge, the thornier the better, like the time Matti took apart a lopsided old barn on the property he’d just bought, nail by nail, poured the missing foundation, and then rebuilt the whole thing from scratch. From the outside the barn looked just like it had when it was first built, but the inside was full of quirky improvements -- including a sauna and a man cave.

Like that renovation, The Five Obstructions is a creative act with a healthy dose of bemused self-awareness, but von Trier goes even more meta than Matti. Not only does he use someone else as a proxy for himself, but his goal is not just to rework an original creation: He wants to remake the maker, another Danish director he admires and identifies with.

Von Trier’s detractors often accuse him of toying sadistically with his actors and audiences, but his exchange with Jørgen Leth, the mentor he puts through his paces here, is more like an impassioned S&M session between two consenting adults who keep changing roles. Leth uses a ping-pong analogy to describe their back and forth, saying von Trier serves the ball hard and “we return hard, hard as nails.”

Von Trier tasks Leth with making five new versions of Leth’s The Perfect Human, “a little gem that we are now going to ruin,” as he puts it. Each time, Leth must make the film in accordance with a new set of rules that von Trier creates seemingly on the spot, in chats we see conducted over Scotch and caviar – things like shooting only 12 frames at a time or making the entire film as a cartoon. Von Trier’s goal is to get Leth to “expose himself” by shedding the artistic perspective the younger director thinks they both use to distance and protect themselves from the real world. He wants to push Leth so far outside his comfort zone that he loses his ability to control the situation and create a work of art. Or so he says.

In The Five Obstructions, a documentary co-written and directed by the two men, the camera often comes in uncomfortably close from an off-kilter angle while the two talk about the challenges von Trier has cooked up or discuss Leth’s responses. We get intriguing snippets of Leth at work, scouting locations or working with actors, crew members, and others to realize his vision. And we see excerpts from the deadpan black-and-white original and from each of the remakes, which stick to the same script but look and feel completely new.

It’s fascinating to see these variations, each of which feels at least as powerful as the original. (“The trouble is that you’re so clever that whatever I say inspires you,” von Trier laments), and it’s fun to hear the two old pros talk about the creative process in a kind of verbal shorthand. It’s also interesting to see how different Leth’s story feels in different contexts.

At one point, von Trier commands Leth to film in the most miserable place he knows, and he chooses a street in the brothel district of Bombay, where he sets up in front of a transparent plastic scrim. Part of the action involves eating an elegant meal while extolling the “subtlety” of the flavors and the esthetic appeal of the presentation. That read a little differently in the original – in which the actor was silhouetted against a featureless background – than it does when Leth does it in front of a crowd of impoverished people who peer through the plastic as he feasts.

The final variation was written by von Trier and read by Leth in voiceover. After talking about the “provocative, perverse perfection” both directors hide behind and the depression and insecurity they share, von Trier addresses himself through his doppelganger. It was really himself his exercise wound up exposing, he writes, not Leth, who sidestepped his obstructions and refused to pathologize himself or his art, as von Trier insists on doing.

Is The Five Obstructions a soul-baring self-portrait of an artist? Or is that just one of the boxes-within-boxes in a film about filmmaking that’s essentially a valentine to the creative process? I can't say for sure, and I’m not sure I care. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, April 15, 2011

Shooting the Past in Present Tense: Talking to Bertrand Tavernier













Bertrand Tavernier began his career in films writing reviews—but only for the money (if only). For nearly half a century, he’s been one of France’s most accomplished and prolific filmmakers, creating a body of work that includes Coup de Torchon, A Sunday in the Country, and Round Midnight. He talked to us while he was in town to publicize his latest, The Princess of Montpensier.

One of the things you do really well is to capture a place and time—colonial French Africa, the jazz subcultures of New York and Paris in the 50s, the Louisiana bayou after Katrina. The same applies to The Princess of Montpensier, which makes 16th-century France feel totally authentic and lived-in. What appealed to you about that time and place?
What appealed to me first was the love story, the character of Marie. It seemed to me that her fight, the way she was trying to survive the fate that was imposed on her, was something very contemporary. And so was the character of Chabannes [a principled count who falls for Marie after becoming her tutor].

But it’s true that one of my passions has been to find the sense of time and place in all my films. I think filming is exploring. Michael Powell, who is my master, said that he made every film in his career because he wanted to learn. And when I start a film, I want to learn about a period, about a place or a milieu.

This movie was based on a short story that was written in the 1600s, so presumably there was some background in the story you could use to get the details right.
A historian told me, don’t forget that Madame de Lafayette wrote that short story in a very Puritanical time, in a moment in the 17th century when they were putting fig leaves on the statues, and she was writing about a century which was not Puritanical at all. So you must take out the fig leaves. My work was to find the flesh and the blood behind the sense of the emotion that she described.

For instance, she just, in an elliptical way, says that Marie, tourmenté by her parents, had to marry Phillipe de Montpensier. Tourmenté in 17th-century language means tortured. So that gave me two violent scenes where the father is beating her up.

How did you learn enough about the time and place to imagine those sorts of scenes?
I read a lot. I read many books, including Alexandre Dumas, which is full of very good ideas. I stole from Alexandre Dumas the recipe for the eels that I have during the dinner. I talked to an historian.

Recently there was a big article in a very important highbrow magazine, published by Gallimard, in which the best historian on World War I was saying there was a person in France who was 20 years ahead of every historian in the world and that person was Bertrand Tavernier. He said I twice approached subjects which had been completely forgotten by historians, for Life and Nothing But and Capitaine Conan, and got them completely right. And this film, The Princess of Montpensier, every historian of that period said the film was incredibly true.

For instance, Didier LaFleur, a French historian, said all those wedding nights [between royals] were public, because of the Vatican. No parties could call Rome to cancel the marriage, if it had been really proven that the girl was virgin and that the marriage had been consummated. The first penetration had to be public. So that gave me the idea for the first night they spend together, and of what goes after that scene. How are they going to talk? What is a young woman feeling in that situation? How is she reacting?

In the castle that I visited, I tried to understand how they were lighting each other, warming each other, how they were washing. I talked to the guy who was the conservator for the castle. He told me, in most films you see a palace always empty. He said it is totally untrue. Especially when you had a party, when you had a feast, the royal castle was crowded. There were no hotels at that time, so people were sleeping everywhere. They were sleeping in the lobbies, in the corridor, in the anteroom, they were sleeping on the floor. With their dogs, their family, the animals, everybody. So that gave me the idea for several shots where you see hundreds of people sleeping in a room. And he was talking about the way they were washing or not washing. He told me, in those days, people were washing their mouth with their own urine.

I thought for a moment of doing that, and then I thought it would create a repulsion in the audience, which is should not, because it was something very ordinary. So I decided not to incorporate it.

Once you’ve done all that research, how do you convey what you want to the set designers, the costume designers, the cinematographer, the actors?
By forgetting what I learned, and trying to get only the essentials of the scene. For instance, the first thing I said to the DP was, we must never light it like a period film. We must light it as a film noir. Contrary to what we see if many Hollywood films, the room will not be overlit. Half of it will always be dark—which was the case [in that period]. The torch was very expensive. They didn’t have to have the whole room lit. And, too, it’s better atmosphere—it’s more interesting.

For the costumes, I said we have to keep only the essence of the costume and forget about everything which looked too flashy, which will prevent the actors from moving, from being at ease. They must look so comfortable in the costume that you forget that they are in costume.

My obsession is to do everything as if the camera had been invented just two weeks before. It’s not filming something from the past; it’s filming the present. I’m always filming the present. I’m not filming a Renaissance table. I’m filming a table.

Yes. "Present" is a word that came to mind for me when I was thinking about your films. They always feel as if they are in the present tense, though they're usually set in the past.
Yes. Present tense. I think people become self-conscious when they are doing a period film. They want to express their own culture; they want to show that they have done their homework right. I want just to preserve the passion and the emotion, and forget everything which is superficial. Art is subtraction, I think.

You’ve always been interested in underdogs, and this film is no exception. It’s a very feminist story, about a young woman whose beauty is a source of power, to a degree, but is even more of a liability. She’s trying to overcome the limitations put on her, but there’s only so far she can go. When one of the men says she was a doe among them, and they competed with each other to hunt her down, that really sums up her story, for me. But I read that the film got booed some at Cannes—
No, it was never booed in Cannes. There were some reviews that were bad, but it got like 20 minutes of applause.

I didn’t want it to go to Cannes. I think Cannes is not good for period film. The great film by Jane Campion, Bright Star, it was totally ignored by that jury and by half of the French critics. And for me it’s one of the most beautiful historical films ever made in the history of cinema.

In Cannes, they are only interested in films about today.

I wondered whether there might be a little sexism in that reaction too. People thinking, “It’s just a film about a young woman’s love life. Who cares?”
I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe. I’m becoming now too old to try to analyze the reason behind some critical reaction. It’s a loss of time.

Some of my films, I‘ve had some of those reactions. They survived through that. They are still alive, 23 years, 30 years after being made. They are still seen, projected, shown in festivals. And very often the people who wrote the bad reviews have disappeared. They are dead, or their newspapers have disappeared.

I have survived the same way that I have survived some French politicians against whom I have fought. One especially, who assigned me to a suburb in Paris because I wanted to disobey a law about immigration. I went to the place he assigned me to, I made the film, and seven months later when I had finished the film I was still a filmmaker; he was no longer a minister. Heinh? Heinh? He had been fired from his job and I was still a filmmaker, so I won. [Laughs]

You have such a love of American movies. I wonder what you think of American movies these days. Do you have any favorite recent movies or directors?
I think there are some very, very good film directors. They are some very good documentary filmmakers – that’s something new in the American landscape. Somebody like Charles Ferguson. I loved No End in Sight and I love Inside Job. And I love, of course, the work of the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, who I think is a tremendously talented director. I love directors from Todd Solondz to Alexander Payne. Alexander Payne, I think, is one of the greatest directors ---

I love Citizen Ruth.
Ah, yes. Citizen Ruth. Sideways is terrific. And his episode in the film made of several short stories about Paris [Paris, je t’aime] – his is the best one. It’s so moving. I love Joe Dante, and Michel Gondry.

Joe Dante? Really? Did you see his new 3D movie?
No, I didn’t. I’ve liked True Grit by the Coen brothers, and A Very Serious Man.

A Serious Man? Yeah, that was a great movie, wasn’t it?
That was a masterpiece. And the film directed by Tommy Lee Jones.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada?
Yes. That was a very good film.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chocolat












No, this is not your mother’s Chocolat, the one where Juliette Binoche drives out the prejudice and fear from a small-minded town and hooks up with Johnny Depp. This is Claire Denis’ Chocolat, a 1988 debut that announced the arrival of one of the best directors of her generation.

As in White Material, her latest exploration of the disastrous consequences of the French occupation of much of Africa, Denis maintains a discreet distance from the Frenchwoman she puts at the center of the story, filtering everything through her own omniscient gaze even when she adopts her main character’s perspective.

Chocolat’s France (played by Cécile Ducasse as a girl and Mireille Perrier as a young adult, both underacting nicely) is an imposter in her homeland. France’s father—like Denis’—was a French colonial civil servant when she was a girl, stationed in Cameroon. When she comes back for a visit years late, in a brief story that frames the main narrative, she gets a ride from an American expat who asks if she’s a tourist. “In a way (Si vous voulez),” she replies.

The main story is a flashback to France’s childhood, a combination of what the adult France remembers and what she reconstructs in retrospect. Denis immerses us in the daily life of the sprawling mansion where France grew up, an only child whose main companions are her father (François Cluzet), her mother, Aimée (Giulia Boschi, who looks like a more voluptuous young Barbara Hershey) and Protée (the great Isaach De Bankole), the majestic man who runs their household, serving as a combination butler, maid, security guard, and nanny.

Like France, the camera never strays far from Protée. It’s easy to see why she adores this beautiful man, with his quiet self-discipline, easy warmth, and seemingly effortless ability to master any challenge. And, as we come to realize–though the child and her father never do–she’s not the only member of her family who loves Protée.

The big house and its servants’ compound are haunted by the ghosts of earlier white occupiers, including German solders who bivouacked and were buried there during WWI. White people are still emphatically in charge—of the nation as well as the house—but their days are numbered. We know that not just because France’s father tells a guest, after a particularly egregious display of white privilege: “One day, we’ll get kicked out of here.”

The cautiously defiant stances of the men France’s father interrupts during a nighttime meeting at the local school (“what are they doing there?” he asks Protée uneasily) signals the coming shift in the balance of power. So do the shots in which Denis shows Africans going about their business, stationing her camera at a respectful distance and looping in no dialogue in post-production. We can only guess at what they’re saying, our awareness of being shut out of the action mirroring young France’s perspective.

The land itself seems poised to shrug off its invaders, too immense to be tamed by such puny creatures. Denis and cinematographer Robert Alazraki serve up the landscape in stately widescreen, and their long takes and slow pans often frame small people against vast vistas unbroken by houses, roads, or any other sign of human habitation. South African composer Abdullah Ibrahim’s bright, percussive score leaves plenty of space for the silence and ambient sounds (the chirp of crickets at night, the hum of the generator that powers the house, the hiss of a match being struck as Aimée lights a cigarette) that make up most of the soundtrack.

Against this closely observed, densely textured backdrop, the unspoken attraction between Aimée and Protée, which racism has distorted and forced into hiding, smolders until it gets dangerously hot. Their nonviolent but explosive showdown sends out emotional shock waves, rocking France’s world for reasons she fathoms only in hindsight.

Denis and co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau cut from the pivotal break between Aimée and Protée to one in which France’s father tells his daughter about the horizon. The sometimes on-the-nose dialogue is the film’s weakest link, but his speech is a beauty, doubling as a comment on the color line that splinters the country France loves, distorting relationships and crippling lives. “The closer you get to that line, the farther it moves,” her father says. “If you walk toward it, it moves away…. You see it, but it doesn’t exist.”

Written for the L Magazine

Monday, April 4, 2011

Vertigo














Often listed as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Vertigo was shunned by both critics and audiences on its release. I can relate, having just fallen for it after years of fascinated repulsion.

Its carefully plotted, deliberately revealed unease and bold visuals were always strong enough to pull me in when I stumbled across it on TV, and they left a trove of images in my mind’s eye. Aside from the usual icons (Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak’s clinch against the Golden Gate Bridge is as much a part of my DNA as Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster’s roll in the surf in From Here to Eternity), what comes to mind when I think of the movie are endless variations on people surreptitiously studying each other, whether searching for some hidden truth or mesmerized by what's on the surface. One of my favorites is the shot that sums up the relationship between Scottie (James Stewart) and his sensible, taken-for-granted ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the opening scene. The camera clings to Midge’s shoulder, catching the focus behind her feigned nonchalance as she looks up at Scottie, as obliquely intent as a cat on the prowl. Yet I never sought out the film on DVD or in a revival theater, finding its portrait of obsessive “love” too creepily convincing for comfort.

Scottie meets Madeleine (Kim Novak), the object of his obsessive lust, when her husband hires him to shadow her. She’s a familiar type – a damsel in distress whose voluptuous body, platinum-blond hair, and melancholic vulnerability bring to mind Marilyn Monroe, who was at the height of her stardom when Vertigo came out in 1958. Scottie falls for her like a whole wall of bricks, trying to save her from herself and failing.

Then Madeleine dies and things get weird.

After a near-catatonic period of mourning, Scottie stumbles across Judy Barton (Novak), a dead ringer for his lost love. Mesmerized by her looks but indifferent to her personality, he devotes himself to perfecting the resemblance, micromanaging every aspect of her appearance in a doomed attempt to turn a brash shop girl from Kansas into the reserved and mysterious woman he remains obsessed with. Meanwhile we learn (but Scottie is in the dark about) Judy’s own reasons for wanting to win his love. The plot is deliciously complicated, but in the end it all comes down to an age-old game: men making women over to mirror a sexual ideal, while women go along with the transformation in hopes of winning love.

Scottie and Judy’s game of chase doesn’t give either of them much pleasure, but now and then they grab an ephemeral moment of joy together. Hitchcock circles the two as they kiss with a swirling camera, in a much-mimicked movement that still retains its original power as it concretizes the instability and intensity of those encounters.

The director probably cast Stewart, his favorite “everyman” leading man, because he wanted us to identify with his prickly protagonist in spite of ourselves. It’s not easy to like this unhappy control freak – especially since Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel Taylor are so sensitive to the pain felt by both Judy and Midge as he looks right through them, his gaze fixated on an unattainable ideal.

I think I used to be too threatened by that predatory male gaze to appreciate a film about it, but now that I’m old enough not to be on the receiving end, I can relax and appreciate other aspects of this elegantly layered story. This time around, I kept noticing the contrast between the placid faces each of the three main characters – Scottie, Judy, and Midge – show to the world and the roiling emotions they try to hide. And I was genuinely touched by Judy’s doomed attempt to win Scottie’s love by denying her true self.

Novak was usually a pretty wooden actress, but Vertigo makes you wonder if that tells us less about her capabilities than it does about the preconceptions her other directors may have had about her – or about leading ladies in general. In any case, Novak uses her usual drugged, trancelike demeanor and throaty speech early on as signs of Judy’s amateurish acting and fear of discovery, then draws on a previously unseen set of skills to play a woman who feels much more “real,” with none of her rough edges sanded down.

In the DVD commentary track, Novak talks about how strongly she related to her character, after going through a chillingly similar makeover as a Hollywood actress. “I really identified with the movie,” she says, “because to me it was saying, ‘Please, see who I am. Fall in love with me.’”

Written for TimeOFF