Orpheus: visually lovely meditation on triumph of love over death, the role of the artist and life in Vichy France

Jean Cocteau, “Orpheus / Orphée” (1950)

Intriguing re-telling of the famous ancient Greek legend set in post-WW2 Paris, this film combines surrealism, fantasy, situation comedy or soap opera depending on your point of view, mystery thriller and romance in its story of doomed passion, artistic inspiration, the cult of celebrity and inquiry into the nature of fascism. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet whose mere appearance in a cafe filled with bored university students listening to the latest beatnik jazz causes a riot during which a young man Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe), a would-be challenger to Orpheus’s crown, is killed by two motorcyclists. A mysterious woman called the Princess (Maria Casarès) calls Orpheus as a witness and whisks the bemused poet off to her villa. He tries to follow her but she avoids him and he ends up being returned home by the Princess’s chauffeur Heurtebise (François Perier). Reunited with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), Orpheus tries to settle back into his quotidian life but becomes obsessed with death and with recording a mysterious radio code on a strange radio station in his car. In the meantime Heurtebise becomes infatuated with Eurydice but the missus, worried about her husband’s new obsession, tries to get help and is hit by two motorcyclists. She descends into Hades and the grieving Orpheus, led by Heurtebise, goes down there to get her back.

Everything pans out more or less according to the original legend but with an extra twist: the Princess is but one personification of Death and she has fallen in love with Orpheus to the extent of breaking some unknown rule of Hades. This transgression brings her before a panel of judges in the ruins of Hades in a blackly hilarious Kafkaesque scene that most likely satirises the bureaucracy of Vichy France. The judges allow Orpheus and Eurydice to return to the upper world but one condition of Eurydice’s return leads to the couple having to live more or less separate lives in a parody of what real-life couples often go through when they’ve been married for some time and realise they don’t get on well but not so much so that they feel like divorcing, so they live parallel lives under the one roof but barely look at or speak to each other. Needless to say, Orpheus breaks the taboo and not only does Eurydice shoot back to Hades but Orpheus too is shot (literally: Heurtebise produces the gun) there as well so that he and Death can fall into each other’s arms.

In “Orpheus”, the mundane becomes the extraordinary and fantastic as mirrors become portals to the underworld and humble dishwashing gloves enable people to literally plunge through the mirror and walk into a world of beautifully lit and shadowed ruins of buildings. The car radio relays Death’s messages to Orpheus in scenes that perhaps mock poetic inspiration and at the same time recall the methods that the French Resistance and Allied Forces used to disguise their radio communications during the war against Vichy France. Scenes often have a dream-like quality with the stand-out scene being the one in which Heurtebise leads Orpheus on his first trip to Hades: Heurtebise himself floats serenely through the underworld while Orpheus struggles to keep up and a boy selling glass keeps wandering and interrupting him – a beautiful and magical scene. The special effects which include backwards-running of film and the use of mercury for some mirror scenes may be very low-budget primitive by modern standards but are dazzling all the same. There seems to be a running theme about how film itself is a mirror on human psychology.

The acting varies from ordinary in Déa (to be fair to her, Eurydice wasn’t required to be much more than either simpering or dead) to extraordinary in Casarès and Perier: Casarès in particular is alluring and sinister yet turns out to be a deeply affecting character with whom we find ourselves falling in sympathy with as she sacrifices not only her happiness in love but also her freedom and that of Heurtebise in reuniting both Orpheus and Eurydice for the second time. The couple return to the upper world and domestic bliss (?) together while Death and Heurtebise, their respective loves unfulfilled, must face eternal and grim punishment.

The whole shebang could have been laughable and pretentious camp but in Cocteau’s hands the film becomes a visually lovely and dreamy meditation on self-sacrificing love and the role of the artist in the present-day world and how to navigate it as s/he becomes famous, shot through with a parallel narrative of what life must have been like in Nazi-ruled France with its sinister motorcycle police, the tribunals to flush out French Resistance fighters and the threat of torture and death to those who disobeyed bureaucracy and acted on their own initiative.

 

 

Blood Coltan: fact-finding documentary on coltan mining in DRC tells the horror like it is

Patrick Forestier, “Blood Coltan” (2007)

Saw mention of this documentary in Arena magazine (December 2011 / January 2012 issue) so I was curious as to what it has to say about the coltan industry and trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As if I couldn’t already guess at what it might say: the insatiable global demand for coltan and other “rare earth” minerals for consumer electronics gadgets fuels an ongoing war which according to the film resulted in the deaths of 4 million people at the time of its making. There are other consequences of the war, some of which the film covers, even if superficially: the mass rapes, the recruitment of children as miners, the corruption in everyday life and the breakdown of traditional life and degradation of modern life in the eastern DRC where the coltan mining industry is based.

The film is structured around a fact-finding visit some French journalists make to the eastern DRC on behalf of an activist to track and describe the process of mining, transport and air-freighting of the mineral: the purpose of the exercise is to highlight the connection between the political instability of the DRC and consumer desire for electronics toys. Along the way the reporters meet a church priest dedicated to fighting the exploitation of his flock and community by outsiders; they also come across a ropey character in the form of General N Kunda who is both a military leader and a spiritual leader peddling a very dodgy form of Christianity to both Christians and Muslims. The film reveals that N Kunda is supported by Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President at this time of writing. The documentary then follows the path unrefined coltan material takes to factories in China which are contracted to Western corporations to refine the coltan and insert the material into consumer electronics goodies.

The film may look very bare-bones and sometimes is barely there but the narration and visit (probably heavily edited to fit a narrative stereotype) provide a definite direction for the images. “Blood Coltan” ends up looking as if it was made for a TV current affairs show and that might have been the original intention. As hidden cameras had to be used to film several scenes, the documentary sometimes is quite jumpy and the visuals are very distracting. There is considerable detail in the descriptions of the coltan trade combined with some very good visual images and often colourful scenery.

Little background history as to why the eastern DRC and the whole country generally are so unstable and dangerous, and the role that Rwanda plays in the country’s ongoing disorder are absent. Viewers can easily get the impression that the DRC has always lurched from one crisis to another with no breaks in-between when in fact throughout its history since independence in 1961, certain deliberate choices were made, politicians were assassinated and Western governments and their intelligence agencies supported a ruler (Mobutu Sese Seko) who violated human rights, suppressed all opposition and generally was a poster-boy for corrupt dealings and hiding vast amounts of money that belonged to his people in overseas bank accounts.

The connection between coltan mined in war zone areas and consumers, the levels of grey middle-men types in-between and the cynical exploitation of children and teenagers either in the mines or in Chinese-owned factories under contract to larger Western corporatons like Nokia are made very clear. There are probably some other issues the film failed to cover which it should have done – for one thing, the film says nothing about the impact that mining for coltan has on animals, vegetation and water supplies and disposal – and likewise there is nothing about the dangers of mining for adults and children alike or of the possibility that deforestation to make way for mines harms landscapes and increases the likelihood of stress on the land resulting in avalanches that could bury mines and the people inside them. There are even indirect effects of coltan mining on the health of the people in the area: in addition to obvious examples of workplace injury leading to permanent disability or even death, the encroachment of coltan mining on places where apes and monkeys live gives people opportunities to hunt these primates for bushmeat, and there is the possibility that exotic diseases may pass from apes and monkeys to humans with devastating results.

Overall this is a good exposition of the coltan industry and trade and of our role as consumers of consumer electronics products in the network that includes shady parties out for a quick buck and no consideration as to whether their activities will harm communities and the natural environment.

 

L’Age d’Or: cheeky and hilarious attack on religious, social and political repression and corruption

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “L’Âge d’Or” (1930)

On the heels of “Un Chien Andalou”, a short film, comes this proper full-length surrealist feature by Buñuel and Dali in which they cheekily send up everything prim and proper in Spanish society. These days “L’Âge d’Or” gets plenty of laughs and is seen to be the comedy it is but over 80 years ago, it was definitely seen as subversive and dangerous and was banned not only in its native Spain but elsewhere. The film revolves around two lovers who try to get it on but circumstances, society, the Roman Catholic Church and ultimately their own inhibitions, drummed into them by their upbringing, prevent them from consummating their passion.

The gags are hilarious yet stinging at the same time: crippled soldiers hobbling on rifles for crutches rally to the war cause against the Majorcan enemy; an Imperial Roman delegation, dressed in modern clothes, pay their respects to four dead bishops (they died from total uselessness); and the male lover of the doomed pair hates dogs so much he’d rather kick them and send them flying long distances than pat them. The narrative divides into three unequal parts: the first part revolves around the soldiers on crutches; the second encompasses the delegation’s founding of modern Rome and saluting the bishops, and the male lover’s arrest by police whom he eventually outwits by handing them a map then hailing a taxi and kicking a blind man; the third part which is the major part takes place at a fancy high-society party. Strange things take place there: some peasants detour their ox-drawn cart through the dining-room and a maid flies from the kitchen and crashes onto the dining-room floor while a burst of flame rips out from where she’s just come. In scenes highlighting social hypocrisy, all too reminiscent of modern mass-media-directed selective attention-mongering, the guests studiously ignore her and the peasants but when a man in the gardens OUTSIDE the mansion shoots his young son for disobedience, the attendees hurry out onto the balconies to gawp at the scene. In the meantime, the lovers find each other at the party and sneak outside for a kiss, cuddle and maybe a quickie.

The male of the pair turns out to be a diplomat for the humanitarian International Goodwill Society; he shirks his duties in pursuit of the lovely lass and as a result several zillions of innocent children, women and elderly folk in distant parts die violently and his boss has to commit suicide out of shame. While the two men shout each other down the phone, the diplomat’s amour greedily sucks a statue’s toes and the camera hilariously shoots a glance at the statue’s face as if to check for a reaction! Later the diplomat discovers his love is unfaithful and in anger he storms into her bedroom and flings out through the window her pet objects: a priest, a giraffe doll and a giant Christmas fir on fire!

Religion, the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, authoritarian modes of bringing up children and the snootiness of high society all get a skewering here: these are themes that Buñuel would revisit throughout his career. The dinner party scene is a motif that repeats in other famous films like “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. Dream sequences are important and make more impact against the conventional narrative than they do in “Un Chien Andalou”: in one early unforgettable scene the diplomat day-dreams about his lover, a toilet next to which something slithers up the toilet roll, and huge chunks of liquefied lumpy brown lava rolling and slurping against each other to the sounds of flushing toilets – lovely! Another important aspect of the movie is its use of overly melodramatic music especially during the party scenes in which the lovers scrap at each other without achieving much (the scenes are highly erotic even though no clothing is shed) and the passion and climax are provided by a garden concert: the climax turns out to be an anti-climax though as the conductor gets a headache!

The really blasphemous part of the film comes at the very end after a short retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” (more famously represented in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s shocker “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom”, reviewed elsewhere on this blog):  the figure of Christ is lampooned as a plaything of the depraved rich. This says something about religious hypocrisy among the wealthy and the corruption of religion itself, that its standard-bearers prostitute themselves before representatives of worldly power. There is no connection between this part of the film and what’s gone on for the past 55+ minutes but I say there’s no need to look for connection other than that this section expresses Buñuel’s low opinion of Catholic doctrine.

So many laugh-out-loud moments abound here that to absorb them all, you need to watch “L’Âge d’Or” (the title itself is highly satirical – who would associate a Golden Age with religious, social and political corruption?) at least twice; repeated viewings will also help you get a foothold onto what the narrative might be saying. There is no right way of viewing the film and seeing what its main issues are, so multiple interpretations of what’s really happening and what Buñuel might be saying are possible.

No wonder Alfred Hitchcock once named Buñuel as his favourite director: Buñuel dared to express his obsessions and hang-ups in direct ways that Hitchcock could only envy.

 

 

Blood of the Beasts: horror, death, poetry and beauty co-exist in slaughterhouse

Georges Franju, “Le sang des bêtes” / “Blood of the Beasts” (1949)

An amazing if very graphic realist film documentary of the work done in abbatoirs on the outskirts of Paris in the late 1940s, Franju’s “Le sang des bêtes” helped to establish the director as a distinctive voice in French cinema who combined both matter-of-fact realism and dream-like surrealism in his work. And this documentary is both very uncompromising in its portrayal of casual butchery of animals whose meat humans rely on, and poetic, even lyrical, in its deliberate depictions of city and suburban scenes of Paris.

The film slyly immerses viewers into its world with a montage of static shots of the Paris landscape, its bridges and historic buildings, edging us to the city outskirts where there are tableaux of children at play, an old man sitting in the sun and young lovers kissing. It’s a short casual trot over to the abbatoir where, after viewers get a quick look at the workers’ tools of the trade, we and they get down to business: killing the animal, draining its blood, skinning it and cutting out the meat, viscera and other parts either for human consumption or other uses. The scenes are very graphic but filming in black-and-white reduces the gore factor of what we see and replaces that loss with a clinical, dispassionate look at the workers as they go about their necessary tasks. Seeing the hot blood draining away in channels on the ground beneath the slatted frames where the sheep and calves have their throats cut, the light and dark tones of the liquid swirling in a psychedelic monochrome pattern, strikes me as a lyrical, almost meditative scene: blood as the fluid of life ebbing away into a larger, perhaps cosmic river that might power the universe.

The men working in the abbatoir are shown as ordinary humans, neither degraded untouchables nor heroic beings, performing hard but necessary work using skills that are as specific and specialised as the skills needed to be an electrician, a blacksmith, a carpenter or a plumber. The way the men work looks casual but then they’ve had years of experience to hone their skills; even so, the voice-over narration informs viewers that there are health risks (for example, a cyst on the wrist that that suggest repetitive strain injury) involved in carrying out often repetitive and heavy work.

Two narrators, Georges Hubert and Nicole Ladmiral, were employed for this documentary: Ladmiral describes the environs of Paris and Hubert in a neutral tone observes the abattoir workers’ activities. The narration intrudes only when necessary to explain some aspect of the work that’s not obvious on the screen to viewers and very long sections of the film are completely without speech. There’s very little music apart from one worker singing “La Mer” (the tune is familiar to Australians as it has been used in TV commercials promoting tourism in South Australia) who might have been thinking of his former job as a sailor while washing away streams of blood into the abattoir ground channels with water from a pressure hose.

It becomes apparent to viewers that violent death and its horror are much closer to us than we realise and that every time we eat meat and wear or use leather and other animal-derived products, we condone the deaths of innocent creatures that have been conceived, born and raised simply to die for our material benefit and comfort. The horrors also of the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Poland which occurred several years before the film was made also spring to mind.

 

Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds: subjective documentary says nothing about pioneer’s place in experimental music

Eric Darmon, Franck Mallet, “Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds” (2006)

A so-so documentary about the French experimental music pioneer, Pierre Henry, who with his mentor and early collaborator Pierre Schaeffer, helped create musique concrete, a style of avant-garde / experimental music using recordings of everyday sound as material for constructing musical works. The film’s focus is to follow Henry closely as he bustles about his routine at home, records his music in the studio or perform before a live audience. Excerpts of Henry’s music, beginning with an early gig before a bemused audience of young and old in the 1950s, feature throughout the documentary in more or less chronological order; a mix of archival material and present-day film accompanies the music.

The musical soundtrack of snippets of Henry’s work is playful and quite spacious, often energetic and whimsical in nature. One work is titled “The Love Life of the Octopus” and it is indeed a curious and humorous aural survey of how a bunch of cephalopods flirt and court each other with plenty of, erm, tentacle sex (just not of the porn kind). The early music is fairly abstract and seems deliberately provocative; the later music, especially the music composed in the period after the year 2000, turns out to be disappointingly very conventional, even a bit lazy, with wholesale looping orchestral-music samples overlaid by clicks and bits of noise. There may be rhythm (achieved with sound loops) and the music can be strongly layered and dance-oriented; even so, the sound is always sharp and clear. In one work, “Berlin, Symphonie der Grosser Stadt”, Henry uses samples of an old Jimi Hendrix piece as a major part of the opus.

Following Henry closely and featuring just his voice, the documentary is strongly subjectve: viewers learn about his work methods, what he aims to do and what he strives for. He talks about the things that have influenced and which continue to influence him (for example, his library which seems heavily swayed towards art); the sounds he heard in his childhood; his audience; his experiences as a public musical performer; and the concert as a place of ritual. We do not learn about Henry’s setbacks and failures if there were any; according to the film, Henry seems to have had a steady if not hugely successful career as an experimental music composer/performer.

Viewers get no sense of how successful, popular or influential Henry has been in the course of his career: the film could be much, much better if it had examined Henry’s place in the music world. Interviews with French and other experimental music-makers, producers, concert organisers and roadies would have been enough to convey some of the magnitude of Henry’s renown without making him look like an ageing hippie rock star. Henry’s friend Bernadette and their lady-friend stay more or less in the background; how they met Henry and what they think of him as a musician and composer of obscure experimental music are never known. The ladies are very long-suffering especially when Henry holds regular and well-attended recitals of abstract electronic music in the narrow confines of his house where the walls are positively stuffed with shelves of obscure art books!

For viewers unfamiliar with Henry’s work, the time-line of significant pieces which include ballet and music scored for operas can be confusing: overally, it is chronological with maybe jumps going back a few years before the forward pace takes over again. Curiously, Henry’s childhood experiences with sound come very near the end of the film when one would expect such influences on his music to come close to the beginning.

The music is much more melodic than might be expected from an abstract genre and is perhaps the best part of the film. Henry and only Henry talking about himself and his music can be boring – the fellow makes no concessions to viewers by trying to be entertaining and can come across as a slightly grumpy old git – and maybe something from Bernadette or the other lady-friend would have given us a different angle on Henry himself or his music. While we are fortunate to have any documentaries at all on early pioneers of experimental music who are happy to share with others their methods of working, how they approach creating a new work and how they feel about performing in public, at the end of the day I think a better and more objective documentary on Henry could have made and viewers would have a sense of his importance in the history and advancement of experimental music.

The Tenant: psychological study of alienation, paranoia self-repression and loss of identity and control

Roman Polanski, “The Tenant” / “Le Locataire” (1976)

A very good psychological study of a young man, bullied by others and trying to make his way in a society that is self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs and problems of individuals, this low-key flick is the kind of movie Polanski does best. Present in nearly every scene to the point of suffocation are claustrophobia and a strong sense of alienation due to the film’s spatial confinement to interiors with very few outdoor scenes. The plot revolves around main character Trelkovsky (Polanski himself) going about his daily activities and meeting with scorn, indifference, ridicule and people using him as a punching-bag for their neuroses nearly everywhere he goes. This blow-by-blow approach immerses viewers deep into Trelkovsky’s world so we feel and understand his paranoia and delusions even though we know there is no substance to them and many slights he experiences exist in his mind only; the situations that cause and feed his mental deterioration are so ordinary and ambiguous in nature that they are equal parts horror and comedy. The whole structure of “The Tenant” is of a series of black comedy sketches that build on one another to overwhelm their protagonist so that by the end of the film, his wacky behaviour is the only logical way of ending his nightmare.

Trelkovsky rents an apartment in an old building inhabited mainly by elderly residents who apparently have no other entertainment than to complain about the noise Trelkovsky supposedly makes, even though by nature he’s quieter than a mouse in a vacuum. The concierge (Shelley Winters) tells Trelkovsky the previous occupant of his unit – a girl called Simone – fell through the balcony windows and plummeted several floors to the ground. Trelkovsky tries to appease the landlord and other tenants and keep his head down at work but the constant grind of sniping attacks from his neighbours, teasing from co-workers, the indifference of police to a robbery and his entanglement with a kooky girl, Stella (Isabelle Adjani), and her bohemian friends wears him down. Add to that mix the mystery of Simone’s self-defenestration, which Trelkovsky comes to believe was a suicide attempt, and strange clues such as graffiti written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in his bathroom(!) and a tooth found in a wall, and tension and suspense build up steadily and slowly to a bizarre climax.

Of course the plot makes no sense and Trelkovsky is over-sensitive to all incidents inflicted upon him. All support characters are deliberately exaggerated for effect: Adjani’s character in particular comes over as a concentrated amalgam of the kooky middle-class girls who populate Woody Allen films. Winters does a marvellous job as the insulting, sneering concierge. I have seen reviews elsewhere that comment on how Muppet-like the support characters are (Adjani as Miss Piggy and the landlord and the concierge as Statler and Waldorf) and they do indeed appear very puppet-like! – which suggests that Trelkovsky in his own deranged way constructs his reality to revolve around his apparent “helplessness” which enables him to control and cope with his victim status.

However Trelkovsky’s need to fine-tune and update his status leads him to obsess that the neighbours are trying to drive him to suicide; at the same time, he chooses to adopt Simone’s identity to the point where he wears her dress, uses her make-up and buys a wig and high-heeled shoes. At this point, you wonder how much in control of his fantasy world he really is and whether he is acting out a repressed sexual fantasy or memory; for all we know, Simone might simply be a useful tool for Trelkovsky to act out and embellish his anger and frustration. Viewers may be put off by Trelkovsky’s cross-dressing (it does look very self-indulgent!) but as a visual indicator of how Trelkovsky succumbs to his delusions and repressions, it’s very hard-hitting and serves to increase the film’s tension.

Visually the film is in thrall to Polanski’s vision: the window and camera are deliberately dissolved into one, the window / camera as peep-hole into one’s soul and desires and as symbol of repressed sexuality, and there are many repeating images of people looking through windows or being framed by window or door frames. The look of the film is superficially realistic but camera shots and the use of panning emphasise the plot’s voyeuristic aspects. The music tends to be sparing and large parts of the film feature no dialogue. The outer appearance of people and objects contrasts strongly with their inner “reality” in Trelkovsky’s world; even Stella and her dotty pals get press-ganged into the neighbours’ supposed conspiracy.

The improbable plot is played as much for laughs as for suspense and horror, and that in itself is true horror: viewers can’t help but laugh at the final indignity Trelkovsky heaps upon himself as, convinced that everyone is out to get him, he insists on torturing and degrading himself once and then twice. The mystery of Simone’s accident becomes completely irrelevant, a mere McGuffin device Hitchcock would surely have applauded. Trelkovsky’s humiliation is that he imagines everything to excess, and excess overcomes any doubt or skepticism he may have had about the things that have happened to him. Repetition forms part of this excess and itself is overdone with numerous images of windows and people looking through them.

As a portrait of one man’s isolation / alienation from a hyper-individualised society and how his past experiences and background as an outsider without known close social ties help him (or not) to cope with the daily difficulties and upsets of Western life, and how these feed into his fears and control over a fragile self-image, “The Tenant” is at once creepy, hilarious and devastating. Compared with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, it’s not quite as scary or as subtly layered and it does sag in its middle section but it’s still a worthwhile look at how Polanski mines his favourite themes of isolation, alienation, paranoia, mental breakdown, lack of social connections and loss of control over one’s destiny.

The Page Turner: a pleasing though cool psychological study of revenge through music

Denis Dercourt, “The Page Turner” / “La Tourneuse de Pages” (2006)

A cool, elegant psychological study of revenge, this film will certainly speak to a lot of people hard done by judges or examiners more concerned with flattering their egos or bolstering their reputations with their friends than with finding and appreciating genuine and original talent when it hits them in the face. A socially ambitious working-class couple who run a butcher’s shop lavish piano lessons on their only daughter Mélanie and the girl proves to be so talented that she qualifies to sit for a strict practical piano exam which if passed will be her entrée into a brilliant career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately Mélanie fails the exam when a judge on the panel judging her performance distracts her unnecessarily. Melanie gives up her dream of ever becoming a pianist and breaking out of her working class background.

Ten years later, Mélanie (Dèborah François) joins a Paris law firm as a temporary intern and meets one of the partners there. He (Pascal Greggory) happens to be looking for a temporary babysitter for his son while he’s off on business in November and Mélanie offers to babysit. The time comes, Mélanie moves into the partner’s country mansion and realises his wife is none other than Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), the famous concert pianist and the same judge who distracted her during her exam. Ariane is planning to relaunch her career as a pianist with a chamber music trio after suffering psychological problems as a result of a past car accident and needs someone to turn the pages of her sheet music while she plays. Mélanie happens to be the perfect choice.

The scene is set for a complicated psychological duel that drags in Ariane’s son Tristan (Antoine Martinciow) and husband and her chamber trio partners as innocent collateral damage. Mélanie, quiet and discreet, quickly discovers Ariane’s weaknesses and sets about using them to destroy the older woman. There are suggestions that she experiences some inner conflict in doing so: she develops a warm friendship with Tristan and is attracted to Ariane who also has feelings for her, and these relationships have the potential to derail her intention to get even. In one scene, she appears to want to drown the boy but thinks better of it. François is an ideal choice as the po-faced Mélanie whose watchful, intent eyes and blank expression speak what her voice will not: how she can use what she observes of Ariane’s dependence on her husband, Tristan, friends and herself to her own advantage. Genuine respect and love for Ariane and her family seem to be present though the apparent warmth may be part of Melanie’s ruse. Frot’s Ariane is both a counterbalance and complement to the shuttered Mélanie: Ariane is nervy, fragile and self-absorbed to the point that she fails to listen to her violinist’s warnings about Mélanie.

Admittedly the plot is implausible: it’s by sheer luck Mélanie comes in contact with Ariane ten years after their first encounter and then in circumstances that favour Mélanie at nearly every turn. The film throws out numerous suggestions as to how the plot will resolve itself but most hints are dead-ends, their only purpose being to add a little more tension here and there. The film leads you to expect violence with shots of people chopping meat and the presence of an indoor swimming pool in the country mansion implies a drowning death which never happens. Mélanie’s ultimate revenge on Ariane occurs with the perpetrator being absent rather than present which is unexpected, though the relevant scenes are cleverly set up.

“The Page Turner” though is very low on tension and suspense and part of the reason is that Mélanie maintains a blank countenance and calm aloofness throughout the film, revealing her natural personality in only one scene where she meets an old boyfriend. Even in the film’s final moments there is only a faint change in her face’s expression. All characters, even Tristan, tend to be stand-offish towards people they’re familiar with; the cellist in Ariane’s trio is cool towards his wife but tries to seduce Mélanie (a relative stranger). The overall cool and stiff acting indicates the life that Ariane, her family and social circle lead is hollow and lacking in genuine warmth. Ariane and Tristan try to fill this hollowness with music and amusements; the husband in his way tries to be close to Ariane who is too absorbed with her own pursuits to respond. At the same time, the general style of acting and the film’s emphasis on action and behaviour revealing the stresses professional musicians are under in performing music publicly can be quite cold, cerebral and alienating towards non-French audiences more used to open displays of emotion and expression as indicators of character under duress. Even the film’s look with clear, calm views of the mansion, its tennis court and surrounding fields is cool, intellectual and refined.

The film might have been stronger if more attention had been given to Mélanie’s relationship with her parents both together and individually, with the contrasts between her ambitious mother and easy-going father played up. Then the differences between the social layers that Mélanie travels between would have been prominent. We learn nothing of Mélanie’s impressions and ultimate opinions of Ariane’s family and their wealthy life-style: is she glad that, in a way, Ariane’s thoughtless behaviour actually freed her from the pressured hothouse life of a concert pianist? – and in causing injury to Tristan by forcing him to play piano faster, is she trying to do the same for the boy?

The men in the film are passive yet hold the power that the women rely on: Mélanie’s father pays for her music lessons that Maman insists on and Ariane depends on her husband for shelter and the stability she needs to pursue her music. The men seem happy and satisfied with their lot while the women are brittle and strive for more.

Overall this is a pleasing little gem whose main assets are its two star actors Frot and François playing strongly delineated if restrained characters in an elegant plot in which the victim becomes a bully and the initial bully becomes a victim. Issues of class in French society, how an individual can move from a lower level of society into a higher level, what sacrifices are needed to progress socially and whether that person actually loses more than gains in personal integrity and security through such progress, are among the film’s concerns. Where the film fails is in showing the effect that pursuing revenge must be having on the avenger herself: the enigmatic coda carries a subtle hint that Mélanie is finally free of her social fetters but at what cost? She appears as empty and lacking in feeling and personal authenticity as the people and social level, represented by the Fouchécourts, she has come to despise.

 

 

The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: too much whimsy and overbearing music, not enough facts and editing mar a fine documentary

Werner Herzog, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)

In 1994, three speleologists discovered and explored a cave in southern France and found prehistoric paintings apparently dating back over 30,000 years. The paintings are of large animals that were present in southern Europe during Palaeolithic times: horses, bison, mammoths, cave bears and lions. This documentary, made by famed German film-maker Werner Herzog,  gives both a science and history lesson about the artwork found and the probable culture of the people who produced it, and a discussion about the spiritual life they might have had. Something of the work of the archaeologists, art historians, geologists and other scientists on documenting and preserving the cave paintings is presented and the documentary also comments on the painters’ attempts to capture animal motion in ways that resemble early forms of film animation such as rotoscoping, and to interact with the paintings and the cave walls themselves through shadow-acting.

The film is structured in a supposedly detailed and matter-of-fact way that immerses viewers in the travails of the film crew and the people involved in investigating and preserving the paintings. We become quickly aware of the claustrophobic and dark conditions Herzog and company had to work in and of the restrictions imposed on them. Along the way Herzog intersperses interviews with scientists and art historians which tend to focus more on what they think of the spirituality and culture of the artists, than on the actual work they do and how they arrive at their conclusions about the painters’ culture and spiritual lives. Herzog attempts to draw out the individuality and eccentricity of his interview subjects: one scientist admits he used to be a juggler and unicyclist in a circus and another clumsily demonstrates how the prehistoric cave people made and used spears and spear-throwers. Slow as it is, the film gradually builds up a superficial picture of the spiritual and cultural life of the cave painters based on the findings and musings of the scientists and others documenting the paintings so that near the film’s end, viewers are primed psychologically to respond with awe and ecstasy at the paintings revealed in as much full-on glory as Herzog and his crew could film on their last visit to the cave.

Herzog’s narration and interviews descend into shallow purple-prose philosophical babble: there is talk about people, animals and plant life having fluidity (in the sense of one species adopting the behaviour and abilities of another) and the spiritual and material worlds blending into one another but there is not much speculation about the kind of (presumably) nature-based religious beliefs the artists might have had, the role played by the art in their beliefs and daily lives, why they painted large animals and not small animals, and how the paintings themselves support notions of fluidity and the links between the spiritual and the material. There is little discussion of shamans and their role in the painters’ society. It is possible much of Herzog’s questioning and musing is shaped by stereotypes he has absorbed unwittingly; there is the assumption that the prehistoric painters spent their off-time chasing and spearing large dangerous animals when archaeological evidence and comparisons with modern hunter-gatherers suggest gathering plants, hunting small animals and driving animals off cliffs and butchering them later on were the preferred methods of getting food. A cave ceiling protrusion apparently shows a bison having sex with a naked woman but the representation could also be of a female shaman. Some of his interviewees prattle on a fair bit but are not very informative. They engage in whimsical actions such as playing the US national anthem on a bone flute not found in Chauvet Cave.

The music soundtrack is jarring, inappropriate in style (it’s a mix of choral music and chamber music) and mostly unnecessary, adding very little enjoyment to the viewing of the cave art. In some parts of the film where Ernst Reijseger’s cello becomes low and droning, the music acquires a sculptural quality and fits the filming and the camera tracking around the cave walls and paintings which themselves often follow the walls’ contours. The rest of the time though, viewers will wish the choral voices and shrill violins would just shut up and the paintings be allowed to speak for themselves. For a film of this nature, if music is necessary, then a varied style of sound sculpture music incorporating quiet and loud music is called for. Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson come to mind but I am thinking also of installation / sound artists such as Maryanne Amacher whose music can be very epic and awe-inspiring, Spanish ambient / noise purveyor Francisco López and Germany’s Thomas Köner who has specialised in frigid Arctic-sounding electronica.

A brief coda is necessary after the climactic viewing of the paintings but it’s very unexpected: Herzog takes the audience on a quick whip-round lecture tour of a nuclear energy facility some distance down the Rhone River and the greenhouses and a biosphere set up around it to use the heated water produced by the facility. Rather than use the facility’s presence to make a strong case for preserving the cave and its surrounds from further encroachment by the plant, the greenhouses and the wastes they may produce, Herzog muses on the alligators at one hot-house and in particular on an albino ‘gator “found” there. One’s gotta wonder if Herzog’s sponsors write and veto parts of his script to make sure he presents a “balanced” and “neutral” position on nuclear energy production (as in saying nothing at all).

The film could have been much shorter and better if the jokey whimsy had been edited out; the product could still feature much of the film-making process and the scientists’ work. There is considerable repetition of the cave imagery which suggests that there are not very many paintings in Chauvet Cave, or at least not many that are spectacular and have recognisable representations of large animals. Still, the documentary is worth watching but in an environment where viewers can control the sound level (such as at home). Then the paintings can be appreciated on the home-theatre big-screen in all their silent lustre.

The film would have been improved too if Herzog had been able to define more clearly what he wished to emphasise about the paintings and their creators that could be related to the scientific effort to preserve the cave art. Rather than try to impose ideas about the artists’ spiritual relationship with their land and the flora and fauna onto Western audiences – we have enough trouble already trying to understand the spiritual relationship First Nation peoples in Australia, Canada and other parts around the world have with their lands – Herzog might have concentrated more on the artists’ curiosity about their world and why it operates the way it does, their keen powers of observation and wish to “capture” the spirit or vitality of the animals they observe, perhaps in the hope of being able to appeal to the animals’ spirits and get them to do certain things for them (the artists); and the film-maker could then emphasise the parallel between the process of making the art and the scientific endeavour generally.

(Postscript: the film had a postscript so I’ll add my own – just after writing this review, I heard news of an accident at a nuclear waste treatment facility in Gard department in France on 12 September 2011. One person died and four were injured. Gard department is located in southern France and borders Ardèche department where Chauvet Cave is located. As far as is known, there was no leakage of radiation)