samedi 20 avril 2013

The dancing body of Michael Fassbender

Disclaimer: Some time ago I promised my non-French-speaking friends (and myself) to try and translate my blog in English. I just found the time and courage to do so, knowing all too well that many subtleties, digressions and puns might get lost in translation - as fluent as my English can be, I'm not a native speaker and I don't pretend to be one. Just as I'm not a professional movie critic and don't pretend to be one. 

La version française de ce post est accessible ici.

It took me a while before I started to get interested in Steve McQueen beyond the unfortunate homonymy. Actually, if I ever went so far as to watch his movies - as I'm writing this two have been released: the tersely titled Hunger and Shame -, it's mostly because the rumour had it that they featured a first-class actor.
Rumour can be a bitch in misleading us but there is no such thing here. It is indeed clear to everyone that Michael Fassbender is not gracing our screens with his presence (in the full, carnal, physical, sense of the word) for the mere but volatile pleasure of providing entertainment. Only time will tell just how much he is able to take our breath away, but personally my money is on him becoming one of the world's finest actors - if the big bad piggies of stardom don't have him for breakfast first, that is.

Hunger: the political fight of I.R.A. activist Bobby Sands during his detention in the ghastly prison of Maze, from the gruelling "dirty protest" (urin oozing from under the cell's doors, excrements smeared on the walls) to the hunger strike that ultimatly caused his death. In front of the camera Fassbender's body is displayed as a battlefield, the place where the audience is given the opportunity to experience this peculiar war through the prism of the senses and every abuse that imprints the skin of the prisoners. The only moment of relief is provided by the (verbal) confrontation between Bobby and a priest who has come to try and talk him out of toughening his stance any further. Body and life are discarded altogether as the ultimate form of protest, the final rejection that is opposed to those who refuse to see or hear - because the only thing to do then is to weigh them down with the deserted, mangled remains. 

Shame: a few days in the life of Brandon Sullivan, a dashing young executive living in a desert of his own making, which aridity is as carefully maintained as it is meticulously scheduled. His flat is a study in stylish vacuity (its clean-cut lines in hues of black, grey and white seem to come straight out of the "Urban chic" pages of a trendy interior decoration catalogue) and, likewise, his private life is spent deliberately avoiding any meaningful human contact (he ignores desperate messages left on his answering machine and barely exchanges a few words or drinks with his co-workers). Brandon's secret lies in the fact that his life revolves around sex - the one he downloads, the one he pays for, the one he's offered, the one he fakes by masturbating several times a day. Pleasure is never in the picture, all this is about quenching the thirst and fiercely pursuing the scarce moments when self-awareness is abolished and oblivion granted - only to fall harder into self-loathing. What is probably the key to Brandon's character is provided by his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan): "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place.
This sentence alone puts everything into perspective: without it Sissy would just be tramp material to us and Brandon, yet another horndog. And everything falls into place: the body that Brandon wears out through the jogging and the pounding is at the same time a war site and a weapon, just like it was for the Bobby Sands depicted in Hunger. A war that likely originates from childhood abuses - although this is never clearly stated, the few clues that are given allow us to infer that much - and which is also perceptible in Sissy's urges to open her heart and legs to the most obvious Mr Wrong she meets. Both brother and sister fight the same fight against their heavy past, through each of their pitiful attempts at starting up a true relationship, one that lasts, one that extends beyond the exploitation of one partner by the other. As slender, toned and desirable as Brandon's body is, it still is a sick body harbouring a crippled soul, a body touching other bodies as a substitute for this shrunken soul unable to reach for other souls.

In this post I wanted to focus on this acting body because McQueen's movies hardly provide any information about the psychology or the background of their characters, and these have little dialogue to voice their feelings - with the notable exception of the central piece of Hunger. I also find the narrative to be a tad heavy on ellipses which end up being confusing. Not that I have anything against this device, mind you - I only wish that McQueen were rigorous enough in his storytelling to pull that off successfully. This disconcerting narrative is part of the reason why the audience has to rely on the actors - and most of all, on Fassbender since he plays a pivotal role in both instances - to feel and understand what is passed on through these stories. The coldness and abstraction of the cinematography work partly against both movies and make it apparent that the director is taking great care not to leave aside any element in his demonstration. Although this choice emphasizes the technical performance of the actor rather than the empathy he is supposed to induce in us, it makes no doubt that Fassbender rises to the challenge. I can't wait to see the day when Fassbender and his dancing body will run into a great director - because this will blow our minds.

dimanche 7 avril 2013

A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Disclaimer: Some time ago I promised my non-French-speaking friends (and myself) to try and translate my blog in English. I just found the time and courage to do so, knowing all too well that many subtleties, digressions and puns might get lost in translation - as fluent as my English can be, I'm not a native speaker and I don't pretend to be one. Just as I'm not a professional movie critic and don't pretend to be one.

La version française de ce post est disponible ici. 

Iran. The marriage of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) is bursting at the seams. She wants to divorce because her husband is opposing her project to go live in Canada with their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). If you want to leave it means that you don't want to be with me anymore, I'm not holding you back, he says. If you are denying us the chance to make a better life for ourselves outside of Iran, then you don't really love us and this is why I want to divorce you, she says. Right from the start their visions are irreconcilable - during the hearing the judge can't bring them to an agreement. From this moment on the movie is going to display their respective strategies in this private game of power as well as the gradual contamination of their environment by the consequences. 

And soon the consequences start unravelling before our eyes, mercilessly. After the hearing Simin moves out from the family home, leaving Nader alone to care for his father who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Nader has no other choice than to ask Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the cleaning lady, to help him out - paying no mind to the possibility that the extra work could be too demanding for a pregnant woman. One more thing that Nader does not take into consideration and that definitely sets the cogwheels of disaster in motion: Razieh is very pious. In an Iranian society that is plagued with religious interdictions, such a disposition is bound to conflict with the young woman's position as the employee of a (technically) single man, in charge of keeping in check an old man's incontinence. To make things worse, Razieh has never told her husband, the bad-tempered and impecunious Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), that she is working to help pay off their debts. 

As a result of these circumstances left unsaid, the tensions that have been accumulating in the background of the story brutally overwhelm both Razieh and Nader: he finds evidence that she has not been taking good care of his father (or so he thinks), gets angry and pushes her down the stairs. Razieh loses her baby soon after this incident, which is equivalent to a murder provided Nader knew that his employee was pregnant - the demonstration of his guilt leading to him serving time and paying a considerable indemnity to the grieving parents. But could he possibly know, considering that Razieh, being the imam-fearing woman that she is, did her best to avoid him whenever he was home, and in any case never appeared to him without being wrapped from head to toes in an ample chador?

Whenever a movie is a little too conspicuously singled out as the big winner in the main film festivals and throughout the awards season, I get tense. It's not as if I didn't like success - although having issues with someone else's achievements and bitching about it is a French problem, I'm told. Really, what concerns me is that too much unanimity looks like juries are merely following the current trend. That being said, it does not deter me from seeing the movie in question once it hits the screen. Sometimes, as in the case of Fatih Akin's The edge of heaven, my suspicions are justified. I can understand how intellectually satisfying it must be to reward a film depicting the complex relationship between German and Turkish immigrants in modern Germany through the intertwined stories of two mother-daughter pairs... but the Award for Best Scenario at the Cannes Festival, seriously? Not for something so clumsily written that it actually ends with the motherless daughter falling into the arms of the daughterless mother (and I swear that I'm not making this up). I could also refer to Laurent Cantet's The class or Terrence Malick's The tree of life, both of them having received the Palme d'Or while neither of them can be regarded as the best effort of their respective directors. 

And along comes A separation, which made a clean sweep off at the Berlin Film Festival (Golden Bear for Best Film, and two Silver Bears, one for the masculine cast and one for the feminine cast so nobody is cheated). And I won't mince my words (I know you've been holding your breath all along while reading these lines), it's a terrific movie. All I can do is take my hat off (and it's a genuine Panama hat, mind you) to the uncannily well-crafted writing, which cleverly mixes the intimate tragedy of this couple where each party manipulates the other to win the war of attrition that is their separation, and the wider tragedy of Iran where everyone is silenced under the combined influence of religious zealots and poverty, paralyzed when faced with the slightest threat on their tiny liberties. The rigorous direction progressively sheds a harsh light on the compromissions and the lies that tear the characters apart as a result. Although the story is complex the attention of the audience never gets a chance to wander away from the interrogation at the heart, until the end. The acting is flawless (down to the smallest roles) and fully warrants the awards. Not one of the characters can be called a scoundrel, not one is totally a victim, they all cheat and lie because it's the only way they can deal with the fear pervading their lives but nobody wins at the end - least of all the young Termeh whose innocence got damaged beyond repair.

samedi 6 avril 2013

The life and death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

Disclaimer: Some time ago I promised my non-French-speaking friends (and myself) to try and translate my blog to English. I just found the time and courage to do so, knowing all too well that many subtleties, digressions and puns might get lost in translation - as fluent as my English can be, I'm not a native speaker and I don't pretend to be one. Just as I'm not a professional movie critic and don't pretend to be one. 

Une version en français de ce post est disponible ici.

"War starts at midnight"

The movie opens on this absurd military order (indeed, who can possibly claim to start a conflict with such accuracy?) against a contrasting background of lively jazz music. Soon we understand that the "war" supposed to start at midnight is really a life-size military exercise that a handful of brazen young officers is going to derail by taking hostage the unsuspecting person in charge of the operations! 

The first time we see colonel Clive Wynne-Candy (who has the booming voice and presence of Roger Livesey) is in the Turkish Baths. Everything about him evokes the seasoned trooper, the old fossil with an ample stomach and a possibly even wider chest for pinning his countless medals and decorations to, but with a comparatively narrow mind to all things different from "the good old days". In other words, here is a character that inspires more taunting than sympathy. 

But as Wynne-Candy fights with one of the young officers we dive with him in the pool and re-emerge... forty years earlier, in 1902. The Clive Candy he is then is a celebrated hero freshly returned from the Boer Wars, for whom the world is (literally) his hunting ground. No doubt ever clouds his judgment, no re-assessment ever breaks his stride. In his opinion fair-play alone can make the enemy run for their lives and no victory can warrant the disgrace of breaking a single rule (especially when it comes to good manners). As we've just seen, the man is made of one piece and has not changed much in forty years: the same Victorian England certainties are as firmly set in his mind as his feet are on the ground (tea-time must be respected, and liquors should be savoured by the fireplace, a gentleman's worth can be measured through the number of hunting trophies on his walls, and defending one's honour is the only respectable cause). 

Similarly, friendship can't be cut in slices for Clive Candy when he meets his match for idealism in Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), although he is a Prussian officer and not an Englishman. This bond, formed while fighting each other in a duel, is going to outlast two World Wars during which their respective countries stand on opposite sides of the board. It will also overcome the disenchantment that is the fate of the defeated - conveyed through the heartbreaking monologue of the old Theo, seeking asylum in England while the only world he has ever known is being destroyed under the boots of the Third Reich. Backed into a corner by the twists and turns of History, the ageing Uhlan had to bend his noble principles to adjust to quickly evolving realities, whereas his victorious friend never had to.

The stubborn consistency of Candy and his way of being impervious to changes are possibly even more perceptible when considering his love affairs - or perhaps would it be more appropriate to say his only love affair with a woman he finds, then loses only to find her again? First she is Edith, a down-to-earth teacher and aspiring suffragette consumed with the desire to accomplish something greater than the domestic chores life has in store for someone in her modest condition. Unfortunately Edith falls for Theo...

Then World War One starts and draws the friends apart - but it also causes Candy to meet Barbara, enrolled as a nurse in the Red Cross. Barbara is the spitting image of Edith, he marries her but she dies a few years later. 

By the time Theo flees to England Candy has hired Angela, who goes by the nickname of "Johnny", as his personal driver. And naturally Angela is another double of Edith - which causes quite a shock to Theo, Edith's widower. These three women are but the reflection of a single feeling that has remained unaltered through time; very appropriately all three are played by the wonderful Deborah Kerr. 

As I write this summary I realize that it does not do justice to the romantic quality of the movie, nor to the emotions it triggers when it shows its main character struggling against the unavoidable withering of the things he believes in. He's terribly wrong about his times and the motivations of other people, he fails to follow the general movement, he's unaware of the possibility to compromise with reality. In a nutshell, he embodies the over-confident attitude of the contemporary England, and that is (in my opinion) the most likely origin of Churchill's annoyance after seeing this film. Indeed, Candy is narrow-minded and laughable and nevertheless, while we mock him we find him endearing because whatever mistakes he makes come from a true heart and the faith he keeps in his fellow man's honesty.

For those of you who are prejudiced against "old movies", I would like to add that the latest Blu-Ray restored editions of The life and death of Colonel Blimp (available in the UK from ITV Studios, in France from Carlotta and in the US from Criterion) are nothing short of breathtaking. I dare you to say that it looks like the 70 years-old movie that it is.