28.5.11

"AU HASARD ANNE"


C’est une très courte autobiographie, mais elle est sensible, très bien écrite, et pleine d’histoires passionantes sur le tournage d’Au Hasard Balthazar, ce qui est le sujet principal du livre. Maintenant je pense regarder à nouveau les films les plus célèbres dans lesquelles Mme. Wiazemsky joue: Balthazar, bien sûr, et puis Week-end, Teorema, et Tout va bien.

(En anglais: "It's a very short autobiography, but it's sensitive, very well written, and full of interesting stories about the filming of Au Hasard Balthazar, which is the main topic of the book. Now I'm thinking about re-watching the most famous films in which Ms. Wiazemsky acted: Balthazar, of course, and then Week-end, Teorema, and Tout va bien.")

22.4.11

"PARALLEL LINES"

Having recently revisited, in succession, Anton Corbijn's The American (2010) and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (1970), I was struck by the literally profound similarities between the two. While quite disparate in terms of plot particulars, they have in common a style, an approach, a worldview--an aura--that transcends narrative specifics to render them metaphysical siblings, brothers of the soul. Each adheres more or less consistently to an anti-psychological, existentialist method to hone its narrative into an act of strikingly pure storytelling--narrative pleasure for narrative pleasure's sake.

The most immediately noticeable shared attribute is the type of figure central to each film, as well as the ways in which the characters are presented to us. Both The American's "Jack," mercenary arms dealer, and Le Cercle Rouge's "Corey" (Alain Delon), "Vogel" (Gian Maria Volonté) and "Jansen" (Yves Montand)--a just-released convict, a prison escapee, and a detoxing ex-cop--are narratively unburdened, unadorned with the personal history and psychology frequently proffered to explain a character's motives. (Those scare quotes are partly because the names are unlikely to be the characters' given names, but primarily because signifiers like names seem particularly arbitrary in the world of these films.) Their principal attribute is that they are true professionals, quasi-criminals by vocation who nevertheless embody a certain relentless perfectionism and skill that the films easily allow us to read as a kind of pure, amoral integrity. They, like the films themselves, are of a supremely controlled temperament, utterly familiar with and accepting of the life-or-death scenarios endemic to their work. The prevailing mood, regardless of event, is calm, acutely aware detachment, which is provided in each film via stark lighting, composition, mise-en-scène, camera movement, and performance. Words are spare, functional, kept to a minimum; the focus is on action, though the action in these films is so deliberate, elegant, and unfrenzied as to exempt them from being categorized as anything like what is typically identified as an "action" film.



From the characters' behaviors and the measured, unemphatic ways in which they're played out, we may infer that on the films' terms, the barrier supposedly dividing crime from straight society is illusory. Both films offer us a representative of society's laissez-faire, default "morality": In The American, a priest with a less than pristine past is the emissary of morality who cannot judge Jack; he can suggest spiritual salvation in deference to the obligations of his vocation only while treading gently and respectfully in the face of the commitments required by Jack's own, equally rigorous calling. Mattei, the detective pursuing protagonists of Le Cercle rouge, is no stranger to shady methods and achieves his goal at the price of realizing the artificiality of the moral distinctions he had presumed separated him him from his quarry. What would passively, complacently represent unequivocal morality in a more ordinary (read: more naïve or disingenuous/hypocritical) film is thereby used to question--more explicitly in Le Cercle rouge than in The American--the automatic clearness of any individual's conscience, whichever side of society's or the state's dividing lines they may find themselves on.

This unblinking, pared-down, everything-gray approach--neither cynical nor desperate nor sentimental, just persuasively stoic and equilibrated--eliminates any good-vs.-evil, black hats vs. white hats banality from obstructing the streamlined forward thrust of these films. Characterization is eschewed in favor of a sort of simultaneous universality and anonymity--these characters could be anybody, or they could be nobody. All we need to know about them, all that individuates them, the only real truth, is the actions we witness them performing onscreen, not "who they are," which is something we never learn and are not compelled to be much interested in.



Such a thorough and well-supported check on the heroes/villains dichotomy liberates the films from the imperatives of identification or picking sides; the resulting sense of inevitability and fatalism allows for a level of abstraction that, far from rendering the films unengaging, is the salient feature that makes them so irresistibly fascinating and gratifying. These are not humanistic descendants of neorealism, whose projects would necessarily be to find a way of bypassing or conquering the inevitable fact that they are fictions imagined, designed, and executed--contrived, well or badly, as all fictions always are--by an unseen author or authors. Instead, Corbijn's and Melville's films revel in their fictional status, which is not to say that they're "postmodern"; the self-consciousness of these films is serious and determined, cerebral, much less corrosive of the fiction than the more playful or autocritical self-reflexiveness on display in, respectively, Tarantino and Godard. A remarkable microcosm of this self-awareness approaching abstraction can be found in the heavy emphasis placed on characters against huge, empty landscapes (rural Italy in The American, rural France in Le Cercle rouge) traveling or being propelled on set routes through vast, rather unvariegated spaces--e.g., the very long wide-angle and overheads shot of Jack driving through the Italian countryside in The American, or the very slow pullback on the train carrying Vogel and Mattei near the beginning of Le Cercle rouge, which takes us from a close-in two-shot through the train's window all the way out to a perspective so distant as to nearly create the image of nothing more than a sleek object traversing a linear path through space.



Underlining this tendency to abstraction, our attention is consistently drawn to strategy, construction, objects in a playing field. Both films feature long sequences of a protagonist meticulously and painstakingly handling and perfecting a gun, the tool of his trade, forming it step by step to meet the exact requirements of a planned job. (This is especially resonant in the case of Le Cercle rouge's Jansen, an ex-cop now employing his firearm and artillery skills for a heist; his true loyalty is to the infinitesimally exact demands for perfection made upon him by the skill he practices, whether for police or thieves.) And that very wide overhead shot from The American has an analogue in a wonderfully composed shot, also from overhead, in Le Cercle rouge: the top of a pool table fills the screen, an image of vast green against which small, isolated billiard balls are made to roll, knock against each other, move in unpredictable directions but as a clear result of play. These portions of the films are visually arresting and wholly relevant to the story being told; but they are also perfect visual analogies representing the elegant constructions, manipulations, and machinations of the film's fiction itself.



The proposition that the characters in these particular works are no more than billiard balls made to move against the smooth green surface of the film's visuals, situations, and milieux should be read as praise, not criticism; nor should the word "machinations" imply "mechanical" in the derogatory sense in which that descriptor is often used. Far from being zombie-like, dispassionate, or dull, the experience offered by these films is more akin to that of hearing a perfectly assembled and calibrated engine purring beneath the hood of a fine automobile, then being offered a glimpse of the engine itself, in all its perfection, each part working at the top of its exquisite form while complementing and enhancing the others. And these machines produce something rare and valuable: the narrative pleasure of romantic doom-- "pure" integrity, unfettered by pious cliché, in the face of inevitable failure (for everyone, sooner or later); and the aesthetic/visual pleasures of the highly self-aware, precise deployment of the primary elements in the cinematic palette: space, time, light, composition, and color.



The result of the rigor demonstrated by The American and Le Cercle rouge--perhaps more strictly observed by the latter, but indispensable to either film's achievement--is that both films are masterpieces of the ice-cold entertainment*. Their essentially escapist dedication to an acutely well-told story and nothing more or less, combined with their principled refusal of any of the tiresome commonplaces that escapism has unfortunately come to imply (unsatisfying happy endings, pandering wish-fulfillment/identification, condescending and cynical sentimentality) places them in a category of greatness as distinct from the morally compelled distance and deliberateness--the "coldness"--of Bresson, Kiarostami, or Michael Haneke as from the warm observational humanism of Hiroshi Shimizu or Mike Leigh. They are films that, despite their superbly cultivated aura of awesome gravity, might greatly please Oscar Wilde: they exist for their own beauty, symmetry, and precision, not for the sake of any affirmation or lesson. They commit themselves wholeheartedly to no less admirable and difficult a task than taking pure cinematic pleasure seriously.

*Le Samouraï, Melville's 1967 film also starring Delon, is remarkable in its own right as a captivating foray into the aesthetic territory later laid claim to by Le Cercle rouge.

22.1.11

"EVERYBODY'S CLEVER NOWADAYS"




When I ran into my former French professor while out shopping several months ago and, during the course of our brief conversation, informed her that I was in the process of reading Victor Hugo's classic 1862 novel Les Misérables in French and unabridged, she replied, "C'est une bonne idée, mais.... C'est énorme!" ("That's a good idea, but.... It's huge!") Now that I've finally completed this self-imposed, ultimately very rewarding challenge (and justification for/continuation of my years of French study), I know that she wasn't just talking about its intimidating length. Hugo's inexhaustible ambition, scope, passion, historical/social expertise, and moral/theological contemplations roil and overlap at all times throughout, often threatening to push against and overspill the novel's generous, 1,000-plus page limits.

Les Misérables
is truly the French War and Peace, an analogous high-water mark of what, in the 1860s, was considered the art of the novel, meaning that Hugo's most famous work is an insatiable beast duty-bound to include everything, to reflect, encapsulate, address, and penetrate the entire world. Of course, if we neglect to allow for historical contex and hold either this mid-19th-century ideal or its practitioners--and Hugo was a prime one--to the standards that have developed in the 150 extremely tumultuous years since Les Miserables' publication, they will seem rather naïve, if not downright presumptuous. Sartre, for one well-known example, kicked back against the Great 19th Century Novels and their unquestioned authority and "genius," spending a considerable portion of his autobiographical Les Mots mocking le dix-neuvième siècle in general, and Hugo in particular, finding them regrettable and contemptible while simultaneously confessing a backhanded admiration, or at least respect, for them. And it is true that the theory and practice of the novel in Hugo's time could scarcely be in starker contrast, not only to Sartre and his ilk, but also to the aestheticizing/"purifying" tendencies of the Joyce/Kafka/Stein/Robbe-Grillet modernism of the last century and their rejection of the omniscient narrator, as well as to the precisely and cleverly structured, disciplined, self-conscious intellectualism of the subsequent, "post-modern" Italo Calvinos, Thomas Pynchons, and Don DeLillos. One only finds the anti-Romantic self-consciousness ebbing a bit with the newly earnest post-postmodernism of our contemporary Jonathan Franzens and Alan Hollinghursts, whose hearts-on-their-sleeves, socially-observant ambitions more closely resemble those of a Hugo.




All of which is to say that reading Les Misérables felt less like simply being told a story than attending a compelling, impassioned lecture/monologue, a transfixing story running consistently throughout, by an expert incapable of hiding his driving personal investment in what he's talking about. I would venture to estimate that a full half of the novel is spent on asides, digressions from the characters' trials and exploits, creating a plenitude that renders their stories only the most immediately diverting, brightly exemplary threads in a vast, multi-hued historical tapestry. The ex-convict Jean Valjean, his adopted orphan Cosette, the radicalized bourgeois Marius, the mercenary Thénardier, the punctilious, heartlessly moralistic police inspector Javert, and the myriad others with whom these principals come into contact are meant to be individuals, but individuals who, we are persistently reminded, exist in (and cannot be considered apart from) a particular time and place, in specific historical, political, and social circumstances. If Jean Valjean and Cosette find themselves taking refuge in a convent, there is a long chapter explaining to us the history of French Catholicism, its various orders, and their nunneries, as well as the details of and reasons for their peculiar practices. If Jean Valjean is forced to escape from danger into the sewers underneath Paris, we are presented with a thorough study of Paris's sewage system and its fascinating, checkered history, as well as Hugo's singular opinions on the ideal disposal of human excrescence (i.e., he would rather see it referred to and employed as useful fertilizer than considered "waste," which he is categorically opposed to). The failed Paris revolution of 1832 is depicted both in close-up--as an exciting, suspenseful bit of action in which characters we know are directly, tragically involved--and from a historian's distance, as a complex conjunction and culmination of wide-ranging French political factions and philosophies. This occasions a mini-essay in which Hugo brings his moral and philosophical finesse to bear upon the fine yet vital distinction between a "riot" and an "insurrection."

One result of Hugo's pattern of emphasis is that the characters are the type of Types that would be roundly rejected by contemporary readers if we were to come across them in a current novel; they are no less at the mercy of their creator and his grand ideas than those of Dickens, and they are blown without mercy in the unpredictable breeze of multiplying coincidence and reversals of fortune. Psychological astuteness, consistency, and believability are not entirely missing by any means, but they undoubtedly come second to illustrating the order of the world as Hugo sees it. We care about them and their fates no less for all that, however, because Hugo makes clear the urgency of those things which they're meant to represent, and we're consistently reminded of the ways in which all of us are--at least when taken out of the center of the universe and seen as but one part of it--"types." This is also in harmony with Hugo's overarching, socialistic conviction--made directly, unmistakably explicit at least once--that individuality, indispensable as it is, can only and should only exist after the common good has been considered. Even what has to be identified as Hugo's inevitable sexism when it comes to Cosette--who, as the only real female protagonist, quite directly represents battered, threatened innocence as a girl and coquettish-yet-kind innocence as a woman--is somewhat mitigated by the fact that most of the male protagonists are no less representative of their salient qualities, and by Hugo's unequivocal endorsement of women's suffrage. The novel's values are, for better or for worse, not "old-fashioned" but simply old, and by no means retrograde for their time; Hugo was, for his day, rather unfailingly progressive.




My only prior exposure to the novel having been two film versions (Raymond Bernard's wonderful 1934 film and Bille August's passable '98 adaptation), my expectations were mercifully untainted by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who still must be credited with rendering ubiquitous Émile Bayard's perfectly lovely illustrations, as apt for Les Misérables as John Tenniel's were for Carroll's Alice books. The films, particularly Bernard's, do capture something of Hugo's story, and some of his spirit. Still, one of the most remarkable things about Hugo's tome, the overarching reason it takes one's breath away--and what makes it, specifically, a great novel--is that, as a work from an era, pre-radio, pre-cinema, and pre-TV, when the novel was popular culture, it is possessed of and madly driven by a confidence, a sense of purpose, a mission that are no longer, and can no longer be, the provenance of the novelist. Hugo's time and place demanded both more and less than Oscar Wilde's or Virginia Woolf's--or our own, when a justly celebrated novel like Tom McCarthy's perfectly self-contained, thematically disciplined, emotionally submerged C seems almost the opposite of something like Les Misérables. To be an aesthete or a modernist, however brilliant or focused, would have struck a humanist like Hugo--so on fire with love and sadness for humankind, and so luxuriantly able to express that passion unfettered by self-consciousness--as absurd. Since Hugo's time, the novel has become something we expect to be a polished diamond, lean and dazzling--a work sculpted to whatever specific, intellectually irreproachable contours the well-read and acutely (self) aware author sets for him or herself. To judge from Les Misérables, Hugo would have felt stingy offering us just the diamond, when for him it is only the gem as we may discern it amid its asymmetrically, unpredictably structured and constantly digressing bed of coal that constitutes the whole, rich, insatiably searching, restlessly all-encompassing experience the novel was once, however romantically, however impossibly, meant to be.

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