We Need to Talk About KevinWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**-1/2, more likely.

I would never have heard of Lionel Shriver if this book of hers hadn't been made into a movie by filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (a markedly more sophisticated, observant, and adventurous artist than Shriver, as it turns out; the film avoids the muddledness of the book, and is much more an artistic whole); I was drawn to it exclusively by my appreciation of the film. Reading it was...an adventure, and not one I entirely regret.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the book, reminded me of nothing so much as Nora Ephron's HEARTBURN, and I mean that as a compliment (post Beltway/Manhattan oligarch-class journalist phase, pre-sickly sentimentality, that compact, concentrated capsule of hilarious, unfettered post-divorce bile is possibly the only thing Ephron ever did that I think much of at all -- it's utterly unsentimental and anti-romantic, and laugh-out-loud funny). Like Ephron, Lionel Shriver is a commentator/pundit/insider-observer of (upper) social moods and manners who's chosen at times to ply that odd (if widespread) contemporary specialty in the even odder guise of fiction. And like Ephron, she is possessed of a thin, brittle "liberal" shell through which one can easily discern a roiling sea of paranoid-defensive, hyper-individualistic devil's-advocate libertarianism, along with intermittent, alarming signifiers of a flat-out reflexive reactionary.

Precisely as goes for HEARTBURN, the best thing about WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is, far and away, the frank, past-the-wringer bitchiness of its first-person narrator -- a would-be liberated career woman who married an opposite she was attracted to and bore his genetically nihilistic son, who'd go on to fame as a creative mass-murderer of high-school classmates. Shriver's clearly part-autobiographical Eva is, like Ephron's pure-autobiographical heroine, Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE -- admirably worldly, inured by many hard bites, redeeming her cold bitterness by using it to extract truly funny, bull's-eye accurate, deadpan observations out of the kind of foibles, delusions, chaos and reversals that catch the lesser and the innocents unawares.

Where KEVIN is the lesser achievement to HEARTBURN is in its rollercoaster of focus and quality: Ephron's screed is brutally concise, short, to the point, no illusions. KEVIN meanders; its author has a lot to say, as a self-styled very informed and nuanced pundit, and it's far too much for the novel, which feels bloated, overlong, and forced. (The inner monologue is usually delicious, dark; but the dialogue is most often glaringly ludicrous. Not one conversation between Eva and her husband reads like anything but exactly a debate conducted by competing columnists on the NYT or WaPo op-ed pages. Why bother with the charade of making her a travel-book entrepreneur and him a location scout, Lionel, when it's dead obvious that they're pundits!) The shoddy, undigested, evidently un-self-conscious narrative construct and "character" artifice that's always accidentally showing through Shriver's loose seams; the soap-opera-like breathlessness and simpleminded on-off/black-white symmetries of plot and character, also -- and to much less impressive effect -- resemble Bette Davis and her exquisite bitchiness, in that when they get waylaid or must spin their wheels, when they have no focus or target, they become mere camp.

So, I grinned and nodded and laughed out loud through much of this novel. I rolled my eyes plenty, too, and even sighed in exasperation a few times. The ultimate question Shriver poses is not the one with which she believes she's confronting us with her prickly, erudite, ultimately shallow op-ed skills. No, KEVIN's question is more this: Even if it's at least partly an achievement to concoct such a novel -- a genuinely funny, jaundiced, effectively satirical glimpse at certain social conventions and all-too-human ambivalences -- using a highly timely and topical life-and-death "issue" as its launching pad, isn't the immediate creation of camp out of a current and ongoing ripped-from-the-headlines deadly crisis a glib kind of accomplishment, a dubious sort of distinction?

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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.")



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.

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