Friday, February 18, 2011
The brothers Coen really are unstoppable. It's hard to believe that they were going through a rocky period early on last decade with two misfires in a row--Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and the Lady Killers (2004)--because everything they've touched since then is gold. No Country for Old Men announced the comeback and Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and now True Grit show just how much they've perfected their craft. Joel and Ethan move their peculiar brand of absurd dark humor along at a brisk pace, putting a great deal of attention into their wacko characters, and stopping mainly to offer an amused and sympathetic chuckle at their inevitable misfortunes. These movies are as sure of themselves as films can be.
True Grit--as has been backed up by some impressive box-office numbers-- is the Coens' most commercially accessible movie to date. It one ups Winter's Bone by going even younger with its badass female star--Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has no trouble reminding everyone that she's only 14--giving us a hero to root for without being nearly as depressing as that tale of rural plight. The story, allegedly more faithful to the Charles Portis novel of the same name than John Wayne's 1969 classic, is straightforward; Mattie has to avenge her fathers death and enlists the meanest Marshall she can find, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to help her track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who's had time to run off into Indian territory. A Texas ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) , also enters the picture, but Mattie has her doubts about him because she wants Chaney dead for killing her father and not for the negligible crime of killing some Texan senator. Gunfights ensue and a sometimes tenuous bond is formed between the headstrong Mattie and the gruff and unkempt Cogburn. True Grit certainly leans more towards the feel-good end of the spectrum, although that simplistic assessment can be deceiving.
For one, the movie maintains a casual attitude towards death quite different from that of most PG-13 movies, which sport bloodless bullet holes as a way to downplay the onscreen violence. Here, the gallows humor, which often involves actual gallows, touches on the same sort of casual nihilism we've come to expect from the Coens. And there's a lot of it (a lot of bloody bullet holes too). In one of the first scenes, three men getting hanged are the main attraction bringing eager spectators to town. The laughs come when the Indian one has a bag put over his head before he has a chance to pontificate and give his last words. Later, another hanged man becomes an unlikely commodity. Cut down from a tree by Mattie and Rooster, he's picked up by an Indian, who trades him to a comical dentist, who eventually offers him back to Mattie--after the teeth are taken out of course. Both scenes are thoroughly delightful.
I did get the feeling that some concessions were made to keep general audiences happy and to be faithful to the book. Some parts of the film are stirring where they might have been much drier, and the piled on climaxes (all in the book) start to feel they're cribbed from an Indiana Jones movie. All in all, True Grit treads fairly lightly, refusing to take itself too seriously. Perhaps that's for the better because the greatest joy here is in watching Jeff Bridges's often drunken antics and listening to his almost indecipherable ramblings. He's a force of nature as Rooster Cogburn, and the only actor here who's truly able to take on the wordy period vernacular with effortless ease. Not to say the others aren't good. Steinfeld does a fine job wrapping her way around her unwieldy dialogue, and Damon's Texan is hilarious as he trades insults with Cogburn and engages in a pissing contest over who's the more accurate shot. Shooting cornbread, they're both pretty lousy, but under pressure or from 400 hundred feet away, they can't miss.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Ree, Teardrop, Thump, Jessup, Merab. You can tell by just by the names in Winter's Bone that you're entering unusual territory. That would be the rugged and isolated country of the Ozarks in Missouri, which are distinguished here less by blue hills than by burned down meth labs, ramshackle log cabins, and junk strewn lawns. Only the firearms are in good condition. The faces of the locals are as beaten down and hardened as their surroundings, and more than a few have the sallow skin and crooked teeth of meth addicts. Why then does every one in this movie seem so damn wise? "Your woodpile's getting low" says Gail, a hefty lump of a woman, and it comes out like some essential truth. Everyone speaks sparingly, as if words can only be driven out by necessity, but also as if they don't even need to say anything to understand each other. They all share the same hardships, the same traditions, the same concepts of honor and necessity. And they're often literally part of the same family.
In a movie where people make it a business of being tough and impenetrable, 17 year old protagonist Ree Dolly is perhaps the toughest of them all, although she can still be vulnerable. When we first find her, she's already on her own, raising two siblings on squirrel meat (yes, squirrels were skinned and gutted in the making of this picture) while her mother is incapacitated and her father, Jessup, is off somewhere evading the law. She dreams of joining the military, but even that's a far off goal. Things just get worse from there when the actual conflict starts and she has to go hunting for her missing father in order to avoid losing the roof over her head (he put the house up for his bond). "Don't go running after Jessup" warns her menacing uncle Teardrop. She stubbornly refuses, and starts greeting a slew of increasingly mean and dangerous individuals with unrelenting fearlessness and a cold stare that says she means business.
Winter's Bone has rightly been categorized as a thriller--Ree's search leads her into some pretty murky waters-- but it doesn't put in any more plot than is good for it. Rather than getting caught up in genre conventions and a complicated web of intrigue, it offers scares and mysteries that, while gruesome, seem entirely plausible. And after all, the scariest thing for Ree is the prospect of losing her home.
It's important, also, to point out that director Debra Granik didn't make this movie so that privileged audiences could gawk at the backwards ways of the hill folk--Winter's Bone isn't a pleasant movie by any means, but it doesn't concentrate solely on the unpleasantness. The showing I went to was followed by a question and answer section with the director, and when she was asked how the movie was received in America she noted that the response was positive, but that people often got stuck up on how "bleak" the movie was and couldn't see anything else. There's a lot beyond that. The people in Winter's Bone may not have much, but they have their strength, their courage, and the blood bonds that tie them together. As another interview with the director points out, this movie is the anti-Deliverance. The banjo--long synonymous with deranged hicks and man rape--has been repurposed as a symbol of hope.
Winter's Bone is a masterful film. It's suspenseful, involving, and often poignant. Everything from Jennifer Lawrence's astoundingly mature performance as Ree Dolly to the dreary and occasionally beautiful location shots works to create a setting so convincing that by the end of the movie, even I felt a kinship with Ree and Teardrop. Watching it in a theater full of Parisians who, I assume, saw the America in this movie as some sort of barbaric alien culture, I could have easily felt a little embarrassed that "our" nation harbors such debilitating poverty. But in scenes like the one where Ree teaches her brother and sister, who are 5 and 12, the art of survival, helping them point rifles at squirrels and telling them to sit on their knees like they're praying, I felt, more than anything, a tinge of pride.
A little bit more about the Q & A after the film with Debra Granik and Jennifer Lawrence...
This was the French premiere of the film and, apparently, Jennifer Lawrence's first time in Paris so it was a pretty exciting event. Unfortunately, all questions and answers had to pass through a translator, which was probably unnecessary given that 90% of French people understand English. So Debra and Jennifer would say a few words before being stopped so that the same thing could be repeated in another language and embellished. It disrupted the flow of the conversation to say the least. Anyways, here are some things that I learned:
-Jennifer Lawrence is of Kentuckian origin and Granik was immediately impressed with her in that she was one of the few auditioning actresses who wasn't nervous about the Southern accent. Nonetheless, she is not her film character. She's cheerful and exuberant, and if I didn't know better, I would have said she was a California girl bred and buttered. Asked about the response to the film in her home state, she said that people were surprised that such a world existed only a few hours away, but that everyone liked it. Or at least that's what they said to her face, she joked.
-Asked who she thought would win the best actress award, Jennifer paused. "Am I allowed to say"? "Maybe I should ask my publicist." But she did say. The answer was... Natalie Portman. :( Probably, but at 20, Lawrence is the 2nd youngest nominee and has a long future ahead of her.
-Debra Granik, who is much more soft spoken than Jennifer, was asked about the boat scene, which is the climax of the movie. She said that they had everything against them for that scene. They were shooting in day for night (much like the climactic scene in Deliverance, I noted) and the crew was waist deep in water for hours. But what really pulled the scene together and gave it the emotional weight it needed was the sheer grueling nature of the shoot. When one character in the movie lifts a chainsaw to *spoilers* cut Jessup's hands, the actress really needed to go through the same motions, to lift that chainsaw. All of the actresses in the boat had to concentrate on the task at hand in the same way their on-screen women did; they had a mission and they had to do everything that was necessary to accomplish it.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Given the grimness of top Oscar contenders like The Social Network and Black Swan, it looks like Hollywood had to have its rousing good cheer imported from England (again) this year. The King's Speech is a crowd pleasing tale of triumph in the face of adversity, a more reserved and much wealthier Slumdog Millionaire if you will. And since most of us are not and will probably never be members of the royal family, it's just as exotic.
Well, The King's Speech doesn't exactly win its audience goodwill through victory dances, and the adversity takes the form of a speech impediment instead of crushing poverty and treacherous sewage pits. Colin Firth plays Albert, who starts the movie as the Duke of York and ends up as King George VI, and who has to struggle with a complicated family dynamic and a debilitating stutter. His brother Edward is shirking his responsibilities as the king of England, preferring to cavort with the twice divorced Wallis Simpson (who apparently "acquired certain skills at an establishment in Shanghai") rather than preserve the honor of the royal family. It looks like Albert might have to replace him but the poor fellow can hardly utter more than a few words before his mouth clenches up, making him look like he's about to choke on his tongue. And while this wouldn't have been a problem in the days when the king was nothing more than a figurehead, King George's rise to power just happens to coincide with the advent of radio, which, unlike certain modern technological innovations, is a genuine connecting force. He's expected to act as a voice for the people.
Some have claimed The King's Speech as a pro-royalist movie, and there's some truth to that in that it's about a king and so much importance is given to how the king meets his challenge. The fate of nations seems to rest on the question of whether one man will or will not be capable of speaking a complete sentence. But if The King's Speech has a good amount of respect for the crown, and has to serve its story by building it up, it's not a movie that's subservient to the monarchy. For one, Albert knows that his position is essentially meaningless ("can I declare war? Levy a tax? Form a government? No!"). And then there's the less than flattering look into the workings of the royal family. As Albert's speech therapist says, no one is born with a stutter; Albert's inability to function clearly comes from the dysfunctional nature of an often quite troubled family. Most important, however, is the fact that this speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), is the real heart of the movie, or at least a fierce competitor for that title. An Australian (reason for abuse in the always class conscious Britain) and a failed Shakespearean actor, he somehow manages to make the king his equal. This happens early on as a formality-- Logue starts his first session by telling "his Royal Highness" that he will henceforth be known only as "Bertie"--but he also knows that the total ease and trust required for treatment won't come easily.
There's great fun in seeing Albert abandon his restrictions and boundaries and gradually let Logue and the audience in. His breakthroughs can be comic, as in a scene where the king utters this eloquent discourse: "Fuck, fuck, fuck, and fuck! Fuck, fuck, and bugger. Bugger, bugger, buggerty (etc...)". Others, where George plumbs his past for memories that by anyone's standards are easier left unsaid, are incredibly moving. Indeed, the broader historical context can often seem insignificant next to these very personal moments, which are where the film really comes alive. A wartime speech is a wartime speech, and the effects of proper diction are undoubtably secondary to those of bombs, bullets, or decisions made by actual politicians. But this movie is about Bertie and Logue, and unlike this year's filmic version of Mark Zuckerberg who was blank and impenetrable and somehow embodied his generation (and their disconnect), these two really only speak for themselves. And after all, who doesn't like to celebrate individual triumph? Jai Ho.
If I bring up Slumdog Millionaire, it's not just because the two share similar elements in their stories (especially in their climactic moments) or have remarkably similar box-office trajectories, but because both of them seem to have pulled off the same trick concerning the Academy Awards, coming out of nowhere to become surprise front-runners. Yes, against all odds, this little movie that barely anyone was talking about a few months back has edged out The Social Network as the favorite (see Roger Ebert's predictions or articles like "Why The King's Speech will win Oscars" in Vanity Fair), racking up 12 nominations in the process. Deserved? Nay, says I. And I'm still placing my bets on The Social Network as the big prizewinner. But before we get to that here's a quick rundown of the competition in the top categories.
Best Actor- Javier Bardem for Biutiful, Jeff Bridges for True Grit, Colin Firth for The King's Speech, James Franco for 127 Hours, and Jesse Eisenberg for The Social Network. Both Firth and Bridges were on the list last year, and while Bridges got the award then for his performance in Crazy Heart, Firth is the front runner here for his portrayal of a very complicated man in The King's Speech. He did a great job, giving us someone to identify with while serving up botched phrases and angry outbursts. I've only seen three of the five nominees (missing out on True Grit and 127 Hours) but my favorite is still Bardem, who carries Biutiful, and a whole lot of suffering, on his shoulders. A very good year for great performances.
Best Actress- Anette Bening for The Kids are All Right, Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole, Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone, Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, and Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Again, I've seen 3 of the 5. Natalie Portman is the clear favorite here, and she really did transform herself for the role, but her character is just too passive for me to support hers as the best female performance of the year. I prefer Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone.
Best Supporting Actor- One category where The King's Speech deserves to win. Jeremy Renner is great in The Town and John Hawkes is excellent in Winter's Bone, but Geoffrey Rush really has a lead role in The King's Speech and he does a heck of a lot with it.
Best Supporting Actress- Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth, King George's wife, in The King's Speech has a nomination. She's good, but isn't given nearly as much as her male counterparts. Hers is the only performance I've seen. Apparently, the 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) is the favorite, much to the chagrin of Melissa Leo (The Fighter) who caused a bit of a stir when she paid for her own Oscar campaign and talked about ageism towards older actresses in Hollywood. I have no doubt that she does an excellent job, but Steinfeld's case is another where a lead is put in the supporting category to assure a win.
Cinematography- Often goes to the Best Picture winner, but is it time for Deakins to win? He's the best cinematographer working today and has been nominated 9 times but never won. Now might be his time to take home a trophy for True Grit.
Documentary- Exit through the Gift Shop! I don't really know what the favorite is (probably something that invokes more of an emotional response), but I doubt there's a better documentary that came out this year. Inside Job is well researched and well-made and capable of inducing a fair amount of anger but otherwise unremarkable.
Writing (Adapted)- True Grit, Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3, Social Network, 127 Hours. Aaron Sorkin will and should take it for The Social Network. I actually had some problems with his script--it's sometimes overwritten and has too many obvious dramatic punchlines (the ending for example)--but it's still brilliant. And his script is the one that stands out the most as the work of a writer (instead of a director) who gives his own voice to a film. All the others were at least co-written by the film's director.
Writing (Original)- Nolan's Inception was pretty impressive, but David Siedler will most likely take this category for The King's Speech. It's really his project; he had a stammer when he was young (due in part to the trauma of the war) and King George's story moved him deeply. Lionel Logue would be less than a historical footnote if Siedler hadn't done all the original research on him. It's a fine script indeed-- witty, nuanced, and detailed.
Directing- This category can seem a little unnecessary in that the Best Picture award usually deserves to go to the director anyways. Maybe the writer sometimes. Producers? Not so much. There was some scandal here in that Christopher Nolan didn't make the list for Inception. He really is the only person responsible for that movie and its success, and he would probably have been my first choice. He certainly had to do a lot more directing than the rest of them to mount such a big movie. Surprisingly, Tom Hooper won the Director's Guild Award for The King's Speech (almost always a predictor for the Oscar winner). I'm likely to give him the least credit out of any of them; as I've stated before, that movie is Siedler's passion project. My pick is David Fincher, perfectionist extraordinaire, for The Social Network.
Foreign Language Film- This category is notoriously unpredictable. The Secret in their Eyes took out both A Prophet and The White Ribbon last year, and Waltz with Bashir lost to Departures the year before that. Oftentimes, the academy picks the movie that most closely resembles one of their own and it's usually a safe bet to go for the pathos instead of the logos. This year there are some unfortunate omissions from the top 5 nominees including France's Des hommes et des dieux (very surprising, since I thought it would be the eventual winner) and Thailand's Long Boonmee raleuk chat (not so surprising...it's too far out there). The most surprising inclusion (for me) is Algeria's Hors-la-loi. The film, which is really more French than Algerian (each country can only submit one movie) got mediocre reviews in France and looks excessively mediocre; from what I can tell it's a wannabe Hollywood gangster movie. The trailers and reviews kept me away from the theaters for that one, but I guess I'll have to head back to find out if my judgement is just. Other nominees include Mexico's (more like Spain's) Biutiful, Denmark's In a Better World, Canada's Incendies, and Greece's Dogtooth. Some say Incendies could win, and having seen it, I say there's a chance that it will, although it shouldn't.
Best Picture- Winter's Bone, The Fighter, True Grit, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, The Kids are all Right, Inception, The King's Speech, Black Swan. Seven down, three to go. This is a pretty good year for movies--each of the top ten is a strong contender, and there is no The Blind Side in the running. I will say that there are only two important movies in there, ones that leave an indelible mark and are able to say something about the society that produced them. The Social Network is historically significant and was able to capture something that defines whatever era we're in right now. Inception is a landmark in big-budget complexity and narrative showiness. I doubt students of film history are really going to do much looking back at Toy Story 3 or Black Swan. The King's Speech could win the best picture, but it's too traditional to really stand out for posterity. Winter's Bone is now my number two favorite movie in the running (ahead of Inception) but most people are saying that it's lucky just to be considered (Blue Valentine or The Town could have nabbed its place instead).
The Social Network will win.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
In Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke got beaten with chairs and fists, sliced with razor blades, glass, and barbed wire, and--most memorably--punctured with a staple gun until he looked like a pincushion. But offstage, he was treated with gentleness, allowed to look for love and redemption and gain in dignity what he had lost, through years of abuse, in health. Natalie Portman gets no such luck in Aronofsky's latest hit. While the story is similar, ballet is nowhere near as violent as wrestling (although it does do a number on dancers' feet), and Aronofsky compensates by amping up the brutality and viciousness everywhere he can. Beefed up men pulverizing each other make for some great bittersweet drama, but pirouettes and fouettés deserve nothing but straight-up horror.
The unfortunate target of the film's enmity is Portman's meek and fragile Nina Sayers, who lives with her mother and has her bed piled high with stuffed animals. Nina has just been given the lead role in Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake, and the role is made even more difficult in that she's meant to perform as both the maiden, Odette, (the white swan), and the antagonist, Odile, (the black swan). Even if her "white swan" is perfect--she embodies virginal innocence and has impeccable technique--she's going to need some breaking down to bring out the ferocity, the seduction in her "black swan." There's plenty to help her get there; Black Swan fits in at least two narratives that are staples of the "feminine hysteria" genre--on one hand there's a story of repression and madness similar to that of Polanski's Repulsion, and on the the other, there's a tale of dangerous ambition and obsession straight out of The Red Shoes. On top of that is Aronofsky's almost instinctive fixation on self-inflicted mutilation and on the way people transform and destroy their own bodies.
With the odds stacked so heavily against Nina, it's no wonder that she's so miserable. Assault comes at her from all sides; a fellow dancer scrawls "whore" on her mirror when she doesn't land the lead part, and another dancer--who was fired from the company because she was deemed too old--blames her before trying to commit suicide. The company's director, who's adept at crossing boundaries and playing mind games, tells her, "I got a little homework assignment for you. Go home and touch yourself." She does, only to find her mother--asleep but still watchful--in the chair next to her bed. Eventually, I just felt sorry for the poor thing, but I got the feeling that Aronofsky rather enjoyed terrorizing her. Furthermore, for a movie that's strongly centered on women, Black Swan doesn't seem very concerned with treating any of them well. They're either creepy and overbearing, catty bitches, unstable and self-destructive, or licentious and overly aggressive, as in the case of Mila Kunis's Lily, who plays the role of Nina's rival, Nina's alter ego, and (*ahem*) Nina's partner.
While Black Swan may be a little problematic in its portrayal of sexuality, kindness and delicacy aren't things that can be expected once you cross over into the territory of psychological terror. Taken as a cinematic nightmare, Black Swan is quite effective, capable of achieving a rare level of sustained dread. Tonally, it resembled Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream in that there wasn't a single moment where I felt good while watching it. In fact, it left me weak kneed and with a bit of a queasy feeling in my gut, without being overly reliant on jump-moments. That's a good thing. But I'm not sure that Black Swan reaches the level of artistic perfection it sets out for. "Sounds depressing" says one handsome lunkhead when Nina tells him the story of the ballet she's been putting her life into. "Actually, it's beautiful" she responds tartly. I think he might have been right.
Monday, February 7, 2011
"The evidence is irrefutable" one atheist (or previously atheist) scientist tells Cecile de France's character in Hereafter. She's referring to the idea of an afterlife. Actually, it's not just an idea--it's a very specific place where out of focus and shadowy dead people float around against a white background in a dimension completely separate from time and space. Near death experiences can give the living VIP access to the spirit world, which is why de France's Marie Lelay, an investigative reporter and television host, is so interested--she nearly died in the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia a few months earlier. But even Marie, who's a big deal in the reporting world, can't bring this important issue to light, and when she presents her prestigious publishing agency with the cold, hard facts, they look at her as if she's gone off her meds. Oh no! It's a conspiracy of silence to keep the truth from reaching the public. Damn those cynics, how can they let their prejudices obfuscate reason!
Wait a minute... I think I see what Peter Morgan (screenwriter) and Clint Eastwood (director) are doing there. Of course, I'm willing to let movies play tricks on me up to a certain point, to let them dictate their own reason in the interest of a good story, but the introduction of scientific "proof" seems like a rather facile way to get me to believe in something I had no intention in believing in. Yes, Hereafter is about other things (death, life, Charles Dickens) but it sure invests a lot of effort, and precious little uncertainty, into creating a very concrete spirit world. I was willing to play along, but Hereafter tested my patience with all its wishy washy spirituality.
Marie isn't the only one searching for meaning and reason in death. There's also George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a psychic who tries to shirk his responsibilities as a communicator with the dead. He just wants to live a normal life, one that's not consumed by death, but people keep coming up to him in tears asking him to help them talk to their departed brothers, husbands, wives, and sons. And then there's Marcus, a sad little boy, who's just lost his twin brother, and who's in foster care while his mother seeks treatment for her heroin addiction. He's a bit of a modern day take on one of Dickens' orphans. Coincidentally, Dickens is one of George's favorite authors and the reason he visits London. And Marie is going to London to try to publicize her book. If only they could somehow meet each other.
Any problems with this movie lie not with Clint Eastwood's lucidity (i.e he's not an old man who's off his rocker). He's delivered a competently crafted and well acted film with a good amount of sincerity. And even if the movie is too sentimental, it's not as sentimental as it could have been--it still has a brain and a pulse. We should be grateful as well, that God and Jesus and theology weren't thrown into the mix. But the supposedly easily digestible New-Age spirituality just doesn't go down easily. Maybe I'm just too cynical to acknowledge the truth. Then again, I would like to point to the fact that, asides from the dreadful CGI tsunami that opens the movie, Hereafter doesn't seem to have made a very big splash anywhere. A conspiracy of silence I tell you!
Sunday, February 6, 2011
In the first scene of Incendies, a Canadian drama (based on a play by Wadji Mouwad and directed by Denis Villeneuve) that was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar, a pair of fraternal twins, Jeanne and Simon, sit across from a lawyer and listen to the terms of their mother's will. Nawal Marwan, speaking from the grave, gives Jeanne the goal of looking for her father, who she had been told was dead, and gives Simon the goal of looking for his brother, who he didn't even know existed. A fine way to introduce the mysteries of the story, but there's one problem; Jeanne and Simon, instead of grieving, are sulking. Not only are they annoyed with their mother's request, but they approach her death with a self-indulgent whininess that's immediately off-putting. And to make matters worse, they speak French with a (very strong, in Simon's case) Quebequois accent. Now I don't want to baselessly insult 8 million lovely people, and I will admit that my own French is far from perfect, but I must say--and there's no easier way to put this--that French-Canadian is to French what Sarah Palin's English is to actual English. Do these people have any idea how hard it is to listen to impassioned angst delivered with that kind of nasally intonation without cracking up?
Now some of this may be intentional (the twins' initial self centeredness, not the ridiculous accent), but I was immediately worried that the movie would be equally caught up in its sorrows. The film keeps repeating shots of Narwal and Jeanne diving into swimming pools; it's a page straight from Kieslowski's playbook, and he rightly showed in Three Colors: Blue that swimming pools and tears make a great combo, but the tragedy in that movie felt natural and essential. I wasn't always sure if the same could be said for Incendies. Throughout the film I had to ask myself, "is this movie deserving of its own sadness"?
In some ways it isn't. Incendies boasts a tear jerker of an ending that's as implausible as it is emotionally manipulative. The relentlessly bleak and slightly maligned Biutiful was much more honest in its approach towards tragedy and uplift, even if it was less careful in hiding its flaws. But in some sense, I felt that Incendies, through shear force and willful execution, found a way to merit all of its dreariness and grand statements about hope and love. As Jeanne goes in search of her mother's past somewhere in the middle east, the movie keeps giving us flashbacks of a young Marwan dealing with her own struggles; the death of her lover, her search for her orphaned child, war between Christians and Muslims ravaging the country, and much worse. As those struggles accumulate and as Jeanne begins to uncover more of her mother's history, the past becomes so momentous and meaningful that it completely redefines the way Jeanne and Simon see their own lives. Their own troubles eventually become insignificant compared to the sacrifices their mother undertook for them.
Incendies may pile on too much in the end, but the search to get there is engrossing. The scope of the cross generational story broaches on the epic, and the apolitical message, that love can be just as tenacious and lasting as hatred, is hardly objectionable. If it's a little frustrating that this movie, which bears little of the subtlety of the best stuff from France this year, has a place on the foreign film shortlist while the thematically similar Of Men and Gods does not, I found it hard to begrudge it its success. Quebequois accents be damned, this movie deserves--if not all--at least some of the tears it's sure to elicit from academy voters.
I may have named Tournée as the best French movie of the year, but Clair Denis, as always, is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to transcendent realism. Her new movie, White Material, is the story of a French coffee plantation owner who gets in way over her head as violence erupts in her unnamed African country of residence, and it's an impressive film--beautiful, frightening, and often perplexing.
This isn't the first time that Denis has entered the hazardous territory of race and cultural identity. From her first movie, Chocolat (1988), about a French woman looking back at her childhood in Africa, to last year's 35 Shots of Rum, which showed an immigrant family in France, Denis has always been interested in racial tension. After all, she herself was that white girl growing up in post colonial Cameroun, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Somalia. But here, that racial tension gets a whole lot more confrontational than I've seen from her before. France's racial divide was more of a subtext in 35 Shots of Rum, and concerns over skin color were superseded by the touching family drama. Skin color cannot be avoided in White Material; as one soldier the plantation owner, Maria (Isabelle Huppert), "your white skin and blue eyes are troublesome." He goes on to equate them with evil.
White skin is certainly not evil in Denis' eyes, but white people can be a little oblivious. The details of the political turmoil in the movie are fuzzy, but rebel soldiers led by a mysterious man called "the boxer" are moving in, some sort of civil war is starting. Everyone's leaving--even the workers on Maria's plantation know it's too dangerous to stay around and get caught in the crossfire--but Maria stubbornly refuses to give in to fear, and convinces herself that all she needs to do is harvest the next crop. She bribes the rebels blocking her road, goes to town, and hires new workers so she can keep hold of her coffee, her plantation, and the illusion that she's built for herself. There's nothing particularly wrong about any of her actions, but her judgement is off. For one, her desire to stay comes from a desire to show that she's stronger than every one else--she's a bit like a city dweller who wants to be seen as capable of "roughing it" in the wilderness. And though she may think that she's in her country, that she's one of them, she's unable to realize how much of an outsider she really is. Even so, Maria is no fool. She's tough and uncompromising, and it's not hard to see why she would feel even more out of place in France, where she'd be forced into idleness. Huppert magnificently brings out the contradictions in Maria's attitude; she embodies strength and resilience one moment, which become more like foolish pride in the next. Eventually we see that she too is scared.
Less sympathetic are the African characters. The most substantial role is given to Isaach de Bankolé, a Denis regular, and he manages to do as much as he can with little. But most of the Africans are engaged in bloodshed amongst themselves. Child rebels seem dangerous at first, but they manage to cause little more than mischief before government soldiers casually slit their throats while they're sleeping. Some critics have pegged White Material as an indictment of colonialism, but it's clear that Denis has a much greater affinity for the coloniser. One could just as well say that White Material condemns the violence that is so much a part of the continent.
Chances are, however, that Denis has no interest in condemnation. Her films trade in ambiguity and difficult questions, and White Material is obtuse almost to a fault. We rarely have any idea of who's right and who's wrong, what's right and what's wrong, or of why any fight is going on at all. Even the chronology is messed up. One white character goes off the wall, shaves his head, and starts waving a gun around, and even if this sort of "Heart of Darkness" story always struck me as a little bit racist (as if there's something in the place itself that brings out evil), in this context it's more of a way to ensure that the violence is pouring forth from all sides, that the blame gets passed around.
White Material avoids picking sides by never getting caught up in the frenzy of any of the on screen action. Everything--even the murder of the child soldiers--is presented with calmness and lyricism. There's a surreal thickness to the film that comes, in part, from Denis's focus on the landscape, on the coffee trees, the dust, the green forests, and the heat (the excellent score by Tindersticks helps as well). The natural beauty of Cameroun (where White Material was filmed) doesn't feel oppressive; for Maria--far from being a heart of darkness--it's a source of life, it's why she won't give up. And Denis, even when she's showing the soldiers at their most savage, never fails to bring out the beauty in the landscape and the people that inhabit it. Even at her most vulnerable, Maria's face is graced with nobility, as are the faces of the workers, the townspeople, and even the soldiers. White Material may not have the compassion of 35 Shots of Rum, but it is, in it's own way, a labor of love.