Reviews

ESFS Festival 10, Film 3 – “The Son”

indexThe Son (2002; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

In my festival intro, I mentioned that actor Jérémie Renier served as the Dardenne brothers’ “on-again, off-again muse,” a blonde-mopped personification of moral turpitude and financial desperation in modern-day Belgium. That argument still holds water, especially since the characters that Renier played in La Promesse, The Child, and The Kid with a Bike (and presumably Lorna’s Silence, I still haven’t seen it) seem like they could be different versions of the same person.  But for the purposes of this festival, I should have been talking about the importance of actor Olivier Gourmet.

The 51 year-old Gourmet, who figured prominently in all three films in this festival, has 99 TV and film credits listed on IMDB, but he became an in-demand actor largely due to his work with the Dardenne brothers, starting in 1996 with La Promesse.  Since then, Gourmet has appeared in every single feature made by the Dardenne brothers – most recently, he played the foreman who tries to get Marion Cotillard fired in Two Days, One Night, and he was the heartless waffle stand owner in Rosetta.  Mike Dub singled Gourmet out for praise in his review of La Promesse, calling his portrayal of a schluby single father/sleazy slum lord “the epitome of quotidian self-preservation.”  Gourmet plays another sad-sack schlub with questionable motives in The Son, but it’s a rare starring role for the career character actor, and a rare chance to display a sliver of human decency and tenderness.

imagesWhile working at a center for troubled boys, the typically taciturn but short-fused carpentry teacher Olivier takes an unusually patient and obsessive interest in one of his new pupils, a stone-faced minor recently let out on parole.  We soon learn that the boy was involved in the death of the teacher’s son, a connection that Olivier keeps secret from the boy.  As the two of them grow closer, though, Olivier prods the boy with questions in order to gauge his remorse levels…is Olivier out for rehabilitation, or revenge? Only the constantly eavesdropping camera has any clue (watch how often the camera follows a character’s eye line).  It all leads to a finale that should feel familiar to anyone who has followed along with the festival.

Even minor Dardenne is major cinema, but The Son is their least substantial work, and I placed it last in my updated Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings.  It has all of their usual intellectual rigor and stylistic and thematic hallmarks, but little of the narrative momentum of their best films.  Once the story elements fall into place at the end of the first act, there’s not much left to do but wait for the inevitable final confrontation between Olivier and the boy.  While the film is beautifully constructed and achingly raw, like an unfinished, handmade wooden box, the visual austerity felt a little more punishing and a little less electric this time.

But none of that diminishes a magnificent lead performance from Gourmet, who keeps finding new layers of mystery and confusion in this broken shell of a man.  Gourmet possesses a curious mixture of intensity, weakness, gravitas, and invisibility, operating sort of like a less bombastic Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman.  If the Gourmet of La Promesse was the banality of evil, and the Gourmet of Rosetta was the banality of power, then the Gourmet character of The Son is the banality of grief, a teetering man for whom salvation and self-destruction may be the exact same thing.

ESFS FESTIVAL #10, Film 1 – “La Promesse”

La_Promesse_posterLa Promesse (1996; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

GRADE: B+

By Mike Dub

In the hands of the right filmmakers, adolescence provides fertile ground for exploring the conditions that shape society. Far from just the finite crises of finding acceptance, achieving arbitrary victories, beating up a bully, and losing one’s virginity, good films about adolescence not only reflect the problems of an adolescent’s world, but also bear witness to its intractability.

The adolescent in question in La Promesse is Igor (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), an impoverished, pasty, ill-toothed youth who spends most of his time helping his father (the fantastic Olivier Gourmet) run a slum tenement for illegal immigrants. Igor, seemingly named with Dr. Frankenstein’s slavish assistant in mind, participates in the exploitation of the immigrants with the breezy nonchalance of an aged veteran – collecting rent, locking immigrants in their hovels at night, and negotiating prices on passports and work visas. However, he is also at the age where moral questions begin to arise, and he is assaulted with choices that are much larger than his age.

6a0168ea36d6b2970c017c331916bc970bBelgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who have made several films examining youth, poverty and morality, approach La Promesse with an uncanny combination of narrative finesse and visual severity. The film exists almost entirely in the world inhabited by Igor and Roger, to the virtual exclusion of any outside world at all. Wealth, or even middle-class stability, are so excluded from these people that they are invisible. Handheld camera, location shooting, and a bleak grey palette provide a hard, grounded camouflage on what is essentially a coming-of-age family drama. Igor is confronted by similar conflicts to other adolescents – family versus individuality, security versus morality, reality versus ideology – but they are played out in an arena where the stakes are extremely high and the consequences are devastating.

La Promesse welfare glassesThe heart of the film, though, really comes from the lead performances.  Renier, as the newly troubled young man, gives a quietly assured performance that, like his character, suggests maturity well beyond his years. It is rare for someone his age to avoid overacting, and it is a necessity here, playing a boy who suffers not only from indecision but incomprehension. And Gourmet is outstanding as the despicable but caring father, a balding, bespectacled schlub who exploits immigrants with workmanlike dispassion – he’s the epitome of quotidian self-preservation.

Like the Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers that influenced them, the Dardenne Brothers use adolescence to explore the social strife and moral breakdown of the industrialized West.  They also shy away from hackneyed devices that would make their film more palatable: there are no easy conclusions, overt political messages, or adolescent narration (thank God). By keeping the story a tight family drama that remains firmly focused on the central characters, the film acknowledges that there are no easy answers. A moral decision by one adolescent will not save society. The best we can hope for is that he might save his own soul.

ESFS Festival #9, Film 3 – “When Father Was Away on Business”

index2When Father Was Away on Business (1985; Dir.: Emir Kusturica)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

If you look at the recent history of the Cannes Film Festival, it’s pretty clear that for all of their emphasis on unique cinematic voices, there is a certain type of film that tends to win the Palme d’Or. Cannes is infinitely more auteur-driven than the Academy Awards, but like the Oscar, the Palme d’Or has become imbued with a phony prestige over the years. You can’t just give the Palme fucking d’Or to something frivolous like Shrek 2 (which played in competition at the 2004 festival), you need to give it to something “important,” which is why genre winners like Pulp Fiction and All That Jazz are extremely rare.

index1Cannes juries tend to favor small-scale human dramas played out against either a large cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment. If you look at the Palme d’Or winners from 2000 to present, almost every single film fits that description – Dancer in the Dark, Uncle Boonmee…, The Tree of Life in the former category, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, 4 Months…, The White Ribbon, The Pianist in the latter, Elephant and The Child a little of each – and so do all three of the films in this festival. The Ballad of Narayama and Paris, Texas painted their simple family dynamics onto that large cultural canvas, but Emir Kusturica’s 1985 winner When Father Was Away on Business falls into the other category, setting its coming-of-age story in the significant sociopolitical moment of Sarajevo 1950.

images3When Father… takes place shortly after socialist Yugoslavian dictator Tito split with Stalin and Communist Russia, and the plot hinges on concepts of infidelity, authoritarianism, and dehumanization, but Kusturica’s sardonic twist is to tell the film through the eyes of a small child. The “Father” of the title is a mustachioed, hairnet-wearing cad and “fun Dad” whose extramarital affairs are an open secret, but who gets punished with “voluntary work in that mine” after his mistress repeats a harmless comment about a political cartoon to a party official.  After his imprisonment, the father is sent to a shitwater burg to be “reconstructed,” but he gets by – they have booze and whores there, too. Meanwhile, the boy pines for a real leather football, while the wife bottles her rage and acts “as if nothing happened.”

images4Kusturica’s film has a much drabber palette than the lush natural tones of Narayama or the pop-art colors of Paris, Texas, but the graininess fits this world of black market peddlers and banal paranoia. Poor is poor here – even the home of the puffed-up party official is devoid of simple comforts, beyond a spare pistol and a self-righteous superiority.  It’s not particularly dynamic, but I liked Kusturica’s compact camera moves and bleary sense of ephemeral whimsy.  Things threaten to get a little too twinkly-eyed at times, especially in regards to the boy’s penchant for sleepwalking, but Kusturica generally keeps things grounded and recognizable.

There’s a bawdy boisterousness to the film’s depiction of a dictatorial bureaucracy that recalls the Polish films of Milos Forman, especially his 1967 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Firemen’s Ball.  When Father… would be pitch-black if it wasn’t so humane, and a lot of the humor is gently cutting in a Forman-esque fashion, such as in the highlight scene where the boy thwarts his parents’ attempt at a conjugal visit.  As it turns out, Forman chaired the 1985 Cannes jury that bestowed the award on When Father…, so maybe all you need to win the Palme d’Or is a little bit of luck.

 

ESFS Festival #9, Film 2 – “Paris, Texas”

imagesParis, Texas (1984; Dir.: Wim Wenders)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

These festivals are all about reducing my cinematic blind spots, so it is without (much) shame that I admit that Paris, Texas is the first non-documentary film I’ve seen by director Wim Wenders. That said, from my general knowledge of Wenders and my limited experience with Wenders-directed docs (I’ve seen Buena Vista Social Club and The Salt of the Earth), and now this 1984 Palme d’Or winner, it’s clear that there’s a strong cultural anthropologist angle to his work. In the bemusedly bleak Paris, Texas, Wenders articulates his slightly romanticized “outsider’s” idea of the lonely American west, a place of spiritual emptiness and surreal beauty.

images2Wenders has as much detached affection for the apocalyptic barker on the freeway overpass as he does for the neon-lit lanes of Route 66, or for Ry Cooder’s Tex-Mex score. The film opens in a conspicuously Monument Valley-esque portion of the Mexican border, as a mute man in a red baseball cap (Harry Dean Stanton) stumbles through the desert in search of water, and Wenders and his cinematographer Robby Muller make great use of the vast, low Texas skies in these scenes. Later, the film moves to Los Angeles, with the skyline now an endless, looping junction of freeways, but through Wenders’ eyes it’s just as beautiful and forbidding.

imagesThe story outline of Paris, Texas is fairly simple – Travis gets collected by his younger brother (Dean Stockwell) and reunited with his seven year-old son, then takes the kid to Houston to find his estranged mother (a drawling Nastassja Kinski) – but the atmosphere is all that matters. Wenders doesn’t have a particularly ostentatious style, but there is something dreamy and unreal about the way he lingers over the cinderblock hotel rooms, the stripped orange plastic of truck stop restaurant booths, the neon clutter of roadside signage, and the incessant hum of the freeway. He finds desolation not just in the desert, but in the new-growth trees of the L.A. suburbs, and in the cold, grey metropolis of Houston.

index4After a first half that concentrates largely on the relationship between Travis and Walter, Stockwell completely drops out of the second half, fluttering away like one of Travis’ bitter memories. Travis locates his wife in Houston, where she works in the fantasy booths at what appears to be a hybrid strip club/punk rock practice space (John Lurie plays the club manager, so there you go). The customers view her through a one-way mirror, with the booths cheaply decorated to fit utterly unsexy themes like “Hotel” and “Coffee Shop”. That’s funny and depressing all on its own, but then you see the view from her side of the mirror, the connecting wall filled with uncovered fiberglass installation, and it’s a kick in the gut.

images6Kinski doesn’t really show up until late in the third act, but the nearly half-hour long “confessional” scene between her and Stanton is a masterwork, the best thing I’ve ever seen either of them do. Stanton is amazing throughout, haunted by the past but touching at his emotional wounds with the sensitivity of a child.  Not all of Wenders’ attempts at emotional connection work, though – the boy is a precocious moppet straight out of a soda commercial, and things get cutesy even when the kid’s not around, as in the scene where a Mexican maid teaches Travis how to “dress like a father.” But I loved traveling the roads of Wenders’ America, a restless country where deliverance is an empty lot in the middle of nowhere, and where authenticity itself feels strange and unnatural.

 

ESFS Festival #9, Film 1 – “The Ballad of Narayama”

The Ballad of Narayama (1983; Dir.: Shôhei Imamura)

GRADE: A-

By Mike Dub

The opening image of Shôhei Imamura’s 1983 Palme d’Or winner The Ballad of Narayama is a somewhat anachronistic helicopter shot.  We’re ushered deep into the mountainous recesses of the Japanese wilderness, a journey that reaches further in the past the further from civilization we get. Not only does The Ballad of Narayama take place a hundred years before it was made, but Imamura brings us to a location that seems to have gone untouched in that time. However, rather than indulge us with the grand beauty of unencumbered nature, throughout the rest of the film Imamura showcases the harsh brutality and ugliness of the earth and its inhabitants.

Narayama, the second film adaptation of Shichirô Fukazawa’s highly regarded 1956 novel, takes place in a small, desperate village suffering from a food shortage. To help stem the hunger, villagers who reach the age of seventy are conscripted to Mount Nara, where they will die so that others may eat. The film follows Orin, who at the age of 69 spends the last year in her village preparing her children and grandchildren for her inevitable departure. Among her duties: find her widowed son a new wife, get rid of another son’s ignoble girlfriend, and help her youngest son lose his virginity. It might sound like the kind of quaint, saccharine dramedy Chris Columbus has been torturing us with for decades, but in the hands of Imamura, Narayama is a bold, dark, melodrama that explores the savagery of the human condition. It is more Fassbinder than it is Garry Marshall (at least, I don’t remember Marshall ever using bestiality as a key plot point).

topbnarayamImamura was an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu early in his career, and while he is known as a New Wave filmmaker, Ozu’s influence is still apparent, both in style as well as Imamura’s resigned compassion for his characters. He regularly employs long takes, and aside from the wandering eye of the nature cinematography, his camera rarely moves. The immersive pacing of the narrative, though, is repeatedly punctured with explosions of violence and abrupt humor. Despite its visual severity, Narayama is edited in a sharp, rugged fashion that expertly weaves the shifting tones and multiple storylines into a cohesive meditation on nature, death, and the ambiguous rewards of faith and sacrifice.

Like Kurosawa’s Oscar winning Dersu Uzala, released eight years earlier, Narayama is a study of humans’ connection to nature in a pre-industrial age. However, while Kurosawa saw purity, self-sufficiency, and individualism in his primitive hero, Imamura takes a decidedly darker view. For him, nature is not harmonious or precious. It is not a nature of frolicking deer and majestic birds, it is a world of snakes, insects, vermin and scavengers.  Humans, far from having conquered nature, are merely other animals in the forest, no more romantic than a pair of frogs mating in a pond, and no more righteous than a hawk that feasts on a wounded rabbit.

ESFS FESTIVAL 8, FILM 3 – “Kagemusha”

1980_kagemusha_poster_12Kagemusha (1980; Dir. Akira Kurosawa)

GRADE: A-

By Mike Dub

It might be hard to think that, at the age of seventy and already recognized around the world as a master of modern cinema, Akira Kurosawa would be capable of surprising us with a film that is as grand and captivating as Kagemusha. His previous effort Dersu Uzala was a staid crowd-pleaser that felt mired in its simple and old-fashioned narrative, and suggested that perhaps the march of time was creeping in on the genius who gave us Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru, among so many others.

But while Dersu is tepid, with an easygoing message delivered with kid gloves, Kagemusha is anything but. Released five years after Dersu, Kagemusha replaces the contemplation of it predecessor with pointed incisiveness, yet it also feels more expansive in its themes. The result is a grim, beautiful, harrowing, and, at times, oddly humorous study of war, identity, politics, and tradition.

Based on a true story, the film takes place in 16th century Japan, an era of constant war among three major clans vying for control of the country, and primarily follows the Takeda clan, led by Lord Shingen. When Shingen’s brother discovers that a petty thief who is scheduled to be executed has a remarkable resemblance to Shingen, they decide to spare his life, assuming he will be of use to them in the future.  Years later, Shingen is fatally wounded in battle, and with his last breath he commands that his death be kept a secret for three years, so as to keep his loyal army intact and to avoid emboldening his enemies. Shingen’s brother and a select few executive statesmen train the boorish thief, known as the kagemusha (which translates as “the shadow warrior”), to act as Shingen.

kagemusha_akira_kurosawa_criterion_blu-ray_movie_imageKurosawa’s narrative may seem simple, but, like The Godfather (probably the film’s closest cinematic antecedent), the somewhat straightforward storyline and character motivations belie the film’s depth and ambition. While Kageumsha contains a sprawling network of subplots, along with two grandiose battle sequences, it is most concerned with the study of the kagemusha and his dual identity as both pawn and king in a system that is so much larger than himself, a system that he ultimately succumbs to.

Even during what we would normally expect to be a massive, epic battle sequence, the camera remains restricted to the kagemusha’s perspective. Kurosawa has been properly lauded throughout his career for his masterfully choreographed and edited battle sequences, particularly the intricate staging of the combat in Seven Samurai, but here he pulls a sleight-of-hand trick. The horror of war is not illustrated through blood and carnage, but by simply focusing on the kagemusha, his shock, his fear, and his horror at the carnage occurring in front of him. When several of his bodyguards are shot protecting him, he watches in stunned silence. They know he is not the real Shingen, and yet they have died protecting him, still in service of their dead leader. There is as much honor as absurdity in their deaths.

film-kagemusha-l-ombre-du-guerrierThroughout the film, Kurosawa works with a dazzling, baroque visual palette that provides an unsettling surrealism to the horror of war. Highlighted by sequences that show armies marching along a disturbingly artificial blood-red horizon, Kurosawa unloads a panoply of colors that are as beautiful as they are sinister. Every moment of the film is expertly framed, intermingling the calm blue hues of nature, the fiery reds of nightmares, and the barren, earthly browns of the battlefield.

Kagemusha was the third film in Kurosawa’s “comeback,” after years of professional and personal tumult, including a failed suicide attempt. It revisits several themes that Kurosawa has investigated in the past: the individual’s place among the collective, family dynamics, the virtue and limits of tradition, the power and horror of war. But there is a peculiar kind of nuance in Kagemusha. On one hand, he examines those themes with the weight of his age and his recent past – he seems more cynical here, less conflicted. Here, war is a tragedy. On the other hand, he seems artistically inspired, his visual presentation as ambitious and youthful as ever – he was perhaps spurred somewhat by the New Hollywood of the 1970s (Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas helped secure financing so Kurosawa could finish Kagemusha).   Kurosawa may have once been close to death, but Kagemusha is a film full of life.