TIFF Capsules — Day 9
ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, Eric Rohmer, France — 6
I’m afraid I may be becoming an auteurist zombie with my grade on this movie, an adaptation of a 17th-century novel in the chivalric style, about a 5th-century love split by a misunderstanding. ROMANCE is the weakest film I’ve ever seen by my favorite living film-maker, but not an uninteresting one, exactly because I had such difficulty with it.¹ To state what is most obvious, ROMANCE is very badly acted movie. Atrociously acted. At the bad middle-school, Max Fischer Players level of reciting clearly-memorized lines. It’s so bad that it HAS to be deliberate … this is Eric frickin’ Rohmer, right? And he did make PERCEVAL, a medieval-set heroic tale that was just as stiffly and artificially acted. Right? He did. Except … PERCEVAL was clearly performed as an onscreen text — absurdly artificial cardboard sets, characters self-narrating their actions, a visible music chorus, complete with Foley artists in costume. I can’t entirely embrace PERCEVAL, but it was clearly an anti-realist period film (though I think THE LADY AND THE DUKE much superior in that vein). But there’s none of either earlier film’s visual strategy in ROMANCE, which is shot plain-vanilla style in natural settings that neither evoke the past or signify anything at all. And seeing ROMANCE the same day as THE VIRGIN SPRING didn’t make me more receptive to the “medieval stylization” claim. Theo pointed out to me later that Rohmer begins ROMANCE with a card saying the film would try to recreate how a 17th-century audience would imagine this chivalric-romance story. Which I got, but doesn’t seem like an explanation. Would (or could) Enlightenment audiences have imagined an-already-past piece in the style of cinematic realism? I have such regard for Rohmer that I have no doubt he achieved what he wanted to. I just don’t have the foggiest notion of what exactly that was. And why.
THE WALKER, Paul Schrader, USA — 7
In the midst of all the snooty art films at a festival like TIFF, the good ones and the bad ones, you still need at least a couple of palate cleaners: English-language entertainment films with few ambitions beyond telling a story, making you laugh, giving you a thrill/chill or two. So for the ninth day of a fest, THE WALKER is a perfectly confectionary film. Schrader pretty much made this movie 25 years ago. A “walker” is basically a publicly-presentable escort/companion for older socially-prominent women (no sex occurs, and gay men are particularly valuable since can appear publicly with women without suspicion). In this Washington-set movie, Schrader more or less tells the story of AMERICAN GIGOLO with Woody Harrelson as a gay Richard Gere. There’s a dash or two of political intrigue added in, the latter of which is little more than another example of what I call “liberalism as product placement.” But Schrader handles the mechanics of the semi-political thriller deftly, Harrelson effectively plays both sides of the street — a bon-vivant and a man unexpectedly finding himself pushed into a corner. And any movie with a Diva Row like this one — Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall — can only be called “fabulous.”
ERIK NIETZSCHE: THE EARLY YEARS, Jacob Thuesen, Denmark — 3
When reviewing a 1981 film, Roger Ebert asked himself the following question, the most basic one a film critic can ask: “Why is Heaven’s Gate so painful and unpleasant to look at?” and answered that “it is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen” and concluded that “a director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.” Since the momentous December 1996 day when I walked half-awares into an Atlanta theater playing BREAKING THE WAVES, Lars Von Trier the director has never failed to make my annual Top 10. But Lars Von Trier the writer, when directed by others, has never avoided an all-caps CON (the only other such title is DEAR WENDY), and both WENDY and NIETZSCHE, a roman a self-clef about LvT’s years in Danish film school, have (among others) the same basic primary visual problem: a beige-brown palette that is simply ugly and dirty to look at. You DO want to try Windex on ERIK NIETZSCHE. The material isn’t all that bad — the pseudonymous “Nietzsche” finding his way through film school — and often very funny (the portrayals of the other students and professors have the feel of getting back on your own high-school class). But it’s extremely one-dimensional and the LvT self-promotion bandwagon has worn out its welcome. And the film’s as ugly as ass.
THE VIRGIN SPRING, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1960 — 8
I’ll describe my particular interactions with presenter Max von Sydow in another post, but to speak strictly of SPRING as a movie (we have all seen it, right?). Von Sydow pointed out after the film how the central scene of discovery, when the mother sees her daughter’s clothes among the thieves’ belongings, Bergman simply held on the mother’s face for a very long time. No cutting away and no underlining score, or any of the other things that a film-maker would do today. “He takes the time to make you feel her loss,” Von Sydow said (quoting from memory; may be a little off). He’s obviously correct about Bergman taking his time when he needs to, but I was struck just as much by almost the opposite reaction — just how efficiently-paced SPRING is. Bergman doesn’t waste a moment in a film that is as lean and fast (but without seeming hurried or harried; that’s the genius) in its storytelling as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Whatever may be said about his other movies, Bergman knew that medieval legends went straight to the point. Uniting my observation and Von Sydow’s — every scene is exactly as long as it should be. SPRING may also represent the peak (or at least “most typical”) example of Bergman’s black-and-white visual style: a bold chiaroscuro with harshly-defined lines around the objects, but with the pearl-gray ambience producing soft shadows, the result of using a kind of diffused light typical of the overcast North. Given that Bergman so comprehensively creates texture, this movie’s medieval setting and parable story produce the effect of looking at tableaux or a series of church icons (like the Stations of the Cross, say) from a time where movies didn’t exist. The thing that struck me most anew in this viewing of SPRING, my third or fourth, was how spoiled and naive is the young girl of the title (like Narcissus, she pauses to admire her own beauty in a pool of water), and how Birgitta Petterson’s performance, effective in this context though it is, seems to belong in another movie. She’s all sunny and light-hearted, as if she doesn’t realize that she’s living in medieval times. Camille Paglia would no doubt have a field day applying her theories of date rape to this girl’s reckless behavior, plus the archetypes Bergman plays to the nines — blonde-vs.-brunette, say. But I will always think that Gunnel Lindblom as the pagan maid isn’t giving is a bit … much of the smoldering hatred act.
¹ I hasten to say that ROMANCE is not at all “difficult” in the LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD sense of “hard to follow.” Indeed it’s almost too simple, a romantic misunderstanding followed by efforts to straighten things out.
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