Toronto 08 — Day 7 capsules (part 2)
LES PLAGES D’AGNES (Agnes Varda, France, 2008) — 6
The genre of autobiographical reminiscence, particularly a film in which the autobiographer appears frequently onscreen, can often collapse into preciousness or self-indulgence. This one mostly doesn’t, partly because Varda herself has such an engaging, attractive personality, but also because the theme here is of obsolescence, including one’s own (Varda’s charm prevents the latter from collapsing into whinging like Terence Davies does in OF TIME AND THE CITY). Not only is the beach the very image of something that erodes, but Varda gets a neat structuring metaphor by ending segments by facing the camera and walking away, backwards. She also constantly frames photos within the photo of itself (see the original MEMENTO video box for a sense of what I mean). Both devices specifically situate the film as a backwards trip in time about memory. Varda visits shooting scenes from her films (shameful confession: I’ve only seen CLEO FROM 5 TO 7) and key places in her life and memories, and she recreates some of both. The re-creations make clear that LES PLAGES D’AGNES is a semi-absurdist cinematic riff on the theme of “you can’t go home again”: (1) her childhood home is now in the hands of an investor in model train sets; (2) she has children re-enact scenes their parents did in her first film LA POINTE COURTE; (3) the re-created scenes often have transparently fake “sets” and “props” (the Citroen 2CV that Varda is shown “driving” is hilarious); (4) she re-creates a beach in the middle of the street. The funniest moments in the film belong to Chris Marker (to say more would spoil the utter originality of the appearance by the famously reclusive director).
Varda also portrays herself as the woman who wasn’t there, joshing that her family was out in the country the day Paris was liberated and that she was in Los Angeles in May 1968. She also plays up her old-fashionedness, bordering on obsolence in several ways. She buys a Liege plate for the Dardenne brothers at a junk sale, shares clips from a film about “Mr. Cinema” as someone dying and ignored, and portrays herself at the end, without self-pity, as literally living in the world of cinema, i.e., in a house whose walls consists of strips of film hung like a door curtain.
But Varda’s living in the world of cinema puts some 900-pound elephants in the room that she completely skips over and which prevent me from embracing PLAGES fully. Varda mentions, and does so entirely en passant, how she went off to China in the 1950s to photograph Mao’s peasant revolution, and then went to Cuba in the early 60s to do the same for Castro’s sugar-cane harvest. If she has ever had a second thought about either odious regime, she hid it completely. In a genre other than autobiographical reminiscence, silence about one’s past sins is usually appropriate. Not in this film. And not in a film that specifies how “shameful” was the deportation of France’s Jews by the Vichy regime. Since Varda doesn’t even attempt an apologia for doing her trips, cluelessness on her part that there might be legitimate issues to address is the only rational explanation. Particularly since Varda also takes pains to make clear how radical are her own pro-abortion views¹ — she not only signed a famous “I had an abortion” manifesto in 1971, but she contemporaneously denounces anyone “who would judge” any such woman.
REVANCHE (Gotz Spielmann, Austria, 2008) — 9
WARNING: Many spoilers — I tried, and wrote a bit vaguely in places. But there was no way to discuss this film and its themes without largely telling what happens and perhaps spoiling some of the effect.
The first shot of REVANCHE is of calm water, suddenly disturbed by what looks like a stone being thrown into it, creating ripples. This is the final decisive act in the film, we learn later. REVANCHE is like a mirror remake of a certain modern classic, only the trajectory happens to a criminal rather than to a cop and don’t click here to learn what modern classic I’m thinking of if you don’t want REVANCHE spoiled, or at least diminished. One of the greatest pleasures of REVANCHE for me, knowing very little about it, was that for the first 30-40 minutes or so, it seemed to be a crime movie set in the world of Vienna prostitution. There’s a graphic early sex scene that I feel obliged to warn about for reasons that soon will be obvious given the terms on which I’m recommending this film. But then after the central crime the film had been heading toward, it went in a completely different direction and came out as one of the most spiritually profound movies (the German tagline means “whose fault is it if life doesn’t go your way”) and among the best directed and acted I’ve seen in recent years. To compare the world’s best-known Austrian director, REVANCHE has Haneke’s trenchant moralism without his determinism.
Johannes Kirsch plays Alex, a petty criminal whose boss runs the whore house where his secret Russian girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) also works. They both want out of the life and so he plans a bank robbery. I’m gonna talk vaguely, but I have to give away some details, so consider yourself warned. The robbery is botched and Alex takes refuge on the family farm with his father, a traditional old man who says his son, who already has served time, had ruined himself by going off to the big city. While hiding, Alex learns of a local cop Robert (Andreas Lust), with whom he has done business, lives in the next farm over with his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), whom Alex wants for a complicated set of motives. Those are the basic plot elements and you can start reading again.
REVANCHE bears some resemblance to FARGO: wood chopping plays a role and a wild sex scene ends with a cut to something banal and routine. But most importantly, both plots play out in a way that leaves the MacGuffin completely out of the picture. Nobody alive at the end of FARGO knows where the ransom is or even that there is money to be found; only one character alive at the end of REVANCHE knows the whole story of the principal love-triangle relationship. And that character becomes maybe the unlikeliest Christ-figure you’ll ever see in a movie, if for no better reason that the character is never especially set up as One, isn’t sinless at all, and because the burden of carrying the sins of all becomes not a burden instead something as beautiful as life itself (a couple of days ago was the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross).
Nor is that analogy “Victor reading his ideas into the film” as I’m quite prepared to admit about what I said on HAPPY GO-LUCKY in the post above may well be. More than any other movie I can think of, REVANCHE is filled with signifiers of religion, but as a part of ordinary lived experience rather than as the subject matter per se, present everywhere but visible nowhere. Alex’s father has a Sacred Heart portrait and a memorial prayer card for his dead wife on the wall; crucifixes and crosses are part of the ordinary adornment, even in a bank; characters pray at appropriate moments (the devout often, the not-so when in crisis); and the last shot of the film has trees sagging with fruit (a biblical metaphor par excellance, particularly considering what we just learned). The religious imagery is also used dramatically in obviously deliberate ways. For one example, Alex’s elderly father says he is confident he will soon (meaning, in Heaven) meet his wife, who is the subject of the memorial prayer card on the wall, and then Spielmann cuts to a photo of someone Alex has lost. But without the religious context of the other photo, all he can think about is revenge.² For another example, in one scene, the camera follows a character riding a motorcycle along a twisty road through an Austrian forest, and then when the road reaches a sharp right-turn-only point, coincidentally(?) at a crucifix, the motorcycle goes on but the camera stays to contemplate. At that site, the central plot point happens. The way the plot is eventually resolved removes all doubt about the fundamentally religious orientation of REVANCHE — the resolution is not a shootout, but rather two appeals to conscience, one made wittingly and one unwittingly: the unwitting one eventually being the more powerful because it urged the listener to stand outside himself and not just listen to his feelings, however real they may be as feelings. The unwitting one also, by indirection, demonstrates that even revenge itself requires a moral context, a moral justification to be coherent. I.e., there’s a reason, however bad, to kill the man who murdered a family member; there’s no reason to kill somebody over an accident that was one’s own fault in the first place.
Spielmann’s direction isn’t as flashy or obviously “direction” as Haneke’s but it’s perfect in its own way, as a simple knack for making the right choices. When a woman asks her policeman husband about events at work that we’ve already seen, the cop has his back and head toward us, while the wife is turned toward us, at maybe a quarter-profile. The conversation goes on for about maybe a minute , but without a cut because there’s no dramatic need to see the cop’s face (it also emphasizes his grief-shame) since the drama in this scene at this point in the movie is on her face. Mike also has already talked about Alex’s wood-chopping scenes, which take place while a buzzsaw is running. The aggression in the ax wielding, combined with the noise of the whirring (though let’s just say the buzzsaw is not used like the wood chipper in FARGO is), is as if Alex is making a substance of menacing sexual anger (he even smokes a cigarette after one series of swings). And … spoiler warning … that menace comes into being in a scene played out in shadow with the lights off. A scene of sex as angry revenge, and there’s exquisite irony, on multiple levels,³ in what happens from that encounter.
MARTYRS (Pascal Laugier, France, 2008) — 0
Yeah Alex, I probably shoooda known better. And Wazowski, you’re about two points too generous. This is a vile, ugly movie that stains the soul of anyone who sees it and especially those who apparently enjoyed it. Seeing it with the Midnight Madness audience that was whooping it up when it did was profoundly and deeply dispiriting. I think MARTYRS, or rather the approving reaction it won, officially ends my interest in Midnight Madness, at least with respect to horror films (comedies and martial-arts films are still A-OK). MARTYRS is a movie that very early on shows a character massacring a family of four with a shotgun and when the last “kill” was made (against a victim for whom it was impossible for the killer to have any grievance), the audience applauded wildly at this pornographic climax that they were getting off to themselves. Then later, when it turns out that one of the victims wasn’t really dead, the killer goes on a rampage with a hammer and crushes the skull. And I don’t mean “breaks”; I mean “crushes,” complete with breaks, squishes, further blows, more breaks, more squishes. It’s over, the woman on top is panting, and the Ryerson audience starts cheering again, getting off on its own brutalism. Of course the massacre that occupies much of the first half of the film takes place on a rainy day, to give the fanboys boner-inducing views of the two central characters, both women, running in their wet T-shirts. Then, when the killer in the first part (an abuse victim) is killed, her friend (who helped cover things up) becomes the central character and MARTYRS becomes even more distasteful, subjecting her to a series of tortures that end with her being surgically flayed. Not content with pornographic violence as victim-reversal empowerment, MARTYRS turns to pornographic violence as an empty ritual, at the end tarted up as a scientific study of religious ecstasy. She’s tied up a metal machine that forces her into a crucifix pose and at the climactic flaying, the camera goes inside her eye for the light show from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or for Heaven or for something. “Since there is no god, we can only study the effects of martyrdom through deliberately meaningless pain” is the point, I guess. When the “heroine” whispers her insights on what she saw to the scientist in charge of the experiment, the scientist kills herself rather than repeat it. The final title card defines a martyr (correctly) as a witness. Yes, but a witness to what? Imagine St. Paul responding to the road to Damascus by killing himself for a sense of how blasphemous the ending would be if it were possible to take this piece-of-shit film at all seriously. One more thing: The scientist’s apologia early in her involvement says that since there is now so much suffering, people can no longer be moved by it, which had me rolling my eyes as a description of today, particularly in the wealthy-West context of this movie. In fact, the opposite might make a more-provocative and at least not absurd-on-its-face claim: that “torture porn” is so prevalent because Americans and Europeans live such insulated suffering-free lives and consider that our right.
¹ While the fact there are separate issues surrounding the legal status of the act, issues that might make “pro-choice” at least not incoherent on its face as a political stance, when one says that nobody should even judge an act, he is objectively saying that the act is a good thing. Hence “pro-abortion” is the accurate term.
² Linguistic aside question #2: For anybody who speaks German — what is the ordinary German word for “revenge.” Several times in the film I heard “Rache,” which I knew from Sherlock Holmes “A Study in Scarlet.” But I never heard “Revanche,” though some-but-not-all online German dictionaries (and my hard copy) all list it as meaning “revenge.” Is it obsolete, a foreign-to-German affectation or something else?
³ Linguistic aside question #3: For anybody who speaks German, does the phrase “shooting blanks” have both the meanings it does in English — the literal “unloaded gun” and the metaphoric “male infertility or impotence.”