Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto capsules — Day 9


The wife that might have been

VINCERE (Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 7)

This film leaves no doubt about the reason for the Vatican’s sex rules … man, you do NOT want to get involved with those Italian chicks: they are murder if you cross them. In fact it even suggests a little-known cause of history. I’d wager that the reason Mussolini had to become dictator of Italy was that that was the only way to get this woman Ida Dalser, who claimed Mussolini married her and fathered their son, out of his hair (and if you’re wondering about Il Duce’s hair …)

More seriously, I was really taken by what was (vjm sheepishly turns red) my first exposure to veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, whom Pauline Kael was mentioning in the 60s in the same breath as Bertolucci and Fellini. And now that I’ve seen this, I’m even more embarrassed. I realize Bellocchio isn’t of the same generation as Paolo Sorrentino, but I was reminded of Bilge Ebiri’s piece in New York magazine on Sorrentino as world cinema savior, because Bellocchio’s movie has the stylistic boldness and density that what Bilge calls The Cinema of Lack … well, lacks. Speaking of Italian national characteristics, Bellocchio’s editing and scoring have an operatic grandness and an emotional and sensual appeal that were really like a jolt of caffeine for a 830am show at a Festival of Lack.

Like a true theatrical virtuoso, Bellocchio gives his stylistic flourishes a quick and obvious but-never-stated meaning (Fellini is the master of this). In this case, it’s particularly apropos since fascism invented the modern art of politics as theater — a point Bellocchio makes by having fights break out at film screenings. As another example, a then-socialist Mussolini looks out on rioters in a piazza, only he’s just gotten out of bed and is naked. Dalser comes to wrap a blanket around him, for understandable reasons, but suddenly and before our eyes, it becomes a toga and before our eyes is born the idea of Mussolini as Roman emperor ruling over Mare Nostrum. The divinization of the state gets symbolized by a hospital visit to a wounded savior Mussolini. Similarly Bellocchio never tells us, though it’s clear to anyone with two eyes, that Dalser fell in love with Benito the Leftist, and clings to a memory of him even as he becomes more remote, both politically (as Italian fascism moves right and then allies with Nazi Germany) and personally (as he leaves her completely to asylums). Bellocchio underlines this by having Mussolini no longer be played by Filippo Timi but using only the Real Thing in archival footage — as if her private memory we were sharing must recede to the public man.

But man … that Italian woman. For all his stylistic bravado, director Bellocchio got the show stolen by actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Mrs. First Mussolini. Mike’s description of her from Cannes as “ferile” doesn’t do her justice — she’s obsessive and will not be denied, even in the face of sound prudential advice about going-along. It’s not simply grand yelling scenes, but the way Mezzogiorno’s body, gestures and words seem coiled even in relatively routine scenes. And then when she watches a certain silent classic, her tears are both salty and acidic. Indeed, looking back on my notes while writing this capsule, I’m thinking I may have underrated VINCERE.


The comedy that might have been

THE TIME THAT REMAINS (Elia Suleiman, Palestine, 4)

I seriously considered not going to this film, because Suleiman signed the “Boycott the Festival” manifesto over the Tel Aviv program. I decided against it — “that would make me as bad as him,” basically, but you’ll have to take my word that this is not a “revenge” grade. I got the ticket in the first place because I really liked most of DIVINE INTERVENTION and thus unsurprisingly genuinely did not care for this film, largely because it’s simply not terribly funny. And not because war or occupation are somehow not joking subjects or can’t provide the makings of comedy, whether in Suleiman’s hands or anyone else’s; indeed, DIVINE INTERVENTION showed otherwise. Instead, we get sequences like the 1948 hunt for Suleiman’s father — he was a bombmaker — that are played like straight-up manhunt scenes involving Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones (though paced and timed way too loosey-goosey if we’re meant to take them as perils).

TIME gets better as it goes along, but it only once or twice really lets loose into the deadpan, absurdist, Tati/Keaton vein — what I value Suleiman for. Consider two details: (1) the still I lead this review with, which is an Arab-school choir that won a contest by singing Israel’s national songs. OK … but the scene doesn’t go beyond the premise. It doesn’t build or shade or develop, instead it just continues with the initial irony. (2) The neighbor of the Suleimans, who douses himself with gasoline and threatens suicide until Suleiman’s father comes by to calmly grab the matches out of his hands, in the manner one might grab them from a child. Again, it’s repeated two or three times, but doesn’t develop from one repetition to the next. Suleiman just doesn’t find new riffs for the chords he’s playing. Some of the scenes are funny — a tank gun; or Palestinian rioters and Israeli soldiers exchanging fire, viewed from on high in extreme long shot, only to stop when a woman with a baby walks through. But not enough.

TIME is also, I think, too personal for its own good, putting at its center flashbacks through the life story of Suleiman’s parents since the 1948 “Catastrophe” (that’s the very establishment of Israel itself, not its occupation of the West Bank, BTW). And also his own life as he grows up, played by several different actors at various ages, until played by Suleiman himself in present day. It’s not as bad as IRENE — it consists of well-taken photographs, e.g. But like the Cavalier, however meaningful it is to Suleiman, he hasn’t given *US* a reason to care unless we already walk in sympathetic to the Palestinian-Arab mythos of the last 60 years (which I very decidedly am not). There was one moment I flatly did not believe, when Suleiman as a boy was dressed down as a teacher who wanted to know “Who told you America is colonialist?” Given that this took place no later than 1969, if it really happened, it would indicates that international leftism/Marxism (which would provide the space from which to say such a thing then) is the prime influence on Suleiman, not Palestinian nationalism, which would not have provided such a space then since the US wasn’t Israel’s prime armer until the early 70s (indeed, it was the US siding with the USSR against Israel, France and Britain that forced the pullback on the 1956 Suez invasion)


The film that might have been, part 1

I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary, 4)

And I am not your fan, Gyorgi … in this film anyway. Unlike HUKKLE and TAXIDERMIA, which, even if you don’t like them (and the latter IS dislikable), are hard to forget, this Palfi movie is utterly routine festival filler not even worth hating and his direction really lacks flavor. I will probably have wholly forgotten the details of this film in a month, except for what I write now (even a week later, they’re mostly evaporated from my mind and I really haven’t too much to say).

It wasn’t always that way though. I thoroughly enjoyed the start of FRIEND, which uses the same “what’s really a TV show gets presented as if it were the start of our movie” gimmick as Brian DePalma’s SISTERS, only it lasts for much longer (10-12 mins, I’d guess) and the content of the shows have nothing in common. Here it’s a show about kindergarten-age kids at school interacting called “I Will Not Be Your Friend,” and the kids’ performances are spectacularly naturalistic and also realistic — they spend considerable time declaring who is and isn’t one another’s friends. And when the closing credits rolled, I began to think “huh,” and then the film explains itself — it’s a TV show made by one of the characters.

For a while too, I thought FRIEND itself would have an intriguing hook — it begins with one character, who leads to an event and another couple of characters that the film then starts following until another event introduces us to new characters, etc. — think Linklater’s SLACKER or Bunuel’s PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. But it turns out this is just introducing into a circle of connections that Palfi keeps bringing us back to continue the individual stories (some of the characters know each other; others don’t), like CRASH: PORT OF CALL, BUDAPEST. The stories concern romantic and sexual alignments and some petty crime, but are completely unremarkable, except for one, involving a death faked as a joke. It also leaves the kindergarten beginning behind, except for the jejune parallel that these adults act like children.


The film that might have been, part 2

L’ENFER DE HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France, 6)

I wish I could bottle the lengthy conversation I had after this documentary about a film-that-didn’t-happen, defending it against Josh Rothkopf of Time Out New York and Rob Nelson of Variety, both of whom liked L’ENFER much less than I did (and my grade is only a good-but-flawed “6”). I agree that it’s thin on details (for example, it doesn’t even mention once that Claude Chabrol later made a film based on Clouzot’s script) and there’s a lot of interesting critical and contextual matters that Josh and Rob think it ignores (I’d say “leaves implicit” and “trusts you to get it”).

Consider one subject: Alfred Hitchcock. The British and French masters have often been linked critically and there was a kind of one-upmanship/rivalry between the two of them. For example, Hitchcock’s VERTIGO and Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE were based on books by the same pair of French authors. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac even wrote the book that became VERTIGO with Hitchcock in mind while DIABOLIQUE was being filmed.¹ I believe the word “Hitchcock” is never mentioned in the film despite the obvious ways the footage from Clouzot planned film (also titled L’ENFER, or INFERNO²) clearly borrowed from Hitchcock. But I didn’t think the film needed to spell that out — it was perfectly clear to me. The first words in my viewing notes refer to the images in Clouzot’s footage with “push Hitchcockian subjectivity to the pathological” and “Stewart’s dream in VERTIGO to end of all reason.” And the L’ENFER score, when it’s not sultry jazz, tips Bromberg’s knowledge to us by stylistically resembling Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann (“Not in the film, not in the film. You’re not on the screen explaining all this,” Rob was rebutting me then).

Consider another: the footage and the production history. Even those of us who like L’ENFER acknowledge that the film really only successfully serves as an excuse to see the footage Clouzot shot in 1964, but which had been sitting in film cans since, the property of Clouzot’s widow and unseen by outsiders. (And Bromberg told the exact same cliffhanger-tease at my screening as at Mike’s about persuading Mrs. Clouzot on the elevator, saying the film would finish the story — which it doesn’t. And all three of us were annoyed by that.) But the footage — just “wow.” It makes you weak in the knees and turns your legs to jelly thinking about what was in Clouzot’s head. The film’s story was about a husband’s pathological jealousy, which was going to be in black-and-white, with his fantasies about his wife (to have been played by Romy Schneider) shot in expressionist color, with filters, superimposed-images and surrealist touches. L’ENFER says Clouzot went wild with these shooting tests, mostly of Schneider, and his self-indulgence threw INFERNO off schedule almost right away and persuaded the money men (Americans who had given him carte blanche) to pull the plug after leading man Serge Reggiani walked off the set and Clouzot had a heart attack. L’ENFER gives no reason given why Clouzot, who already had completed a dozen films, would suddenly turn into such a putz, constantly reshooting the same scene.

Enfer2But again, I think the reason is perfectly clear from the INFERNO footage, though L’ENFER never says it directly — that Clouzot had fallen in love (or at least lust or obsession) with the Austrian-born Schneider, not a great thespian but a stunningly-gorgeous, iconic camera-object (imagine if Renee Zellweger ever opened her eyes). Throughout the INFERNO footage, and you can really get a sense of what I’m talking about from the trailer, it’s plain as day that she is being directed to seduce the camera — looking back into its eyes, giving it come-hither looks. And the shots are blatantly sexual — Schneider licking water off a transparency, blowing smoke into her nostrils, pursing her wide mouth and licking her lips, looking into the lens for what I will simply call the “iris shot” (Mike was taken by it too). I understand that there’s a perfectly good story-related reason for shooting Schneider this way — she’s acting out the husband’s jealous fantasies. But Clouzot’s sinking his efforts into this footage, shooting way more than he could ever use or needed for tests, surely shows that he became seduced himself. Indeed, since Clouzot was becoming obsessed with Schneider while Hitchcock was making THE BIRDS and MARNIE — there’s even more career parallels than we might have thought.
¹ It’s hard not to read Hitchcock’s theory about Surprise vs. Suspense as a rebuke of DIABOLIQUE, one of the greatest “last-scene surprise twist” movies ever. And as a defense of Hitch’s own decision to ignore Boileau and Narcejac’s making Judy’s identity a last-page “reveal,” instead feeding the knowledge to the audience shortly after Judy is introduced.
² For clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to Clouzot’s film as INFERNO and Bromberg and Medrea’s as L’ENFER.


The life that might have been

MR. NOBODY (Jaco Van Dormael, Canada/France, 2)

Imagine if Alain Resnais’ SMOKING/NO SMOKING had intercut its two realities, been told from a perspective of Arditi or Azema at age 118, not given any sense of the true gimmick, copped out on the central act of the film’s universe, and had one-tenth of Resnais formal chops. Doesn’t sound awesome, you say? Well … MR. NOBODY isn’t even that good.

The film’s main body, the hoary premise is an interviewer asks the 118-year-old Nemo Nobody to tell his life story and the film then flashes back through three possible lives that it insists for a time all happened, based on a key decision made by the hero as a boy. We know something isn’t quite right because motifs bleed through all three — a drowning death, dreaming the other ones, etc. The three “pasts” are wildly uneven — in one, he marries a manic depressive and Sarah Polley manages to give the one performance that interests, though I’m not sure it’s the right one for this movie (it’s certainly “manic”). In another, he marries an Asian woman and lives like a king — and that’s about as much as we learn. The quarreling scenes are shrill and over-the-top — though they made me appreciate those in I KILLED MY MOTHER even more. And in a perfect illustration of Polanski-era movie morals, bopping your stepsister is basically used as a joke.

Surprisingly, the world of the narrator at 118 is very different than ours since everybody is immortal and the narrator is the last mortal about to die, only on live TV. An intriguing world and premise, you say? Why, yes … except what would be the point, since the film chucks it away by turning that whole world into a red herring, and a pretty unbelievable and over-elaborate one at that. Why should this character see the world’s future this way? How is it supposed to have come about? Perspicacity at age 10? Reflection of some personal issue? But who cares about that kind of logic — I certainly wouldn’t if MR. NOBODY were in any way exciting, involving, insightful or in any way engaged my emotions (my viewing notes say at one point, after the line “my life was cast in cement with airbags and seatbelts,” “I am now so [effing] bored”).

I was angriest at the film’s final reveal, which had me madly scribbling “cop out, cop out” in my book. Nemo’s parents are divorcing and he has to decide whether he lives with his mother or his father. A wrenching decision obviously, and it eventually winds up playing the structural role that smoking a cigarette does in the Resnais films. But right after having told us a few minutes earlier that “every path in life is the right one” (a crock, but set that aside), Nemo decides that no path should be followed. He knows now (illogically if the 118-year-old’s future was all in the 10-year-old’s head … but again, never mind) what his life will be like under the various scenarios of whether he takes a train (i.e., goes with his departing mother) or stays at the platform (i.e., remains with his father). Only rather than do either of those things, Nemo simply runs off the platform. Are we supposed to believe this means he didn’t live with either parent? Or is it just a self-indulgent whine, refusing to make a choice between bad options (and in a divorce, “mom” and “dad” are your exclusive options) as if such refusal isn’t itself a choice or as if somehow refusing to acknowledge Hobson’s choices when they happen magically wishes them away. It basically reduces the film “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind,” only not written by Shakespeare and having no consequences.

September 29, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment