TIFF 10 capsules — Day 10
OK … I’m tired of being embarrassed by my apparent-fanboy record on new Romanian movies. I’ve seen 13 features; 12 unified films and 1 planned omnibus collection of shorts; average grade 7.74, with none lower than a still-recommended “6” (one of the two of which I’m really unsatisfied by). I’ll just embrace it, by saying right now and staking whatever critical reputation I have on it. Romania is the late-00s is Italy in the late-40s or France in the late-50s — the country with the most exciting, groundbreaking and aesthetically satisfying cinema in the world, with identifiable traits in common by a variety of directors, that truly deserves to be called a “wave.” The 17 films or shorts are credited to 14 directors, but everyone seems to have their fingers in everyone else’s pie.¹
It’s the simplest of formulas — film artists in Romania simply don’t know classicism and realism have been done to death, like we in the rich countries that have great cinematic traditions already behind us know they have been. But by not knowing that and going ahead with stories about real people without special effects, usually following classical story structures and sometimes even the Aristotelian unities, the Romanians prove every time that classicism and realism not only will always be vibrant but are the answers to aesthetic decadence. If I’m gonna compare the current Romanians to the Italian neorealists², then I’ll add that the Belgian team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne play the same inspiring-fountainhead role that Jean Renoir did back then. The Romanians prefer the same naturalistic look, the same accretion of lived-in detail, the same lengthy takes and restless camera, the same natural sound mix with little or no score, and the same interest in working-class protagonists and stories in contemporary settings — all Dardennes hallmarks.
Of all the recent Romanian films, OUTBOUND is the one that wears the Dardennes influence nearest to the surface. In fact, though Dardennes comparisons are high compliments, the only significant criticism I would make of OUTBOUND is that Ana Ularu, in the lead role of a Matilda, a woman on a 24-hour furlough from jail, reminded me a bit much physically of Arta Dobroshi in LORNA’S SILENCE and had a determined-ferile quality that put me in mind of Emilie Dequenne in ROSETTA. Ularu gives a brilliant performance, mind you. Dobroshi and Dequenne are fast company — it just seemed a bit familiar. What specifically reminded me of the Belgian masters in OUTBOUND in a good way is the story structure, and the way that, even though OUTBOUND is segmented into three parts, each named for a different male character who plays a significant role, almost all the exposition was indirect or occurs en passant. It only comes out after several minutes, for example, the precise relationship between Matilda and Andrei in the first section. But then, why should they say the first minute they’re together “hello, sister” or the like for our benefit; they know their relationship. It also comes out slowly who “Paul” is, and the precise nature of their pre-prison relationship. It’s never not-thrilling to be in the hands of such story-telling confidence and respect for your ability to think, to remember and to connect, without shoving stuff in your face or reverting to willful obscurantism.
While at the same time, the film is absolutely confident in its rootedness, in knowing its environment, Bucharest as the Dardennes’ Liege/Seraing. We see somebody burning leaves in the background, we see a motorcyclist slow down to observe a scene, and we just expect these to have significance based on Chekhov’s gun maxim. But they don’t, it’s just an accretion of environmental detail. I keep using the word “lived-in” to describe these Romanian films, but there’s no better term. We know that Matilda and Andrei are somehow closely related; we just feel right away that the first shot is a prison, though there’s no metal bars or black stripes or uniformed guards or obvious signifiers. There’s also the utter realism of the psychology in OUTBOUND. While Andrei³ tolerates Matilda, his wife doesn’t, and as a result he gets pulled between the two in a way that’s perfectly convincing in terms of the anger, the keeping up appearances, the manner of speech, the back-and-forth. When Matilda, in part 2, speaks to a prostitute (Skandie Scene Plug if this film ever gets seen), we can believe she wants to impart her hard-won wisdom and warn her against certain things we’ve just been unlucky enough to see about the pimp (there’s no man around, so it’s “girl talk” time). But we also, tragically, realize that there is no reason the prostitute should pay attention to her, and that Romanian contempt and prickliness produces a great exchange without anyone leaving a seat as it goes through the car wash — an image of external cleansing that leaves the inside exactly as it found it. Later, we see Matilda with another person who enables her to fill that kind of elder role, and Ularu successfully creates almost a different woman for that context that is somehow recognizably the same one we’ve been watching for the first hour.
The overall story concerns Matilda’s attempt to raise 1,500 euros in half-a-day to facilitate escape from not just jail but from Romania. But again, realism is everywhere — despite the obvious comparison to RUN LOLA RUN, Matilda doesn’t have elaborate scams or unrealistic capers in mind to raise the money, just two or three vague ideas, where she pushes until other things present themselves. Only because this is Romania, there will always be dark undercurrents in this urgent, life-defining, one-day quest, with the darkest current being other people. I once said the following about 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS:
life in actually-existing-socialist Romania is portrayed as nothing but lies, where lying about things large and small, hiding things, maintaining appearances, getting around others is ubiquitous. Everybody does it. And everybody knows everybody else does it, making social life one long cynical day of pragmatic getting-by.
Life in actually-existing-capitalist Romania is more prosperous but hasn’t otherwise changed too much, according to OUTBOUND. Indeed, and I will try to speak vaguely, the third act returns the movie to prison and shows how little distance separates an apple and a tree. Gawd … I love this country.
When I posted my schedule for the festival, welshbud Dan Owen predicted that NEDS, about a boy growing up in 1970s Glasgow, “will be a fictionalised version of your youth… I expect a character called v-mort at the very least.” Well … the central character is named “John” (my middle name); he is a round-faced fair-skinned dirty blond (the boy who plays him around 10 is practically a dead ringer for me at that age; not so much Conor McCarron as the teenager, who gets most of the screen time); John starts out as a swot who takes it as a great personal offense when he’s only in second-top track; John has no difficulty expressing contempt for or showing up teachers when he feels like it or taking the strap as the cost therein; John is an altar boy at school Masses, though not at the parish; two characters (though not John; in fact, he attacks them) are dressed in the uniform of the Jesuit prep school I went to once I was old enough to take and pass the entrance exam (St. Aloysius, the best Catholic boys’ school in Scotland); there is even an early scene where an emigrant relative visits from America and tells John he should become a journalist over there; oh … and I prepared for this film in appropriate Glaswegian fashion by getting pished (actually, just one beer … but it’s the principle of the thing).
I don’t know why I’ve written all that, since this film cannot be the Proustian madeleines experience for others that it was for me. And it doesn’t seem like something particularly brag-worthy since John grows up to be a juvenile delinquent (though as alternate history, who knows). Still, I do think NEDS (NED = Non-Educated Delinquent) has some objective virtues for other folks. As one-note kitchen-sink miserabilist downward spirals go, I think NEDS is absolutely first-rate, with some major reservations. Primarily, Mullan gets a series of great naturalistic performances from amateur actors, particularly McCarron in the key role. Though the defining event seems too small a ha’penny to turn a life on — being snubbed by the family when he visits a toff friend — McCarron knows how to exist on camera, as a working-class boy who grows into the role of hard-man without ever really planning to. In the film’s best scene, McCarron makes it clear, without actually tipping his hand onscreen, that he is just dicking around with the teacher and he knows perfectly well what the Latin word for “garden” is. The supporting roles are well-cast and naturalistically played, almost certainly by other non-pros. Indeed, at its best, NEDS reminds one of Ken Loach at his best.
However, incredibly considering that Mullan gave one of era’s great naturalistic performances as a Glasgow drunk in Loach’s MY NAME IS JOE, Mullan is here his own worst actor, as John’s father. Or rather, he has no character to play, so he glowers menacingly and ineffectually (to us). Mullan also breaks the kitchen sink direction on two or three occasions and heads for far-flung expressionist flourishes, to spectacularly variable results, for example scoring a gang fight to “Cheek to Cheek” (not bad, gets across the fun element in a mass fight). He also has a high-on-glue John hallucinate Jesus coming down from the Cross, embrace John but then start kicking his ass until John shivs Him. The latter is a fine idea, to which I don’t object in principle as a hallucination / metaphor for spiritual struggle. But scoring the scene to the New Seekers’ “You’ll Never Find Another Fool Like Me” is not.
On paper, I should think this film is great — a not-really-‘fiction’ science-fiction film about a society that euphemistically breeds stem cells clones for body parts, about the social construction of the self even unto death, about the complicity of “reform” and “regulation” in barbarity, about the terrible calmness and normality of legal human sacrifice and about Keira Knightley ballooning up to a blimpish 105 pounds.
And I do think NEVER LET ME GO (the second festival film to take its title from a song referenced in the movie; the other being NORWEGIAN WOOD) *is* very good. It does deliver on the premises thematically and is well-executed in all the various ways. Knightley, Alex Garfield and Carey Mulligan give finely stifled performances in the principal roles of three embryos (“donors,” in the film and the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, which I haven’t read) allowed to reach the age when their parts are harvestable, managing the tricky task of tugging against their role without ever seeming to do so overtly (that would destroy the story’s integrity). Mark Romanek’s direction is crisp and understated, letting the revelations drift out at a leisurely pace. This is not a suspense film at all, as the trailer may have led you (well, it led me) to expect. Rather it’s a film about resignation, about fate and role not even being something you “accept” but your identity and reality per se (Ed Gonzalez at Slant demands the kids’ behavior be shown as “warped” — the whole point is that they’re not and that it’s appallingly normal). I thought several times about the PD James novel “Children of Men” (very much NOT the Alfonso Cuaron filmic travesty) — never in the history of euthanasia has death been sweeter.
And yet … something was missing. While I have my doubts about whether one can truly love a work of art on human cannibalism whose drama is a stem-cell love triangle, I also think it might just be the nature of the movie medium. Film makes things literal. (Ironically though, the reason we accept the barbarity of embryonic cannibalism and aborted-tissue lampshades is that they happen to unseen persons in an unseen way.) But when characters, words on a page, are embodied in visible persons (“normals” like Knightley, Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins), we want them to act more like persons. By, for example, not showing up for the three or four apparently-uncoerced “donations” (organ harvests) that will bring about their “completion” (death). Voluntarily showing up for a fatal operation without external force is the kind of premise that might work on the page and a premise you can intellectualize. But in a naturalistic film, it’s just too much: “have these people really had no outside contact with the world?” you think. In other words, NEVER LET ME GO is a Tradition of Quality version of DOGTOOTH, and maybe that’s the comparison. Though the Greek movie had an equally unbelievable premise, Lanthimos’ direction was so stylized and the performances so much at right-angles to reality that nobody could have thought they were looking at a facsimile of the real world.
Now here is another unbelievable story — except that we know going in it really DID happen. Aron Ralston really go out rock-climbing one day, (um … I guess … SPOILER) slip down a crevice and have a falling rock trap his arm in a wedge, leaving him no choice but (um … I guess … SPOILER again) to cut off his right forearm. It’s a can’t-miss premise that had the potential to be great but, like NEVER LET ME GO, doesn’t do either. In 127 HOURS case, it’s a matter of the wrong director getting attached to the project. Danny Boyle is not a subtle film-maker and is one not given to understatement (and by putting it that way, I am showing that I *am* given to understatement). Boyle’s hyper-caffeinated, balls-out style — no angle is too eccentric, no track too elaborate, no color too fluorescent for him — works brilliantly in the hurly-burly-druggy world of TRAINSPOTTING or the kids-fantasy world of MILLIONS. But here in 127 HOURS, it feels inorganic, working against the material. As a result, what Boyle has made is more of a character study about a guy who happens to have been trapped and less a drama about being trapped itself. The fact Boyle has made as good a film as he has is largely due to James Franco in the central role. He’s arrogantly carefreet enough as Xtreme Dude at the start and pulls off the self-doubt, self-examination, self-ahem-mutilation later on, as his fate gets progressively more dire.
In some ways, this film made me appreciate BURIED even more — both films are about men trapped into immobility, and both face the challenge of how to make that cinematically and dramatically alive. Cortes wrestles head-on with that one-set, one-character restriction but bakes the necessary “cheating” into his plot (the left-behind BlackBerry and all the people he tries to contact) so that it’s not really cheating. Boyle doesn’t embrace the one-set challenge at all, instead waiting about 20 minutes to trap Ralston. During which time, we get a series of ironies in the set-up story, painting Ralston as an Xtreme-sports enthusiast who, like Icarus, flies too close to the sun he wants to touch. To that end, we see him leave his apartment (and forget his Swiss Army knife … ooops), exit just as his parents call (I’ll let the machine get it, I don’t want anyone to know where I’m going … ooops), see a couple of girls and show them the ropes and have a successful impromptu date (and score an invite to a party tomorrow … ooops), etc.
Once Ralston is trapped, Boyle goes hog wild with the full cinematic fireworks and runs through the full panoply of story-telling tricks — flashbacks, fantasies, dreams — to keep the screen busy, busy, busy. He comes up with every angle — inside a water bottle, say — and excuse to hallucinate. Some of them pay off handsomely — the scene of Ralston imagining himself as a guest on a talk-show, with himself as the hectoring host is aces as psychology, and the miles-long super-speed track to a bottle of Gatorade in his trunk is mordantly funny. On the other hand, I love AR Rahman’s music, but there’s too damn much of it, it’s not the right kind, and it’s mixed overloud. I also do not care either for the “blend back into the world at start/emd” shot (see also LOVE ACTUALLY) as though this story was representative of anything. Nor is a real-life person getting a cameo at the end of his story or biopic anything but an insult to the actor (see also, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT).
¹ OUTBOUND is Apetri’s first feature, but the story is by Christian Mungiu of 4 MONTHS fame and the screenplay co-written by Apetri and Tudor Voican who wrote MEDAL OF HONOR and CALIFORNIA DREAMIN. Apetri also has cinematographer Marius Pandaru, who lensed both of Poromboiu’s features, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST and POLICE, ADJECTIVE, and THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD.
² The Romanians also exciting the same “why make depressing movies that make us look bad”-type criticism from some folks at home as the Italians did.)
³ Played by Andy Vasluianu, who also was the protagonist in THE OTHER IRENE and one of the film crew in THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD