GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain, 6)
In between this film and my next, I called my parents, and my father wanted to know what I had just gotten out of. I said “an adaptation of Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS” / “How was it?” / “Fine. Nothing special but it is what it is and good for what it is … an illustration of a classic novel.” / “Well … what’s wrong with that? If it’s good for what it is, it’s good, right?” Pauline Kael also defended literary adaptations as a genre, saying it’s a perfectly normal pleasure to want to see the films and plays we read in school illustrated and/or adapted with today’s actors. This latest version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a pretty faithful adaptation (it’s been years since I read it, but I can’t recall any major plot points or characters it doesn’t hit, though there are accordingly a few it underplays or underdevelops) and if it entertains while it’s on the screen and encourages folks to read Dickens, it has done the Lord’s work.
Still, the film got on the bad side of me early. The key to the whole yarn is the first scene, the meeting with Magwitch in the graveyard. Here is the famous sequence from the 1946 David Lean adaptation.
This film bollixed it up, or at least diminished it, in two ways. First, compared to Finlay Currie, Ralph Fiennes is barely intelligible behind a thicker accent and state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound mixing. That same state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound and mickey-mousing music also accompanies a smash cut to Fiennes’ face when Magwitch appears, giving the whole scene the feel of a contemporary horror film. I also thought Mrs. Joe was a bit much, but those were the exceptions. Despite being younger than is customary, Helena Bonham Carter was perhaps an obvious choice as Miss Havisham, but she can convince both as a weird old woman (all those Tim Burton films) and a young woman in a flashback to the infamous wedding day. I don’t understand the logic of turning Mr. Jaggers into a single-line Jew if you’ve cast Robbie Coltrane, but I was glad to have him in the role. And by the time Magwitch reappears, the film has recovered its footing, Fiennes has dialed it back a bit and he dominates the rest of the film.
During a scene of paying off debts, it occurred to me that GREAT EXPECTATIONS is the same ruffian-does-social-climbing story as BARRY LYNDON. But while Kubrick (can’t speak about Thackeray) tells the story of a consciously self-made man both profiting from and being defeated by chance, Dickens gives the opposite psychology – a man who arbitrarily and mysteriously gains gentleman status and then finds out it was a reward for a long-forgotten good deed. But then Dickens was some kind of Christian and Kubrick was not. It also occurred to me in the last 15 minutes of this film that there’s just a little much coincidence and “coincidence” and cross-cutting relationships here for my adult taste, though that’s largely what Dickens wrote – he was the Arriaga/Inarritu of the 19th century. Still, this new film gets across Dickens’ humor and class-based fun – the young lads’ punch-up “according the rules,” the Finches of the Grove party, lines like “it’s not generally the custom in London to put your knife in your mouth, for fear of the ants.” And it really delivers on the best scene is the book – the London reunion with Joe (here played with bone-deep class-consciousness by Jason Flemyng), where a snobbish Pip and a not-quite-humiliated Joe try to have a meal.
IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France, 8)
I obviously wouldn’t push this comparison too far, but IN THE HOUSE reminds me a bit of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. The Bunuel masterpieces were nominally about forever sitting down to dinner but never eating (with plenty of digression in the interim) and a relay race of plot points and characters that become nothing but digressions, never surviving contact with the next plot point or character. Neither film makes logical sense (An emu wandering through your bedroom while a mailman leaves a note? A cafe with nothing but water?), but what they were really about was the Old Master’s comfortable ease as a yarnmeister. His very confidence could hook you into a story or joke or “I dreamed this last night.” The two films are thoroughly entertaining divertissements on the story-telling process and I recommend them highly.
IN THE HOUSE shows Ozon, a much younger man than Bunuel, in a very similar mode. The nominal surface subject is a French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) fascinated by the journal assignments of one of his students, the star pupil who actually writes something worthwhile in a room full of “I hate pizza on Saturday and Sundays suck” essays and “I can’t bring myself to write about this movie. -30-” film criticism. He wants Claude (Ernst Umhauer) to keep writing about his friendship into another neighborhood family and advises him to get involved with the family to provide more material. The Plausibles don’t add up (Claude’s writing may profit by comparison with classmates, but he is no Stephen King, in Mike’s words). Still, Ozon is doing what Bunuel did … seducing us with his silky smooth style, his native wit, and a string that we just want to keep tugging, like the teacher does (we see enacted the stories as he’s reading them).
There’s more here than just an enjoyable romp. We see the stories enacted as the teacher reads them (sometimes Ozon tells us this in advance, sometimes not), and the characters act in a very broad register (what you need accompanying narration) but become subtly different as the stories progress. So when the teacher tells Claude to change his story, he’s not simply offering criticism, he is also, Ozon implies, living out his own fantasies. Kristin Scott Thomas again shows her flair for comedy (reiterated negatively in DePalma’s PASSION) in the outsider role of the teacher’s wife, playing both literature critic and struggling art-gallery curator (there’s big laughs at, among other things, her exhibit of dictator’s heads on blow-up dolls of naked women). Those scenes have nothing to do with the main plot – they’re just Bunuelian diversions – until a late turn that I’m not sure is entirely successful. But the last image – it’s practically cribbed from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW – ends things on the right note.
REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 8)
When Mike D’Angelo said nobody at Cannes recognized, even en passant, the religious subtexts and themes in REALITY http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-12-day-three-gomorrah-director-matteo-garro,75387/ there are two options – (1) he is lying his lying ass off (even allowing for the editorial “nobody”) or (2) there were a lot of clueless critics at Cannes. And I very severely doubt (1) … I was speaking simply of logical possibilities.
On the surface, REALITY is about an Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano (Aniello Arena) who tries out for the Italian version of “Big Brother,” but gets prematurely convinced he’s going to be on the show. He then proceeds to believe he (and others) are being watched at all times, gives up his possessions, stops engaging in petty scams, and otherwise acts in ways that could hardly more obviously parallel a Christian’s rebirth if Garrone had emblazoned “he’s found religion” on his T-shirt. The first and last images of the film are both God’s-eye views. The last narrative sequence breaks off from a Good Friday Stations of the Cross parade. And to mention couple details Mike didn’t … at one point, Luciano is explicitly told (and not by a priest) that “if you want to get into the house, you need to have faith and then you will.” Also, after the interview with the “Big Brother” producers, Luciano spoke in the way one does after a first sacrament, especially first confession (I speak as an adult revert) – “I told him everything and it felt so wonderful” I have scribbled down in my notes. Garrone underlines this by not showing the actual interview, following an old convention, somewhat based on the Sanctity of the Confessional, against showing it.
Since Luciano never gets on the show but the last scene shows him “succeeding” in getting onto the set, we clearly have a parable of delusion (or disillusionment, though I think the last scene’s tone makes that impossible). But what is the delusion … and this is where Mike and I part company (he’s a self-described “devout atheist”). The one thing the delusion can’t be is belief in a non-existent God for the simple reason that “Big Brother” really does exist in REALITY and people really did get on the show, albeit not Luciano. In addition, if God is a Dawkinsian “delusion” within the film’s universe but “Big Brother” serves a church-like function, then accounting for the existence of the actual Church in the film (and it DOES have a notable presence as itself: a Rosary scene early on, the Good Friday procession and a Jesus statue in the courtyard) becomes, if not exactly impossible, at least a bit awkward.
One could even, based totally on the film, have a Calvinist read that the delusion is Luciano thinking he is among the saved, rather than the damned (though I think that’s too clever by half). Instead, I think Luciano’s delusion is idolatry, that is to say, he grants religious status to something other than God/religion – a problem whether God exists or not. This take is consistent with every religious analogy in Luciano’s treatment of the reality show,” it accounts for “Big Brother” real existence (the Golden Calf had a real existence, as a golden calf), and it makes better sense of the Church’s presence in the film. With respect to the last, consider the Good Friday scene. Luciano, who had been shown at the earlier Rosary scene not to be a religiously devout man, attends the service, taken there by a friend who thinks it’ll help his craziness, but breaks away from it to break into Cinecitta and get on the “Big Brother” set. The film never goes back to the service. If the point were an equivalence between the show and the Stations, it would’ve been smarter to intercut the two, like Eisenstein did with the union men and the slain oxen. Instead, Garrone has one follow the other, which more suggests the show as a substitute for religion or a functional religion or a retreat from religion.
BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 8)
… though that 8 has the proverbial bullet on it as BEYOND THE HILLS has stewed wonderfully in my head these past couple of days. Before the festival began, I agreed with Mungiu-skeptic Michael Sicinski that on the basis of one film, Mungiu hadn’t yet deserved status as a “Master,” the program in which TIFF put this film (he also made the very good OCCIDENTAL, but the proverbial “nobody” outside Romania has seen that). BEYOND THE HILLS proves that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, which I had on my decade-best list, was no fluke and cements Mungiu’s status as a Master. A Master who is very obviously a pupil of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, sure, but DeSica was just as obviously a pupil of Renoir and nobody thereby disputes his status. Like the Belgian brothers, Mungiu combines white-knuckle tension and long takes with the seemingly contradictory virtues of careful composition and fastidious framing that uses the whole frame. HILLS was even one of two films I saw this festival that started with the ROSETTA shot – following a character from behind as she charges through a narrowly-framed environment. The character in this case is Voichita, one half of a female-friend pair (also the center of 4 MONTHS) meeting the other half at a train station. She is meeting up with Alina for a visit to the Romanian Orthodox convent where Voichita is serving. The pair were clearly lesbian lovers during Voichita’s secular life and Alina, who had spent the last few years doing menial jobs for money in Germany, has come with an eye to winning her (unwitting) friend back.
What follows is a tale of possible demonic possession or psychotic episodes, in which Mungiu, like in his portrayal of abortion in 4 MONTHS, leaves completely open a literal take that many Western European art-house directors (and most critics) would take pains to close off. One way among others he does this is by Trinitarian compositions that evoke God’s presence in a story that invites a religious explanation without insisting on it – typical of my beloved Romanian style of accreting details that are “just-so” and “telling-without-rubbing-your-face-in-them.” There are two consecutive conversations where the framing is so clearly the Trinity as authoritative that I began sketching during the film (see attached and forgive my appalling drawing; I’m a writer not an artist, plus this was in a dark theater). Those same rhyming shots also parallel religion and science as sources of answers and response to matters that aren’t strictly in either’s purview but in the overlap/between. And like in a Skandie-nominated scene in 4 MONTHS, another shot frames a crowded dinner where an abundance of happy guests chatting away crushingly frames people whose thoughts are miles away.
In HILLS, Mungiu convincingly creates a world so “lived in” that you accept it utterly. My only real complaint, in fact, is that he does this so successfully that the narrative drags a bit. This place is isolated and cold and in nearly every shot, indoors or outdoors, you see the characters’ icy breaths without anyone ever saying “it’s cold in here.” In a late scene, some nuns have to improvise a stretcher, and we see the characters/actresses actually build one from pieces of wood, from pretty-much scratch in real time (did I say long takes were awesome?). In an early scene, Voichita agrees to rub some medical stuff on her ex-lover’s body, after which agreement to do so Alina strips herself to the waist. She handles the chastity-vs.-charity matter with poise, neither rubbing the bared boobs nor flinching at them, as the Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens axis would think she “should.” There’s even explicit dialogue later, apropos another matter, about this distinction between “forbidden” and “improper.” When the nuns prepare the outsider for a first-in-a-long-time confession, as they go down a conscience-examination list of 464 sins, Alina ticks off each one without fail but with increasing resignation at each new number. So successfully does Mungiu create an out-of-time experience in a monastery where out-of-timeness is the very point that there’s really only one detail that unquestionably situates the film in the present day – the existence of cell phones (even the few vehicles we see aren’t latest-model). But neither are the monastery characters simple-mindedly superstitious (again, a distinction impossible for a certain sort of secular Westerner to imagine). When one of the nuns notes that the hens haven’t laid any eggs and that a black cross appears in a piece of wood, the head priest in charge impatiently dismisses “foolishness about signs” and patronizingly says “burn it” when asked what to do with the wood. All that said, I do have to note that, even as a Roman chauvinist who will happily and teasingly call Orthodox friends “schismatics,” I didn’t like how some of the Orthodox lingo was “westernized” in the subtitles – “Pascha” becoming “Easter” and the use of “Mass” (a Western term that Orthodox Anglophones do not use).