Thursday, December 24, 2009

94. French maestro Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup)" (2009): Deceptively simple cinema

To appreciate Rivette’s cinema one has to look beyond the obvious show—in this particular case a traveling circus in France, a circus that attracts less than a handful of people each night. And they don’t even laugh at the clowns. So when some does laugh, the laugh itself is a show stopper!

At the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala, many viewers of the 81-year-old French film director Jacques Rivette’s latest work Around a Small Mountain trooped out midway. The die-hard Rivette fans, some 60% of the audience, remained in their seats to the very end. The film is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Rivette’s cinema, in the case of Around a Small Mountain and all the films that he has made in the past has a mix of comedy, romance and mystery. In Around a Small Mountain, the comedy is obvious even to a village idiot but its relevance is what one is forced to ruminate on. What make one laugh at a clown in a circus, and why does another person not react to the same clown for the very same action? Comedy for the French includes tragedy—there is a thin vein of that element as well in this work of Rivette as in all his earlier films.

In India, filmgoers are familiar with the theme, if they have watched Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. The only difference was that Raj Kapoor spoon-fed his audiences with ideas he wanted convey. In contrast, Rivette does it with style and discretion for the audience to figure out the latent, subtle meanings.

Around a small mountain is also a tale of romance. A mysterious handsome Italian man (Sergio Castellitto) fixes the car of a stranded elderly retired French circus artist (Jane Birkin), while she is stranded on a lonely road. The Italian fixes her car without uttering a word. This sequence is amazing. The seeds of romance are thrown. One would expect the woman to fall in love with this knight in an expensive sports car. But the reverse happens. That’s Rivette’s cinema.

Birkin has aged and is almost unrecognizable, if one recalls her roles in the French New Wave film of the Sixties. (Birkin is the real life mother of the lead actress in The Anti-Christ), For Birkin fans, she walks on a tight rope, a foot above ground in a fabulous single shot. There are no stunt doubles for her!

There is mystery as well. The Italian stranger remains an enigma. Who is he? There is also a mysterious death in the history of the circus troupe, which is unraveled slowly.

It is also a tale of chance—chance encounters where two individuals meet by accident. There is the frumpy Kate (Birkin) wearing clothes that make her look older than she is and a younger Vittorio who is in elegant casuals. Rivette drives home the opposites.

But at the end of the movie, the viewer has to figure out the obvious question. The circus troupe with just three or four persons for an audience cannot be real or cost effective. So how real is the circus? The director is using the concept as he would use theatre as another tool to tell us another aspect of our lives. The English title of the film is Around a Small Mountain (the French title is 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup). There is a mountain captured in the film’s opening shots. Evidently much of the action takes place in its environs. But to an intelligent viewer, Rivette’s mountain is not the physical one. It is a metaphor for the leading lady’s dark memories.

This is an unusually short film of Rivette (under 90 minutes) in contrast to his other films that last 2 hours on average. One could argue at length if this is Rivette's best work yet. But one cannot deny that this is a significant contribution to cinema. It was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Festival.

There were cat calls during the show from viewers who would have preferred a Raj Kapoor style of direction. But Rivette’s cinema is to be enjoyed at a different level altogether. One has to remember the circus was a mere prop for a 81 year old master filmmaker to tell a tale of life, where one (here the Birkin character, Kate) runs away from realities but return to same place to recognize them anew. The film for me reflected T.S. Eliot's poetry “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we began and to know the place for the first time.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

93. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s "Shirin" (2008): Audacious experimentation that’s awesome

No feature film has ever been made this way.

Shirin, the latest work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is based on a love myth of Khusrow and Shirin, a literary 12th century love saga of a prince and a young woman named Shirin, a tragic tale cutting across the borders of Persia and Armenia. And then again, the film is not about the love saga because you don’t see the film, you only hear the sounds of an elegantly made film and see the corresponding light and darkness of the virtual film falling on the faces of 114 of the best actresses in Iran and of Juliette Binoche, a famous French actress of cinema. What you hear is what would be a delightful radio drama of the tale made into film that you never get to see. What you see instead is a canvas of beautiful women emoting to this virtual film.

The film Shirin is an audacious experiment, in which for 92 minutes you are subjected to watching the faces of different women in a movie hall watching a movie of the tragic love tale of Shirin and her two lovers Khusrow and Farhad, one is a prince and the other a sculptor. The interesting trivia you need to know is that during the packed screening of the film at the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala that the entire audience stayed enraptured in their seats for 92 minutes of the film without a single cat-call, totally in awe of what was happening. Earlier, delegates, like me, had stood in line hours in advance and many had to go back disappointed unable to enter the theatre.

For those who have not heard of Abbas Kiarostami--he is a 69-year-old poet, photographer, painter, graphic designer, screenplay-writer, film editor and an art director of films.

Two questions bounce at you while watching Shirin.

Are there any men in the film? There are two men Khusrow and Farhad, in the virtual film that we only hear voices of. However, in the filmed audience too there are men but you see them in rows behind the female faces. Kiarostami has made a film on the reactions of women towards a famous tragic epic poem. Tears flow, eyes look away and then back again, each subtle movement capturing the emotions of the viewer. Obviously, the director is not interested in the men’s reactions. He is interested in the women’s reactions. This becomes apparent towards the end when the virtual film is heard stating “There is a Shirin in all women..” or words to that effect.

Will such a film ever make money? It is a minimalist film that would surprise even the most dyed-in-the-wool cineaste. Once you are inside a film hall watching Kiarostami, you are hypnotized. You would not leave the hall. I did not, nor did the hundreds who saw the film with me, some sitting on the aisles. But the moot question is would I have come to see the film in the first place, if I was aware of what I was going to see? Probably not, having assumed that it would be boring experience. Yet having seen the film, I would state otherwise.

Kiarostami is a genius, an audacious one. He has realized one fact. The audience matters as much as the story. Therefore, you need to look through the camera-eye at your audience. Through close-ups. In a way, the entire film is an ode to close-ups in cinematography. It is a also a formidable work of editing, one could point out the range of emotions do not include laughter and contentment. Theatre directors and film directors all know the importance of their audiences. After all they succeed or fail because of the audience. Here's a film that captures the all-important audience through close-ups. Kiarostami, the filmmaker, turns into a psychiatrist and a Svengali of the audience instead of the actor!

This work of Kiarostami is at a deeper level capturing the fears and hopes of the average Iranian through a catharsis of a movie watching experience. Had he used only the ugly faces of Iran’s women this might not have worked but actresses like Golshifte Farahani (Sepideh of About Elly) and Niki Karimi (The Hidden) are faces of the gifted beautiful women, whose faces never make the audience of Shirin look away.

Kiarostami and Dariush Mehrjui are great filmmakers on par with best in the world. Kiarostami set up a famous film institute when Mehrjui made his famous film Gaav (the Cow). That institute can take the credit of being instrumental in making Iranian classics like Naderi's The Runner. But these film-makers can never be taken for granted and have to work within a system that reduces the scope of what they can film as subjects. Documentary and fiction merge often in Kiarostami’s cinema just as it does in Shirin. So do themes of love and death. That too plays a role in Shirin.

P.S. Abbas Kiarostami's Tickets (2005) has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog. The above review of Shirin has been cited as a reference in the book "Film and the Ethical Imagination" by Asbjorn Gronstad, University of Bergen, Norway. 2016. (Publishers: Palgrave/Macmillan)

Try to catch up with this film—because it is a totally different experience you’re not likely to forget. It is on one plane a folk tale, on another a tale of what makes an audience react the way they do, on yet another the options of entertainment for a woman in Iran how she reacts to those limited options, and finally how a clever director can manipulate the audience.

P.S. Some major Iranian films including Gaav and  The Runner have been discussed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

92. Polish director and scriptwriter Urszula Antoniak's debut film "Nothing Personal" (2009): Amazing tale on solitude beautifully told

Solitude is often craved for by individuals who are thinkers (and sometimes by misanthropes, due to their personal past experiences). It is a state that monks and people spiritually inclined love to enjoy at some stage in their lives. It is an accepted life stage in Hindu religious practice and certain Buddhist and Jain traditions. Gertrude Stein wrote on solitude "When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone. After all human beings are like that.Nothing Personal is a very interesting film that reflects Ms Stein's thoughts. It begins with a woman who for unknown reasons gives away all her worldly possessions and leaves on a journey to nowhere. In a secluded spot in Ireland, another man--a widower--lives alone valuing his solitary life. Yet, he realizes that he could do with some hired help to tend his garden. The two individuals meet but do their lives change? The Irish-Dutch film directed by a Polish director explores the theme with remarkable results.

Polish director and scriptwriter Urszula Antoniak, currently living in Holland, is someone to watch out for in the future landscape of world cinema if Nothing Personal is an indicator of her capabilities. I have a soft corner for any talented debut filmmaker who relies on his/her own story and script. Ms Antoniak is one such director revealing her potential of greater works to come.

Actress Lotte Verbeek essays the fascinating character

Nothing Personal, a very recent Irish-Dutch co-production, making its Indian premiere at the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala, had its audience clapping away at some delightfully composed shots by cinematographer Daniel Bouquet and director Antoniak, conjured for the viewer. It is without doubt a nugget of a film. Ms Antoniak deservedly won the best first feature of a director award at Locarno Film Festival. The film has won an incredible tally of 10 awards already, 6 of which came at the Locarno film Festival itself in Italy.

Lotte Verbeek, a Dutch actress with a magnetic screen presence, plays a young attractive Dutch woman who discards all her material possessions in Holland one fine day and watches strangers pick up the material from the window of her apartment. She is shown wearing a wedding ring, which she is shown removing. Evidently, she was once married but there is no mention of her past or of her marriage as the film unspools. Ms Verbeek won the Silver Leopard best actress award at Locarno Film Festival portraying the main role of a young woman with no money, backpacking from Holland to an unknown beautiful desolate spot in Ireland with no apparent purpose with all the qualities of a misanthrope. During the film, Ms Verbeeck’s demeanor gradually changes from the unfriendly to the affable and then back to her old self. The changes in her character that are subtle are truly a treat to watch. Like Ms Antoniak, we can be sure that Ms Verbeek, too, will be talked about in the future.

Director and scriptwriter Antoniak presents an enigmatic character with minimal spoken conversations. But when words are spoken the carefully chosen words provide a lot of meaning. The woman is distrustful of men, who possibly mean her no harm, and rude to women who want to get know her or even help her. The woman feeds herself by checking out trash bins for left-over food. On reaching a scenic spot in Ireland by apparent chance, she spots a lonely house of rich owner. When the owner, a well-to-do genial old widower, returns to the house, he offers her food. She is initially rude to him as well. The two come to an arrangement where she would work for food, but refuses to reveal her name or speak a word of who she is. Throughout the film she is addressed as “You’ by the house-owner Martin after she says he can call her ‘You ‘ The deal is food for work, but no discussion on personal matters. Hence, the title of the film--Nothing Personal.

The film is essentially about the relationship that is built over the days between the two. Both are individuals who, for their own reasons, like to be alone. Both, it is gradually revealed, are well-educated and cultured Europeans. The back-packer with no money is capable of making haute cuisine when she chooses and is well versed with good music and books. What follows is a gripping tale of appreciation of solitude, not because one hates people and their friendships, but because they value their own space and time without intrusions from others. Yet, even such people can value companionship when they find people of a similar vein.

This film will provide a great boost for Irish cinema. The film showcases yet another commendable performance from Irish actor of repute Stephen Rea, who had a major role in the award-winning film The Crying Game. It will also serve as a great advertisement for Irish tourism with its fascinating locales liile known to potential tourists.

Without revealing the end of the film, I would advise all viewers of this film to pay attention to the sound and visual details throughout the film. A perceptive viewer will truly enjoy the remarkable epilogue of the film, which tells an aspect of the story that the film does not reveal right up to that point of the tale.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

91. British director Stephen Frears’ “The Hit” (1984) (UK): Dissecting duality in personalities

Often filmmakers unconsciously choose subjects and scripts that they find interesting, unaware of links between the subjects. My guess is that the three films that I have picked to discuss--all made by a single film director--were never meant to be a conscious trilogy and yet these have all the markings of three separate films that present a similar theme from the same individual. The filmmaker under discussion is Stephen Frears and it is quite possible that he himself would be surprised at the pattern he drew in the three films.

Three films of British filmmaker Stephen Frears require to be reassessed decades after they were made and, arguably, forgotten by many. The most enigmatic of the trio would be The Hit (1984), followed by Hero (1992) with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, and finally Mary Reilly (1996) with Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, and Glenn Close. All the three movies have a common thread that would be apparent, if they are evaluated closely as group or as work of an auteur of cinema. All three, written by three different novelists and three different screenplay writers are essentially Frears’ cinematic essays on contradictory personalities in an individual, and then the perception of this duality by various less important characters within each story unfolding on screen and, ultimately, by us the viewers. If one realizes that Frears is a law graduate from Trinity College, London, the approach he takes on the three distinct tales is similar to a lawyer’s arguments presented to you, the viewer, as the judge and jury.

Frears' Mary Reilly was the most obvious example among the three films examining the black and the white aspects of human beings, because it was based on Valerie Martin’s novel which in turn was revisiting the Robert Louis Stevenson theme of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, essentially presenting the Stevenson tale from the point of view of Jekyll’s housemaid, Mary Reilly (played by Julia Roberts). This tale was further processed by screenplay-writer Christopher Hampton, whose screenplays credits include Atonement, Carrington and Dangerous Liaisons. And Stephen Frears added his cinematic stamp in the opening shots of the film with Julia Roberts on her knees, with the not-so-innocent camera encircling her from above giving the viewer a starter dish to savor, of both the watcher and the watched, heralding the meaty story that unfolds. Towards the end of the film, the viewer would wonder who was ultimately watching whom in the story.

Mary Reilly is no ordinary dumb housemaid. She observes and grasps changes in her environment. She even contemplates on what she grasps as a philosopher. Note the words of Mary Reilly in the movie `Where does this come from, this rage?' which are strangely the lines echoed by director Terrence Malick in his mesmerizing film The Thin Red Line made just 3 years later. Mary Reilly is talking about the dark side of man; so is Malick, only in his case, the context is war.

The words of Mr Hyde to Mary Reilly: `Would you like to stay for awhile, or has my sense of smell betrayed me?' is an example of verbal sexual play in the film that makes the Hampton screenplay notable. It reminds you of another dark contemporary film: Perfume-the story of a murderer, another film made many years after Mary Reilly.

Or take this intriguing line from the same Frears film. Asks Mary Reilly: “He said you had an ailment. What sort of ailment is it?” Answers Dr Jekyll: “You might call it a fraction of my soul. Something that left me with a taste for oblivion.” 'Fraction of the soul' is indeed a great way to describe the three Frears films.

And some four years before Mary Reilly, Frears had made a film in the US called Hero that had uncomfortable questions thrown at viewers on the basic concept of heroism and the associated values and contradictions. Can a petty thief be a hero? That was the thought-provoking question asked by a threesome--Oscar-winning writers Alvin Sargent and David Peoples, and another distinguished Hollywood author Laura Ziskin--in Frears' Hero. Bernie, a pickpocket, played by Dustin Hoffman, anonymously rescues people from a plane crash site forcing the viewer of the film to come to terms with the subtle line dividing our perception of heroism and crime in the context of one individual. Another character, Bubber (Andy Garcia), more pleasing to the viewer’s eye than Bernie, is an otherwise noble individual who does the reverse by opting to impersonate the real hero. They are clever alter egos of each other. Another "fraction of the soul." It is like asking the viewer to choose between a Jekyll and a Hyde in either of the two individuals while the film is ostensibly a satire on hypocrisy on the media today.

But Frears’ fascination for the dichotomy of the human personality is arguably best portrayed in his earlier film The Hit. This Frears' film had the trappings of a conventional thriller or a road movie. However, Frears and the writer and scriptwriter Peter Prince delivered a jawbreaking punch at the viewer’s perception an individual's approach to inevitable death in the near term. Another "fraction of the soul" to quote the lines from Mary ReillyThe Hit is a film that could be dismissed as a mere thriller were it not for this cat and mouse game on screen revolving around mortal fear and the clever game between the filmmakers and the audience. Frears and Prince flesh out a character named Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), a hood who squeals on his mates and in return the British judicial system gives him a new life in Spain, complete with a fulltime bodyguard. The hood spends his days in exile reading books. The hood it appears has gradually transformed into a well-read philosopher. It is at this time that he is abducted by two hit-men (fascinating performances from John Hurt and Tim Roth) hired by the gangsters who had to go to prison because of Parker’s testimony.

To most viewers, the film would provide interest because of the excitement the film offers during the abduction and the various events that unfold as the prisoner is taken in a car from Spain to France for his eventual execution on Paris by those he had squealed on. But Frears and Prince present a film on a gangster, who by his recent exposure to books, can mock impending death.

Here is a sample conversation:

The young hit-man Myron (Tim Roth) “You've got nothing to smile about mate, if you knew.”

Willie Parker:”If I knew?”

Willie Parker to the senior hit-man Braddock (John Hurt): “He thinks I don’t know

And much later Parker tells young Myron about his views on death “It's just a moment. We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else... maybe. And it's as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”

Answers young Myron: “I think you're crazy, but I admire your attitude.”

Now it is this attitude that makes his otherwise cold-blooded captors defer killing him. Early in the movie it is the youger hit-man Myron who wants to kill the cool Parker and Braddock intervenes.

It is this attitude that makes the audience gradually admre Parker. Frears and Prince transform a hood into a hero not just for the hit-men on screen but for us the viewers. There is an awesome shot captured by Frears of Parker enjoying the view of a waterfall, seemingly at peace with himself as would a Tibetan monk, not characteristic of a man about to be executed. It is definitely one of the finest performances of Terence Stamp on screen. Even the senior hit-man Braddock is shaken by Parker's demeanor.

The trouble is that Frears and Prince have made a film that makes it almost impossible to admire Parker, except for two pivotal instances in the film which can be missed out, if you the viewer even blinks. Frears development of the character of Willie Parker is as distinguished as another British filmmaker John Boorman’s character Walker (played by Lee Marvin) in his US film Point Blank (1967). Both characters, Parker and Walker, are goons--yet the two directors presented us with characters larger than life, admirable for limited screen time.

The Hit is more than an interesting study of the personality of Parker. Three other characters in the film also exude elements of dual personalities themselves. The only woman of note in the film, Maggie, is a woman, who states that she does not know English sufficiently but this lie is exposed through a trick. The two hit-men are not made of steel either--each present vignettes of their characters that contradict the obvious veneer.

If you evaluate the three Frears’ films, each provides value beyond their screen time as the viewer can reflect on the subjects presented on screen. Each film presents two sides of a coin. Often these individuals are not likeable individuals but there is a certain magnetism that they exude on screen. And each film has a moment or two where you realize that what you see and associate with goodness or braveness can be deceptive. It could bother a perceptive viewer, and perhaps that is one reason these films did not make the box office jingle.

One wonders if Frears is continuing to build on the same theme in more films.

P.S. The film is not just an important collaboration between a director and scriptwriter but a film that offers three memorable performances from Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. John Hurt’s performance as the hit-man Braddock won him the best actor award at The Evening Standard British Film Awards and shared the honor with Terence Stamp and Tim Roth at the Mystfest (Italy) awards for The Hit. Two films mentioned above--The Thin Red Line and Perfume--have been reviewed earlier on this blog.