Sunday, August 28, 2011

119. French director Claire Denis’ “L’intrus” (The Intruder) (2004): Conscience as an intruder

The Intruder begins with an opening quote "Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadows, in your heart."  As the film rolls on you realize this film is not a regular movie that you come across. It has touches of Andrei Tarkovsky, of Terrence Mallick, of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. This writer is pleasantly surprised as this is the first Claire Denis directorial effort (of 10 works to date) that he has watched, though he had seen several works (“Hanna K,” “Paris, Texas,” “The Secret”) on which the lady was the assistant director. The Intruder is definitely a film that makes you think. It is also true that it is a film that would put off the impatient viewer. Yet, it is an important film from France that can mesmerise you. This film of Claire Denis clearly puts her in a league of the finest filmmakers making films today.

The film is interestingly a film about dogs and people who love dogs (it actually begins and ends with dogs). It is a film about love between a father and a son and their inability to manifest it. It is a film that touches on regret for the lack of love in physical relationships. It is a film like a Tarkovsky film (sudden rains) or a Mallick film (sudden gusts of wind) where nature is thrust on the viewer: Denis’ screenplay includes a suggestion to a woman to listen to the “sounds in a forest” as a foreplay bout before copulation, and of images of a woman lost in tall grass even with the aid of binoculars, of the sound of intruders outside a house, of idyllic flowing streams. To many the film would appear disjointed, in the same way a first-time reader of the Nobel Prize-winning James Joyce’s Ulysses, without sufficient introduction to his style of writing (“stream of consciousness,” epiphanies, puns, and metaphors), is likely to wonder what the book is all about.

In the context of books, the film is indeed an idea that director Clair Denis “abducted” (a term from a Denis post-screening press conference) from a book L’intrus by Jean-Luc Nancy which deals with heart transplants, how the body tends to reject a transplanted organ, how they either survive or die. The relationship between the book and the film is as tenuous as the relationship between James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line and Malick’s movie The Thin Red Line. Denis uses the concept of heart transplant and even shows exaggerated scars of a heart transplant operation—but for Denis one suspects this transplant is a Joycean dream or a metaphor for another malaise—the lack of love or the inability to win it from your progeny.

The lack of love “dogs” (pun intended) you, the viewer, throughout the film. The film begins with a policewoman at an international border with a dog. The woman showers affection on the dog. Her house-husband showers affection and care his wife and twin children. The main character Louis Trebor (Michel Subor) also showers affection on his “twin” dogs. His neighbour is a woman who breeds dogs either as a profession or as a passion and she too expresses love and affection for her canines. This neighbour is finally shown shouting with joy on a sled pulled by dogs at the end of the film.

In sharp contrast to the love showered on dogs there is the lack of love elsewhere in relationships between humans. Louis Trebor gives money to his son in France with a tinge of regret rather than of love. When he sleeps with his female pharmacist friend the script of Denis employs the words “Medication, schemedication” to describe loveless carnal relationship (in fact he kills a man who tries to enter his house between bouts of sex). There is no love between Louis Trebor and his enigmatic female neighbour. There is no love between Trebor and a Tahitian woman (real or imaginary), who has apparently borne his son ages ago and Trebor has never bothered to keep in touch with the woman on his son from that relationship. Finally, Trebor has so many women in his life, but no wife or spouse. What is his puzzling relationship with dog rearing neighbour? Both are interested in each other but also seem to dislike the other. Everything is vague, probably indicating that you are viewing a dream. This is where the viewer has to decide eventually what is real in the film and what is a dream.

The existential aspect of the main character reminds one of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Who is Trebor? He has several passports that you see him destroy. He can kill silently and has a strong physique. He has made sufficient money from his prior activities stashed away in a Swiss bank with which he can buy a “heart” for himself and a Korean ship for his son.  Trebor, the man who loved his dogs, leaves his dogs behind with sacks of dog-food to fend for themselves, as he goes on the mission to acquire a new “heart”, contact with a lost son, a ship for his existing son. Can the acquisition of  a new heart lead to acquiring love? Is there a connection that Denis alludes to between Trebors love for his twin dogs and Trebor's son's exemplary devotion towards his twin children, while there is hardly an affection between Trebor and his son? The questions are there in the film, never explicitly put, for the viewer to answer.
Denis has made films on the European/African interface that this writer has not yet seen. The viewer begins to wonder if Denis sees Trebor’s, past life in Tahiti (an island in Southern Pacific Polynesia, which the French had colonised) as the life of an intruder in Polynesia. There are several other such possible metaphors of intrusion strewn in the film. There is a male intruder in Trebor’s house who is killed (Trebor is shown cleaning blood from a knife). There are immigrants who cross the Swiss/French border. One cannot put a finger on who is the main intruder in this film. Most probably the intruder is in Trebor’s heart, physical and/or metaphorical, as stated in the opening quote.

Like the works of Tarkovsky and Mallick, the visuals (cinematographer Agnes Godard, a regular collaborator with Denis on many of her films) and the guitar and trumpet music of Stuart Staples (of the musical group called Tindersticks) play a major part in the film. Without their contribution Denis’ work would seem pedestrian. Agnes Godard and Denis have long magical sequences of the sea as seen from ship’s window (reminds you of Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s final shots of Shy People with the late actress Jill Clayburgh looking out of the window of her aircraft at the dark skyline).

Without any doubt, Claire Denis joins the likes of Terrence Mallick, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Andrei Zvyagintsev, Carlos Reygadas, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan as filmmakers who are currently making films that redefine the grammar of contemporary cinema for the intelligent, perceptive and patient viewer. It is the appreciation of films like these that make the application of concepts provided in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Judgement a pleasure for the astute viewer.

P.S. Two films mentioned above, Mallick's The Thin Red Line and Reygadas' Silent Light, have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

118. Indian director Ashim Ahluwalia’s documentary feature “John & Jane” (2005): Juggling truth and fiction

Documentaries have a discrete charm of their own, especially when they are well made. When this writer lists his 10 favourite movies, one of the 10 is a documentary: a ten-part, 7.5 hour feature documentary called Hitler: a film from Germany, made by Hans-J├╝rgen Syberberg in 1978. A film as long as that has to be top-notch to keep any viewer interested and energized to return after each break. One of the finest essayists and film critics, Susan Sontag was so enraptured by this documentary that she subsequently wrote a lengthy critique that eventually became a book, incorporating numerous responses that followed Sontag's initial response to the documentary film. Sontag has probably written more on this documentary of Syberberg than all the feature films made by Syberberg’s contemporaries Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Schlondorff, and Schroeter put together. This is an indication of the power of impressive documentaries.

Young Ashim Ahluwalia treads the path taken by Syberberg: getting real characters alongside actors to document reality, provoking the viewer to think while presenting facts and trends that are real and socially important for the viewer to analyze. Today there are several thousand educated Indians who live in India and work “when the city sleeps” in call centres to serve Americans during their daytime. These are Indian workers serving the American public because the work provides them with an income that is more attractive than alternative jobs available to them. And these jobs could trap them into a surreal and demanding lifestyle, if they want to keep their jobs. They have to learn to speak with an American accent and relate with the lifestyle of the distant continent to provide information that is requested or to sell a product of an American company to Americans while sitting in India far removed from the American reality. It is not an easy job as an American doing the job in his own land would demand higher real wages than the Indian. The Indian would have to bear the tantrums of the American who might realize he or she is speaking to a foreigner, if chinks in the accent surface. The Indian worker working in an air-conditioned office through the night has to return each day to sleep in his less attractive and less comfortable home, loud and lacking air-conditioning, while all others at home are either working or doing their normal daytime chores. This disconnect of time and society leads to social and psychological aberrations for the call centre employee answering calls on American 1-800-numbers or telemarketing American products in USA, while sitting in India. And that is the subject of John & Jane. The Americanization of a small urban clutch of Indian call centre workers in their youth who are changing their lives for the sake of money and a job, little realising the slow transformation the job has on their lives. They behave like the bizarre Zelig of Woody Allen’s creative mockumentary movie (1983) of that name.

The film studies how the English speaking Indian is tutored to speak the language with an American drawl and how an American speaks English (‘I kaent do it’ for ‘I can’t do it’) as distinct from the English spoken elsewhere. The film focuses on six individuals at call centers who answer/make the calls by night (Indian time) and have become pretty good at it. Some like it, some don’t but they are doing it for financial security. Their attitude changes slowly. There is a gradual morphing of Indian personalities into Indians who dream to be Americans because they are dreaming of that life style. One of the six Indian (possibly an Anglo-Indian) call center worker is shown eating bacon and eggs at home—which is not an average Indian’s breakfast. One dreams of owning costly bikes. Marriages take place between two such employees and if one spouse changes a job the couple hardly have quality time for themselves and end-up killing time as most American kids do playing video games and eating junkfood available in malls where the average Indian is rarely seen (in this movie). Their names are tweaked and Anglicised to fit their new world of air-conditioned offices and their unnatural fluorescent lighting—the six characters have names like Glen, Sydney, Osmond, Nikki, Nicholas and Naomi. One such employee is seen attending a Christian evangelistic meeting, possibly to cope with the stress or alternatively “to belong” with the world he interacts with each night. The toll of the 14-hour night shifts are varied—some take to drugs, others to junk foods. Some begin to reject their reality of their dingy homes and how their family reacts to their day-time slumber. They are the Johns and Janes that director Ahluwalia has created after studying the world of such employees at work and later when they come home to sleep in the day--some real, some bizarre and some unreal.  Exhausted after work, even their dreams relate to their work. At work, each of them have to be consistently polite yet persuasive—which is not easy with temperamental individuals on the other end, when you are constantly being evaluated for your performance and results by your bosses, which in turn decides your pay and whether you keep your job.

The film serves as an eye opener for many in the US who may be unaware of the emotional pressures that play on call centre employees in a distant land who could be upset but is forced to pretend s/he isn’t. One begins to empathize with their lot. That is when young Ahluwalia introduces us to the last of the six employees who called Naomi. She has bleached her skin to resemble a Caucasian. She has dyed her hair blonde and is on the lookout for a blonde partner. The camera of cinematographers Mohanan and Mukul Kishore does not lie—she is not Caucasian, she is an Indian trying to ape a white American.

Ahluwalia has made an interesting film that has touches of Syberberg’s cinema. Fact intertwines with fiction. Are the characters documenting their real lives or are they being made to act out a written script that is a brainchild of the director. The film opens with shots of Indians smoking pot in a car. How and why do they get hooked on hashish? What makes them want to escape their pressures of a night life at a call center? The questions become even more interesting for the global viewer to answer towards the end of the film as any answer to any question would get entangled in the film’s web woven with both fact and fiction. This writer’s daughter noted the obvious connection between this movie and Chetan Bhagat’s novel One Night at the Call Center, a tale revolving around another six somewhat similar call centre workers in India. Both works have hit the streets about the same time--in 2005.  

Any which way you look at it, director Ahluwalia has spotted an interesting subject to film and he has done a commendable job. The most arresting aspect bit of John & Jane for this writer was the striking music of Masta Justy (from India), of Metamatics, of the Japanese Minamo, and the minimalist experimental music of Thomas Brinkmann. The sound mixing/editing was top notch—Mohankutty assisted by Resul Pookutty. Oscar winning Resul Pookutty (with Mohankutty) needed to win an Oscar for this film than for the Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire! The music selected by Ahluwalia embellished the out-of-the-ordinary and disturbing subject: clearly Ahluwalia has a keen ear for music (so does Syberberg)!

It is not surprising that this cinematic work won the Indian national award for the best documentary. The problem for any viewer of this interesting work would be to consider it as a purist's version of what consitutes a documentary. It documents a lifestyle but presents a view of the director. While the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, Norman McLaren, and even Michael Moore have stayed within the boundaries of conventional meaning of the term, intelligent and important directors such as Syberberg, Orson (F for Fake) Welles, and the Iranian Mohsen (Bitter Dreams) Amiryousefi have shown us other creative new boundaries of the term 'documentary.' Young Ashim Ahluwalia joins that second group.

P.S. The Iranian documentary Bitter Dreams by Mohsen Amiryousefi was reviewed earlier on this blog. This blog contains reviews of three other documentaries of note A Song for Argyris (Greece), Reel Injun (Canada), and Leonard Cohen: I am Your Man (Australia).