Tuesday, November 28, 2017

René Clément | Plein soleil (Purple Noon, aka Blazing Sun)

hollow men

by Douglas Messerli

René Clément and Paul Gégauff (screenplay, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith), René Clément (director) Plein soleil (Purple Noon, aka UK, Blazing Sun) 1960, USA 1961

René Clément’s 1960 film, Purple Noon, is the first major movie role of the incredible beautiful (but later rightest-leaning, homophobe) actor, Alain Delon. I have to admit that when I was young I might have been in love with Delon, and this film, in particular, makes it clear why; even as a 13-year old, I might have secretly had a crush on him, even though I did not see this movie at the time. I believe I first saw him in The Yellow Rolls Royce, courting Shirley MacLaine, four years later.
      In this film, he plays the dreadfully charming murderer, Tom Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley’s talents include his good looks, an incredible ability to deceive (including a gift a forging signatures), and his remarkable talent to imitate the ways of the wealthy whose lives he desires. But we have to wonder whether behind his lean, bronzed body, there is anything inside: the same question we might have asked of the actor himself, making him nearly perfect for this role.
    I haven’t seen the “re-make,” Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I just can’t imagine the cute Matt Damon as a convincing replacement for Delon.

   Delon is perfect simply because he is so desirable, as the wealthy Philippe Greanleaf (Maurice Ronet), not a bad looker himself, who obviously is equally self-involved (the director keeps their shirts unbuttoned for most of the film). The bond between them, at least at first and despite their open womanizing in Rome, is clearly homoerotic; they are beautiful men who like to hang out together, even if they might never come to terms with their hidden sexuality. Instead of making love, their sexual tensions are expressed in their mockery of, and in Greanleaf’s case, abuse of, one another.     
      If Ripley is evil, Greanleaf is detestable, which is how we come to side with the murderer as opposed to the victim. In the first scenes of Clément’s stunningly scenic film, the playboy Greanleaf has not only skipped out, without telling his “serious” girlfriend, Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt) that he is traveling to Rome, but treats Ripley like a lackey, forcing him to pay for their meal on the Felliniesque Via Veneto (where Marcello Mastriano hang out in La Dolce Vita, a film that shared with this one the music of Nino Rota). In short, they have run off together under the guise of a wild weekend, which consists primarily of conning a blind man, whose cane they take away as an award for Greanleaf’s charity, and lying to and basically kidnapping a woman, in order to publicly kiss and grope her in a kind of buddy gang-bang. It’s quite clear that they are not really interested in the middle-aged woman but in the sexual titillation of watching each other make love to her. When the always perceptive Ripley suggests that Greanleaf might pacify his back-home girlfriend, Marge, with a book on Fra Angelico, on whom she apparently is writing a book, he sends his lackey off to purchase the would-be gift of reconciliation.
      Only Greanleaf’s old friend, Freddy Miles (Billy Kearns) seems to immediately sniff out the potential evil-doings of Greanleaf’s supposedly childhood friend, a friendship that has evidently bought him a ticket to Europe by Greanleaf’s father to bring him back to the US. But the young heir is obviously having too much fun to ever want to return home to take over the family business. And besides, his father has awarded him the Adonis, Ripley.
      If these first scenes seem to suggest that Ripley is simply a hanger-on, enjoying the pleasures and power of being in a playboy’s company, we soon see a far darker side of the man when, back in France, he quietly invades Greanleaf’s bedroom, donning articles of the man’s clothing (shoes and a coat), to play out an imitation of his friend beside a mirror, making imaginary love not only to himself (a scene right out of Cocteau’s Orpheus) but to Greanleaf’s girlfriend Marge, one of the more creepy scenes in all of cinematic history. Not only has Ripley fetishzied his friend's garments but has adopted his personality. And once Greanleaf catches him performing that act, the balance between them quickly shifts with the playboy gradually beginning to play out a series of increasingly hostile “tests” of Ripley’s allegiance to him.

      As the threesome flee to Sicily on Greanleaf’s yacht, Ripley is forced to play a sailor boy, despite his obvious lack of experience, while his benefactor goes below to have sex with Marge. But even in his now obvious position as cabin boy, Ripley further shifts positions as he becomes a voyeur to Greanleaf’s acts, perhaps even tacitly with his master’s approval. But in further tests, wherein Greanleaf forces Ripley into a tethered dingy, which while, he and Marge are below, breaks free of its mooring, it is clear he has gone too far. When the yacht turns around to search for the missing dingy, finding Ripley seriously burned by the sun (the UK title of this film was Blazing Sun), everything has shifted once more.
     The tale now turns again into a kind of revenge love tragedy, as Ripley plants an earring from their Rome encounter into Marge’s clothes, which results in her own rage for Greanleaf’s behavior and her dismissal from the yacht at the very next island stop. Now Ripley truly does have Greanleaf to himself, but rather than consummating their relationship plays out the revenge, even sharing part of the plot with his would-be victim, finally stabling him to death and tossing his body into the sea.
Image result for Purple Noon movie       For me, the rest of the movie (in apposition to some critics who saw the earlier scenes as uninteresting), where Ripley quite successfully takes over Greanleaf’s identity, even bedding Marge, is far less interesting, reminding me some of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Much like that character, Ripley successfully forges  Greanleaf’s passport, assumes his personality, and lives, at least for a while, the highlife on Greanleaf’s own fortune. It’s all very clever and very much like a Jean-Pierre Melville catalogue of what a truly intelligent deceiver is able to accomplish. But as a character, Ripley no longer exists: he has become a version of Greanleaf, a not very-likeable figure in the first place, about whom we no longer care. The beautiful rooms and houses he inhabits are as hollow as the man, who later also kills Greanleaf’s friend, Freddy, in order to protect his new identity.
      A true humanist, Clément could not permit in his film for Ripley to get away with his murders, which Highsmith had. But by that time, I suggest, we have lost most of our fascination with this formerly passionate desirer, who has now simply become a facsimile of the despicable man he longed for and admired. It merely demonstrates Ripley’s failure to imagine or live out his own possibilities for doing something else in the world, choosing, instead, to envy what he doesn’t have, a true personality. In the end, we realize, he is simply a skilled imitator, like so many of Eliot’s walking dead in The Wasteland. So pretty, but staring down at his borrowed shoes, so hollow after all.  

Los Angeles, November 28, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Stephen Cone | Henry Gamble's Birthday Party

by Douglas Messerli

Stephen Cone (writer and director) Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party / 2015, general release 2016

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After reading Akiva Gottlieb’s discussion of the writer-director Stephen Cone in the Los Angeles Times this morning, I decided to view Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party this morning, which had been recommended to me by the totally unreliable algorithms of Netflix (who often suggest for me a series of films I would never possibly watch). Well, I have watched numerous gay films, of course, and they recognized that I might be interested in this one, although I had previously shunned it because I had perhaps seen far too many young-boys-coming-out films and just felt I had to move on. My true love, obviously, is of classic international films.
      What a remarkable surprise, however, was Cone’s 2015 film, which revealed to me a new talent that I might never have imagined. For Cone’s film is not really about a gay boy coming to terms with his sexuality (although it is that too), but an entire community of highly committed Evangelical Baptists having to come to terms with their own personal demons in relationship with their often fervent beliefs which deny their all-too human desires and behaviors.
Image result for henry gamble's birthday party      Unlike so many directors attempting to deal with the same issues, Cone (the son of just such a Baptist preacher) never once dismisses or diminishes their values, but merely helps us to try to understand their own deep suffering because, as they might put it, sinners are still to be loved because Jesus forgives, despite their sins. Of course, their views of themselves and others as deep sinners is often horribly judgmental and painful, and in the case of Henry (beautifully played by Cole Doman), and his mother, Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw) in complete doubt of her relationship with her husband, Bob (Pat Healy)--who has somewhat recently taken over the pastoral position of a cancer victim, generally referred to as HM (whose wife, Rose Matthews is also a guest at Henry’s birthday party)--these religious values have put them into deep turmoil. 
     In fact, nearly the whole religious community, young and old,  have been invited to Henry’s 17th birthday party, which sets up a large ensemble cast that works very much like those of Robert Altman’s films and even one of Cone’s cinematic mentors, Jean Renoir, particularly in his Rules of the Game. If here the sexual romps are basically hidden, the pool being a perfect place to play sexual games beneath the water, it still represents a series of sexual adventures which result in a great many problems.
      As the young visitors to the party strip off their outer clothing to go swimming in the Gamble’s pool, the elders hover over their youth’s frolics to discuss moral issues—particularly Bonnie Montgomery, the only truly moral gorgon of the group—and, basically to gossip, as do the young kids themselves. Some who dare attend the affable Henry’s party are clearly secular and separated from their religious peers, particularly a lesbian couple, while others, such as the only black of the group, Logan (Daniel Kyri) and the former pastor’s son Ricky, are visually, if not vocally, ostracized. Both, so the youngsters and their elders gossip are gay.
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     The Gamble’s daughter, Autumn (Nina Ganet) now attending a Christian-based college, is equally an outsider. Evidently, having had sex with a young neighboring student, Aaron (Tyler Ross), who also tags along later to the party, she feels, mostly based on her religious principles, he has taken away her “purity.” She is also uncomfortable with her own body.
      Rose has brought a few bottles of wine to the party, which are quickly secreted under a back sink, but, one by one, the elders sneak out to imbibe in what they describe and medicine, and the elder community spirits shift, as they begin revealing their sins and, most importantly their fears and questions.
Image result for henry gamble's birthday party      By the time the party has nearly come to a close, Kat, the pillar of the Gamble family, has admitted to her daughter that she has not been fulfilled by her marriage to her pastor husband and that she has had a brief affair with the former Baptist minister as he was dying from cancer. The secular girls brilliantly question the would-be biologist Autumn about how she balances the fundamentalist teachings of her religious academy with the truth of Darwinian and other scientific teaching. Some of the randy young boys find love with the quite willing girls, and, Ricky, locked accidentally in the bathroom, razors his face because of his personal suffering as being a young gay man in such a deeply religious community, now rejected as a chaperone for the annual community summer camp. He has been caught with an erection while showering with some of his young charges.
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      Given Cone’s totally humanitarian acceptance of all his character’s flaws, all is apparently forgiven. Even the nasty Bonnie’s totally restricted daughter, Grace (Darci Nalepa), having been refused the possibility of the pleasure of the pool, causally dips her toes into it, denying her mother’s restrictions. And, in the marvelous surprise of the movie, the birthday boy, Henry, invites the gay black boy Logan to spend the night, asking, as film’s end, if he might kiss him.
     Cone does not show us that act, even though the movie has begun with Henry and his obviously straight friend, Gabe, in a mutual masturbation scene. We don’t need to see what is clearly the consummation of Henry’s and Logan’s love for one another; we can remember it from youth, the time of all of our discoveries for love and spiritual meaning.
    This film is one of the most non-judgmental and loving films I have seen in a very long time. These possibly Trump-supporters are made human, filled with the flaws of all human beings, and presented to us a real beings in a time when most of us, deem everyone who don’t agree with us to simply be “others” or as Clinton herself misspoke as “deplorables.” These characters remind me, vaguely, of one of my two minister uncles, a rather pious Methodist who had five sons, three of whom turned out to be gay, one tragically dying of AIDS. Their mother, at a rather early age, developed Alzheimers at time when few of us had even heard of the disease. The heart, as one critic observed, demands its own terms. The spiritual may help some to live, but love, as Christ reminded us, is the most important thing of all. As one of the characters in this film even reminds his pastor “Christ also drank wine.”
      This movie is a small one, despite its extensive cast, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. The New York Times critic, Ben Kenigsberg’s argued that “Mr. Cone is not a sophisticated writer, and his dialogue frequently spells out what ought to be subtext.” I strongly disagree. This is one of the most carefully nuanced and subtle series of conversations of contemporary films. Even apparent character types, such as the insistent Christian critic of all things current, Bonnie, is made multi-dimensional in Cone’s film. People, as her somewhat drunken husband insists, have so many stories to reveal.

Los Angeles, November 25, 2017

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017).

Saturday, November 25, 2017

John Boulting | Brighton Rock

into the abyss
by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene and Terrence Rattigan (screenplay), John Boulting (director) Brighton Rock / 1947

In John Boulting’s 1947 film, Brighton Rock, Richard Attenborough—who died this year at the age of 90—plays a steely faced teenager named Pinkie, who heads a small Brighton gang of older men. His razor-carrying friends may be brutal, but the Catholic-born boy is by far the more of an outright psychotic personality. Indeed the movie opens with Pinkie and his gang honing in the reporter Fred Hale (Alan Wheatley), who they hold responsible for their gang-leader’s, a man named Kite, death.

      Terrified by their knowledge of his whereabouts, Hale is in town to publicize his book by placing small placards around Brighton with the name “Kolley Kibber.” Those who discover them are awarded a small amount of money if they redeem them, while anyone who figures out who Kolley Kibber really is will receive a larger cash award—Hale ceases the activity seeking out the company of women, at first a loud-voiced patron of the bar, Ida (Hermione Baddeley), who acts in a local Pierrot-costumed performance company, and later with a woman on the beach, who he asks to accompany him for the entire day so that he might be protected from the gang’s attack.

When his pick-up leaves him alone for a short bathroom break, the gang corners him, as Hale attempts to quite spectacularly race off. Finally caught, he is taken to a Brighton pier amusement ride, and is later discovered drowned. The police, despite Ida’s testimony that Hale had seemed frightened and troubled during their short meeting, determine the reporter’s death to have been a suicide. And like a somewhat blowsy Miss Marple, she proceeds to investigate what she believes to have been a murder.
      Meanwhile, Pinkie, in order to avoid suspicion, has one of his men, Spicer, continue to distribute the “Kolley Kibber” placards around town to make it appear that Hale had simply continued to pursue his normal activities. But one of them, hidden under a restaurant tablecloth, troubles him since he is afraid that the waitress, an innocent, overly trusting girl named Rose (Carol Marsh) will realize it was left by Spicer rather than Hale. When he goes to retrieve it, he realizes that Rose, having removed the tablecloth, has already come to that conclusion, since she is especially good at recognizing faces. Determined to quiet her, Pinkie makes a date with her at the pier, and woes her, later determining to marry her to prevent her from testifying.
     Another wrinkle in Pinkie’s increasingly claustrophobic life occurs when a rival, more powerful gang, challenges his territory, slashing his face (in the US the film was re-titled Young Scarface) and attempting to kill him and Spicer, whom Pinkie has intentionally brought to the racetrack for the Colleoni gang to kill.

      Both survive, but Pinkie finally does in his fellow gang partner by pushing him through a high stair banister.
      Further complications arise when Ida tracks down Rose, telling her who Pinkie really is and explaining that the young girl herself is in danger. Now desperately in love with Pinkie, Rose refuses to be dissuaded. And, soon after, the two are married, with Pinkie now planning to plot a double-suicide with the thoroughly trusting girl so they might be together forever.
       Ida, who now knows the whole truth finally convinces the authorities to believe her, leads them to the pier where Rose, despite her religious reticence, is about to shoot herself, believing that he will soon follow her. She is saved just in time as the police rush in, she impulsively throwing the weapon into the water, Pinkie returning to question her about the gun, and, upon seeing the police, tries to make a run for it, accidentally falling into the sea to his death.
        Earlier in the story, Pinkie has made a store-bought recording in which he, so Rose believes, has testified to his love for her, while actually saying: "What you want me to say is I love you. Well here is the truth. I hate you, you little slut. You make me sick." In Graham Greene’s original novel, Rose, who had no phonograph, finally hears the truth after Pinkie’s death. But British censor’s made the writers change the film’s ending, with, the final recording, which Pinkie has purposely scratched, repeating only the words “I love you,” and the naive girl still deluded. In some ways, it helped make the film far more cynical: those who want to believe can never not.

       For my taste, Greene’s and Terence Rattigan’s screenplay (I’ve never been a Rattigan admirer; I’ve always loved the fact that Shelagh Delaney wrote her A Taste of Honey in response to a mediocre Rattigan melodrama) with its rather outlandish plot is more than a little fussy and, at moments, quite inexplicable. Why do the police think Hale’s death was a sudden suicide and how Ida so quickly and alertly stumbles upon the truth are both rather preposterous propositions. The “Kolley Kibber” publicity stunt seems absolutely absurd, seemingly introduced into the story simply to track the movements of Fred Hale. And the work never does explain how Hale might have been responsible for the death of former gang leader Kite. Or, for that matter, does the film even hint at how the young teenage boy (Attenborough was only 23 at the time of this performance) has so quickly risen in the gangland ranks? although we suspect it might have something to do his simple cruelty. How he got that way we can never know, except that Greene often conceived of a world in terms of goodness and evil, and Pinkie is most certainly a vision of the devil himself. As David Gritten pointed out in a review in The Telegraph, “Even his phone number contains a "666."
       Yet the film does have several spectacular scenes, particularly the fun-house ride just prior to Hale’s death—which quite clearly prefigures Hitchcock’s funhouse scene in Strangers on a Train just before that film’s equally psychotic figure’s murder of Guy Haines’ nasty wife, Miriam. The razor fight at the racetrack is almost as good as the far-longer knife battle in West Side Story, and Baddeley’s visit to Pinkie’s crooked lawyer is comically memorable; this man recognizes that he is already in hell. Attenborough is quite convincing as the fallen angel with nowhere to go but straight into the abyss his religion has promised. And I suppose that the reviewer for Time Out is correct in suggesting Brighton Rock is “the nearest thing to a British noir thriller—although I might argue that British director Hitchcock created a better work in The Wrong Man (even if it was an American-produced film), and American director’s Jules Dassin’s British produced Night and the City is another noir contender. But, ultimately, I might also agree with Dilys Powell’s jibe: “It [Brighton Rock] proceeds with the efficiency, the precision and the anxiety to please of a circular saw.”

Los Angeles, September 2014

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2014).

Friday, November 24, 2017

Gus Van Sant | Mala Noche

loving the best they can

by Douglas Messerli

Gus Van Sant (screenplay, based on Mala Noche: And Other "Illegal" Adventures by Walt Curtis, and director) Mala Noche / 1986

Instead of watching the annual National Dog Show on Thanksgiving morning, this year I viewed Gus Van Sant’s 1986 film Mala Noche, his first feature work, shot on a budget of only $25,000.
       Yet this film, with its rich black and whites, its jazz-influenced cinematic rhythms, and its excellent lead actor, Tim Streeter, playing the handsome, comfortably gay grocer, Walt Curtis, the film does not at all have the look of a cheap budget piece—in part because it is mostly filmed on site in Portland’s Skid Row, a seedy area of town where Curtis sells candy, chips, cigarettes and liquor to the homeless and drunks when they can get together enough money to buy anything. His best friend, Betty (Nyla McCarthy) is a female stripper.
      Perhaps the real reason Curtis has chosen to hang out in this part of town is his addiction to young homeless Mexican boys, and as the movie starts he’s just fallen for a long-haired, thick-lipped boy named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), who has just hopped a freight train with his friend Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge).The two boys seem to have somewhat close relationship, which may or may not be sexual. But what is clear, once Curtis begins to move in on Johnny, is that the boy will have nothing to do with putos (faggots).
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      Refusing to give up, Curtis, with the help of Betty, invites the two boys to her house for dinner so that Curtis might have a chance to seduce Johnny, if not through his quite apparent personal and sexual charm, simply by paying him all he has ($15) to spend the night. Johnny demands $25, but Curtis is only a little better off financially than the boys, although we recognizes that his age, sex, race, language and having even some money gives him all the advantage over the two lost boys, who say they are 18, but as Curtis notes to another, are probably closer to 16. In short, he recognizes himself 
as a kind of predator, but simply cannot help himself. And, although these issues are certainly at play in Van Sant’s film, the director portrays Curtis (in real life, the writer of this work, who performs a small role as a poet named George) as so likeable and accepting of his role in life, that we might almost forgive his preying on these boys and others before them .
      Unable to bed Johnny, Curtis offers Roberto (who has been accidentally locked out of the cheap dormitory where he lives with Johnny), a place to stay for the rainy Portland night, allowing the boy to fuck him and settling for what he regards as “second best.”
      But even the recognition that Johnny will probably never accept his love doesn’t stop him for continuing to try to convince the pouting and volatile young boy of his love for him, sometimes with very comical results. And the rest of the film is spent in the three of them circling each other, as Curtis gradually begins to play a kind of likeable father figure, taking the boys on drives in the country in his beat-up car, teaching and allowing them to drive—sometimes with dangerous consequences—and slipping them extra money or providing free food, even allowing them on occasion to rob him.
    When Johnny suddenly disappears, Curtis is devastated, and Roberto is stranded without any place to go, finally accepting Curtis’ invitation to live with him. Even then, Roberto is conventionally macho, refusing to have sex at any time but night, and forcefully resisting Curtis' daytime advances. He is brutal, insists Curtis, but “I guess he can’t help it, growing up as he has,” revealing some of his own racial biases.
       Johnny finally shows up again, having been arrested, deported, and swimming the Rio Grande to get back to Portland. We might even wonder if he hasn’t returned to be with both his buddy and Curtis.
     But in the interim, one the “bad nights” of the film’s title has occurred as the police, called to Curtis’ apartment building because a neighbor has spotted a strange intruder, who cautiously enter, terrifying the young runaway Roberto who, grabbing a gun, tries to make a run for it, to be shot and killed by the cops. Curtis, returning home from work, discovers the dying boy and holds him in a position that is similar to a pietà, realizing their shard human condition.
     Upon his return, Johnny now seems willing to spend time with Curtis, but hearing of his friend’s death, accuses Curtis of lying and, after carving the word “puto” into his door, runs off, never to return, despite Curtis’ continued invitations and open invitation to come by. It is clear, after Johnny speaks to a young male prostitute, that he also will be forced into that dark world.
     What is so remarkable about Van Sant’s film is not only the editing and beautiful cinematography by John Campbell, but the director’s absolute embracement of his characters despite their vagaries and flaws. As several critics have pointed out, Van Sant not only is totally nonchalant about their sexuality but refuses to judge them for their often outrageous behaviors. This is not simply a “gay” film, a work about a gay man, but a work that helped lay the foundation for what was later described as New Queer Cinema, rejecting the idea of societally normative attitudes of sexuality and behavior. There are neither saints nor even true sinners in Mala Noche, but simply individuals who try their best to get through many a bad day and night, often succeeding as much as they fail by loving the only ways they know how.
Los Angeles, November 24, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017).

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Robert Bresson | L'Argent

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Bresson (writer, based on a novella by Leo Tolstoy; and director) L’Argent / 1983, USA limited release 1984

I first saw Robert Bresson’s brilliant final film, L’Argent, a few years ago. But even though I daily wrote about the movies I saw throughout each week, I inexplicably dallied about writing on this one, perhaps because I simply wasn’t quite ready to consider its very dark message. I believe I still prefer his also dark, but more obviously spiritual works such as Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and Mouchette (1967), but his serenely-paced depiction of the evil force of fate in which a good-looking, hard-working, Parisian heating oil delivery man is caught up in a series of lies and deceits, all centering around “money,” is masterful and unforgettable. 

         One might almost describe his “hero,” Yvon Targe (Christian Patey) as a complete innocent who is framed over and over by those around him; but Yvon, even in his almost passive acceptance of his fate—Bresson specialized in actors, which he called “models” who read their lines without emotional intensity, that intensity being left for the cutting room, not on-screen interpretations of a theatrical “role”—is also guilty simply because of his acceptance of the capitalist society in which he lives, and increasingly throughout the film reveals that he is inwardly as violent as the worst of those around him, which his later murders of other seemingly innocent folk prove. It is not the money in this film, that is at the root of all evil, but simply the medium in which several of the films characters use to reveal their inner demons.
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       The cycle begins with a young boy, Norbert (Marc Ernest Fourneau) receiving his monthly allowance from his father, who demands a bit more money to pay a fellow school boy from which, evidently, he has taken a loan. The father refuses, and his mother, it is clear, has little of her “allowance” to share. After attempting the pawn his watch, Norbert is asked to pass off, almost as a lark, a forged 500-frac note. He successfully does so in a small photography shop, purchasing a small frame in exchange for the fake money.
       When the shop’s owner (Didier Baussy) discovers the forged note he chides his assistant, who reminds him that he has accepted two such notes in the past week. Determining to pass them on, he pays the oil delivery man with the three notes, thus unleashing a series of events that result in Yvon’s arrest. In court, the shop-owner lies about his involvement, and is backed up by another employee, a young man named Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), which results in a judgment of guilt for Yvon and the loss of his job.
     Out of money, Yvon agrees to serve as the get-away driver for a bank robbery, which fails and results again in his arrest, this time leading to a three-year sentence behind bars.
     While Yvon is imprisoned, he ultimately discovers, his daughter dies of diphtheria and his wife leaves him for another man. Who mightn’t be truly embittered by these experiences? Yvon even fails at suicide.
     Once freed from prison, Yvon, rather gratuitously—almost as if playing out a revenge tragedy—kills a couple of hotel keepers and robs them, seeking safety, rather vaguely explained, with an kindly old lady (Sylvie Van Den Elsen) whom Yvon recognizes as a good person.  
Image result for bresson l'argent       Her difficult and perhaps abusive husband chastises her kindness, but she prevails, and provides Yvon with a place to rest and, so for a few moments it seems, perhaps even redeem his existence. In a quite intelligent piece published with the Criterion disk of this film, Adrian Martin proclaims one of the most heart-rending scenes of the movie is when Yvon helps the old lady with hanging clothes on a line, and later a “gorgeous, green, plaintively simple image of a man and woman picking hazelnuts,” again Yvon and the old lady forming an oddly intimate relationship.
      Yet, soon after, Yvon picks up an axe, kills the entire family, and turns himself into the police as a no longer innocent murderer.
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       One, of course, might read such a film as being a statement against the society which has criminalized the central figure’s previously innocent acts, as another example of a culture’s wrongful sense of justice. But Bresson does no such thing. The policemen and justices Yvon encounters seem fairly compassionate; unlike the US prison systems, the jail in which he is incarcerated, seems to offer a rather comfortable environment and even good meals.
      No, Yvon, without even thinking about it, has collaborated in his own moral deterioration. He has accepted the money without even questioning its reality; he has reacted with the evil that Bresson suggests exist within all human hearts. One can feel sorry for Yvon only as a philosopher, recognizing his dilemmas as being part of the problem of the entire human race. None of us is innocent; none of us can possibly live without suffering and revealing our tortured souls.
      A few years ago, when I first witnessed this last testament to Bresson’s genius, I think I might have been unable to say that or, at a deeper level, admit it. Perhaps, I now discover, I am a Marxist, more cynical of the goodness of the human race than I ever before perceived myself to be. And, like Bresson, I still love and forgive those of us who inhabit this planet.
Los Angeles, Novvember 22, 2016
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2016).

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Lorenzo Vigas | Desde allá (From Afar)

by Douglas Messerli

Lorenzo Vigas (screenplay, based on a story by Guillermo Arriga), Lorenzo Vigas (director) Desde allá (From Afar) / 2015, USA general release 2016

The New York Times film reviewer, Stephen Holden, began his 2016 review of Venezuelan movie director Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar with the following reminder of gay terminology:

“The term ‘chicken hawk,’ applied to older gay men who seek sexual favors from boys in their late teens and early 20s, isn’t heard much nowadays, nor is ‘rough trade’ used anymore to describe the street youths the men pay for play. But in “From Afar,” those labels apply to Armando (the brilliant 60-year-old Chilean star Alfredo Castro), a dead-eyed dental prosthetist living in Caracas, Venezuela, and to the hostile young roustabouts he picks up on a corner.”

       Yet, Armando is not so much preying on his young pickups as he simply uses their bodies as a visual accessory to pleasure himself. It is as if, in the homophobic culture of Caracas, the dental worker has determined to buy these boys as if they represented a living gay porn magazine. With his evident wealth he lures the boys to pose half-dressed before him simply to masturbate, no touching or real sex involved. In many ways he is kin to Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, although Mann’s character dies of a kind of internal passion for the beautiful young boy he eyes, while we feel that perhaps, inside, the poker-faced Armando is already spiritually dead.
       We further sense this when, after bringing home another street boy, Elder (Luis Silva), he does not even bother to defend himself against the kid’s verbal abuse when he calls him a faggot nor attempt to protect himself when he is beaten and robbed. It’s as if he half-expected it; perhaps, we can only wonder, when you regularly bring home such street roughs it’s part of the territory, and, maybe, part of the dangerous thrill. At least in this encounter someone has laid hands of him.

      Vigas is a master of understatement, both in his visual images and his handling of the narrative. We get to know very little about our “hero.” The greatest emotions he displays are when he suddenly visits his sister, who shares with him her knowledge that their father has “returned,” both appearing to be troubled by the fact. We never do discover what the father has done to them, but we discern that both of them have been seriously abused; his sister and her husband are about to adopt a child, suggesting that she either cannot conceive or chooses not to.
       We learn much more about Elder, observing him at his job as a car mechanic, on the streets, and in bed with his girlfriend after he has just severely beaten and perhaps even killed her brother. The mercurial boy is like a volcano which any moment might explode, but who also carries a great deal of passion within himself.
      When, soon after, we see Vigas beginning a long stalking of his abuser, we also sense there might be some greater passion lurking within Armando as well. When he does re-encounter Elder, he pays the boy without demanding any voyeuristic reward; he even agrees to help Elder purchase the car he has remodeled (we might suspect that the shop he works in is dealing in stolen automobiles).
     Soon after Armando not only discovers the project-housing where Elder lives, entering his bedroom to observe the photos and trinkets the kid has collected (including one he has stolen from Armando), but when the boy goes missing, bribes others to tell him about his whereabouts.
Image result for From Afar movie       He finds Elder’s battered and bruised body, in retaliation of his own brutal beating, the boy moving in and out of consciousness, and takes him home to nurse him. As soon as he regains his awareness, Elder attempts to once again take advantage of his savior, trying to break into Armando’s office safe. Again the elder man seems almost amused by the fact, and makes no attempt to change the empty relationship. Soon after, he even attends a family event with Elder’s mother and family members in attendance, who all suspect the worst of Armando. When one of the celebrants discovers Elder and Armando in the bathroom, the boy attempting to kiss the older man; the handsome, full-lipped boy, is shunned not only by his family but by his street-gang friends. He now has no one to turn to but Armando, to whom he admits that throughout his childhood his father has beaten him.
       Now we know, at least, that the link between them is that both have a hatred of their fathers, and that the link they together have forged is the need to play out patriarchal roles, attempting to bond in a father-son like relationship that redeems their own childhoods. Before long, we see Elder crawling into his “new” father’s bed, the elder man still refusing to touch or hold him.
       When they spot Armando’s father on the street, Elder follows him, later, apparently, killing the man, tossing the bullets on the counter for Armando to see them: “Don’t worry. No one saw me.”
       The violence, if nothing else, temporarily brings them together as, basically, Elder rapes a willing Armando, forcing the “far off” man to truly come to terms with his own sexuality. For some directors that may have been the end.
Image result for From Afar movie       Yet From Afar is very far from a “feel good” movie, and explodes into a far more gritty, vaguely revenge drama, as Elder is suddenly arrested by the police, Armando having evidently turned him in. As Justin Chang, writing in Variety, declared, “The movie ends, as it begins, with a shot of Armando, and it is haunting in no small part because we seem to be seeing him clearly for the first time.”
      Although Vigas’ first film at times, in its withholding of information, seems a bit coy, it is, nonetheless, a deeply complex work which brings up issues of not only voyeuristic behavior, stalking, and father-and-son relationships, but problems about faith and trust. Love and sex and little to do with the relationship between Elder and Armando, while commitment to another being is central, and as often happens in human relationships, their lack of it destroys them both.
      The movie’s award of The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival may have surprised and even irritated many film critics, but the masterful story-telling of Vigas and his screen-writing partner, Guillermo Arriaga, well-deserved to be lauded.

Los Angeles, June 21, 2016
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017).