Tuesday, January 22, 2019
beauty the destroyer
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Gruault and Jacques Rivette (screenplay, based on the novel by Denis Diderot), Jacques Rivette (director) La Religieuse (The Nun) / 1966, general release 1967
Jacques Rivette’s 1966 picture La Religieuse (The Nun), based on Denis Diderot’s novel of the 18th century, is really four major episodes patched together into a full film. It’s not precisely that the work does not weave together these parts, but that despite the fact that they all center on the adventures of a young innocent, Suzanne Simonin (the always radiant Anna Karina), but that they offer such entirely perspectives of the period that they are difficult to reconcile.
Indeed, perhaps I should say there are actually 5 perspectives, beginning with the seemingly loving home life of the young beauty, which once her elder two sisters are married off with large dowries—a requirement of the day—leave nothing for her, which means for the family that she will have to be sent off to a convent wherein she will nicely disappear from their consciences.
Surely there must be several books on how second sons and third daughters throughout the 17th-19th centuries were horribly destroyed by the fact that their wealthy parents simply couldn’t afford to marry off and support their younger children.
Dozens of novels and plays deal with that very fact, usually leading to comical (in the case of Tom Jones) and tragic results of the financial dealings of the gentile lives of their parents. As if they were all “drunken sailors,” parents had to determine what to do with their later offspring whom they simply could not equally support. In a sense, that is even at the heart of many of Jane Austen’s fictions. When marriage equals money, it produces serious problems even up until the 20th century when in Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles, the temporary husband of the heavy-drinking Bette Davis is forced to play a billiards game in order to settle the matters of the dowry. Even the peaceful family drama of I Remember Mama must pretend to deal with such issues. Women quite obviously needed to be sold off to their husbands, and younger sons were truly a nuisance. Only if you were the heir apparent might you expect to receive a decent survival in a world, particularly for women, it was not a nice place if you didn’t have cash to spend in it.
What is worse is that the beautiful, well raised Suzanne, like Tom Jones, is the product of an illicit romance her religious mother, in this case, has had with another, unnamed man. Her guilt about her actions is confused with her intentions to send her daughter into hell—supposedly a life in a highly religious convent—in order to resolve their financial difficulties and absolve her own guilt.
Suzanne, given her careful upbringing, is deeply religious young being; but also is a proto-feminist, who resents the very idea of being sent off, to what Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang has described as a true prison. As Chang beautifully described the second perspective of this movie, it “might be one of the greatest prison movies ever made and certainly one of the most controversial.” For that is precisely, after the young girl, dressed in the wedding dress young novices must wait to wed their lives to God, rejects, declaring that she has no vocation in her commitment to religious conviction, which is perceived as a scandal—after all, her mother has also had to pay (through secretly pawned jewelry) for her entry into the convent! Everything in this world is based on financial transactions, which might truly remind us of the world in which we currently exist.
Sent back to the convent, this time with the truth of her birth revealed, the beautiful Suzanne, who a bit like the beauty in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, is resented by her sisters and mother, is sent off to a castle from which there is no escape—but, in this case, without even a loving father who might come to rescue her. There are elements in this story even of Snow White, a woman forced to suffer torture, particularly after the death of the one caring Mother Superior, Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), and endless sleep without food—in this case with torture and beatings.
Her white knight is the improbable lawyer, Dom Morel (Francisco Rabal), who warns her of what she will have to endure if she brings a lawsuit to escape the clutches of her prisoners. He even foretells, as what we later perceive is far too true, that she may not win her claim to return to the world outside the convent walls. The society who has locked her up is determined, for numerous reasons—hypocritical morality, financial concerns, and simply dispassion—to keep her where she is. And, moreover, the social structure does not easily accept change, while the radical alterations she has demanded stand against the bulwarks of the current French culture, with only a few outspoken figures attempting to totally transform the culture in which they exist. One must imagine an outspoken philosopher, if he or she might still exist, speaking out against the imprisonment of blacks or the immigrant children in our own time: their voices might be loud, but they are seldom heard. Suzanne loses her case.
Fortunately, or one might proclaim “unfortunately,” Morel helps the suffering Suzanne to escape to another convent, this one a seemingly loving enclave, where she is treated as a kind of special supplicant to the Mother Superior, Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver), a lustful lesbian who is determined to take the new beauty under her personal “wing,” while others, obviously comfortable in this Sapphic paradise, rush laughingly around one another with joy, behaving nothing like women devoted to God. Only Sister Thérèse, the former favorite of Madame de Chelles warns the new member of their order of the dangers she must face.
The young innocent nun is confused—by everything, her newly aroused feelings of joy and contentment, her own personal commitment to the religion, and, of course, her own inability to find vocation within the confines of the life she has vowed to live. Confessing to the local monk, she is advised to stay far from the truly “Satanic” influences of Madame de Chelles (strangely a term that had previously been applied to herself). Is she Satan or is Satan present in the world all around her? She has no way, apparently, of even comprehending evil.
Sent away through a complaint by the Mother Superior (or perhaps by his own tender feelings for the nun to whom he must attend) the elder confessor simply disappears, a new, younger monk taking his position, a man who confesses to his confessor that he feels very much in the same position a her, locked away in a religiously sanctimonious society in which he does not feel at home.
What also becomes quickly apparent to everyone but Suzanne herself is that he too has fallen in love with her, forcing her to keep a distance from her Mother Superior while he plots her escape. For people like us, he confides, there is only escape or a jump into suicide, re-planting the seeds of what Suzanne has already imagined for herself.
Suzanne agrees to his plot, but quickly realizes, when he attempts to rape her, that her actions have been for no avail; that he simply plans another kind of imprisonment for her. And indeed, when his plot is revealed to authorities, he, himself, is imprisoned. She has no choice but to again escape, this time into the indenturement of a cleaning woman for a provincial French household. The newspapers and gossip of the day warn her even away from this rustic world, and she choses to run again, this time into the poverty of the streets, begging for a few coins in order to survive.
Once more she is seemingly saved by a passing figure, a well-dressed woman who takes her home in order to protect her. Suzanne is once more pampered and given a beautiful dress to wear until she realizes, at the evening party, that the role she has been chosen to play this time is a courtesan in a high-class bordello. The approach of a customer forces her again to flee, this time through the window the monk has suggested: to her death.
If this is a high melodrama, it is also an amazingly well-wrought and beautifully filmed New Wave protest against religion, and most particularly, the Roman Catholic Church. Faced with serious challenges by French censorship authorities, Rivette worked time and again to bring the language into a context that did not threaten the church leaders, even adding a ridiculously long introductory statement which expressed that this was, after all, a fiction and did not represent the way the Church had in any way truly behaved.
All lies, of course, and in a later 2007 film, The Duchess of Langeais, this based on a story by Balzac, some of the same territory is repeated, since the major figure of the work is also incarcerated and tortured in a convent. Religion, we know, has not always been the best source of protection for its believers. Ask the thousand and young men and women preyed upon by priests, or the masses of innocents who have gone to their early graves believing that what the Church spoke was the Holy Word of God.
Even though Rivette had the permission of the censors, when the movie was about to open, the French press and religious figures shouted it down. Only in Cannes did it finally receive a fair hearing, and even then the film did not appear in Paris theaters until the following year.
Just as importantly, Rivette’s film is not only about religion but about the restraints put upon women, then and now. Suzanne may have never been quite able to comprehend her role as an outspoken representative for her sex—she was clearly just as uncomfortable in the ordinary world as she was in the world of the sacred—but she knew something was wrong, that being forced into a role in which she didn’t feel comfortable to embrace, she was being robbed of her identity. Diderot, long before Rivette, realized that. Instead of being asked, she was being told how to behave and survive in a world not at all accommodating to her own sensibility. And she rebelled against the very idea, again and again, with no choice finally but to destroy herself in the process. The “MeToo” movement, and numerous other contemporary issues all seem, in this film, too close to bone to watch it comfortably. This is an edgy movie even today.
Los Angeles, January 22, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2019).
Friday, January 18, 2019
a way out
by Douglas Messerli
Chantal Akerman (screenwriter and director) Les Rendez-vous d’Anna / 1978
I might now finally, after all of these years, confess that every time I see a new movie, play, or performance, I become somewhat nervous: I long for each writer, actor, and filmmaker to be just perfect, that I might find in the art a sort of personal transformation and, at the very least, allow me a life-long admiration of the work. I am nervous, not for my own possible disdain and even disliking of the work, but in the way if I might myself be the actor, the writer, the filmmaker. Will the audience
see what I am trying to do, or what the movie or the play is attempting to express. I guess you might describe me as an over-empathetic viewer, which may be why I often find meaning where others simply point to the flaws.
There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however, in film Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Yasujirō Ozu—although I have written a few negative reviews of each of these masters—and now Chantal Akerman, all of whom make me immediately feel comfortable in their art, so much so that I can simply sit back and enjoy without any of my self-created discomfort.
Les Tendez-vous d'Anna Akerman’s 1978 film, despite its somewhat dour themes, accordingly, was a film which immediately engaged me and allowed me just to sit back in my office-desk chair and enjoy its pleasures.
That seems like a strange thing to say about a somewhat autobiographical film which, in parts, explain the Belgian director’s own suicide in 2015. The central character, traveling throughout Europe in this work, Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) meets en route from Essen to Brussels, is like Ackerman a film director, a beautiful woman in great demand. Yet she chooses inexpensive hotels, trains filled with German immigrants, and far-too-brief encounters with people she had relationships with along the way, including the mother of a man she has turned down for marriage twice (Ackerman, herself, was lesbian), and her own mother—brilliantly performed by Lea Massari, the gone-missing young woman of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura—the perfect choice, perhaps, since Anna is herself a missing woman, clearly unable to interact with any of the figures with whom she has her “rendez-vous.”
As J. Hoberman notes: “Anna is a portrait of a woman, actually a self-portrait…a 28-year-old filmmaker who is the Belgian-born child of Holocaust survivors, [who] is a stand-in for Akerman, traveling from one European city to another to introduce screenings of her movie.”
Perhaps no other director has been so willing to cinematically proclaim her own failures, recreating slightly autobiographical portraits in I you she he and the wonderful News from Home, in which her mother’s impassioned correspondence plays a major role.
If Anna seems cold and dispassionate, we can well relate to her disorientation in the post-World War II Germany and Belgium. No one she meets seems to any longer be at home or even comprehend what “home” might mean. They all speak an amalgam of languages, having learned their new tongues just skillfully enough to be complimented on their fluidity. German, French, Turkish, and numerous other tongues (we should recall that Ackerman’s own country is a bilingual world of French and Dutch). There is no possibility, one might argue, of being perfectly at home with ones own native tongue.
The Germany this film portrays, from Essen through Cologne and elsewhere, is presented as an urban nightmare of signs and passages, sending its citizens in the directions of their presumed destinations. Anna’s arrival in Essen seemed, even to me who has never been there, so familiar of the German landscape that I once might have visited the city. The giant cathedral of Cologne is glimpsed only in the far distance. This world might almost be the same (although obviously different) from a US journey up the east coast on Amtrak.
The past and present in this film is glimpsed only in quick images, a tie some male guest has left in the room where Anna has ensconced herself; in a train full of “outsiders,” which might almost resemble one of Donald Trump’s racist nightmares; a German who complains that his wife has “run off” with a man from Turkey, as if the director were signaling Fassbinder’s film of 4 years earlier, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
This is, after all, a world of fear, a woman whose family died in the Holocaust, freely traveling through the very territory which sent them to their deaths, not only Germany, but Belgium itself. Anna’s world is not only one of repressed memories, but of missed telephone calls, where the only possible communication is through missed messages on answering machines—a world in which even the most beloved figures are always out to lunch. It is a bleak world not for the tourists, a post-war landscape where only those who have been born into it cannot ever quite reconfirm their existences. And, despite her beauty and talent, Anna cannot quite find her place in it.
As I mentioned above, it helps to explain why this so very gifted director, whose films seem so natural that I never fear upon entering them, finally sought a way out.
Los Angeles, January 18, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2019).
Sunday, January 13, 2019
a world somewhere else
by Douglas Messerli
Joey Kuhn and Grainne O'Hara Belluomo (writers), Joey Kuhn (director) Those People / 2015
Joey Kuhn’s 2015 film Those People is hardly a profound film, preferring to study desire rather than intense romance. But this is also its gift, given that for one of the few times ever that sex is not at the center of a LGBT film.
Unfortunately, what Kuhn replaces the sexual element with a focus on wealth. The young Charlie (Jonathan Gordon), a not-very-convincing artist, who mostly paints portraits, pines for his fellow boarding-school rich-boy friend Sebastian (Jason Ralph), a character who quickly comes to be perceived as a kind of stand-in for the scandalous Bernie Madoff, whose son, Mark, committed suicide 2 years after his father’s arrest for defrauding thousands of Americans.
Mark, in real life, was apparently straight, having two wives and children to boot. But in this film his fictional personae is a hard-to-get but needy young beauty who seeks out a lot of people, men and women, in order to fulfill his own sense of worth. Unfortunately, Charlie, openly gay, has fallen for him, and finds his demands impossible to reject, including Sebastian’s demand that he move in with him. A bit like Gatsby, Sebastian (a character that shares some of the sadomasochistic appeal of the Tennessee Williams-scripted film’s character Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer) is a man so compelling that the confused Charlie simply cannot resist his charms. And, in a sense, the film, symbolically speaking, is about the young artist’s attempt to digest and spit out the bones of his own attraction to the man who has been taking advantage of him.
Fortunately, or unfortunately—depending on how one ultimately interprets this movie—Charlie also encounters, on his desultory travels through New York’s bars with Sebastian, an older piano player, Tim (Haaz Sleiman), a Lebanese man, who might at first appear simply as a part-time player, but whom we later discover is also a concert pianist of some note. The two hit it off immediately, the younger painter quickly bonding with the elder. When the two finally do couple, if only for a short while, we know immediately that Tim is the right man to lead Charlie into the new life he deserves.
But, of course, youth never can quite comprehend what they need to do, and as Kuhn demonstrates, there are always endless twists and turns as this younger man attempts to sort out his feelings for Sebastian in relationship for the far more sophisticated and culturally separated Tim.
I do wish Kuhn’s film had more fully explored these vast distances between the obviously privileged Charlie, his friend Sebastian, and the far more talented pianist, but the director seems locked into his pattern of outsider desire. For Charlie, even if he has found his way into the world of wealth, is still an outsider; and so too is Sebastian, now detested by everyone around him for his father’s sins. Strangely, the true outsider, Tim, seems more at home in his chosen world, having obviously made his way from a bar-room pianist to a concert-one. The privileged are, at least in Kuhn’s terms, the truly disadvantaged, without truly realizing it.
Even if Charlie is somehow, rather unconvincingly able to talk this version of Madoff’s son out of committing suicide, we finally realize if the young man is to survive, he must leave his desires for wealth, beauty, and grandiose comforts for something else, something foreign even to his life. He does toast goodbye to Sebastian, but we can’t yet be sure, at film’s end, whether he can reconnoiter with Tim, who has now moved on to a position as the pianist for the San Francisco Symphony.
Only the film’s title suggests that he might be able to now join the human race against “those people.” Yet we can never know certainly who those people are, the ones on the outside or the ones within, for Tim has now also entered the world of privilege, and if Charlie rejoins his friend he will also enter that world. It appears that in Kuhn’s vision the people of whom he speaks are always somewhere else from where he or we are.
Los Angeles, January 13, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2019).
Saturday, January 12, 2019
life in venice
by Douglas Messerli
André Téchiné and Mehdi Ben Attia (writers), André Téchiné (director) Impardonnables (Unforgiveable) / 2011
Although André Téchiné's 2011 film, Unforgiveable, was fairly well-received by critics, it still was not seen to be as likeable or coherent as his early films such as Wild Reeds or The Witnesses or even a later film like Being 17; as The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, for example, observed: "Unforgivable isn't one of Mr. Téchiné's greatest achievements, but it's engrossing even when its increasingly populated story falters, tripped up by unpersuasive actions, connections and details."
The wide range of characters who weave in and out of novelist Francis’ (André Dussollier) life—his sudden wife, the real estate agent Judith (Carole Bouquet), his daughter Alice (Mélanie Thierry), who just as suddenly abandons her own daughter, Vicky (Zoé Duthion), the female, heavy drinking detective, Anna Maria (Adriana Asti), who previously had a lesbian relationship with Judith, the wealthy spoiled small-time drug dealer, Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), with whom Alice is deeply in love, and Jérémie (Mauro Conte), Anna Maria’s violent, possibly repressed homosexual son, who Francis hires for follow Judith after he suspects her of extramarital affairs—almost all seem to be dropped into this stewpot of a story without any explanation of how they have come together or what their feelings are for one other. You only need to read the almost incomprehensible plot summary on Wikipedia to perceive the utter zaniness of the story, in which the characters shift back and forth in the French and Italian languages, the tale inexplicably taking place on a distant island, Sant' Erasmo, near Venice.
I won’t even try, in this case, to reiterate why the characters are doing what they are and how they arrived into their complex relationships. The movie doesn’t seem to know and certainly does not attempt to explain it. But I think that is the point. These figures might as well be out of the novel Francis is frustratedly trying to write. They are somewhat melodramatic, and, except for Francis, are beautiful imaginations of figures trapped in a world nothing is truly knowable.
A bit like the characters in Gilbert Sorrentino’s epic fiction Mulligan Stew these creations speed up and down the Venice cannels without any real purpose except to attempt to get closer to each other. They are figures of the imagination: the authors’ (the story was based on a fiction by Philippe Djian), our own, and their own—all out of control. All are totally unfit for their assigned professions, perhaps even Francis who seems to be orchestrating their interrelationships.
Although Judith might be an excellent real-estate agent, she is simply, in her beauty and youth, not appropriate as Francis’ island-bride, temporarily bedding down with the boy who is following her; Alice is neither a good daughter nor a capable mother; Alvise is incompetent as a member of the Venice aristocracy, as a petty drug agent, and as a lover; the self-hating beauty Jérémie is as clumsy in his detective duties as Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau; the vodka swigging Anna Maria might be better sitting at a bar and swilling down drinks on a couch.
And yet, somehow Téchiné, along with his impressive cast, turns this nonsense into a fascinating human farce in which you actually care for all of their outcomes. In the end, all the film’s characters have some kind of reconciliation. Francis finishes writing. Anna Maria returns from France after having successfully found Alice. Upon Alvise’s imprisonment, Alice returns to Francis. And Francis finally serves as a kind of father to Jérémie, not only saving him from a suicide attempt but forcibly disciplining him for his inability to love his mother and for his violence for people whose ideas he finds threatening. By film’s end, Francis invites the lovely Judith back into his own Paris world.
Perhaps art is greater life; or, perhaps life triumphs over art. In this beautiful work, we can never certain. Are these all figures of Francis’ imagination or has he, through his writer’s block, been able to finally integrate his life with the ghosts of his present and past?
Los Angeles, January 12, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2019).