Fresh starts don’t come easy
There are films about relationships affected by tragedy and those about relationships that — tragically or otherwise — never seem to get started. Before looking at a few modern examples of the latter, I’ll begin with a mid 20th-century masterpiece reminiscent of the best work of Dreyer, Bresson, Fassbinder, and, latest addition to the pantheon, Lars Von Trier.
Leon Morin, Pretre (Jean-Pierre Melville,1961) is one of those films whose rules state that physical passion shall never, under any circumstances, be consummated; and oddly enough, the template of LMP‘s opening storyline recently reappeared whole and unscathed, in Fear and Trembling/Stupeur et Tremblements (Alain Corneau, 2005). Transferred from Melville’s Occupied France to modern Japan, Corneau’s scenario also begins in a large office with a subplot about the love of a junior clerk for a much-adored but distant manager. And while it adds to the bigger theme of thwarted affections, as in LMP the hint of female homosexuality is never actually followed up. In fact, it turns out that the thrust of both movies isn’t narrowly sexual at all. Instead, it’s part of a general tilt at extreme forms of cultural conservatism: with fine acting from Sylvie Testud, in F&T Corneau shows that, even if she’s fluent in the local language, here’s one cute Amelie who will never enjoy any kind of social acceptance — not in a month of Othering Sundays, anyway.
Having made his name with La Silence de la Mer (1949) and temporarily dropping his favoured gangster genre, in LMP Melville returns to the wartime of that brilliant debut. And again he approaches a highly charged period in French history with understandable but nevertheless astonishing restraint. The price for that, it seems, is a somewhat oversimplified view of Roman Catholicism: as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s priest explains to Barny — the sexually frustrated, willfully atheistic young widow played by Emmanuelle Riva — “God is existence.” Any subversion of such flat catechising is reserved for matters not of religious faith but of cinematic style; and so the story of Barny’s unrequited passion is told through abruptly switching scenes which are, themselves, often dangerously static and wordily intellectual. Even more provocatively, Melville suggests that, if existence is something human beings regularly mess up, the young at least do it innocently, whereas older people seem almost to enjoy the process. This idea is sneaked into a late scene where two old ladies confess, over coffee and mille-feuilles, that they’ve only come to town to watch some bad girls (collaborators) being publicly humiliated. But that’s not a cue for us to see any heads shaved because, in LMP, resistance to predictable melodrama is more honoured in every frame than resistance to the Occupation.
Yet, for all the radical restraint, the abiding impression isn’t of Melville’s in-for-a-sou-in-for-a-franc auteurship; even less are we overwhelmed by the masterful male logic of the handsome young priest. As anonymously as a drummer in the average rock band or the music in the average film, it’s actually the entire female sex — from very young to very old and represented by a cast Fellini would have died for — who make this such a complete cinematic experience. Against the workings of a plot devoted to male moral resistance, the effect of so strong a female presence, threaded naturalistically throughout, is to break down the worst kinds of gender bias. Finally, then — despite the director’s “troubled,” Stetson-wearing masculinity — this film shows moral resistance to be an equally strong (or weak) force for everyone.
Of course, we don’t have to be diehard sceptics to know that the mere fact of our shared humanity doesn’t, on its own, bring about personal or social improvements. If such changes are to happen, they require the sort of shared awareness that, for good reason, we can’t simply mass-produce. But, to remove any doubt about this shared underlying condition and the role of popular culture in increasing our awareness of it, I’ll mention a couple of examples that recently crossed my bows. Both are from Black America, though the fact that there’s nothing exclusively black or American about them is all to the point. In the first, Bernie Mac, lynchpin of the rom-com Guess Who (Kevin Rodney Sullivan, 2005), is in a state of immovable prejudice against his prospective (white) son-in-law. Here, it’s the young man’s prediction of bad weather that fails to strike a chord. They’re out in the car and Dad, who knows how to read the signs, suddenly finds himself confronted with a windscreen awash with “a few spits.” Asked if he’s going to turn the wipers on, he replies, yes . . . when it rains. For no other reason than the wonderfully matching panache, I compare this with the completely sane defiance shown by Jean Knight toward “Mr Big Stuff” on her early Stax label hit. (‘You’re never gonna get my love!’) Having bought my double CD of soul music after learning of the death of Isaac Hayes, later I also learned that — quite unconnectedly — Hayes and Bernie Mac died within a day of each other after completing work with Malcolm D. Lee on Soul Man. Scheduled for November 2008, if ever an opening was hoping for good luck, this is it.
Though lacking the multilayered, postmodern view of Fate of Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999), the group of films I’m heading toward all say something about social change and the increased social awareness that has to accompany it. And, like Magnolia, all these films implicitly recognise that we’re often blinded by the very troubles that should be giving us a warmer sense of connection to each other. I could call them “problem films” or “dark comedies,” though, as we’ll see, they probably have more to do with the early Modernism of Chekhov than with Shakespeare and the late Renaissance. Despite that, from September 2004 I vividly recall a BBC TV production, live from the Globe, of Measure for Measure. Directed by John Dove and with Mark Rylance as Duke Vincentio, this was as good a blend of high art and public service broadcasting as British viewers, at least, are ever likely to see. Without forgetting how many people were involved, I single out the dynamic Dove/Rylance duo for turning a notoriously murky example of minority-interest theatre into something like a moon-landing epiphany. The arc of that trajectory is finally determined by the Duke’s personality: a self-ignorant micro-manager, an absent-minded control freak who, at the last gasp and in this production very movingly, discovers love. The “problem” is that, as all readers of the play have noticed, there’s precious little textual justification for such an outcome. In fact, the nuptials between Vincentio and that “very virtuous maid,” Isabella, have been so poorly prepared that if it were anyone else but the Bard we might call the whole ending a fake. Everything seems to rest on our willingness to believe that such sudden personal developments are not only possible but somehow deeply true to experience.
I’m not saying the inclusions in the following list borrow from M for M, but a similar demand on audiences is made by — in no particular order — Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959), Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismaki, 2006), The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003), Kitchen Stories (Bent Hamer, 2003), and Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002). Though only the first two arrive at something we could call romantic enlightenment, in each of them we follow a male central character to a point where, at the very least, he begins to query his own resistance to others.
For unlikely breakthroughs where we’ve been hot on the heels of female leads, I think of A Very Long Engagement/Un long Dimanche de Fiançailles, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) and the contrastingly low-budget feature, Rosetta (The Dardenne Brothers, 1999.) Of the two, I certainly don’t mention Jeunet’s film for the sake of gender balance, because, in one sense, it ends too predictably to fit into my notional group at all. But even though Mathilde finds her beloved Manech — as she (and we) always knew she would — so devastating are the mental injuries inflicted on the First World War soldier that, for this couple, a long hard road obviously still lies ahead. Despite critical resistance to the film’s roseate aura, such a twist in the tale certainly goes further than the average happy ending. And of Rosetta I’ll just say this: though I understand why, despite the Palme D’Or, a lot of people have made it as warmly welcome as an enemy army, if only for the performance of eighteen-year-old Emilie Dequenne, I urge all who have not yet done so to go and fraternise with it now.
Meanwhile, a more mechanical link between these films is the fact that none of the psychic discoveries made in the last reel are delayed by over-obvious plot devices. Though some people will feel they’re all, in fact, Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice/Benedick re-runs they are not. And while that grand old comedy convention can still deliver the goods, too often it’s a cheap way of spinning out a desperately underwhelming “love interest.” For an example of that, The Wind and the Lion (John Milius, 1975) is worth another look for its story of early 20th-century American relations with the Arab world; and, from the evidence of Google responses, aficionados of film music are also finding it worth another listen. But Sean Connery’s sheikh and Candice Bergman’s English Lady are stuck in the kind of lifeless “quarrel” that, rather than building sexual tension, soon feels like the formulaic nonsense it is. In fact, the avoidance of tired clichés is almost enough in itself to explain the appeal of the films listed — that and some unusual intensities in the writing. Bresson’s Pickpocket, for example, has been linked with Crime and Punishment; certainly, the trance-like obsession with crime of Michel (Martin Lasalle) and his painfully delayed rehabilitation via Jeanne (Marika Green) mirror very closely the story of Raskolnikov and Sonia, right down to the far from resolved tone of the ending. (Incertitude was the film’s working title.) Luckily for film lovers, Bresson makes all his best points in an hour and a quarter — an aspect of filmmaking that has often made humble prose writers green with envy.
I don’t know if Aki Kaurismaki’s Lights in the Dusk owes a conscious debt to Dostoyevsky, but the links with Pickpocket are surely not coincidental; and while the Finnish film remains very much an independent creation, the spiritual essences of the two pieces could hardly be closer. Again, people have reached for literary comparisons — Kafka’s name sometimes being mentioned. But I don’t quite see it myself, since we’re not dealing here with alienation born of commitment phobia but with an over-trusting rush to commitment — in this case to Mirja, the blonde love-dream we know is too good to be true long before Koikinen catches on. So, while we’re yelling “don’t do it!” at the screen, the Helsinki night watchman gets evermore deeply mixed up as the patsy in a jewel robbery. He even does time before — literally in the last frame — touching hands with Aila, the snack-bar lady who, despite his resistance (self-ignorance?), has been genuinely interested in him all along.
Presumably because most of the gangster violence is kept off screen, Lights in the Dusk has been dubbed a “comedy thriller.” What we do see, however, is a disturbing enough portrayal of its physical and psychological effects on Koikinen. And in an exact copy of the camerawork and editing of the comparable scene in Pickpocket, the final moment of Love Realised is played so starkly and briefly that we’re denied almost all sense of comedy or romance.
For me, the most interesting common aspect of these features is that the audience is given maximum space to decide what — if anything — has changed in the lives of the protagonists. Kitchen Stories, for example, is based on real events that might well recall Kafka:
In post war Sweden it was discovered that every year, an average housewife walks the equivalent number of miles as the distance between Stockholm and [the] Congo, while preparing her family meals. So the Home Research Institute sent out eighteen observers to a rural district of Norway to map out the kitchen routines of single men. The researchers were on twenty-four-hour call, and sat [like tennis umpires] in special strategically placed chairs in each kitchen. Furthermore, under no circumstances were the researchers to be spoken to, or included in the kitchen activities.
Grateful as I am to Sujit R. Varma for summarising the background, I’m still far from clear what to make of the ending in the story spun from this by Bent Hamer and co-writer, Jorgen Bergmark. Briefly, we’re left wondering if something more than spiritual love has finally blossomed between Folke, the researcher (Tomas Holmer) and householder Isak (Joachim Calmayer) — neither of whom, one might add, are in the first flush of youth. In one sense, as with the other films in question, a precise summary is precisely what we can’t give; but looking on the bright side, we can, at least, discuss movies where “nothing happens” without worrying as much as usual about spoilers and future viewers.
Apropos of future viewings, after The Station Agent those of us wanting more from Thomas McCarthy have been placed in a real double bind. This is because, until recently, he’s been diverting most of his scandalous talent in contributions to The Wire — not something easily deplored. Of course, cinema’s loss has been HBO’s gain — a gain, for some of us, reminiscent of the best of postwar neorealism. But the teasing promise of The Station Agent shows that McCarthy’s reach also extends to scenarios with a gentler, distinctly Chekhovian flavour. When his mentor and employer dies, Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is bequeathed a derelict railway station lying unloved somewhere in the New Jersey countryside. Does it matter, by the way, that Finbar happens to suffer from dwarfism? Indeed it does; especially if this implies more than usual sensitivity to being around other (taller) people. Before long, it’s clear that, Garbo-like — and at least as understandably as Garbo in Grand Hotel — Finbar wants to be alone. You’re guessing right if you suspect that, simply by moving to a more rural location, he doesn’t get his wish. But, again avoiding clichés, the film doesn’t end either with romance or dying-fall despair, however gently expressed. Or maybe. . . for some of us. . . it does. Such ambiguity ought to be a weakness, I suppose. But on my viewing this is exactly where the whole strength of the piece happens to reside. (There’s also some byplay about an inherited pocket watch, the wearing and use of which is so obviously comforting to Finbar that, ever since the film, I’ve felt a little less than fully equipped in the chronology department.)
Because it’s another movie in which “nothing happens,” and because Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (pronounced Jaylan) has been very clear about Russian influences, Uzak/Distant also got me checking back on my Chekhov. What eventually struck me was this: when scenarios manage to suppress any hint of a simplistic “message,” they may actually tempt us into filling the vacuum, not just with the usual free-floating personal stuff but — quel paradoxe! — with something schematised, even political. For reasons that only commend it more highly, The Station Agent didn’t hook me with any such bait. On the other hand, when an Istanbul-based photographer, Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), finds himself playing host to unemployed country cousin Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), I did find myself briefly pondering the dreaded trope, town versus country. Happily, this much-loved cinematic theme is handled by Ceylan in a way that places it at the far end of the shelf from, say, that rape-revenge classic I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978). Low-budget and elemental they both may be, but a thoughtful piece of low-key social realism doesn’t have much in common with a notorious piece of sexploitational kitsch. (That outboard motor is pretty loud, too.)
What, though, to make of the pianissimo “nothing” that takes place in Uzak? Firstly, a lot of cinephiles will probably be relieved to see that, here at least, we’re not heading for the point where an entire regiment of unlikely couples suddenly abandons all resistance to the appeal of a mass wedding. Mahmut is already divorced, with ongoing mistress and ex-wife complications. Yusuf simply wants a job so that he can at least try to find a partner. These and other differences between them are brought over with the sparest use of dialogue. By such quiet (distant) means, if there are any deeper truths on offer we really do feel able to discern them for ourselves. Not least of these, I noticed the horrendous guilt-trip that the hapless Yusuf is laying on arch-realist Mahmut. As a measure of this, when the photographer finds his missing silver pocket watch (a professional prop rather than a fond legacy), he hides the discovery, partly out of shame but not sad to see his annoyingly innocent cousin now suffering a few guilts of his own.
Meanwhile, Yusuf’s wanderings in dockland for a job as a merchant seaman have led nowhere. And so, despite taking his unwanted lodger with him on location shoots, even paying the man for his labours, Mahmut’s unease continues to grow. The trouble is that, though he desperately wants to, he just can’t bring himself to come right out with it and, job or no job, send Yusuf packing. The decisive flashpoint finally centres on Yusuf’s cigarette ash, dropped carelessly (and to us invisibly) on the rather nice wood flooring of the photographer’s generally rather nice home. “I don’t even know how you can smoke those horrible things.” This effectively marks the end of Yusuf’s visit, though not Mahmut’s unease.
The last frames of Uzak dwell on Mahmut, alone in the grey morning light on a windy bench overlooking the Bosphorus. Despite the lack of sun and the presence of bones that look anything but rested, Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” came to mind — especially the lines about nothing ever changing. Then, before the credits roll, from the packet found discarded in Yusuf’s now empty room, Mahmet — cupping his hands against the wind — lights up one of those “horrible” cigarettes. For the brittle, self-centred Mahmet, is this a soul- or even a sea-change? Or is profound change of any kind, despite moments like this, totally off the agenda? Is the dream of mutual understanding always going to remain distant and, in fact, impossible to realise? As one might have guessed, none of the films I’ve been looking at have the answers. But they do at least shape the questions rather well.