Location, location, location
First-world living promotes a comforting fairy-tale that if we all work hard, very hard, the rewards of the market can be ours. But even the most upbeat free-marketeers can’t ignore the increasing chasm between the ultra-rich and the rest of the world. It’s not hard to see the incipient effects of Brazilianization, Michael Lind’s term for a “fissioning along class lines”: the haves prosper in a world of private services and communities while the have-nots scramble and claw for what’s left. For those outside the real or virtual gated communities in the economic strongholds that now pass for civilization, the struggle is nothing short of desperate.
Caché makes subtle reference to this in its opening shot, the exterior of a gated private home in Paris. This sense of fortification carries over when director Michael Haneke takes us inside a warren of rooms full of the trappings of the intelligent good life — walls of books, pricey sound system and large television, tasteful mementos. What seems perhaps insignificant and certainly benign turns quickly creepy when the scene is exposed as a surveillance video made without the owners’ knowledge. Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) are an artsy yet prodigiously respectable couple who struggle, as all parents do, with their teenage son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). But the deceptions and betrayals run deep, precipitated on a spiteful childhood act that Georges has never told anyone. At no point does he seem to register that this changed the entire shape of another person’s life; Georges is not only walled-in physically in his plush bunker, but has completely blinkered himself.
Underlying all of this is Haneke’s clever reversal of surveillance’s usual function as a form of protection for the prosperous to a menace. Left with little in the way of power, the dispossessed use technology to get something of their own back. The audience is implicated also, since Haneke turns the conventions of contemporary film upside-down and inside-out, using the medium itself to pose questions about what is going on in Caché and who exactly is taking advantage of whom.
A similar sense of a protected world to which the underprivileged have no access runs through all work of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Their perspective, however, is always from the outside, their characters living hand-to-mouth at best. In their most recent film, The Child, Bruno (Jéremie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François) are young unwilling new parents outside any kind of predictable, normal life. Prevented economically from participating, they’re cut off, adrift in a kind of shadow world that plays out amidst traffic and in all the untended corners and abandoned areas gentrification has yet to find. Living from crisis to crisis, they have nothing on which to build. The only hopeful scene is in a prison visiting room, as if only by being incarcerated does Bruno begin to figure in the legitimate world — and then as a problem.
There’s a parallel the ultimate desperation, that of the suicide bomber. Paradise Now follows the last few days of two young Palestinians, Said and Khaled (Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman) as they embark on this one-way trip. Though director Hany Abu-Assad never sidesteps the political exigencies that lead to this decision, he also makes plain the ecstatic recklessness that leads Said and Khaled to embrace such a horrifying end.
Yet even Paradise Now has moments of compassion, unlike the loveless chill first-time writer/director Gela Babluani creates in 13 Tzameti. In Caché, The Child, and Paradise Now, barbarism is still more or less in check: though set almost entirely in a few rooms, Babluani presents a world as dire, in its own way, as the Road Warrior.
Odd-jobbing in rural France, Sebastien (Georges Babluani) winds up renovating the roof of a seaside cottage. At 20, he is at the mercy of his clients, with little more than youth on his side. Sebastien and his brother are the main breadwinners for his immigrant Georgian family.
Through the hole he’s patching in the roof, Sebastien overhears his morphine-addicted client discussing an invitation-only scheme for big money. When the client overdoses soon thereafter, his live-in girlfriend won’t pay Sebastien. In revenge, he filches the invitation, whose contents lead him, eventually, to a country house. Waiting for him are a group of well-heeled older gamblers who have devised an especially virulent form of Russian roulette. Like life itself, he has no choice but to play.
Shot in 35-mm Cinemascope black-and-white, the look is “icy yet exciting,” in the words of director Giorgio Gosetti. Though Babluani credits black-and-white Soviet cinema as a primary influence, he riffs on expressionism and film noir. Set in a harsh world, where no one smiles and nothing soothes, Babluani’s film works at both a visual and an aural level. Unpleasant squeaks and squeals, the locust-whirr of spinning gun cylinders and cash counters all undermine the sometimes lyrical soundtrack, contributing to the merciless atmosphere of the film.
Like Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol, Babluani films normal life as something alien in which things are not quite right. This isn’t David Lynch’s baroque oddness, but simply a question of angle and point of view that make even ordinary objects — the insulation in the roof, the mailbox — appear to have a malevolence all their own. Babluani’s close-ups have the familiar-monster feel of Jean-Luc Godard, along with the precision and ruthlessness of Roman Polanski. (This is particularly true of Babluani’s use of one image — a hand-painted glass bulb cover. Its sheer ordinariness, the possibility that someone decorated it to cheer and comfort rather than its function as the symbol of despair make it as unsettling as the rabbit in Repulsion.) Yet 13 Tzameti is startlingly original, particularly in its portrayal of the desperate survival in the midst of alleged civilization.
As Sebastien, Georges Babluani looks both boyish and wizened, often in the same shot. He says very little in the film, communicating everything through expressions and body language. Gela Babluani holds his brother’s face in long takes, especially when as Sebastien discovers what he’s in for. Survival isn’t pretty, a fact surprisingly rare to see in movies. A few close-ups reduce Sebastien’s eyes to black hollows, his face distorted in a way that suggested the aftermath of a nuclear blast. It’s like watching someone go from young to old in a matter of seconds.
Like even the most humdrum Lotto player, Sebastien is just looking to make fast cash and this is a game ruled only by luck. In Babluani’s microcosmos, authority belongs to the highest bidder and exploitation has no boundaries. The police get no closer than surveillance, their power reactive rather than preventive.
In Seeing, José Saramago writes: “…we are born and at that moment it is as if we had signed a pact for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves who signed this on my behalf.” Though Caché, The Child and Paradise Now all recognize that the accident of birth still determines far more than even the most active enterprise-zone can promise, 13 Tzameti takes the marketplace-as-value-system to its starkest extreme. Great cinema, despite its horrific conclusions.