Friday, August 9, 2013

Lonely Hearts - Paul Cox (1983)


Paul Cox's "Lonely Hearts" should appeal to anyone intrigued by the tragi-comedy that is the human search for intimacy. Here two enfeeblement-prone adults with diminished expectations--a piano-tuner running out of time (and hair), and a case of arrested development striking out on her own to the chagrin of over-protective parents--embark on a series off-kilter and tentative encounters fueled in equal parts by a desire to be known and the fear of loneliness. Deftness of touch and judiciously applied understatement leave plenty of time to register off-beat events and nuances of character. There's quirkiness in play, and disarming straight-forwardness. Though nothing is played for laughs, I found myself inadvertently smirking with delight at the incongruities of human aspiration on display in this charming and profound little film.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Les Cousins - Claude Chabrol (1959)


In some regards an improvement over his first film Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins remains a proto-work in which Chabrol is still grappling with the medium. At least it seems that way in light of what he accomplished with his next feature Les Bonnes Femmes, which, for all its primitivity, unfolds as a compelling cinematic experience and marks the point at which the apparent randomness of its mis-en-scène and plot seems--retrospectively--both necessary and recognizably "Chabrolean." With it a new cinematic form was forged that retains its apparently formless spontaneity and feeling of chaos no matter how many times one watches it. It is not incidentally the film in which Chabrol finds his most persistent and fruitful subject matter--womankind. But it is Les Cousins, with which Chabrol began to find his authorial voice, that first establishes the thematic complex that will typify his future work: the violent perversity of human nature and the reversals to which it is subject.

"Les Cousins," Godard once provocatively, if puzzlingly, observed, "is profound because it is hollow." It's a matter of speculation exactly how his observation relates to Chabrol's film, which was at the time in no way part of any new movement, but simply and startlingly novel. There are many possible interpretations. Evidence of hollowness might be found in the immediacy of the world captured by the mis-en-scene, as in the drive through Paris in an open convertible upon Charles' arrival, an episode anticipated by films such as Jules Dassin's Riffifi (itself likely inspired by Gun Crazy) and emulated in the title sequence of Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent CoupsHollowness is reflected in Chabrol's thematic and diegetic primitivity and the al fresco vérité style that became the hallmark of French nouvelle vague cinema.

The agitated excess of energy augemented by over-the-top performances, the purposelessness of adolescent posturing, especially Paul's reckless grandiosity--the shameful if not fatal flaw of his character--all convey a certain lack of a center. The distracted impulsivity of Parisian sophisticates seeking transgressive transport represents the hollow ennui hedonistic excess seeks to escape. It's unlikely Godard was referring to this species of moral de-centering, but to me it seems the most salient kind centerlessness, and rather emblematic of the nouvelle vague in toto. Godard's own films are certainly always as much self-conscious and quasi ironic ciphers of the Zeitgeist transpiring at the meta-level of the referential act as they are dramas about human conflicts.

That youth represents style over substance, the inevitable disproportion between claim and fulfillment, aspiration and accomplishment, is only obvious after its passing. The verdict of the classicist who's "seen it all before" feels rather merciless toward the excesses of inspiration. For romantic exuberance sins against the central aesthetic credo of classicism: that less--judiciously gauged privation--is always more. It is effectively and affectively a surplus in waking the desire for more, while more itself leads to premature satiety. This insight is unattainable for those just getting started, and it would be unhelpful if not fatal for the inspiration that fuels youthful creativity. Only the reversal of forward momentum--hindsight----exposes the void at the center of excess. This explains why the classical is paradigmatic: it is essentially reflective and informed by judgments of taste. Its verdicts always affect the faith and impulsiveness of inspiration as an astringent--inducing contraction (reflection). By the same token, the classic aesthetic is less creative than preservative. 

Each new generation makes its selection of paradigms. Naively at first rather than on the basis of historical importance. Such a criterion is foreign to it. The historical approach as often as not effects a kind of redemption of works that no longer speak to the full measure of our selves. It performs the work of rescue out of a sense of obligation, a growing sense of a finitude wholly absent from vernal exuberance. 

Judgments of taste and historical import as indicative of a certain resignation are understandably dismissed by new generations. Even in the exercise of judgment when compiling their own provisionally final canons. To chide youth for its want of hindsight is to misjudge what it has to offer. Fearlessness, of which little remains by the age of wisdom, will have its time and season. Even Chabrol's first obstreperous efforts must be grasped in their necessity as expressions of an unrepeatable moment in his personal development and in cinematic history: as flawed but bold rebukes of a standard of classical good-taste. Given time the historical perspective rescues and vindicates the one-time-new. Just this luxury of retrospection is absent in a beginning, rendering it, for all its force of natality, awkward, even impoverished. Modernity took a stand embracing such impoverishment in the artless and ofter brutal unmitigatedness of the primitive.

Measure implies finality and totality; totality implies the loops of life's many reels traversed. Youth's dismissiveness of precedent is part and parcel of its confidence. Youth is only "wasted" on youth in the sense that it consumes itself against a horizon of unendingness and novelty--moved in its extemporaneous self-declarations as much by glandular secretions as ideals. It is "full" of itself, urgent, pompous, and selfish, as exemplified by the over-bearing and histrionic Paul, the survivor (perversely enough) of Chabrol's second tale of mismatched comrades. 

In Chabrol's oeuvre perversity is less a matter of manifestly sick and malign individuals, of which there are plenty, to be sure, than a function of upset expectations and fortuitous inversions. In Les Cousins the ostensible victim of life, callow, over-conscientious momma's boy from the provinces Charles (Blain), winds up the transgressor, perpetrating a heinous crime de passion on the genuine villain of the piece, Paul (Brialy). Even if his motive is understandable given Paul's insufferable grandiosity and flamboyant deceitfulness, it takes malevolence of a decidedly fiendish sort to shoot a friend in his sleep. This reversal, while foiled as action, transforms our estimation of both characters. But it is outdone by a final denouement--a bit of poetic justice whereby Charles dies at the unwitting hands of his intended victim by firing the pistol he assumes to be empty. Whether such actions constitute a satisfactory ending to a character-driven film I leave open. It did feel a bit like someone pulling all the dramatic stops for the final act; an externally applied exclamation point wanting the organic inevitability of Les Bonnes Femmes's final moments. But it may just constitute a requirement of the crime genre (the one where discharged firearms change narrative trajectories) Chabrol has awkwardly and unmitigatedly incorporated into this tale of ill-fated friendship.

Contextualizing Chabrol's film in a cinematic space shared with Vadim's Les Liasons Dangereuses, Fellini's La Dolce Vitta, two other early examples of what would become the anarchic hedonism and perceptual renaissance of the 1960s, facilitates evaluation. Provided examination is made of one's own attitude towards the period's excesses. A judicious evaluation of Chabrol's film will be sensitive to the necessity of hedonistic liberation even as it maintains a critical distance towards its nihilistic consequences. The kind of distance impossible on a first immersive viewing.    

The film is a programatic aperçu of Chabrol's entire oeuvre. It is hollow qua open to the chaos of existence. Chabrol permits chaos to exist in a way that feels both unsettling yet tedious and almost leads one to question the aesthetic and moral judgments that constitute his style. A chaos of unforeseeable incident and anarchic surging within the characters, themselves figuring more as coordinates of conflict than primary focal points.

Chabrol's theme is suspense, the psychological thriller as explosion of reality. He assaults us with unforeseeable events, disdaining to fill-in the lacunae between them, and a permanent state of emergency as imparted by the restless camera, a style soon to be exploited to much greater, near-baroque effect by Truffaut. 

Blain is a mesmerizing fixation point; the picture of symmetry, sensitivity, and callow innocence. Yet Brialy’s impersonation is gratingly over-the-top: a caricature incongruously juxtaposed with Blain’s timorous fumbling. Its hamminess, anticipating the over-solicitous buffoons of Les Bonnes Femmes, and Isabelle Hupert's uppity boorishness in La Cérémonie, frustrates immersion in the dramatic events and helps define Chabrol's preoccupation with reality as action, where action is understood as the unmitigated, or simply, assault. 

The diegetic use of Wagner as the bon-vivant demonstrates his cynical self-transcendence ad nauseum had me cringing. Being bludgeoned over the head with the conceits of youth-culture anno 1959 is no more bearable for being half a century removed. Everything is possible at that age
: people hang-out in groups, play records, binge drink, confront one another in dramatic demonstrations of daring-do and truth confession, and fucking afterwards in discrete pairs. Nothing seems so quaint as yesteryear’s iconoclasm. 

This is not a film that eves-drops on itself but one that declares itself ostentatiously over long stretches, then grows suddenly quiet and inward, only to once again clamorously assault, rather than to ravish, our sensibilities. It is as if Chabrol did not trust his audience to get the juxtaposition of meek and mild Charles and Paul the pompous urbanite, endlessly underlining the disconnect as if it were a plot point rather an just a given, manifest incongruity. No slight-of-hand here. 

Everything, including Paul's baffoonery, seems ponderous, as Germanic as the Wagnerian opera played at unconscionably manipulative length late in the film. That parasitic ploy cannot cover up for the inability to cinematically evoke the deep pathos of which Wagner was the master. A romantic impulse that feels woefully out of place in the Jazz-infused post-War Parisian ambient. I struggled to make sense of the sudden emotional depth by fiat in the breezy give and take of the nouvelle vague setting. The playful-satirical and the romanticist are opposing magnitudes, and to meld them creates an incongruous mish-mash one can only feel ambivalently about. 

Put it down the excesses of youth and the ambition of an untried talent to make a strong impression. One that took some time to discover that whispering is an equally effective tactic to that end. 

I am not the first to point out Chabrol’s predilection for broadly drawn, caricatured characterizations. A tendency he rarely completely resisted in his early work, though paradigmatically in his intriguing Betty.

One of his most successful efforts is called La Rupture--a title that would describe any number of his films about human evil. Evil is a concept that would have obviated more abstract circumlocutions at the risk of closing off that which is endlessly unsettling about Chabrol's oeuvre. For we all already understand evil without feeling the need to "mystify," as Chabrol's experiential emplotment of the malefic must appear to do to anyone occupying the reflective high-ground of sound judgment and experience. Such a character-focused account of Chabrol's thematic ties his work to the basic preoccupations of dramatists of the human condition down through the centuries at the cost of obscuring what makes his treatment distinctive. 

Evil in Chabrol's vision is a component of the force of destiny that assaults us. It is the order of the dis-ordering in the face of which nothing human seems inconceivable. As such he makes evil inconsequential, mundane, inevitable. Rather than the fate of a character's derailment, it is inscribed in the context of his existence. Being good is the miraculous failure to do evil. Is the exception to the rule of chaos, fault, and rupture. The paradoxical effect of which is to elevate goodness to the rightful rank of grace. Meanwhile, evil is, obtaining as the default and quotidian modality of the moral universe. Whether by intention or inadvertently, this demythologizes evil. It makes evil acts appear as discrete and isolated from the arc of character; happening with a brute facticity that belies interpretation. As appropriate to the medium of cinema qua revelation of events, Chabrol shows events, but resists drawing conclusions. He does this by eschewing diegetic framings that invite reflective distance or reduction in characterologically necessary terms. Again, the core thematic--"shit happens"--imposes such abstinence. Chabrol isn't interested in helping us draw comforting conclusions, having in some sense aligned himself with evil as the assault of the real. He clearly reveled in his role as disturber of the peace. Of course his delight in disorienting the peaceable bourgeois and forcing him out of his zone of comfort presupposed that his own at-homeness in our domesticated world was taken for granted. He could disturb because he was happily unperturbed by human turpitude. That lent his efforts their innocence, and his character its mischievous fraudulence.

Even when he attempts, or appears to attempt, the emplotment of miraculous malice, as in the swan-trumpeted, snowy landscape of Les Bonnes Femmes, what we experience is one animal ending the life of another, nothing more. It is less shocking than poignant. The result is something else than the perception of an evil man. Chabrol makes us all complicit in murder. He is the cinematic nihilist who succeeds in throwing into relief the grace of existence.

The Grissom Gang - John Aldrich (1971)

I put off watching The Grissom Gang because I’d read it was just a shoot-em-up gangster movie without a lot of nuance; that whenever the character-driven dramatic element started to get interesting Aldrich would crank up the gratuitous violence, etc.

Having watched it I can say it’s a thoroughly engaging film full of high-drama and big characters, as one would expect from an  Aldrich production. The performance of Scott Wilson, here in the full bloom of youth, rivets: it's both disturbing and heart-breaking. Kim Darby (as Barbara Blandish), despite one of the worst hair-cuts in film history, is comparably excellent. The two of them together generate real fireworks. O’Donnell and Granger come to mind, but their chemistry pales compared to the sparks that fly between Darby and Wilson.

Wilson never had the career he deserved. My first unwitting exposure to him was in Clayton’s The Great Gatsby, in which he playw George Wilson, the avenger of his wife Myrtle's (Karen Black) manslaughter. Few ever did anguished desperation as compellingly. Brad Douriff and John Savage, two other uniquely wounded souls, come to mind. 

As for the look of the film--it does sport one of the ugliest and period-inappropriate interiors ever. It’s gaudiness is previewed by earlier typically mod color miscoordinations (hues of green abutting improbable shades of purple-pink). It’s so outrageously ugly I actually turned off the color for a while. Hard to understand why Aldrich, not known for subtlety, chose such jarring tones. Perhaps it was his way of setting his film apart from the tastefully worn-out, vintage palette of Penn’s trend-setting Bonnie and Clyde.

Thankfully, the performances absorb most of our attention. Ultimately the test of a great film is its capacity to engage us and by making us care about the characters. In this Aldrich completely succeeds. He has crafted a piece of entertainment that in its often feverish intensity feels bigger than life without feeling overly theatrical. So there may very well be an element of genius in the mix. 

That is not to say the film doesn't have its problems. The scene between the father and the detective just before the finale could have been jettisoned. At that point we’re totally invested in the fate of Slim and Barbara and the dramatic flow should have been allowed to take its course as the rest of the characters faded into the background.

 Marnie - Hitchcock (1964)

Tippi Hedrin shines as frigid man-hating kleptomaniac Marnie. Her placid exterior--exuding old-time glamour under a beehive coiffure of sumptuously golden locks--sparkles in the soft-focus photography of Robert Burks. The cinematographic double standard traditionally sparing the female face of a certain age unflattering scrutiny by imposition of a diaphanous veil, here reflects the duplicity of the main character: outwardly unblemished, inwardly fractured and dirty. Oscar Wilde's observation that "A man's face is his autobiography--a woman's...her work of fiction," comes to mind. The incongruity of apparent perfection masking inner filth draws us in, inviting us to savor the spectacle of a beautiful woman rotting in her core. 

Marnie’s issues are classic fauxmale-ic hang-ups: a cold mother, an absent father, the dialectic appearance vs. reality, the lure of compulsive mendacity, a love of horses, and fear of phallic males. Most complicated of all, her sense of unworthiness precludes intimacy with men, who all want the same thing--desecration by way of penetration. Marnie throws up every road-block she can to keep her pristine interior from being invaded. The irony is that her depravity of mind is far impurer than any physical 'pollution' could ever be. What she's really attempting to keep separate, as will be shown, is not male and female anatomies, but the memory of maternal malfeasance. An even darker, more primordial trauma masquerading as the antimony 'pure vs. profane.'

As she pulls up in a taxi to visit her mother against a grand panorama of tenements abutting a ship-filled harbor, rope skipping girls recite with ritual joylessness:  
                                       Mother, mother, I am ill
                                       Send for the doctor over the hill
                                       Call for the doctor, call for the nurse
                                       Call for the lady with the alligator purse.

The chanting echos the scene in Lang’s M where children play a game of elimination in the courtyard. It's a brilliant homage to the much admired German director. Marnie rings the bell and a saccharine little girl her mother is baby-sitting--the rival for Mother's affection--answers. Catching sight of red gladiolas Marnie’s color-phobia inflames the screen. Regaining her composure, she replaces them with her own white chastity blossoms. The mother doesn’t waste any time finding fault with Marnie. “Too blond hair always looks like the woman’s tryin’ to attract the man. Men and a good name don’t go together,” she muses censoriously. Reproached for spending money on her, Marnie replies: “That’s what money is for. Like the Bible says: money answereth all things.” Visibly irritated Mother admonishes: “we don’t talk smart about the Bible in this house, missy!” Common ground is found only in disparaging men.  

They move to the kitchen, where the mother rebukes Marnie for being jealous of the little girl. Marnie lays it all out, despondently: “Why don’t you love me mama? I’ve always wondered why you don’t.” Reaching out for her hand, her mother draws away. Maybe, she wonders aloud, Mother imagines she's done indecent things in her attempt to earn her love: “You think I’m Mr. Pemberton’s girl. Is that how you think I get the money to set you up?” Her mother slaps her face, sending a bowl of pecans crashing to the floor. Embarrassed, Marnie apologizes, but before she can pick up the nuts she is sent off to rest. Just as well, she concludes, as the pie was meant for the upstart.

Marnie embodies the woman who can’t love because self-loathing and defensiveness have sealed her opening. Like some modern day St. George, one-time zoologist Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) steps into this hot-house of female dysfunction to get to the bottom of things. With his superior powers of discernment it doesn’t take him long to smell decay and begin sorting her out.  

“Does zoology include people, Mr. Rutland?” Marnie facetiously inquires. “We’ll, in a way. It includes all the animal ancestors from whom man derived his instincts,” he replies. “Ladies’ instincts too?” Marnie asks. “Well that paper deals with the instincts of predators, what you might call the criminal class of the animal world. Lady animals figure very largely as predators.” Marnie smirks but remains silent. His observation accurately characterizes Marnie’s modus operandi as a thief. And yet this predator wears the mask of a victim valiantly attempting to appear normal. T
he screen's ultimate borderliner, she feels entitled to dissimulate and take what doesn’t belong to her to redress the balance of cosmic injustice.

A storm erupts with eerie red flashes of light and a massive tree limb crashes through the window, sending Marnie into Rutland’s arms. To the soaring violins of Bernard Hermann’s effusive score Rutland presses his lips to Marnie’s forehead in extreme close-up, slowly running them down to her lips as her hysteria subsides. Through her own dumb luck she's found a savior. The only remaining question is: will she surrender?

Dogging her relentlessly, he calls her bluff after she robs the safe of her new employer. Marnie's a tough nut to crack, but he’s up to the job, becoming her husband-analyst and tracking her into her darkest, most treacherous dimension. On their honeymoon she stubbornly guards her maidenhood until Rutland forcefully asserts his matrimonial prerogative. Afterwards she attempts suicide in the ship’s pool. “The idea was to drown myself, not feed the damn fish,” she quips upon being pulled from the water.

Eventually the repressed complex tying her into a hysterical knot of reaction-formations is untied. It turns out her stay-at-home mom did transactions on the side, making herself available to sailors who could afford her favors. In a
 textbook primal-scene scenario little Marnie would have to give up her bed for the couch, then listen to strange sounds coming form the bedroom. Was mom alright in there? One night there was a thunderstorm and Marnie was crying. When a sailor--a young Bruce Dern--came out to comfort her, mom insisted he keep his filthy hands off. One thing led to another and little Marnie wound up bludgeoning the kindly dimwit to death with a poker-iron. Ever since red hues (into which the screen repeatedly dissolves during the climactic return-of-the-repressed scene) have induced hysterical fits in her disassociating fear-male psyche.   

Rousseau remarked that there is a moral element in all imitation, and Truffaut said the same of tracking shots. Our disdain for process-shots and back-projection acquires its force from our sense of being manipulated by technique. Try as we might to disabuse ourselves of our undifferentiating perceptions, as spectators we're prepared to suspend skepticism--the precondition for ‘global’ perception. In return, we expect a film to have the self-evidence of a dream.

Hitchcock's use of rear-projection in the scenes where Marnie rides horseback, strikes me as a provocation of this expectation. He was still using rear-projection in 1964 at a time when its shortcomings should have been obvious. Apparently he used the technique as a convenience, accepting its jarring incongruity. I can't help wondering whether he wanted to confront us with the artificiality of this technique.

It was to disrupt the illusion of naturalistic theater that Brecht famously had his actors turn to address the audience. By this Verfremdungstechnik he hoped to disrupt the audience's comfortable anonymity and collusion with the illusion of naturalistic verisimilitude, forcing them to transcend their merely aesthetic participation to assume the attitude of reflective moral beings. When filmmakers use certain techniques that disrupt our immersion in illusion, it may be understood as an intentional stylistic device, albeit one serving no purpose beyond inducing an awareness of the artifactual nature of cinema. 

I propose the term abstract-syntheticism for Hitckcock’s style. Every shot is determined down to the minutest detail à la Lang. It’s almost as if Hitchcock preferred artifice, going so far as putting horses on giant tread-mills for the hunting scene. Tippi Hedren’s fall is spliced (or rather painstakingly cobbled) together with great emphasis, as if Hitchcock wanted to demonstrate how the amalgamation of various shots creates a single event. The finished product, assembled out of perspectival fragments, hasn't a whiff of real spontaneity. Maddeningly stilted in its stitching together of elements, the sequence reads like a comic book. It's as if Marnie were wrought to make an impression of even the most inattentive viewer. 

Lack of realism is the criticism of cinematic dolts. A want of realistic in-scene-setting may in some instances be preferable to an all-out documentary style. Films are constructs, after all. Likewise, improbability in a plot ought not detract from enjoyment of its twists and turns. Such criticism is more often than not an enjoyment of our own cleverness in detecting failure’s of realism. They are momentary disruptions of the illusion of compelling reality that force one to (re-)suspend disbelief for the sake of continued emergence. There are degrees of probability and willingness to “go along” with fantastic coincidences.

Marnie made it onto Bertolluci’s top ten list in the Sight and Sound pole. If you don’t like Marnie, he declared, you don’t like cinema. This suggests that loving cinema involves loving the techniques that going into staging action. But first and foremost, it is a matter of immersive participation in human conflicts that implicate us all. What makes Marnie compelling and affecting is the tragedy of a little girl wondering what is happening to mother in her abandoned bed, and the collusive denial her whoring necessitated. The universal theme is the (phase-specific) rejection of the sexually submissive mother, a rejection of the circumstance by which she, temporarily, becomes a stranger. The realization that beneath the failure to love (dis-identification) lies a traumatic fear of the unimaginable constitutes her transformation. For Marnie catharsis and resolution come only when, under the steady guidance of unfoilable Male Virtue, the circuitous and long-delayed path of hysterical denial is traced back along the route of repression.

 Revanche - Götz Spielman (2008)

The buzz around Revanche made me reluctant to seek it out, having become somewhat guarded about mass entertainment in the 21st century. It seems to know and feed two moods: breathlessly gritty squalor and the airlessly immaculate idyll. One bitter and bleak, the other saccharine and blandly luxurious. Cinema often seems like the place where over-indulged, naively cynical children go in search of novelty and distraction.

This expectation is largely born out by the films being produced. As a prejudice it performs the function of all prejudices: obviating investment of precious attentional resources in persons and activities that yield no secrets or gratification. Even when some new film has made it passed my censor it remains hard not to be skeptical and prepared for disappointment. So when a film does come along that fulfills in miraculous fashion one’s cinematic ideals, one is left a bit awe-struck: filmic miracles still occur.

Long before the credits rolled Revanche had transposed me into a state of reverent jubilation. It is the most unlikely thing of all in this age of hype and cheep tricks: wholeheartedly and radically classical: measured and restrained; focused and respectful. It's a film that seems to know exactly where it's going and never fails to be anything but profoundly human along the way. Spielmann cultivates a complete objectivity a propos his material. His respectfulness manifests itself in the space he surrounds his characters with. He seems not at all interested in types, whether comically or ideal-typically reduced, but in individuals naked and in the round. There is a purity of vision at work that seems, for want of  a better word, literary. The visual equivalent of the universality of prose. Film does not dispose of the abstract potentiality of language, so when it does scrape up against the dimension of the infinite one can be sure the film-maker has managed to distill without imprinting or denoting univocally. He has managed to give form without closing it to suggestivity, to the implicit and evocative--precisely those elements that make prose  inexausitble. Spielmann's characters are never just personae but th outward manifestation of genuinely hidden depths: we inhabit each one of them as a virtual self, with all its indeterminacy, volatility, and chaos.

The events unfold leisurely, eventually bringing us to a point where we genuinely dread the danger facing each character. Such concern is the most reliable indication that Spielmann’s judgments and choices about plotting and casting have payed off. Yet the film declines to bring about the show-down that seems inevitable. The denouement is not some jarring  moment of thespian display, but a kind of unspoken truce. A shared secret shared and agreement not to seek retribution. Things are left unresolved, but in balance in a kind of non-hostile check-mate that seems like a state of grace. A state that well characterizes the feel of the film as a whole. There is nothing mean in it, excepting one rather untender scene of love-making, but even that is consensual.

A tale of love, grief, and fidelity as they intersect with reality as the realm of thwarting and malific forces, Revanche reminded me a bit of The Vanishing. Yet Revanche is not a dark vision like Sluizer’s film; grace and forgiveness rather than evil are its theme. More specifically, the retributive impulse qua obsession. Grace--the willingness of people to not hold grudges, to move towards one another in spite of overt hostility and refrain from violence--is a thread through the entire film. The one act of violence is an accident, while the slow build up to the inevitable act of vengeance loses momentum as the web of relationships is spun ever tighter, filling in blanks with flesh and blood. With the progressive individuation of character the impetus for conflict abates.

The conclusion seems to be: both men have a portion of guilt, both are implicated in the death of Tamara. Life is a series of coincidences and accidents; being in the wrong place at the wrong time, discovering reality fortuitously. It is also an opportunity to choose good rather than evil, though the choice may never present itself so clear-cut. With growing understanding, certain alternatives fall by the wayside. And sometimes not doing anything is, if not perfect justice, all that a given circumstance requires.

Alex stumbles upon Tamara’s unwitting killer and plots revenge, but in the end gives Susanne the child Robert could not. Thus evil intentions unintentionally and fortuitously yield new life. The pregnancy in turn would not have come about without Susanne’s unstinting solicitude, her unwillingness to be put-off by Alex’s hostility. Granted, her propositioning was not self-less. The point is--she asked and received, though not, initially, with reciprocal grace. Yet her solicitude of sex was the catalyst for the resolution of her childlessness and, eventually, the end of Alex’s need for retribution.

The film, by is stylistic austerity and shunning of sensationalism invites reflection on its plot points, on the consequences of actions and motives. In this too it demonstrates its perfection as a work of art. It is more than a hyper-kinetic exploitation of the momentary, the fragmented, squalid or malign. It is a parable about human nature. 

There is no closure to the film. One imagines life will go on with the truce in place. Secrets will be kept. Maybe Alex will play some role in the lives of Susanne and Robert and watch his son grow up. Everything is left open and ambiguous, inviting the viewer to speculate in this fashion. The one thing that seems to have been resolved is that more violence would be senseless (compare this to In the Bedroom). The universe is open as on the first day. It is not mean, or nasty, just indeterminate. And there are women in it.

Justice that holds sway in individual consciences. And as we are each condemned, we remain redeemable.

The grace of Revanche obtains both at the level of film technique (the look and cut and pacing of the film), and at the level of the character’s evolution. It is the grace of objectivity, of  insight as reflection. The grace of letting be, as opposed to escalation.

A Kind of Loving - John Schlesinger (1962)

Everything I love about film is on display here: its revelation of vanished historical milieu through location shooting, the intimacy of closely observed transactions, and top-notch acting by formidable and appealing actors. As an admirer of John Schlesinger, I was predisposed to love this, his first feature film, which I didn't see until I’d seen practically all his others. His ability to establish a social setting and a vibrant sense of the communal, his interest in individuals embedded in distinctive social hierarchies, a simultaneously satirical and bitter-sweet approach to dreams, ideals, and all-too-human failings--are already evident in his first feature film.

In distilling the ambient of Britain’s industrial north during the early sixties Schesinger has accomplished filmically what another homosexual Jew--Aaron Copeland--did for the American spirit musically by going back to the humbly folkish. Some might see an irony in this, but it seems only natural that an outsider would be in a privileged position to perceive the essential qualities of a time and place that remain invisible to those, living who inside the frame, know nothing else. Which is not to suggest Schlesinger was an innovator, as the genre of kitchen-sinkism had been around some time before he made A King of Loving. In any case, the period is one of the richest--historically and cinematically--to explore. The old class structures and prejudices were still very much in place, while the latest embodiment of the spirit of youth, always the driving wedge of transformation, was on the verge of a true cultural revolution. 1962 was still the pre-vernal period of that transformation, which probably makes A Kind of Loving so fascinating, less as a harbinger of things to come than as the equilibrium--or state of stasis--before the storm. These films do not show youth victorious so much as broken on their own barricades. The social-realist genre is through and through bourgeois, an endless saga of compromise, adaptation, and disillusionment.

The early scenes of courtship are delicately handled by Alan Bates and June Ritchie, eliciting genuine resonance. Their never-tried innocence and tentative-audacious dreaming of happiness was too much. I had to hit pause to attend to the accumulation of mucus in my nasal passages. From that point on the film had me in the palm of its hand.

As an example of social realism the film did raise the question of ultimate significance, or rather insignificance. That's inevitable when the plot revolves around the purely bourgeois, interpersonal concerns of two individuals, though it is probably not a query the poses itself to the average viewer, whose focus is on the people and story. The realization that there will be no incursion of a divine will or acts of grand violence but only quarreling, separation and rapprochement, induced a distinct sense of disappointment. The disappointment that comes with the territory of the quotidienne, in which the ubiquity of the question “is that all there is?” assumes existential moment.

The characters are no heroes, just people astride the karmic waves of their previous actions, attempting to find the most reasonable accommodation in life, to ‘get by’ and avoid failing too conspicuously. Individuals seeking to maintain their sense of dignity in the confining limitations of a social milieu still very much determined by class. Invariably they make a mess of life, nothing quite turns out as it might have in their second-rate northern province. That scenario pretty well sums up the gist of the social-realist genre. 

One could call this handful of films representatives of “British existentialism,” as they are all about individuals struggling, or failing to struggle, to make choices and steer their lives in a more promising direction. They are peopled by disaffected youth driven by the spirit of discontent. Socio-economically specified individuals concerned with the facticities of existence and engaging the freedom project. Billy Liar only fails to fit the mold in representing a retreat into fantasy and the ancestral. Billy is an idealist, if you will, for whom the counterfactual and imaginary are as real as any possible career or relationship. A man-child for whom essence most definitely precedes existence.

Melancholia - Lars von Trier (2010)

For those who still doubted von Trier was the greatest film-maker working today, Melancholia should furnish definitive proof. The sheer cinematic intelligence and brazen subtlety invested in this whispering, sublimely evocative film makes it immediately iconic; the fully realized emblem of the state of cinema in our new century, seamlessly weaving into the fabric of film history. Yet its full impact may not be felt until after it ends, when reassembling its facets preoccupies the mind--a dynamic enormously encouraged by the tantalizing prologue. A great film creates a residue. Melancholia leaves an veritable halo; a dream-like suffusion of consciousness.

The prologue gives away elements of what’s to come. That takes suspense out of the equation, but introduces an element that is loaded with mythical moment: the inevitable. With its forecast of events the prologue foretells the end. We are left to focus on the way four persons--Justine, sister Claire, her husband and son--come to terms with the unknowable through their various and evolving appraisals of impending doom. Being in on the secret, we stand apart and above their struggles. Against this distance von Trier’s unsteady, looming, and occasionally veering camera work mitigates. His signature mood of intimacy is powerfully yet gently present, imparting the sense that we are eaves-dropping on moments of privileged confidentiality. 

In a film everything is related to framing and mis-èn-scene. One virtue of the roaming or “pointing” camera is that it never lets the audience forget that an event is being captured, even if the notion of pointing is a bit of conceit, as I will elaborate below.  Von Trier captures the moments of confidential exchang between the sisters in flat tenebrous half-tones, immersing us in a murkiness that feels entirely natural. It too works against our ostensible distance from the proceedings. The sense that we know the end before it happens never attenuates the sense of unfolding mystery . 

There is an oneiric, somnambulistic quality to the film, a mood we caught glimpses of in Antichrist. A full-moon mind-set in spaced-out ecstasy. The visceral is nearly non-existent. Only in the scene where Claire tries to drive-off in her rovers does her sense of being trapped rein reverie in and begin to suffocate us. Von Trier isn't interested in horror-show dynamics, but something closer to a memory, a pregnantly present yet elusive recollection of terror.

That Claire, the sensible, take-charge sister, surreptitiously preoccupied with determining whether the passing planet will  be a “fly-by” or a full-blown collision and the end of terrestrial life as we know it, represents the principle of no-nonsense realism. One half of the complex of sisters, she mediates the increasingly dire proceedings with the skeptical aptitude of an amateur scientist and makes provisions for the worst-case scenario, should it eventuate.  While we may find her research a silly waste, putting us in the position of the disillusioned fatalist (or melancholic) who sees the vanity of all exertion, we eventually experience the full impact of the inevitability of the end through her mounting desperation, while Justine, the dreamy fatalistic depressive, seems realistically resigned and strangely at peace with the doom impending. The beauty of it is precisely that the prologue allows us to share in her fatalistic vision. For in the one instance of the end of the world, fatalism mirrors reality and the melancholic’s vision is vindicated. Reality discovered of its hopes and illusions.

Besides giving away the end, the prologue sets up certain expectations, and we are made to wonder how the film will fulfill them.  Strangely, even with the factor of suspense diminished, I found myself, thinking of Hitchcock after the initial wedding-night scenes. Especially during the over-head track of the horses racing down the fog-enshrouded country road. The thrill of the sudden forward momentum after all the stalling and failed starts felt exhilarating in a good-old fashioned cinematic way. And reassuring. A sense that von Trier was going to marshal the full repertoire of cinematic conventions to mount his doomsday scenario. At least to the extent that is compatible with his basically austere Northern sensibility.

The film is not without its moments of levity. The wry, ironic humor of one without pretenses or illusions. Lacking is the nastiness of previous efforts. Especially as it relates to women, though there will inevitably be some who continue to insist von Trier’s vision is misogynistic. They are idiots. What should have become increasingly clear is that women seem for him, as for Bergman, to be all there is: the world and its existential crises are enacted through female personages. In Wagner Isolde and Brangaene host the transfigurative final moments, while in films like Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the Dark it is the female leads who are dangled over the abyss, before being offered up, like modern day Graetchens. In both cases, we are dealing with martyrs. Yet the contrast, while intending comparability, actually reveals the dissimilarity of the deployment of female personages, as Wagner’s heroins are philosophers, and von Triers, trapped by a will to goodness taken to quite unfemale extremes, more closely resemble insects.

Anyone searching for examples of martyred innocents in von Trier’s work soon discovers their dearth. The imagined pattern just doesn’t obtain. One would be hard pressed to find commonality between all the main female personages--from Europa to Dogville, Antichrist, and now, Melancholia. Except perhaps the fact that each is the focal point and invested with a stupendous moral moment. One might best describe his use of women as apocalyptic. But that puts him in the  company of artists of all ages and persuasions.

I found the film represenced previous motifs both in von Trier’s work and in the Dogma 95 movement. Most obviously, the newly wedded wife mounting and satisfying herself  in Vintenberg’s A Celebration and Mifune. The gathering at a countryside villa was also the scenario in The Celebration. The big-sister as counselor reminded me of the relationship between Beth and her friend (Catherine Catlidge) in Breaking the Waves (and, for that matter, of Isolda’s with her maid). The hubristic know-it-all scientist husband reminded me of Dafoe’s analyst-spouse role in Antichrist. The template for that character is presumably Charles Bovary and represents a triumph (of the artist-creator) over the failed/vanquished father figure.  An unmasking of pretension meant to expose and humiliate.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Enduring Love - Roger Michell (2004)


Enduring Love is a paradigmatically creepy drama about the aftermath of an ill-fated balloon trip and a fated-obsessional link between apparent strangers. A disturbing ordeal I found completely absorbing. Part of its genius lies in the ambiguity of Jed's (Rhys Ifans)  fixation: is it religious or homo-erotic? Only a spiritual dimension could endow the obsessor with such single-minded conviction. Yet all lovers are 'divinely mad,' to speak with Socrates. Religious devotion is as fervent as romantic obsession is ardent. To love a cult figure, an office all religious authorities come to hold by dint of the reverence in which they are held, is, when two males are involved, homosexual idealization minus the sex.

I've always felt that love stories make the best horror films, and Enduring Love could serve as exhibit number one. Von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Claude Mann's under-appreciated The Best Way to Walk (1976) that veritably defines the category of the homo-horror film, also qualify. Given the fight-flight and paranoid proclivities of the male psyche, homosexual longings are especially fertile ground for a genre that trades in trembling. Anyone who has endured the stress and strain of romantic obsession won't fail to be alarmed by the desperation of Jed's delusional desire. Along with fear, I felt a vicarious guilt that his true-believer dream would inevitably be frustrated; his ardent faith meeting not just with repudiation but virulent and increasingly violent expressions of disgust. Indifference is the opposite of interest, and disgust of desire.

What makes the element of disgust in Joe's rejection horrific is that unwanted desire of between males tends to be experienced as a betrayal of friendship in the absence of homoerotic capacity (or conceivably: a homoerotic responsiveness that has been transcended). I didn't have the sense that Joe was the type of man who demonizes homosexual desire, but he does grow increasingly panicked by the sheer undauntedness of Jed's pursuit. His obssessive stalking, the other magnitude thematized by Mitchell's adaptation, amounts to a veritable possession as disquieting in its intensity as Joe's self-protective spurning. Calling it demonic would be no exaggeration. Satan was, after all, a spurned angel. The adversary of the divine Will as tempter intent on seduction. 

Jed personifies renegade passion, desire run amok and sowing chaos. What makes him so fascinating as a character is that he is at once a victim and a perpetrator, a guilty innocent. He has the righteousness and missionary zeal of the true believer certain of his destiny, but also his distorting hubris. In the trance of his all-consuming passion, he's lost the ability to second-guess his perceptions of reality. He just knows, and in this too resembles the man of faith.

If that isn't the stuff of nightmares, I don't know what is.

A few quirky framings draw attention to themselves, but overall the film just flows quite effortlessly, building to its masterfully horrific denouement. On one level I wanted that desperate ploy of a kiss to have genuine shared meaning; to establish a connection over-coming fear. To effect some kind of redemption for our suffering, delusional madman. At the same time I suspected things would not end well. Dread and hope faced-off for a brief and terrifying moment. Perhaps a miracle would occur, exceptionally? Alas not. The lover remains a monster. Love does not [spoiler alert] against all odds, wind up conquering fear. But it's to Michell's credit to have made it feel, however fleetingly, like a real possibility.

 The Man without a Past - Aki Kaurismäki (Finland, 2002)

The Man without a Past get’s right to it. A man on a train (Markku Peltola) rolls and lights a cigarette, blows a puff of smoke and takes a seat in his compartment. His ticket punched, he gazes out onto night-lights passing by to the sound of an accordion. The train pulls into a station in synch with the leisurely weavings of the music. One shot follows another so unobtrusively and matter-of-factly that we are suddenly aware of the rhythm of the film as having a life of its own. At the same time it is just the rhythm of unfolding events. Thus the very functionality of the editing becomes a stylistic device. It both serves the events on display and obtains in its own implicit dimension. Kaurismäki's style is that of the self-explanatory. But its obviousness is inherently self-reflexive. This paradox of presentation as a holding-back is characteristic the dead-pan per se, and Kaurismäki is a master of it.

The magic of the opening sequence may be broken down into its elements: an understated, matter of fact, almost mechanical delivery of lines; a bare minimum of camera movements; functional cutting (montage); and no underscoring. The unruffled inevitability of the shot sequence produces a cantering andante full of pauses at once awkward and pregnant.The stilted delivery and restricted camera movement lend the pacing a salience on par with that of the performances. In this sense Kaurismaeki’s style is abstract. 

The Art of Less: Cinematic minimalism as State of Grace 

How does one account for the heightened reality of a film’s contents? All films showcase the same basic elements, and yet a strange alchemy, a mixture of influences lends a mesmerizing gravity to some. Fassbinder was a master of augmented presence, to frequently comical effect (Petra Kant, Bolwieser, Die Ehe der Maria Braun). Yet to equate the sense of reality materializing before one’s eyes with the brevity shot duration would be mistaken. It is not the brevity of a shot that produces the sense of strangeness, but its conspicuous duration. 

Just showing actors and locations becomes a stylistic element in virtue of isolation. It suggests that nothing more than the open aperture of a camera is involved, the fortuitous witness to unfolding events. The mystery is how the mere framing of bodies and faces acquires such awesome yet effortless emphasis in the work of certain filmmakers.

That duration may provoke humor as well deepen empathic resonance suggests that what it effects is context-dependent. To equate longer duration with added emphasis is questionable, as unexpectedly brief shots may linger in the mind by inducing frustration or mystification. Emphasis may just be the viewer's sense of being intrigued. The trick is to induce interest rather than test it. 

Preminger’s “objectivity” (his reluctance to isolate individuals in close-ups and counter-shot sequences); Bresson’s strictures about camera movement, apertures and emoting; Ozu’s boxing-in and Rohmer’s conversational bias also demonstrate the style of abstraction (focus through reduction of elements). Bergman’s Cries and Whispers demonstrates the power of not-showing (exteriors) so that when the sisters finally stroll in the garden there is a sense of heightened reality: the outdoors as paradise regained and state of grace. In all of these instances formal choices shape the perception of reality. 

Stylized performances of dead-pan rigidity and terseness augment the austerity of the camera’s motionlessness and the matter-of-fact editing to produce the impression of self-conscious simplicity.
 When ‘just showing’ the camera does not obtrude upon or actively shape the action; does not itself become an actor by 'pointing-to' the action. As stationary we are allowed to look without feeling manipulated. The motionlessness of the camera supports ambiguity by inviting active perceptual participation, almost as if the viewer were reading a text. 

Recall the part masks played in the ancient theaters of the world--their inanimate motionlessness draws attention to itself, prompting us to move towards it. A still camera induces the same attentive focus. 

The lasting impression left by Man without a Past was of the old woman singing about a park called ‘Mon Repos.’ A scene at once haunting and comical, primordial and quirky. Descriptions that apply to the film as a whole.

Être et Avoir - Nicolas Phillibert 2002 

Nicolas Phillibert’s documentary Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have) about an elementary school teacher and his charges in rural France (the Auvergne) is yet another example of the French genius for capturing the spontaneous grace of children in all its complexity. On the heels of rewatching the difficult The Best Way to Walk (Claude Mann) and mindful of films like 400 Blows and Ponette, I was delighted to discover a film that brings us into the unscripted midst of children ranging from 4 to 12 with even less distortion than those venerable works. Phillibert, working as a documentarist, is rewarded for his unobtrusive infiltration and patience with footage of rare intimacy. As viewers we are rewarded by a vicarious glimpse into a world seeming edenic in the purity of its motives--the world “as on the first day,” as the saying goes.

At the center of it all is a man the children respectfully call Monsieur. The use of ‘sir’ is striking, given that children in the U.S. are overwhelmingly on a first-name basis with their teachers. School is the arena in which children must disabuse themselves of the cocooned informality of familial intimacy and learn about the discontinuities and hierarchies of civil society.  For French and German children this involves adoption of the formal mode of address (‘vous’ and ‘Sie’), a usage that will henceforth define their sense of social space and personality. This circumstance alone would preclude the sort of unchecked egalitarianism which flattens out the social world of American schoolchildren. 

The raw nerve of this film is four year old Jojo. Betimes anxious, curious, despondent and ecstatic, this precocious tyke, invested with his entire being in adapting his unschooled self to the conventions of communal instruction and socialization, wears his heart on his sleeve. Along with every other expression of his impulsive spontaneity. It helps that he is alarmingly telegenic. By virtue of his gaunt little face with mousy eyes and a wide mouth reminiscent of a Peanuts character, the workings of his mind are on conspicuous display as he squints and grimaces, complains and delights, laughs and weeps. With no place to hide he negotiates the obstacle course of his lessons, pleasing his teacher, and doing his best to get along with cohorts. At an age predating dissemblance, and not sophisticated enough to dissemble, he is free to be himself so long as he wills good things in good faith. The vehemence of his will to please his revered guide and teacher and the absolute vulnerability such a striving entails, mesmerize and move. What is captured on film is the rarest of the rare: unalloyed guilelessness. If this lad isn’t a ‘revelation’ I don’t know what is. 

What is happening before our eyes in Jojo’s case is the dialectic of impulse and accommodation; a seismic shift in orientation from bodily-affective spontaneity to emotional and intellectual refinement through encounter and deferment. The transition to an interpersonal equilibrium of responsibility and reciprocity. Jojo seems to have mastered it, helped by his innate credulity, his fear of failure (censure) and his burning desire to please. Love is the final source of the authority that guides and to which we aspire, but fear is right in there with it, shadowing as conscience the quest to be worthy of inclusion.

Part of the genius of this documentary is that it is framed by scenes of nature’s seasonal moods and the animals with whom we share our life-world. That is the benefit of the rural setting, which makes the argument for a child’s need for proximity to nature with an eloquence all the more convincing for being wordless. The opening sequence moves from cows being herded in a snow-storm, to a school room floor on which two turtles rather startlingly appear and propel themselves forward. Then cuts to snow-covered fir-trees rocking back and forth in the pale semi-dark of winter. Seldom have trees appeared more like living creatures as they bow and twist about in the wind. The silence of nature pervades the film like a cantus firmus against which the gentle sounds of the organic order pipe up and fade. The film breaths silence as an encompassing membrane into which every cry, chirp, moo, rustle and whisper, is subsumed. What little music is used is of the French polytonal variety: lithe, playful, complex yet unencumbered by any sense of inevitable end-point or pre-established harmonic allegiance. A music blithely repudiating the very notion of inexorability. 

The periodic insertion of natural processes and sounds acts to embed the pedagogic transformation of the children in the eco-system that surrounds and supports human individuation. The result is evocative and ineffable. After an extended monologue in which the teacher reflects on his life and his surviving mother down south, the film cuts to a landscape at dusk as a muted orange remnant of the sun verges behind a distant mountain range. Muffled and plaintive bird calls sound, as pale as the distant hills. Nature in her minor mode.

As much as it is about children qua élèves (students) in the process of adaptation, Être et Avoir is a film about a Father-guide in the form of instructor. Much more than a task-master and teacher of the scripted activities of elementary education, he acts as counselor and, remarkably, intimate friend. Through it all he is the living image of the ideal and paradigmatic adult: gentle, respectful, rational, and unimpeachably neutral. The voice of encouragement and justice, he fully merits the affection and attachment of his charges, who are visibly ill at ease with the prospect of his exit from their lives. At times gently censorious and insistent, his embodiment of impartiality will be the template of their own institution of morality as a balance of privileges and responsibilities. We begrudge the fact that Jojo has to skip recess to complete his coloring-in assignment. Then we realize the incident is the occasion for a lesson of another sort--a lesson about keeping promises and not indefinitely postponing duties. Jojo pleads for more time: pledging to complete his work on some future school day. But “Monsieur” won’t be put off, rejoining that “today is such a day” and must be seized. That lesson, relearned throughout one’s life, is here shown with all the immediacy of the original either-or. Keeping promises as the essence of character (prudence) and social justice (duty).  

Credulity is the virtue of children. Part of their openness to the world, it is what makes them so vulnerable. It is as such children that Christ instructed us to approach. Their opposites are not so much adults as doubters. Children are ready to believe, accept and to trust. The very inclinations that make their lives so dangerous, our world being what it is, and so open to instruction. An openness that is the precondition of all revelation. 

The process whereby the world is made safe is the same as the process that turns trust into suspicion, and love into hatred. The abandonment of fear (doubt) is the prerequisite for life in the “Kingdom” (having faith). It is also that which renders the hardened again pliant, the barren fecund.

If children are gullible, they are also honest, crying out spontaneously with excitement, indignation and pain. When Jojo gets knocked down by Johann he bursts into tears with a mixture of anger and hurt, scurrying off to sit under a fir tree. The others gather around, alarmed by his distress, and convince him to bring the matter to the attention of “Monsieur,” judge and protector, that he might set things right. The adjudicator calls them all before him, encourages full disclosure and confession; the asking and granting of forgiveness, and adjourns the impromptu meeting. Absolved and appeased,the children return to play in the sleet as Jojo’s face, realigning its features to reflect the restoration of order, signals the beginning of the end of his indignity. 

Montaigne observed that “children’s plays are not sports, and should be regarded as their most serious actions,” though he cannot have been the first to observe the proverbial earnestness of children at play. The quality of quiet concentration is abundantly on display in this film, which curiously has little time for the frolicking of children, the endless search for disport and amusement which the popular imagination has come to associate with childhood. That image of childhood is likely a distortion of certain cultural traditions rather than a quality observable through-out history and cross-culturally. Specifically, of cultures addicted to diversion and beholden to a mass-media-market that supports itself by awakening non-existent consumption needs and turning adults into distracted children.

The children in To Be and to Have are not so much somber as more or less successfully focused from moment to moment. It will have become abundantly clear to them that the acquisition of skills is mostly a matter of calming the mind (detaching from impulse and affect) and directing the ray of in- and attention on the subject to be mastered.  These are not the carefree consumers of popular culture, but the dramatis personae of life’s series of existential crises. Every change of circumstance requiring growth and the shedding of protective membranes is a challenge to the institution of the self: to its boundaries and arsenal of adaptive strategies.  After “Monsieur” has revealed his impending departure and his student’s future in a middle-school, the ungainly and uncommunicative Nathalie, gently confronted with her incommmunicativeness, quietly sobs beside her teacher. The volatile and enfeeblement-prone Olivier who can barely divest himself of a complete sentence in the massivity of his affective saturation, breaks into tears as he discloses that his sick father must have his larynx removed. These tragedies, broadcast to the world by accident, become our own. In those moments of empathic resonance, delivered of our sense of voyeurism, we embrace something like solidarity, our own unhealable wounds bleeding in synchrony.

As the children are introduced to the world of a middle school, their own classroom finds itself hosting a contingent of toddlers. Among them a diminutive lad (Valentin) with a round head and doll-like features ill at ease in the strange surroundings. The class rises to greet its guests as Valentin, fingers in mouth, disappears to the back of the room. Monsieur introduces the students to each other. Valentin too, retrieved from hiding, comes to stand with hands behind his back, his mouth open, gazing about the room as if looking for someone. Encouraged to “faire des jeux” with the others, Valentin remains distracted by the non-presence. The absence of his most significant other and foil seems to him the most conspicuous thing of all. Finally, his hoarse voice constricting, he calls for “mama” and signals alarm. Monsieur does his best to circumvent the inevitable, reassuring him that “mama” has just gone away for a little while and will soon return.  The child is picked up, coddled, cajoled, has the example of his contentedly playing sister pointed out to him. It seems nothing can substitute: “I want to see her,” he pleads. Soothing words are not enough to refute the indications of reality or derail the mounting desperation that finally vents itself in heart-rending cries for the maternal matrix. The older boys hide their faces and smirk, having long ago acquired the self-soothing techniques that inhibit the eruption of such states of emergency; such shameful displays of savage helplessness.

On the final day the students surround their revered teacher, role-model and ally on their journey into civil society. Flocking about his kneeling figure, they take turns exchanging the ritual kiss on both cheeks in an intriguing convergence of formality and intimacy, the avuncular and the fraternal. As they depart in confident expectation of summer vacation, Monsieur stands musing in the midst of his own autumn.