Monday, November 3, 2014

Les Salauds (Bastards) - dir. Claire Denis (2013)


One man's rigorouse sparseness is another's willful obscurity, so whether you find Denis’ penchant for withholding information revelatory or confusing will depend on your tolerance for the crepuscular. Les Salauds feels like the memory of a dream episode, and any attempt to recapitulate it must do it violence. Narrative abstraction makes Denis a great artist, but ineffective as a story-teller. She is too intent on hiding information to generate sequentially ordered plot-points accessible to ordinary mortals. As intriguing as her expectedly enigmatic foray into the crime genre is, her entropic approach threatens to eclipse the drama  emplotted. Putting her signature cryptic style on the proceedings like a strangle-hold yields the envisioned obscurity while frustrating our (boring) need for a minimum of disclosive clarity. Her diegetic parsimony may signal a lack of confidence in her ability to involve viewers without hypnotizing them into complete, uncomprehending submission. Having been confounded by Les Salauds' singular opacity, it remains an open question whether her eschewal of ready understanding is a mater of artistic principle (a reflection of the mysteriousness of existence) or simply an indication of incompetence.

I intend to revisit Denis' film, less to figure out the plot (which would go against her intention) than to immerse myself in its darkly claustrophobic pulse knowing what not to expect. Technically no one should essay a review after a single viewing. The point of view of trying to understand a story has the validity of all exploratory efforts, but it is nonetheless biased precisely by the need to piece together the evidence--the 'indications of reality.' The end of criticism may be to distill one's considered bias toward a film, but reviewing out of frustration inevitably puts one's interest in seeing a mystery resolved before the merits of the film as a totality. Such an approach instrumentalizes the work as a means to the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, whether or not it wants to be solved. 

Sage advise for any reviewer of a Denis film would be to disregard their interest in plot altogether. But the default orientation of first-time viewing probably cannot transcend such interest, which is, after all, just the interest in seeing what happens; following the unfoldings against a horizon of anticipated full disclosure with all its moral implications. Denis does not provide mystery resolving cadential closings. The whole point of the oneiric-perceptual aesthetic is to disallow claritive closure. The problem with that is that if one can't figure the plot out, there's nothing to resolve, just "one damn thing after another." What you get is cinema not as moral-instructive institution but as accessory to a crime. We're only expected to watch, stupefied, and to relish our stupefaction.

As a contemporary practitioner of the perceptual revolution introduced by Antonioni (a focus on events rather than plot points), Denis carries on in that modernist tradition. It is self-defeating to disregard the rules of that convention, which obstructs judgment by foregrounding the witness function. Feeling mostly defeated is how people are meant to emerge from Les Salauds!

Like many of the verité generation, Denis elides all clarifying distance between spectator and scenario. She unfolds the narrative from a first-person orientation whose privilege is one with its restrictiveness, dropping hints, but no more. If you don’t get the import of a scene, you probably don’t deserve to. Subtle-sublime elusiveness marks the mysteries only people of veritable psychic ability are able to discern. The rest can go watch Hitchcock.

Denis' will to immersive confusion negates over-sight and contextualization. It is achieved by framing and ellipsis. Right from the start we are sitting complicitly on the shoulders of characters we've never been properly introduced to. Tight close-ups annul our attempts to situate events in a recognizable social context. The lack of establishing shots, an example of spatial ellipsis, is another way of hiding information to impede comprehension and rob us of
super-ordinated insight. We are supposed to be dreaming, not gaining insight. Given that, my criticism of her want of expository panache may lack a target.

No need for a spoilers alert here! Denis' film will not enable a perspective that subsumes the subject-matter it emplots. It negates thought in favor of sensation. To spell out Denis’ transcendental-oneiric mysteries would be vulgar. Luckily, there is just enough of what isn't nothing to entice and entrap us. Just don't expect to be released from the snare. 

A big spot of incandescence is Vincent Landon, one of France’s preeminent contemporary male actors who somehow managed to become famous without looking like a zombie (Mathieu Amalric), a bedraggled scarecrow (Daniel Autueil), or a portly modern-day de Bergerac with bad skin (Depardieu). He may not be the picture of youth, but one can believe him as a tough-guy precisely because one senses the heart of a dreamer. And those eyes! If God had them they would be like Lindon’s—dopey-wise, compassionate, and infinitely triste. Eyes that convey everything one can ask of eyes, in striking contrasting to his slip of a mouth—taciturn-bitter, suppressing unspoken passions. Not least of all, one can watch him in a sex scene without shocked incredulity or the involuntary triggering of one’s gag-reflex. He freezes-up to project blankness, activates tender solicitude, and combusts explosive rage with palpable conviction.

Why People Like Vertigo so Much 

Because they love intrigue (while concommitantly, hating the obvious) and nothing intrigues like a sequence of ambiguous events and misinterpreted intentions. People love trying to get to the bottom of things; to follow the trail of clues en route to final illumination. Film directors, and Hitchcock paradigmaticaly, oblige the desire for the half-lit by withholding, eliding, deferring and generally obstructing insight. When parts finally fit into a whole and plot strands coalesce in an intelligible pattern, the hidden order of the universe is miraculously restored. People love to be entrapped, provided the trap gets sprung in the fullness of time. Yet some film riddles resist the satisfaction of final resolution, even if we do more or less figure out the skein of motivations informing them. Vertigo is one of them. People love Vertigo because it's an enduring mystery in love with its own mysteriousness. 

They love it because its exemplifies the oneiric transformation of time, weaving past present and future in a mytho-poetic potentiation of simple linear sequentiality. Because it enacts the archetypal drama of man and woman from the male perspective, displaying the female as the unfathomable, enigmatic tease, the primordial trap, the ‘helpless’ snare. To whatever lengths Hitchcock goes to depict his Woman as the victim of her own delusions subsequently forced into impersonating whom she really is (or ought to be), the viewer recognizes the praying Mantis going about her business. In this regard choosing Novak, whose epic falsehood is so obvious, to embody the female reflected in the male, works to transmit the latent moral valence of dissimulation 'in stereo.' She expertly pulls off the hollowness at the center of the project of striving to resemble, to embody, a projected image. 

The endeavor to appear, someone once observed, is the striving of ghosts. Here it coalesces with Novak's striving to act natural as the mysterious cipher. Our reflecting light has to be trained just so lest her vision evaporate into the nothingness of mere pretending.

This is Hitchcock's final word on male-female interfacing: the female as dissembling semblance (altogether "vain"), the male as unwitting visionary and transformer. But lest one conclude that he was just another misogynist, recall that all genuine hatred springs from helplessness. His emplotment of Woman is neither a celebration nor an evisceration--it is an exorcism.   

Kim Novak reminds me of an Oldsmobile 98 attempting to maneuver through narrow European streets. She make it through, but there is a sense that disaster has been narrowly avoided. She never hits her marks without transmitting her well-thought-out preparation in the process. Her job was definitely simplified by the fact that she had to convey diffuseness, for which her thespian faculties mostly suffice. Or would have had she had the ability to forget, even for a milli-second, that she was in broadcast mode. To her credit, she models her evolving series of modish coiffeurs on par with the most accomplished mannequin.

Barbara bel Geddes sports a new nose, the fleshier aquiline proboscis of old now suitably curtailed to correspond to the pert proto-nose of mid-Century American mainstream tastes. Her temperament is correspondingly sassy yet resourceful as the advertising pragmatic cheering Stewart on to confront his phobia of dangling from gutters.

Stewart's Scottie gets sucked into the web of intrigue through no fault of his own. Besides being the wounded (enfeebled) warrior, he is the entangled innocent drawn into the web of faux-femalia--read as the interference pattern created by the collision of two pathic individuals. Hitchcock orchestrates the progressively more layered tale of intrigue around the equivocations of the Female’s labyrinthian surprises as Scottie's literal professional business. But on the surface of the film (= its symbolic depth) he remains, as host of an obsession, Madeleine's hapless prey. The most judicious characterization of their entanglement would probably be as a sad symbiosis of souls.

Vertigo is beloved in no small part because it holds fast a moment in history before feminism toppled the male ego from its hegemonic cultural perch; a moment when artifice and vulgarity ruled without any sense of shame, and America’s automobiles, skyscrapers and brasiers were the envy of the world. 

Oh, and because of Hitchcock's supreme mastery of pacing, narrative, and atmosphere.