FilmJuice have my review of Robert Bresson’s art house classic Au Hasard Balthazar.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been lucky enough to review some of the great classics of European Art House film as they’ve been re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray. Aside from introducing me to some genuinely great films and directors, this process has also motivated me to fill some of the gaps in my cinematic expertise and Au Hasard Balthazar was definitely one of those gaps. The reason I never got round to watching it is that, while I had heard great things about the film, I knew it was basically an extended religious metaphor based on a donkey and this struck me as so totally ridiculous that I decided not to bother checking it out. Having now finally gotten round to watching the bloody thing, my view remains that Au Hasard Balthazar is an entirely ridiculous film but the ridiculousness sort of works…
Set in the French countryside, the film tells the story of a sickly young girl who grows up into a confused young woman. Trapped between a distant father and an abusive quasi-boyfriend, the young woman is ground down beneath the heels of the patriarchy until she eventually just gives up and dies. The fascinating thing about this plot is that while neither Bresson’s script nor the amateur actors offer any real insight into why anyone does anything, the presence of a donkey who suffers just as the young woman suffers somehow makes the film incredibly moving. Even more fascinating is the fact that while the donkey effectively suffers ‘for’ the young woman in the same way as Jesus died ‘for’ our sins, the peculiar metaphysics of this relationship seems designed to flush out people’s attitudes towards God:
While the link between Marie and Balthazar works astonishingly well, the link between Balthazar and Christ seems like a metaphor too far. Indeed, while the donkey helps us sympathise with the impassive and often incomprehensibly self-destructive Marie, the religious symbolism only serves to lend this suffering some sort of dignified legitimacy, as though the donkey somehow died for our sins. The beautiful thing about this failure is that a case could be made for seeing it as intentional. After all, what is the point of religious belief if not a palliative sense that all the world’s suffering serves some greater purpose? And what greater signifier of atheism than the feeling that such ontological apologism serves only to distract us from the sufferings of real people?
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to review Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. These films were originally made almost on top of each other and used not only many of the same actors but also many of the same themes, by reviewing the two films at the same time, I was able to tease out the connections between those two films and see how a director approached a similar question from two very different perspective. My review of Au Hasard Balthazar is similar to my review of Le Beau Serge in that, as well as reviewing Au Hasard Balthazar, I reviewed Mouchette… which explored many of the same themes as Au Hasard Balthazar but from a rather different perspective.
FilmJuice have my review of Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den also known as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest Japanese films of all time, Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den follows Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman in using the Japanese sex industry as a microcosm for Japanese society as a whole. Indeed, populated by customers from different levels of Japanese society alongside more-or-less successful members of staff, the brothel shows the economic and social forced that twist lives and destroy personalities. However, while both Mizoguchi and Imamura used the miserable lives of their characters to angrily critique and accuse Japanese society, Kawashima takes their travails and plays them for laughs using the character of a charming rogue:
Using the rogue as a foil, Kawashima explores the complex array of social and economic forces that elevate some people but destroy others. This is a world in which people attempt suicide in an effort to escape debtors and fathers sell their daughters into indentured servitude in order to pay off gambling debts and yet, because Kawashima’s rogue stands to one side making snarky comments, the world seems more absurd than it does horrific or depressing. Played by one of the foremost comedians of post-War Japan, the rogue understands the social and economic systems surrounding him and yet he does not feel constrained by either of them. This sense of existential rebellion is particularly evident in the film’s final scene where an old man castigates the rogue for disrespecting the gods only for the rogue to run away laughing and declaring that there’s no such thing as heaven and hell.
Having reviewed this and found it sensational, I am struck by the feeling that there are certain types of film that I could quite happily watch forever and post-War Japanese dramas are definitely one of them. Having said, this is a particularly good one and its lighter tone and engaging characters make it quite refreshingly accessible meaning that it would probably serve as a pretty decent jumping-on point for anyone interested in learning more about post-War Japanese film and given that this has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema, what better opportunity to immerse oneself in one of the 20th Centuries true creative golden ages?
VideoVista have my review of Giorgos Lanthimos’s third films Alps.
Alps is part of a suite of films that began in 2009 when Lanthimos’s second film Dogtooth won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes film festival. Surreal, funny and utterly unlike anything else in contemporary art house film, Dogtooth tells of a pair of siblings who have been raised to believe that the world outside of their family home is a sort of dystopian nightmare. Much like Rolf de Heer’s incandescently brilliant Bad Boy Bubby, Lanthimos uses this set-up to explore not only the weird second-hand beliefs that parents pass onto their children, but also the oddness of contemporary life and how arbitrary our social conventions must feel to people not raised to accept them. This critique of contemporary morality and generational differences then stepped up a gear in Attenberg, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari who also serves as Lanthimos’ producer on Dogtooth and Alps. Much like Dogtooth, Attenberg uses surrealism to draw our attention to the arbitrary nature of social mores but in a way that suggests considerably more anger towards the older generation. How are young people supposed to cope with a complex world when all their parents ever did was fill their heads with be-bop and David Attenborough documentaries. Alps is very much a part of the Dogtooth cycle but, unlike Dogtooth and Attenberg, it does away with the surreal imagery that made those earlier films so intensely eye-catching and different.
The film tells of a group of people who make a living impersonating the recently deceased. Initially, we are encouraged to look upon the gang as either crooks or amateur grief therapists, but as the film unfolds and we learn more about the characters, the reasons for the impersonations become increasingly strange and difficult to discern:
The root of the problem lies in Lanthimos’ decision to abandon the surrealism of Dogtooth and Attenberg in favour of a more realistic footing. In Dogtooth and Attenberg, the surrealism served not only to exaggerate the foibles of everyday life but also to locate the film within a context that was more symbolic and fantastical than strictly representational. This means that the audience is left stranded in a sort of philosophical ‘uncanny valley’ as the film is both too real to be metaphorical and too weird to be a representation of the real world. Neither a fable nor a drama, Alps is a hugely evocative mess of impenetrable feelings and oblique social observations that could have been a whole lot more.
Clearly, this is a film that is overflowing with ideas and I continue to think that Lanthimos and Tsangari are two of the most important filmmakers working today. However, I question the decision to shift to a more realistic register as I’m not convinced that the cinematic vocabulary of social and psychological realism can cope with the complex and frequently metaphorical nature of Lanthimos’ ideas. Still… a director whose ideas outstrip the visual elements of his film is a refreshing change to the current vogue for incredibly beautiful and well-made films that are completely devoid of new ideas.
FilmJuice have my review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film Blood Simple. Or rather, the slightly shorter director’s cut that was released about fifteen years after the original film.
I found this review quite difficult to write as while I have seen and enjoyed most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’m also acutely aware that their work invariably seems less substantial the more you think about it. Though some of their films are easily dismissed as more-or-less enjoyable tosh, some of their films feel like substantial dramas. Indeed, both A Simple Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There seemed intellectually robust when I first saw them but I am now hard pressed to remember anything about them aside from a couple of throwaway gags. Blood Simple felt very similar in that it is a film that does a great job of looking smart even though it is really little more than a pastiche:
Clearly inspired by such hardboiled crime novels as Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Blood Simple takes a collection of film noir clichés, drives them out of the city and deposits them in a crummy bar at the tail end of Texas. Stripped of their tilted fedoras and artfully crumpled raincoats, the clichés valiantly attempt to start new lives but eventually find themselves sliding back into old familiar habits.
Watching Blood Simple, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the fact that the dividing line between a ‘smart’ film and a ‘dumb’ film is often a question of viewer charity as a charitable viewer is more likely to detect meaning and symbolism than someone who is bored out of their tiny mind. Indeed, skilled directors know that it is possible to make a film seem smarter by using some of the visual and stylistic cues that people associate with smartness. For example, even though Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises do not actually say anything substantial about either the War against Terror or the Occupy movement, visual references to both of those real world events goaded critics into assuming both films had elaborate political messages. Similarly, art house films such as Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light are so good at looking like serious intellectual films (long takes, lots of silence, beautiful photography, impressions of interiority) that many critics simply assume that they were in fact serious art house films filled with deep and meaningful truths.
Blood Simple is very much like a Batman comic in so far as it looks really dark, twisted and psychological but that look is ultimately all it has to offer. Watching Blood Simple I began to think about whether No Country For Old Men is a smart film or merely a film that looks smart… is there any difference? Does ‘smartness’ actually exist outside of the audience’s heads?
FilmJuice have my review of Claude Chabrol’s second film Les Cousins, which has just been re-released by the ever-excellent Masters of Cinema.
Les Cousins tells of a young man who moves to the city in order to study law. Sharing his uncle’s place with his far more sophisticated and extroverted cousin, the young man finds himself being sucked into his cousin’s glamorous lifestyle filled with parties, girls and dubious European noblemen. Initially, this relationship works quite well as the cousin likes to be the centre of attention and the young man’s inexperience makes him feel like an older brother and a community leader. However, when the young man attempts to become romantically involved with a young lady in his cousin’s entourage, the cousin takes umbrage and decides to assert his supremacy. Disgusted both with his cousin’s behaviour and his own loss of focus, the young man throws himself into his studies but this only provokes his cousin into more frequent and louder parties:
Things come to ahead when Charles is trying to study for his finals but Paul keeps having loud parties. Charles pleads with his cousin to do some revision but Paul’s confidence is absolute… he knows what he is doing and revision is an absolute waste of time. As with Le Beau Serge, Chabrol presents the tension between the two boys as being social and psychological in nature but in truth their disagreement is a moral one: Charles writes endless letters home to his mother promising that he will succeed in his studies and suggesting that his desire to work is born of a sense of duty to do right by his parents. By not only refusing to study but also making it harder for Charles to study, Paul is challenging the moral order of Charles’s universe. In Charles’s mind, Paul is doomed to failure because the universe does not reward provocative layabouts. This means that when Paul does pass his exams with flying colours, Charles is forced to examine not only his faith in the moral nature of the universe but also his conviction that his duty to his parents obliged him to study: What if the best way to succeed really was to wear a smart suit and hang-out with dubious Italian aristocrats?
I mention Le Beau Serge as Les Cousins can be read as a response to that earlier film. Where Le Beau Serge is rural, Les Cousins is urban. Where Le Beau Serge is about a town-mouse visiting a familiar countryside, Les Cousins is about a country-mouse visiting an alien city. Where Le Beau Serge is about taking responsibility for the actions of another, Les Cousins is about remaining true to yourself.
Somewhat handily, Masters of Cinema have decided to time their re-release of Les Cousins with a parallel re-release of Le Beau Serge (that I also reviewed for FilmJuice). While both films work beautifully on their own, many of their subtleties only become apparent when viewed one after the other.
FilmJuice have my review of Claude Chabrol’s first film Le Beau Serge, which has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema.
Le Beau Serge tells of a young man who returns to his home town in order to recuperate from an extended period of illness. Upon arriving, he becomes obsessed with a childhood friend who, despite showing real signs of intelligence and potential as a child, has now fallen into drink and bitterness. Puzzled by this unexpected fall from grace, the young man sets about trying to solve the riddle of what happened to the handsome Serge of his youth:
While much of the initial narrative energy comes from François’s attempts to solve the mystery of le beau Serge, the second half of the film increasingly comes to focus upon why it is that François is so obsessed with saving first Serge, then Marie and then the entire village. Though Chabrol offers us no easy answers, the depth of François’s guilt is such that his attempts to protect Serge and his family eventually come to seem insane and messianic. Why doesn’t François leave? Why didn’t Serge leave? Why doesn’t anyone leave a life that is manifestly killing them?
Chabrol is a director with a somewhat misleading reputation for producing thrillers. Though many of his most famous films (including Le Boucher, This Beast Must Die and La Ceremonie) include a bloody murder and a good deal of psychological tension, the truth of the matter is that Chabrol is and always was a moralist. Not in the sense of lecturing people about right and wrong but rather exploring why it is that people make certain decisions and how they come by certain strange beliefs. Unlike Chabrol’s later films, which dressed the morality up in murder and tension, Le Beau Serge strips the core of the Chabrol experience right back to the very core and asks two very salient questions: Why did Serge turn to drink? Why is Francois obsessed with saving him? A truly wonderful film by a truly wonderful director.
Interestingly, Masters of Cinema have chosen to re-release Le Beau Serge on the same day as they re-release his second film Les Cousins. As I explain in my review of that film over at FilmJuice, the two films function as a pair: Complementing each other through their many differences and juxtapositions.