La Moustache (2005) – L’Avventura Begins Again

When Michelangelo Antonioni premiered his film L’Avventura at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, it was met by a chorus of boos and cat-calls.  It is easy to see why – L’Avventura is nearly two and a half hours long and despite its backside-destroying length, it contains very little actual plot.  Instead of a narrative, Antonioni presents us with a series of frayed edges that he picks at in a rather half-hearted manner : A girl is in conflict with her father.  A girl disappears while exploring an island.  People attempt to organise search parties.  Couples bicker. Dramatic arcs are initiated but never resolved.  The film radiates a sense of lethargy and detachment echoed by that of its characters – Everything about it is seemingly laid-back, directionless, self-indulgent and spoiled.  Watching L’Avventura it is possible to picture Antonioni sitting in his director’s chair and sighing heavily before wearily dragging himself to his feet and issuing a few half-hearted and half-arsed instructions.  “I suppose we should get back to work” he says distractedly.  Of course, the exquisite shot composition, careful location selection, control of tone and fiercely intellectual engagement with the language of cinema itself make it abundantly clear that there is absolutely nothing half-arsed about L’Avventura.  Its refusal to be anything approaching dramatic is quite deliberate.  Its slow pace is quite intentional.  Its emphasis of tone and atmosphere over plot and characterisation quite carefully planned.  L’Avventura, along with Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), managed to set the thematic and stylistic agenda for the emerging tradition of art house cinema.  It started a conversation that continues to this day.

In his editorial to the April 2010 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, Nick James addresses this conversation by pointing out that it may have run out of steam.  Art House keeps returning to the same topics in the same manner and, as a result, the techniques pioneered by the likes of Resnais and Antonioni are starting to grate :

“Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.”

L’Avventura and Marienbad‘s rejection of the traditional language of film was not merely ground-breaking, it was culturally earth-shattering.  To this day, people think of art house cinema in terms of long takes and wordless shots of scenery designed to capture some fleeting emotional moment.  My girlfriend, for example, does not share my love of art house film, which she refers to as “Boring Films” as though they constituted some separate cinematic genre like a thriller or a horror film.  Which, of course, they absolutely do.

Another front of the battle waged against Hollywood by art house cinema is that fought by Michael Haneke.  As I pointed out in my review of The White Ribbon (2009) – Haneke’s career has been dominated by a deep ambivalence towards genre.  Haneke keeps making films that are ostensibly works of genre but every time he makes a genre film, he makes sure to deny us the kind of emotional closure that comes from conforming to familiar methods of genre story-telling.  He rewinds the tape when someone escapes in Funny Games and he never allows the mystery to even resemble anything that might make sense in Hidden.  If L’Avventura rejects many of the forms and methods of traditional cinematic story-telling, then Haneke’s films satirise and attack those very same forms.

However, as James’ editorial suggests, it is 50 years since art house cinema began to wage its war against the norms of Hollywood.  Hundreds and hundreds of films have been made in the mould cast by Antonioni.  Is the language of  art house cinema still dangerous or is it just another ossified set of genre conventions in desperate need of deconstruction?  The fact that films as empty as Carlos Raygadas’ Silent Light (2007) can compete at Cannes suggest that rebellion must take a different form and find a new angle of attack.  As my reviews of the films of the Cannes-winning Apichatpong Weerasethakul have suggested, I think that his recombination of genre tropes, art house techniques, mystical sensibilities and visual art aesthetics may prove fruitful going forward… but the battle needs a similar kind of second front as that provided by Haneke.  Enter the cruelly overlooked French drama La Moustache by Emmanuel Carrere, based on his novel of the same name.  It is a film that takes aim at many of the conventions of art house cinema and the crudely psychological register that so many of those films operate in.

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Where The Wild Things Are (2009) – Lost in Translation… With Muppets

There is a tendency in art house cinema towards the pseudo-intellectual.  It is a tendency not merely to tolerate witless navel-gazing, but to actively celebrate it.  To elevate its whiny introspection above all other forms of human activity.  To revel in its portentous self-indulgence.  To confuse its bourgeois posturing with grand tragedy and genuine insight.  This tendency is best summed up by the films of Sophia Coppola.

Coppola’s best known film remains the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation (2003).  Lost in Translation is a sordid tale of two wealthy Americans coming together in a foreign land and forging a bond of some kind out of their shared alienation despite the differences in age and life-experience.  It is not really a film about love.  Nor is it a film about cross-cultural alienation.  In fact, it is not really a film about very much at all but it does have lots and lots of footage of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson looking vaguely depressed in the middle distance.  Coppola’s skill as a director lies not in her understanding of the human condition, but rather her mastery of techniques used in art house cinema to create an aura of depth and thoughtfulness regardless of whether any actual ideas or insights are present in the text of the film itself.  Indeed, it is telling that two of Coppola’s other films deal with the emotional lives of people who are effectively children.  In the case of Marie Antoinette (2006) we have a film ostensibly about the ennui and alienation felt by a child-like Queen of France and in The Virgin Suicides (1999) we have a film that purports to be about the ennui and alienation felt by actual children.

Behind much of modern American independent cinema is the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum.  Grown-ups who throw themselves on the ground and roll around screaming because they do not know what to do with themselves.  They do not like their jobs.  They do not like their families.  They do not like their towns.  They do not like their children.  But they do enjoy staring wistfully into the middle distance while some pleasingly arcane piece of rock or pop plays over the soundtrack.

In a way, it is surprising that it has taken until 2009 for American film makers to realise the degree of similarity between the existential dramas favoured by certain strains of art house cinema and the simple coming-of-age tales favoured by much of children’s fiction.  Wes Anderson  – one of the acknowledged kings of middle-brow malaise – capitalised on these similarities by transforming Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (1960) into a tale of mid-life crisis and existential alienation.  Spike Jonze continues this trend with Where The Wild Things Are, his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book of the same name.

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