Bleak Moments (1971)

24 11 2008

I caught a late afternoon / early evening showing of Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky before returning home to a viewing of this, his very first film. Though I had seen Leigh’s Naked before and was well aware of what he was capable of, I was still completely blown away by this. The fact that it is such an accomplished film but still is Leigh’s first is jaw-dropping in and of itself, but he really takes uncomfortable and awkward scenes of dialogue to another level here. This has got to be a pretty big reference point for “modern mumblecore filmmaking” even more so than Cassavetes’ films, which are more commonly referenced alongside the recent DIY American filmmakers.

The painfully awkward pauses are the only substantial connection. On a formal level, Leigh, at least here with this film, has more in common with Bresson. He does stick to rather conventional compositions, but the length of his shots, the emphasis on sound, and the connection between the two? All that stuff is extremely Bressonian. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a story involving a quiet, desperate, and beautiful girl who is uncomfortable with her surroundings, alienated by her way of living and so on. At the same time, Leigh’s perfect balance of sensitivity made me immediately think of Ozu. None of this is intended to downplay what a unique experience watching this film is, but it is so unique that I can’t help but proclaim it as some odd mixture of some of my favorite directors.

The film structures itself around the life of a tragic young woman named Sylvia, a secretary who is too busy tending to her mentally challenged sister to ever find a love life. Meanwhile, a poverty-striken musician moves into her garage, providing some temporary company. Things begin to complicate when a school teacher, Peter, also enters her life and begins to act as a romantic interest. This all sounds potentially socially driven, a la Leigh’s peer Ken Loach, but it really isn’t at all. Sylvia’s mentally challenged sister for instance is not some detail added in to make the film bleaker. It is never actually told whether or not she has problems or not, but it is slowly revealed.

The poor musician is handled with similar sensitivity. He comes awfully close to making a genuine connection with Sylvia. Even though he fails, his character is never reduced the simplicity of his social status. For as much as Leigh’s work is considered socially-concious, it is equally emotionally-concious. In fact, I’d say this is only a social film if one approaches it in a very surface level way. If Leigh truly had a political agenda he wouldn’t put so much time into creating such tension and cringe-worthy feelings of awkwardness among his characters. At times, their awkward moments become unbearable, creating an almost painful and truthful type of suspense.

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