De la guerre (2008)

10 08 2009

While I think this movie is sort of perfect in its own special little way, I also have a hard time saying I loved it. It certainly is an enjoyable experience, and it is interesting to watch, but maybe the sheer perfection, from an objective level, overwhelms any sense of love. It looks amazing, that’s for sure, and it has the best cast one could assemble at the moment, but it almost feels too weird and unique for its own good. It was fascinating, on an almost novelty level, to see something that was obviously over my head and so beyond my usual understanding of movies.

In addition to a lovely visual style and a stellar cast, Bertrand Bonello also has the benefit of expressing something deeply personal here. I haven’t see either of his other two movies, but I’d still say this serves as something of his own 81/2 in that it is so deeply connected to his own life that it feels like as a retelling of his experiences. Mathieu Amalric plays a guy named Bertand, who is wait for it…a struggling film director. He accidentally locks himself in a casket at night, which provides some sort of a revelation. He is then invited, by Guillaume Depardieu (in one of his very last roles) to some sort of refugee camp whose foundation is a mansion in the middle of a forest.

Amalric’s initial experiences at this camp is actually the best part of the movie, at least from a superficial “entertainment” standpoint. His eager attempts to stay open-minded to the new age progressive philosophers he is surrounded by is kind of hilarious. There’s one particularly brilliant sequence in which he points out a crack in the ceiling and attempts to make a profound observation by comparing it to a dinosaur. Depardieu, however, grounds him to reality: “I just see a house that needs renovation.” These are the movie’s best moments because, like Amalric, we cannot make sense of everything that is going on. It is a perverse fascination, but we still want to understand it.

Unfortunately, Amalric joins the ranks alongside Asia Argento, who serves as something of a ring leader to all the madness. He leaves the audience behind by sinking completely into the awkward philosophy of this pseudo-cult. His wife, played by an excellent (and excellent-looking) Clotilde Hesme, arrives and settles down in the makeshift community as well.

This is where Bonello completely loses me. The movie continues to look good, and the performers maintain their charm, but at the same time, they kind of stop acting, things stop happening. People spout philosophical statements like its nobody’s business, but everything the film has established up to this point indicates something far more subtle and deep than just some Tarkovsky-esque monologues. What’s left at the end is a very well-made movie that is just completely confusing to me. It presents something intriguing, a man who experiments with a completely new lifestyle, but it all goes over my head. I mean, this probably makes the film really great but I’m not sure if I can get it — even if the comprehension is intended to be instinctual and not cerebral.

Street Scene (1931)

10 08 2009

King Vidor accomplished many cinematic feats throughout his career, this, however, is not one of them. At the same time, this actually is one of my favorite film of his. It’s just that Vidor does little to nothing to hide the screenplay’s roots as a theatrical production. The entire thing takes place in one location (outside an apartment complex) with almost entirely the same angle, but the script is good enough and the performances are riveting enough for the whole thing to work. It’s a success in the same way as Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party or Akira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths.

The connection with Kurosawa’s film doesn’t even end at the superficial theatrical setup. The stories are pretty similar too. Both take place within some sort of living quarter and both document the many colorful characters that inhabit these housing situations. Vidor’s film has the benefit of being a lot shorter and boasting some much better performances. While this is certainly a “theatrical” movie, the acting is actually quite good. Sure, a lot of the roles are heightened, but not to the point of feeling particularly frustrating.

Beulah Bondi, in her first screen role, introduces a brutally bitter women, a persona that she would reprise in Wellman’s excellent Track of the Cat some twenty years later. For a good twenty minutes (or maybe more, the film, if anything, goes by fast) she is the center of a gossiping group of tenants. Eventually, she becomes something of a background character as Sylvia Sidney is thrown into the spotlight as becomes the closest thing to a central protagonist. Overall, though, Vidor devotes his attention to the entire apartment complex. Maybe he doesn’t dive deeply into every character, but he does give his camera time to observe just about everyone.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative has to toss in some drama, and it comes from a jealous husband slaying his wife and her lover. It seems rather unnecessary at first, but it doesn’t really “raise” the movie into a sense of something substantial. One could still describe the movie as pointless, but that’s why I like it so much. It doesn’t really force anything else, just takes it time and allows the viewer to get in tune with the street. These are some of the worst neighbors one can hope for, but they are s0 vivid and fascinating to watch. Vidor, perhaps more than anyone, is great at creating specific sequences. The one in which a newspaper boy tries to sell Sylvia Sidney the paper that has her mother’s death on the front page is one of the most memorable from this film, but there’s plenty of others.