Anzukko (1958)

27 01 2012

I didn’t realize until afterwards, but I had actually seen this Naruse before. Not only that, but I had written a fair amount about it, which I also don’t remember. My first response to the film seems a little misguided in retrospect since I felt like it was far too upsetting depiction of female obedience, but after watching it again, it seem a bit more complicated than that. If anything, the more dramatic and perhaps sentimental turn from the rest of Naruse’s career is an interesting development for him. The year before he had the extremely feminist and powerful Untamed and he also made Floating Clouds, perhaps his most poetic and romantic film, in 1958 as well.

The titular character is played by Kyoko Kagawa, best known for her collaborations with Kurosawa (Mifune’s wife in High and Low) and Mizoguchi (Anju in Sansho the Bailiff) but her relationship with Naruse is just as impressive. Seeing as how this film is a starting point in a “refresher” course for me, I don’t feel comfortable saying this is her biggest role in a Naruse film, but it definitely ranks up there. She plays the daughter of a famous writer, who ends up marrying Ryokichi, an inspiring writer who (at first) secretly loathes her father. Ryokichi is played by Isao Kimura, who is also best known for her collaborations with Kurosawa. As his character becomes more and more unsavory, his performance shifts towards exaggeration. At the film’s end, no one can question that Ryokichi is indeed, a very pathetic character.

In my initial review, I never really got over the fact that such a couple would stay together. As Ryokichi shifts from one temporary job to another, his alcoholism worsens and his hatred for his father-in-law, Heishiro, deepens. Before, I mostly focused on the relationship between the struggling couple but on this particular viewing, it seems less and less important. Although the film is named after her, Anzukko’s actions tends to be just that of a middle man between her husband and her father. There’s something tragic in the fact that a housewife provides all the income for a family and ultimately gets no say in how it is used, but it seemed less of a “deal” this time around.

Perhaps it’s best to not view this movie with Naruse-tinted glasses because if one does, the film is just another relentlessly upsetting story about a woman staying with a man she’s better than. The best drama comes from Ryokichi and Heishiro, though, as the former weighs his own pride over charity, even when he is doing absolutely nothing to help his family from a financial standpoint. Ryokichi might be the least likable character to ever get this type of screen time in a Naruse film. He’s self-destructive, cruel, and unreasonable. His logic of a rivalry between him and his father-in-law stems exclusively during intense sessions of alcoholism. In a way, Naruse has made one of the earliest examples of an “addiction film” and the result is every bit as bleak and unsettling as any modern or “edgy” depiction. Sure, it’s just alcohol but the self-destructive nature of Ryokichi rivals any  character involved with hard drugs.

There is still something to be studied about the character of Anzukko. During this viewing, her commitment to her family doesn’t seem as much of a disgusting display of family politics as much as it seems like a complexity. She doesn’t want to lean on the help of her father. He does buy her groceries, but they’re a necessity. One can hardly blame her when she makes all the money and does so without having an actual career. Never is there any love felt between Ryokichi and Anzukko, not even a sense of friendship of respect. It was a marriage of convenience, it seems, but the irony is that it has become a total hassle for Anzukko. The film ends with quiet acceptance, hardly a surprise considering that Naruse seldom went for dramatic shifts in a narrative. It is anything but satisfactory for a character that has put up with so much but receives so little. Where it was frustrating to me on initial viewing, it is now fascinating. Relationships are difficult is nothing new, but the layers of odditity in this particular case make it a subject well worth studying and revisiting.

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Le Gamin au vélo (2011)

3 01 2012

In a year where the most acclaimed films seemed like they were constantly trying to be transcendent and spiritual, it’s a joy to be reminded of the beauty that lies in simplicity. Who better to remind us of this than the Dardenne brothers? After all, they haven’t strayed much from their social verite aesthetic that made such a splash in the arthouse market with 1996’s La Promesse. If there’s anything “wrong” about how the Dardennes are making movies, it’s that their mastery is almost repetitive. They make it look too easy on a technical level, almost to the point where their efficiency is boring. It’s not exactly a problem at any point since the stories themselves tend to be engrossing, but their social conscious (so to speak) does sometime overshadow the perfect flow of their visuals.

One could argue that the Dardenne’s way of filming has had a negative impact on film making as a whole. The constantly probing handheld camera has been repeated and translated into the vocabulary of lazier filmmakers in need of capturing a sense of spontaneity in their films. It’s a dumb argument to make, but I mention it because the less talented imitators all share a need to reinforce a sense of reality. Here, though, the reality is probably too frustrating for the audience. There’s no poetic or even “cinematic” interludes that help balance the unflinching wandering eye of the camera’s lens. I’m not naive enough to think that anyone who actually watches this movie is going to be shocked by what unfolds (it’s pretty typical fare for the Dardennes, honestly) but the frustration I am trying to describe is an extension of making a “realist” film. John Cassavetes, who I love, photographed his films similarly but the difference is that his films constantly threw the characters into uncomfortable and dramatic sequences. In other words, there was a reason for the camera’s presence. The difference with the Dardennes is that this is not always true. There’s moments of “dead air” so to speak, perhaps a spark for the countless Bresson comparisons that the brothers still receive.

A perfect example of this “dead air” is the completely empty relationship between the child protagonist, Cyril and the local drug dealer. Cyril sees this as an opportunity for male companionship, a category in which he is sorely lacking. His need overwhelms any type of common sense, something that happens frequently in children. He seems to not question the influence of the drug dealer, and quickly finds himself comfortable in his house. The conversations Cyril has with the drug dealer are useless, not even “cute” or clever. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and not in the way that other filmmakers (namely anyone who has ever made a movie about a romantic relationship) capture in a more charming manner. Cyril’s friendships seem to end as quickly as they begin, probably because he is (literally) always on the move.

This is the perfect contrast (perhaps too perfect, if we’re going to nitpick) to Cyril’s maternal figure, Samantha, who adopts him following Cyril’s escape from school and subsequent quest to find his dad. He is resistant to Samantha, and denies her basic human compassion, at least at first. She cares for him way too much and he doesn’t care, perhaps because she’s a woman or perhaps because he’s scared, but probably because of both. The film’s conclusion does not fit into the simplistic mold of someone being the perfect mother figure. It is modeled after the belief that Samantha and Cyril can sustain a more normal life, but it’s at the cost of a child knowing that his father willfully neglected him and unofficially disowned him.

The movie concludes with Cyril sustaining a concussion, getting up, and walking away from the camera. The action is a relief, at first, as we realize he is not dead but it’s a red herring. Cyril is still living with Samantha and he’s still going to be a brat to her, even if there is a hint at the “turning a new leaf” theme. More importantly, the admiration, nay attention of his father is something Cyril will never be able to achieve. In other words, it’s a movie that is hopeless but not draining. There’s a life for Cyril and Samantha still, but it’s not ideal, and their family dynamic is built around the collapse of a real family dynamic.