Bizalom (1980)

25 07 2012

Istvan Szabo’s name is usually linked with Mephisto, his Oscar winning film which remains to this day, the only Hungarian film to boast such a claim. His filmography is fairly extensive, though, beginning in 1964 and continuing to this day. I’ve seen three films from him now and no two have any overwhelming similarities.  Lovefilm, made in 1970 is a love story (duh) fractured by kaleidoscopic editing. Father from 1966 is a more straightforward piece, with arty touches that would anticipate the later film. Neither resemble 1980’s Bizalom though, a political romance that manages to take place almost exclusively in one room, but still manages to avoid feeling theatrical.

Kata returns home to find her home has been invaded, she is given instructions to begin a new life in hiding from the Nazis and is forced to live in a rather dreary room with Janos, who never reveals his real name. The two are forced to feign a relationship as husband and wife. Despite the fact that both are married this eventually boils over unto a real relationship. One which is hindered by the inability of either individual to communicate truthfully, as they must be cautious of the Nazi sympathizers living in their building.

Szabo uses the nervous energy from the tight compositions to his advantage. At no point does his film feels like it is shifting to a thriller but there is a constant reminder that the false construct Janos and Kata have created can dissolve at any time. Additionally, there is all the psychological weight that comes from the fact that both have been displaced from their real families and they are never able to talk about their frustration about that since they’re both paranoid about the elderly couple that lives in their building. It’s easy to see how the film could become too heavy but it’s not terribly pressing. There are shades of Cries & Whispers but the lack of philosophical dialogue makes it a much easier viewing, even if there is a similar kind of tension in the images.

One of the most crucial decisions from Szabo is the lack of background he gives us. The film doesn’t bother establishing Kata’s normal life, instead it opens with her being pulled away from it. Similarly, we never learn much about the past of Janos. Hell, we never even learn his name. There is a fairly impressive montage in which a sexual encounter with Kata yields images of his wife. Later, we see her reciting the letter from her that he has received. The frustration of the two is all the more palpable because the film hasn’t bothered to build up some world that is only expository. It would have been next to impossible to comprehend how jarring it is to suddenly start a new life unless Szabo wanted to make a seven hour film.

It should be mentioned that the acting is a huge contribution to making this film work. Ildikó Bánsági and Péter Andorai would continue to work with Szabo. Both appeared in Mephisto and without seeing that film, it seems like this production could have been a piece designed as a initiation for the actors and the director. That sounds like a criticism but that film was a huge undertaking. This is a deeply intimate piece that relies heavily on its two main performers. Visually stunning at times sure, but not the sort of film that needed additional crew. It’s powerful filmmaking without bells and whistles.

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Belle épine (2010)

23 07 2012

Every once in awhile I’ll see a film that at least fits the mold or something I’d absolutely love, but I don’t. I’m going to file Belle epine away as such a film. Perhaps calling it the French Fish Tank is unfair but considering my admiration for that film, it’s more than reductive compliment. The way Zlotowski is able to depict something which is so often romanticized (being a teenager) as something more natural is definitely in line with Arnold’s better known film, but her film lacks the direct impact of Arnold’s film.

I’m more than glad to give Zlotowski credit. Her film does look absolutely stunning, even if the following steadicam look is apparently overdone. Her visuals never get the time to be appreciated with the camera’s kinetic pace. This almost sounds sacrilegious against my own cinematic creed since I have many personal favorites that look good and aren’t entirely static. However, her compositions seem to have gone under appreciated, perhaps with the expectation that the camera work is a necessity in a “teenage drama” such as this film. Many have compared it to Pialat, but where as his character were almost the sole focuses of his works, the ones here feel like more of a construct.

The character of Prudence is certainly interesting and Lea Seydoux is pretty fantastic, but the film uses the death of the character’s mother as a stepping stone for the drama. Where as Pialat’s characters may have been more opaque, or at least mysterious, the chaos overtaking Prudence’s mind here seems to have been cheapened by the structure of the story. Sure, Pialat’s characters had their motivations for their personal rebellions, but they seemed to be responses to situations. Here, it seems like the intention that Prudence is being haunted, perhaps even defined by her mother’s death. This is reinforced by a certain scene in the film’s conclusion.

 

This might sound like a bitter Pialat fan being disappointed by the film not being similar enough, but the distinction between the two is important. Here, the film seems to be quietly prying itself from the definition of a “character study” even while it remains naturalistic. I guess the ultimate result is that the characters aren’t that interesting. Maybe the adventures of the individuals in   À nos amours seemed more interesting to me because I was a teenager when I first saw that and now I’m not. I would at least argue that the film transcends that viewer-film relationship. The young life there as least has it moments of small happiness, even though the sentiment is still that those moments are fleeting. Here, the interactions are a mental downward spiral, implying more of a connection with a film like Lilya 4-Ever.

It’s worth mentioning though that this Zlotowski’s first film and under those circumstances, it is even more of an accomplishment. She seems very sure of herself, even as the film teeters out of momentum once Prudence loses her connection with the bikers. She is able to be naturalistic, elliptical, and romantic all at the same time. One of these seems like a contradiction. It’s still an authentic experience, but it manages to be visually stunning. This is probably where the Fish Tank comparisons could come from, but Zlotowski lacks the virtuoso camera movements of Arnold. I’ll admit to being hard on this movie, if only because it reminds me of so many things I already love. It should be recognized for being a impressive debut, and it features the best performance I’ve seen from Seydoux. It seems a little incomplete to be a masterpiece, though.





Swamp Water (1941)

22 07 2012

Jean Renoir’s first American production seems almost like a self-conscious attempt at a B-movie. I guess, it probably technically is one but the film, shot on location in Georgia with a group of actors who were nothing more than character performers at the time, feels like the perfect oddity. The photography itself, credited to Peverell Marley, feels bizarre enough when it’s being populated by actors like Ward Bond and Dana Andrews. The film’s closest companion would be Ford’s subversive and understandably rejected Tobacco Road but even that film only has hints of natural photography, where most of it’s charm comes from just the complete chaos. Renoir might have been too refined to make a truly lowbrow masterpiece, but the film does build upon his most famous cinematic landmarks, while still anticipating an entirely new direction.

Ben (Dana Andrews) happens upon a fugitive, played by Walter Brennan while hunting in the swamp. The two strike up something of a friendship, with the expectation that Ben will go back into town and provide for the fugitive. He falls in love with the fugitive’s daughter, Julie, while in the middle of an already stable relationship. The motivation becomes clearer for Ben: he wants to get the fugitive to come back into the town that ostracized him and intended to leave him for dead. While investigating the crime, it becomes more and more evident that the fugitive is innocent and that the town itself is hiding plenty of secrets.

The script, based on a novel by Vereen Bell, is the work of Dudley Nichols, a true Hollywood veteran. The content seems unmistakably American coming from his pen. The story builds upon the mob mind set (anticipating The Ox-Bow Incident two years later, also with Dana Andrews) of a town condemning an almost iconic criminal. Ward Bond leads this group, in a predictable albeit still solid performance. His character is obviously drawn with a very thick brush but that characterization contributes to the aforementioned “B-movie charm.” There is disturbing sequence early on in which a group of kittens are playing around in the town bar. Bond offers to get rid of them for money and then suggests throwing them in a bag and throwing them in the river. The act is suggested, but never seen carried out to it’s violent conclusion.

I suppose these little things seem just frustrating to some, since Hollywood’s treatment of even other human beings at this moment wasn’t exactly flattering, but it does contribute to this type of “backwoods” aesthetic, that I’ll again link with Tobacco Road. The character of Julie, Anne Baxter is one of her weirdest performances is compiled with the same feral / cave woman-like characteristics with Gene Tierney’s character in Ford’s film. The difference is that Baxter’s character becomes a Pygmalion construction for Dana Andrews. Meanwhile, Tierney’s performance in Tobacco Road is almost entirely peripheral. Her primitive nature is more of a set piece reinforcing the pathetic nature of the Lester family, while contributing to the odd vibes circling around that entire film.

Renoir does best Ford in one very important regard, and that is the visual one. It would be a long time until Hollywood would see an on-location film shot with the grace and style of a studio picture. Renoir’s expressionist visuals anticipate The Night of the Hunter by almost twenty years, and this film has none of the tacky artifice that is (intentionally?) floating around that movie. It might really be the star here in what is already a pretty excellent film. Perhaps the film’s narrative construction is lacking but again, there is something weirdly fascinating about it’s incompleteness. Ben’s attraction to Julie seems so forced it might be intentionally written with little to no regard of their relationship. The movie is not really about that, it’s more about how Renoir can squeeze something so visually powerful out of something that is weirdly fascinating at best and just silly at worst. It’s a wonderful movie, but lacks the resonance of Renoir’s most celebrated work.





Open Five (2010)

20 07 2012

It wouldn’t surprise me if most of the people that read this roll their eyes throughout this entire review, but that’s kind of where American independent cinema is at the moment. The whole “mumblecore” movement might be on its last legs with Mark Duplass doing everything short of becoming a mainstream Hollywood celebrity and the movement’s poet, Aaron Katz moving further and further away from the elements that defined the genre. Kentucker Audley maintains these elements, almost definitely because of a lack of funds. With the introduction of the NoBudge website and a steady release of titles, he might be the most resourceful member of this group of filmmakers, whose connection seems loose at best now.

Open Five features plenty of relationships but the bulk of the film revolves around the one between Jake and Lucy. Their past is hinted at in the film’s intimate opening but never given a further explanation. It’s intentional, of course, because the mystery of the relationships in the film reinforces the fact that the film is more of a document, rather than a work of fiction. It helps that the filmmaker himself makes an appearance as a secondary character. Sure, the film’s fractured dialogue might feel a little calculated if one has seen more than two of these types of films, but the sentiment in the scenarios aren’t cheapened by the fact that maybe the dialogue was delivered with a forced sense of authenticity. I’m not saying the acting is too much, quite the opposite, it’s right where it should be but that level is one that will be pretty unremarkable to someone expecting a film, whether it be “arthouse” or not, to be either more involving with the audience or jarring enough that produces a stronger emotional response.

In his write-up of the film, Craig Keller mentions that the film “slows down onlookers’ attempts to count to ten. […] It’s like stopping at seven” and I’m not entirely sure what he’s referring to here, but it is a weirdly accurate description of both this and Team Picture. These films aren’t austere enough to gain a larger acceptance among the strictly art house crowd, and they’re obviously too fragile to be placed on the same shelf as Cassavetes, but the rhythms, from my perspective at least, seem way more in tune with modern human interaction. Perhaps it helps being in your twenties and understanding the culture of the characters, but the artifice of the performances seem to grow from something aesthetic. Under a different (read: more expensive) lens, Open Five might be the sort of film that an entire generation would gravitate towards.

This seems like a bit of an obvious observation but the DV potentially drains the energy of a film that is brimming with nervous anticipation and uncomfortable interactions. The film is easy as hell to relate to, but it might be subdued by the fact that it is so much in the low-budget mold. This is not exactly a criticism as it an observation. Audley is observant and amusing, touching upon little moments that are almost too perfectly real to be in a movie, but the simplicity might underwhelm many. Hell, it probably already has. Audley deserves the crown for producing the most uncomfortable setups of any of low-budget brethren. It sounds like the snobbiest proclamation but many of the things (and there are many) that will irk individuals and prevent them from enjoying this film are the very things that make it truly wonderful.

At only a little bit over an hour, Open Five is not perfect and it doesn’t really have the ending that is satisfying but at the risk of sounding stupid, it does capture something intimate and it does it perfectly. Many will find the conversations mundane and stupid, and they are right but there is something so on the ball about the film’s simulation. In fact, that might be the film’s biggest fault. It’s a little too perfect in it’s representation of the current generation of young people. It’s almost stuck in the same way Alex and Jake are stuck in their relationship. That’s corny as hell, but the film’s biggest strength might be its inability to provide any closure. It’s the weirdly specific sequences that save us from the mundane conversation that provide the most beauty. It’s complicated and even embarrassing, but it’s right. And something should be said for filmmakers who truly get it right.