Waga koi wa moenu / My Love Has Been Burning (1949)

16 06 2013

I always hesitate to compare movies when I’ve seen them so recently if only because I feel like I might be fighting an impulse to connect each new cinematic experience with the one that is the freshest in my mind. I feel like it’s warranted in this case, though even as Kenji Mizoguchi and Elio Petri seem so disconnected from each other. Like The Middle Class Goes to Heaven, My Love Has Been Burning meditates on the differences between the differences in liberalism in contrast to radical leftism. Mizoguchi’s statement is even more clear than Petri’s and he works within a beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of women during the Meiji era.

1

Hirayama is heartbroken by the departure of her boyfriend, Hayase, to Tokyo. She proposes the idea of her joining him but he ignores the idea, assuming that Hirayama will never get her parents’ permission and she’ll never disobey them. However, Hirayama learns that her neighbor, Chiyo has been sold into slavery. She defies her parents and goes to Tokyo with the intention of reuniting with Hayase and eventually liberating Chiyo. This doesn’t go to plan, and it turns out Hayase was conspiring against the Liberal Party, who he left with the intention of joining. From there, Hirayama falls in love with the party’s leader, Omoi, but she finds that his actions don’t always match his outspoken politics.

2

If one were to take away the political context here, that of women’s rights during and following the end of the Meiji-era, you might get something that doesn’t seem that unique from Mizoguchi. In some ways, this could work as a warm-up to the endurance test of misfortunes that is Life of Oharu. Like that film, Mizoguchi’s muse, Kinuyo Tanaka is constantly placing her trust in men, but then realizing that she shouldn’t have trusted them in the first place. I get the impression that the tone here serves a bigger purpose beyond the tragedy of Oharu. Fittingly, my biggest beef with the claim that Mizoguchi was the first “feminist director” was (aside from his own personal life) that he presents the stories of women as tragedies, one in a lifetime martyrs that felt more in place in the opera than in reality.

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To be fair, my common criticism of Mizoguchi is still applicable in this film. The sequences with Chiyo are violent on a level that approaches cartoony with images of women bound and being abused. Thankfully, these images (which are, to their credit, as difficult to watch as Mizoguchi probably intended them to be) are kept to a minimum and Chiyo’s attitude towards the men mistreating her gives us the rare Mizoguchi heroine brave enough to speak out, as opposed to one who just endures her mistreatment.

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Chiyo’s much more violent oppression runs in parallel to Hirayama. Some might deduce that by placing them side by side, we are to all of Hirayama’s activism and education has made her lose sight of “true” oppression and she has nothing to compare in contrast to Chiyo. While Chiyo is indeed inflicted with more physical pain throughout the film, their struggles are united by the fact that they’re brought on by the same reason. This reading would also suggest ignoring some of the film’s most crucial scenes, particularly Hirayama escaping from her husband but it also works within Mizoguchi’s cinematic vocabulary. Early on, the Liberal Party has a meeting and it’s exclusively men and self-identified “intellectuals.” Tanaka manages to float into the frame and is ignored, all of the men but the party leader leave. Almost a visual embodiment of her refusal to back down in the face of men.

5

It could also be read that the film is ultimately about the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, but I think this type of discourse is inherently related to Mizoguchi’s political message. It’s sort of ironic, at least to me, though since one could accuse him of the same thing he’s accusing the men of the Liberal Party of in this film. Then again, he’s made a work that still feels ahead of its time, ideologically. Within all of this, it’s probably worth noting that Mizoguchi is at his very best here as a visual artist. I tend to feel that before the 1950s, he was a bit more free with the camera. Sure, he’s always been mobile but there’s a calculated feeling to Ugetsu and Sansho. It works for those films, but there’s an energy that bursts from the tracking shots (the riot one, in particular) that is not only impressive, but perfectly underscores the chaotic political nature of the film. It would not be a bad idea to see this with Naruse’s White Beast made only a year later, which has similarly aggressive feminist sentiment.

6

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La classe operaia va in paradiso / The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971)

12 06 2013

I’ll begin by confessing I know next to nothing about Elio Petri, and until about a week ago, he was nowhere near my radar. It was a viewing of Mario Monicelli’s I compagni / The Organizer that sparked my interest in this particular film. That film and this one are united in a depiction of a post-industrial labor in Italy. Monicelli’s film, even when it does get serious, plays up most of its content for broad, sexually-driven comedy. Petri’s film is much different, and at times, the aggressive nature of its protagonist threatens to derail the film’s ideology. The film ultimately works not be being a particularly gripping human drama or looking nice, but by meditating on the effectiveness and differences between radical leftism and more central liberalism.

1

Lulu is the best worker at the factory and he’s fairly confident in his abilities. This endears him to his superiors and makes his coworkers, most of whom are unionized, loathe him. He’s indifferent to the political landscape. He comes home every night and he’s too tired to do anything with his girlfriend but he finds his fatigue peaceful. This changes when he cuts his finger at work, and slowly becomes more and more interested in the politics surrounding the factory. From here, two groups emerge. A political activist group concerned with starting a revolution and the more centrist union, which focuses on improving working conditions.

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The way I describe the politics of this film presents two scenarios are oppositional binaries: the first being the workers v the bosses and the second is the one between the union and the activist. One could deduce just by the way that these pair of binaries are presented that Petri is equated the safe “moderate” union as being just as bad as the bosses. This is a pretty simplified reading, though and I think the film deserves a deeper one, though I will agree that Petri is ultimately in favor a revolutionary approach, even as the film is constantly presenting us with characters who engage with radicalism as insanity.

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Even as the film seems to be empathizing with the worker’s skepticism towards the activists (all of whom appear to be students, and who are dismissed because they must be financially stable), it illustrates an important divide within the proletariat. It was probably relevant when class consciousness became a thing, and it sure as hell is important now. There’s still a stigma between the intellectuals and the actual workers, but the film sees this tension benefiting the factory’s owners. To be blunt, the fighting between the oppressed is capitalism’s preference. If those who are hurt by it can’t even agree with each other, they’ll never organize and the system has nothing to sweat over. This might all sound like too heavy for some, but the unfolding of the chaos outside the factory is actually enjoyable, if only because Petri himself is struggling within himself. The effect is that the film is not propaganda, it’s polemic yet smart and realistic.

3

While I don’t find any of Petri’s aesthetic choices particularly interesting (just a lot of steadicam and closeups really), there is something to be said about the way he introduces the factory to us. As the workers start their day, a voice tells them over the PA that they need to love and care for their machines as if they were a person. The initial images of the machines seem to follow the lead of the voice, Petri captures them in a way that almost seems sympathetic, despite the fact that they are indeed machines. Later, Lulu has casual sex with his coworker, Adalgisa. Their photographed just like the machines as they embrace. Their encounter is comically short and unpleasant. After all, Lulu only sees Adalgisa as sexual potential. She “serves” him, the same way he “serves” the factory. They’ve both been objectified.

5

It’s unfortunate that The Working Class Goes to Heaven hasn’t endured the test of time critically. It’s the type of work that begs for canonical consideration, if only because of its political discourse. There’s a lot to chew on here, but the few writings I’ve found on the film seem to gloss over or ignore the film’s biopolitical implications. Worse, some see Petri as identifying with the centrism of the union. I cannot understand how, though. The film ends with the union reuniting Lulu with the job he had lost for political reasons. As the good news is delivered, the camera observes his face. He’s feigning happy enough to convince the others he’s excited about work, but he realizes he’s back in life lived in service to capital. He later describes a dream while working, the symbolism is heavy and the sentiment is clear: this is not a way to live.

6

 





Des filles en noir / Young Girls in Black (2010)

2 06 2013

My impulse in starting this review is to negotiate Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s importance in contemporary French cinema. Perhaps that’s the sort of argument that deserves its very own space, but a film like this absolutely repositions the filmmakers as one of the country’s best and alas, it seems like no one really is interested in talking about him. This might be one of his more accessible films, but it is one where he builds on his own work. Where he might have been treading in the territory of Rivette or Lynch before (which is perfectly fine!) he is absolutely coming into his own with this feature.

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Teenagers Noemie and Priscilla are ostracized at school. Priscilla seems to have something of a boyfriend in Sam, but all of her trust belongs to her best friend, Noemie. The two are falling behind academically, though they manage to give an exceptional presentation on Heinrich von Kleist. Their classmates are confused and alienated by the presentation, one of them calls their fascination with the poet “sick.” In retaliation, Noemie announces that her and Priscilla will follow Kleist’s route and kill themselves. They explain this off as nothing serious, but then they begin planning a way for them to end their lives together.

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A film about teenage girls committing suicide might sounds laughably cumbersome to many, but it might be to Civeyrac’s credit that what is commonly understood as a “phase” is treated with such serious attention. At the same time, it is important to mention that this isn’t a social problems film, even as the working class background of both girls is intentionally illuminated. It’s not a “social problems” film by my understanding of the term because it isn’t about confronting the issue of  teenage angst, that’s what a terrible movie would do. The film is immediately built around the minds and hearts of the two protagonists. Noemie and Priscilla don’t sound the slightest bit ridiculous when they announce that they’re going to kill themselves.

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I mention the hearts of the two girls on purpose as I would argue that this is indeed a love story. It’s not a sexual or romantic one, even as the photography itself captures both sensually. The aforementioned shades of Lynch might make Mulholland Dr. a reference point, but I don’t think that film’s sexual nature translates to this. Civeyrac himself has shown he’s able to blur the lines of physical interaction and their conscious intention. Civeyrac’s 2000 film, The Lonely features an extended sequence of two friends wrestling naked. The act is understood as playful but it goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time. It’s inevitable that one might eventually read that sequence as sexual. The opposite seems to be going on here. When Noemie and Priscilla embrace, it could initially be read as sexual, but as the camera linger, we realize it comes from a different kind of love. The two are bound together by the fact that the rest of world terrifies or hurts them.

4

It might be a sign of the fact that cinema doesn’t have enough narratives that is dominated by just two women that this film will indeed be connected to something like Mulholland Dr. The other comparison I mentioned before was Rivette and indeed, the female relationships in Celine and Julie and Le Pont du Nord might be closer to the spirit of the friendship in this film than that of the relationship in Lynch’s film. The biggest point of difference would be that Civeyrac doesn’t share Rivette’s playfulness. The situation here is much more dire, which isn’t a criticism of him being too serious. He certainly can’t be accused of playing up emotional torture, he’s observant with his camera and his characters do the reflection, not him.

5

One might confuse a strong emotional reaction to this film with the fact that it involves an event that is, for lack of a better word, a tragedy. This isn’t the only reason the film registers for me or why I think it packs a punch. The impact is a jarring one, but it is not that haunts us because of our primal reaction. It’s impossible to talk about suicide without getting personal, because it is perhaps the most personal act. There have been films about it before and there will continue to be films about it, but few films have captured the mental processing of it. To clarify, Civeyrac hasn’t made a heavy-handed film where pretentiously contemplates death, but one where the mere existence of living must be evaluated frequently enough that it becomes overwhelming.

6

Civeyrac’s film runs only 84 minutes and it’s not like he’s packing a lot of information into this time period. It embodies to me what it means to be cinematic. The film’s narrative never seems like that exactly, but instead it’s the unfolding of events, most of which are relatively minor. While it creates a fascination internal conversation between Noemie and Priscilla on death, it creates another dialogue with Noemie on personal trauma. Her rehab does not end with a triumphant return into the public, nor does it comfort us with the idea that she’s safe. Instead, it’s a ongoing emotional battle, which I realize could not sound more pretentious. Thankfully, Civeyrac has managed to convey all of this beautifully in his film.

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