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Review: Cléo from 5 to 7

One of the most provocative aspects of the film are the unresolved hints of feminism that are sometimes countered with anachronistically traditional gender politics.





Cléo from 5 to 7
Photo: Ciné-Tamaris

The beret brigade of French New Wave film directors may have been socially progressive and intellectually inclusive, but when it came to gender lines, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were decidedly less interested in channeling Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, or any other esteemed female Hollywood directors than they were in paying tribute, in both their Cahiers du Cinéma criticism and film pastiches, to the hyper-masculinity of Howard Hawks and John Ford. For whatever radical advances they were responsible for (and, make no mistake, they’re countless), the ditch-diggers of the Nouvelle Vague were still responsible for crafting prototypal movies for guys who like movies. (Wasn’t Anna Karina more Audrey than Katherine anyway?) By most accounts, photographer turned director Agnès Varda is considered the archetypal girl who crashed the big boys’ clubhouse, and Cléo from 5 to 7 was the film that paid her membership fee.

Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a Parisian pop singer with three minor hit singles to her name, begs a wild-haired psychic to tell her something good about her future. The soothsayer’s first deal of the cards is a lackluster one, and the only finite detail she can relate is that a dark stranger will enter Cléo’s life sometime in the near future. She eventually draws the death card—which may imply an impending personal upheaval, she assures Cléo—and then the tower, indicating what could be a violent expulsion of false beliefs and assumptions. Now frightened out of her wits and presumably interested in her lifeline, Cléo asks to have her palm read. The woman hesitates and then refuses. After an unsatisfied Cléo leaves, the customers outside glaring at her as if she’s messed with their auras, the fortuneteller confides to her roommate that Cléo is doomed. Indeed, as the film unspools in real-time conveyor-belt fashion, Cléo from 5:00 to 7:00 awaits the results of a biopsy that will determine whether or not her cancerous stomach tumor is inoperable.

Despite the dire premonitions that point to the titular heroine’s grueling psychological marathon, Cléo from 5 to 7 moves with grace from one emotional extreme to the next. Whenever she finds herself drifting too far into melancholic self-pity, she blithely puts on a devil-may-care grin—most stunningly in the penultimate scene in the park when she sashays Marilyn Monroe-style down stairs in the Parc Montsouris in order to face her impending diagnosis. And when she reaches the cusp of true giddiness, she quickly reverts back to superstitious pessimism. Varda’s protagonist truly embodies a pop star’s theatrical flair, as she seemingly passes time by going through emotions for only as long as she senses her friends (her captive audience) are willing to pay attention.

All throughout, Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early-‘60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard’s Breathless. Unlike her New Wave compatriots, whose talents were reared in part at film schools, Varda was trained in the field of photography and consequently films the city with a completely unique vision. Her framing teems with life at every corner: kittens wrestling in Cléo’s apartment, a child playing a tiny piano in an alleyway, and quarrelling lovers in a café. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. And in the bargain, every one of the film’s gorgeously designed set pieces enhance our understanding of the character and amplify Cléo’s understanding of herself.

There’s a heightened urban suavity to an early scene inside a trendy hat shop that tips its, well, hat to Citizen Kane. Varda allows a group of mirrors to reflect images off each other until Cléo appears to be shopping in a giant kaleidoscope—a prelude of sorts to the geometric fantasias of Tati’s Playtime. In multiplying Cléo, the mirrors predict the wide variety of emotional masks she will wear and learning experiences she will go through during her two-hour wait. As the tower card from the tarot predicted, some of Cleo’s inner discoveries are potentially shattering, as when grotesque street performers call to Cléo’s attention the vulgarities of artistic performance. The film’s camerawork is so ravishing that some of Varda’s isolated shots have more to say than some of the more famous New Wave montage effects (though Varda does use the jump cut during a few choice moments).

The push-pull effect of Cléo’s good looks alternately builds and destroys her credibility as a feeling, free-thinking woman, a force set into motion as she walks away from the fortuneteller’s parlor and exclaims in an inner monologue that she will always consider herself healthy as long as her looks are intact. In fact, a clever Varda uses to her advantage the notion that the audience is likely to ignore or reason away Cléo’s extremely superstitious persona when, in general, most of her superstitious beliefs are physically validated. This cavalier approach to understanding Cléo as a person places the burden of her dilemma—not being taken seriously as an assembly of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors—square in the laps of the audience. (If we can’t take Cléo at face value, why should we expect any of the films’ characters to?) Without admonishing, Varda manages to let the audience in on how frustrating it can be for characters like Bob (Michel Legrand, the film’s musical composer) and Angèle (Dominique Davray), who largely fuels Cléo’s obsession with superstitious beliefs, to deal with someone as high-maintenance as the singer. And only then does she plunge the audience headlong into the oft-terrifying world of being constantly watched. Varda evokes this paranoia through a celebrated montage of first-person shots from Cléo’s point of view as she walks down the street.

One of the most provocative aspects of Cléo from 5 to 7, at least for modern audiences accustomed to more prickly feminist statements (Baise-moi and the works of Catherine Breillat come immediately to mind), are the unresolved hints of feminism that are sometimes countered with anachronistically traditional gender politics. Hardcore feminists are likely to be alienated by the final chapter, in which Varda seems to be making the case that a reliable guy (here, Antoine) is really all Cléo needs to make right in her world. The ending is actually much trickier than that, but it’s certainly food for thought that the Legrand songs that Cléo earlier derided as misguided attempts to mold her persona also happen to underscore her emotional epiphanies in the park.

Finally, what does one make of the fact that this real-time film, which purports to detail two vivacious and harrowing hours in the life of its title heroine, is actually 30 minutes short of said two hours? In reel time, Varda’s scenario is actually Cléo from 5 to 6:30. So what fills the last half-hour? There are a number of interpretations one could make, and all of them cast into doubt any notions that the conclusion is overly tidy (probably the most frequently leveled charge against the film). One is that the film comes to an abrupt and unadorned halt following the revelation that Cléo’s condition is not life threatening, suggesting that she lives life from crisis to crisis. As Bob and Angèle allude to earlier, Cléo is a non-entity when she’s not making a scene. When the film’s impetus is removed, Cléo simply ceases to be, cinematically speaking.

Another interpretation, and one that stems from that idea, is that the missing minutes following Dr. Valineau’s diagnosis are left unrepresented as a comment on the inevitable change in Cléo and Antoine’s budding relationship. Cléo has just made a connection with someone outside her circle of comfort and shared a moment of total emotional candor. But that moment still seems to depend on Cléo’s nigh-pathological dependency on the concern of strangers. When that concern dissipates, then it’s Cléo’s turn to step into the role of compassionate caretaker. The uncomfortable silence that precedes the terse “fin” end title seems to suggest that Cléo still isn’t ready to interact with paramours at that level. This interpretation challenges the belief that Cléo from 5 to 7 is either a consciousness-raising feminist primer or a socio-sexual retrograde by eliding easy categorization into either (detractors would say “disappointing”) bin.

In the four decades since Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda has directed many films, and created at least three other esteemed masterpieces: 1977’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which is the overtly feminist message movie Cléo from 5 to 7 is often given credit for being; 1985’s Vagabond, one of the key art-house films of the ‘80s; and recently, 2000’s The Gleaners and I, a widely lauded essay film somewhat in the style of Chris Marker. In a way, Marker was probably always the Nouvelle Vague/“Left Bank” filmmaker that Varda perhaps most strongly resembled, in their shared love for the power of photography, their completely unforced attitudes toward interpretation, and a warm sense of cinematic playfulness. One can’t help but compare Marker and Varda to the curious and rambunctious kittens, a significantly entrenched motif in Marker’s canon, in Cléo’s apartment. Those kittens would grow older and direct the world-wise A Grin Without a Cat and The Gleaners and I, but Cléo from 5 to 7 serves as a reminder that even the most cunning, ruthlessly intellectual filmmakers can also create wondrous playgrounds, so long as they’re in touch with their own giddy paradoxes.

Cast: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blanck, Michel Legrand, José Luis de Villalonga, Loye Payen, Renée Duchateau, Lucienne Le Marchand, Serge Korber, Robert Postee Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: Zenith International Films Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1962 Buy: Video



Review: The Load Offers an Oblique Portrait of the Toll of War

Ognjen Glavonic conveys the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation.




The Load
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Were it not for a text crawl identifying the drab, undistinguished setting of Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load as Yugoslavia at the outset of NATO intervention in the Kosovo War, it would be difficult to know where we are. The war is glimpsed only in the margins, heard in the distant rattle of automatic gunfire or seen in flashes of missiles cutting through clouds like heat lightning. Indeed, even the plot is vague and amorphous, though the subject can be easily gleaned by those familiar with Depth Two, Glavonic’s documentary about bodies being transported across Yugoslavia to mass graves during the war.

The film centers on one of the drivers tasked with toting bodies across the country to a waiting grave in Belgrade. Of course, Vlada (Leon Lucev) has no idea what he’s carrying when hired by some suspicious men to drive from Kosovo to Belgrade with strict instructions to not look in the cargo bed. This doesn’t seem to stoke Vlada’s curiosity, though he’s scarcely unique in his aversion to courting trouble. When Vlada pulls over early in his journey to ask a group of men for directions, we see the general attitude of people living under wartime; other people are as circumspect as Vlada, and in general most of them tend to avoid direct eye contact. One gets the sense that this is a nation of people who’ve learned to mind their business at all costs, and even those who tell Vlada the way to Belgrade do so as if trying to say as little as possible.

Only Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), who asks for a ride to Belgrade is remotely personable, though Vlada initially turns him down before reconsidering and giving the young man a ride. Why Vlada does so is a mystery, as he clearly doesn’t desire much companionship, though the silence left between the two makes it all the more striking when the sound of something falling (or moving) can be heard from the truck bed, prompting both men to reflexively glance back at the cargo they cannot see, only to look forward again and drop the matter.

Glavonic favors these long stretches of uncomfortable silence as Vlada trudges across the countryside, only revealing the character’s depths in flashes. He keeps a decrepit, barely functioning lighter for sentimental value and showing his first emotion in the film when he freaks out after someone steals it after he stops his truck in order to call his sick wife. The handheld camera, relatively sedate up to this point in The Load except for the expected wobbles here and there, suddenly moves in animated fashion as it follows Vlada as he chases the thief, often circling around him to catch glimpses of the thief ducking detection.

It’s the film’s sole moment of true action, the one instance where Vlada shows enough emotional investment in something to drop his mask of dispassion. The brief foot chase is a stylistic outlier in a film that otherwise hews closely to the established art-house tropes of contemporary Eastern European cinema. People are ashen and drab, and buildings sport pale mold on dull concrete walls. Chromatically, The Load makes Saving Private Ryan look like The Band Wagon. Yet Glavonic still manages to convey the devastation and numbness that results from atrocity without resorting to exploitation. Trauma is approached obliquely, more a subliminal fact of life than a single psychological rupture to be confronted and mended.

Vlada tries in the end to give some voice to his disgust and horror, dispiritedly comparing this “video game war” to his father’s prouder service in WWII, but it’s Paja who most directly contends with the present-day conflict. Intent on reaching the West, Paja at one point gets a glimpse of the escalating war when he hears a battle in the distance and sees the aerial dancing of tracer rounds fired from anti-aircraft cannons. Though far removed from the action, the young man is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all and, confronted with a reminder of the omnipresent carnage rending his country apart, can only collapse into a swing in a children’s playground, immobile from the shock of being unable to outrun his despair.

Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina Director: Ognjen Glavonic Screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.




Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.




Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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