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Godfrey Cheshire on Close-Up

Can any slight, relatively little-seen film live up to the kind of reputation that increasingly surrounds Close-Up?

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Godfrey Cheshire on Close-Up
Photo: Janus Films

Few figures in the history of movies leap from screen to become not just characters but paradigms, beacons that illuminate the paradoxical nature and power of the medium even as they exercise their own unique fascinations. The Little Tramp, Charles Foster Kane and a handful of others: these are the cinema’s resonant, iconic Quixotes, whose significance surpasses even the films that contain them. At the end of the 1990s we can add another name to their select company of unforgettables: Hossein Sabzian.

This review, the last I will write for publication in the year that marks the end of the century of cinema, concerns Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, a 1990 Iranian feature that I recently named the most important film of the last decade and one of the 10 most important of the century. That estimation certainly reflects my own ongoing fascination with Iranian cinema, but it’s hardly idiosyncratic. In 1990, when few in the film world were cued to the growing potency of Iranian filmmaking, Close-Up was passed over by high-profile festivals including Cannes and New York, but won prizes in Montreal and Rimini. Its renown has grown exponentially since then. After being voted the best Iranian film in history in a worldwide survey of critics published by the Iranian magazine Film International, the film has ranked at or near the top of critics polls regarding movies of the 1990s conducted recently in Canada and Europe.

And now comes a signal honor: Having previously appeared locally only in festival and retrospective settings, Close-Up at last has an American distributor (Zeitgeist Films) and will begin its first New York theatrical run on Fri., Dec. 31, at The Screening Room. Is it cause for chagrin that such a celebrated movie has taken a nearly a decade to reach our theaters? Say, rather, that we’re lucky it took only a decade, considering the steadily declining appreciation of truly adventurous foreign films, as well as the still-pervasive resistance to the cultural difference that Iran represents.

Can any slight, relatively little-seen film live up to the kind of reputation that increasingly surrounds Close-Up? Perhaps it’s inadvisable to introduce the movie with superlatives, which risk creating burdensome expectations. On the other hand, it is my experience that Close-Up tends to win out over whatever impressions audiences bring to it. Sure, it is extremely simple on its surface, rough-hewn and relatively nondramatic by conventional measures. Uninitiated viewers may find themselves restive and underwhelmed early on. But the film so subtly transmutes our normal sense of what movies can do that we are ultimately left defenseless against the extraordinary power of its final scenes, which are as transcendent—and as shrewd—as anything in cinema.

An unusual mixture of found reality and fictional elaboration, Close-Up documents the case of Hossein Sabzian, the Makhmalbaf impersonator. The film began with a story in the Tehran weekly Sorush which said that a man had been arrested for pretending to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most famous film directors, to a middle-class family. The ruse apparently was somewhat innocent at first. The family, the Ahankhahs, invited the supposed Makhmalbaf into their home after the wife met him on a bus. He regaled them with tales of his career and offered to put them in his next film.

But the deception soon began to unravel. “Makhmalbaf” didn’t know anything about an international award the papers said he had won. More crucially, he borrowed money from the family and didn’t return it. Suspecting they were being set up for a bigger rip-off, Mr. Ahankhah contacted the authorities. The ersatz auteur was picked up soon after at the Ahankhah house; Sorush’s reporter witnessed the arrest. Once his story was printed, Kiarostami entered the picture.

The film opens with the Sorush reporter, a cabbie and two soldiers talking as they drive to the Ahankhah house for the arrest. The reporter ebulliently hopes that this scoop will make him as famous as Italy’s Orianna Fallaci; one of his interlocutors expresses puzzlement that anyone would imitate a film director. The events depicted here, of course, happened before the film began; what we’re seeing is the first of several dramatic re-creations that Kiarostami staged and filmed after the fact, using the actual people rather than actors. These sequences he intermixes with real documentary footage (although this concept grows ever more problematic, as we shall see), shot as the case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator unfolded.

As Close-Up recounts it, Kiarostami’s involvement—as both a chronicler and a de facto participant in the case—begins in earnest when he goes to the authorities and asks permission to film Sabzian’s legal ordeal. Receiving that, he visits the defendant in prison to obtain his agreement. Sabzian, who seems nervous and abashed by his surroundings, recognizes the filmmaker and speaks approvingly of Kiarostami’s first feature, The Traveler. Kiarostami next applies to the cleric-judge assigned to hear the case, who seems bemused and mystified that anyone would want to film such an odd, unimportant incident; but he gives his permission nonetheless.

The heart of the film is Sabzian’s trial. Although Kiarostami occasionally cuts away to dramatic re-creations of some of the events alluded to (the wife meeting Sabzian on the bus, events in the Ahankhah house before Sabzian was arrested), the movie’s human drama remains gravitationally centered on the courtroom. For symbolic as well as practical reasons, Kiarostami used two 16mm cameras (the other sequences are in 35mm) to provide different perspectives on the action. Wide angles show us Sabzian with his accusers arrayed behind him, and, occasionally, the judge at the other side of the room. The close-up camera, meanwhile, gives us an intimate view of Sabzian during his appeals for justice and understanding.

Addressing a turbaned magistrate of the Islamic Republic, the trial’s antagonists argue passionately about cinema. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they argue about passion for cinema and what it can entail: solidarity, wishfulness, magnanimity, deceit, obsession, theft, rage. Obviously embarrassed as well as angry, the Ahankhahs (late-middle-aged father and mother, grown children) assert that Sabzian intended to defraud them. They shared with him their very sincere love of cinema, which he played upon and manipulated with devious, malign intent.

Sabzian is a thin, bearded man in his late 30s, though his age is hard to determine by appearances: called young by some, he admits to dyeing his hair. He has worked as a bookbinder, but appears impoverished; in fact, this is essential to his defense. It seems he was once married with two children, but has lost his family due to his obsession with movies. Evidently a successful autodidact, he quotes Tolstoy and speaks with a taut, pressured, sometimes very moving eloquence, saying such things as, “Ill will is the veil that covers art.”

Explaining his deception, he describes an arduous but liberating simulation of artistry. “It was difficult enacting the role of director, but it gave me confidence and I gained [the family’s] respect,” he says. “They did everything I told them. I would for instance tell them to move a cupboard from a certain place and they would do it. Before that, I had never succeeded in making people accept my views; they would obey me hesitantly. But in that house and under the guise of that assumed personality I could make everyone obey me. But when I left that house and had to accept money from them in order to buy something for my child and pay for my way home to the suburbs, I realized I was the same poor man who could not provide for his family—that I still had to accept my lonely lot among the poor.”

“That was why,” he continues, “when I woke up the next day, I still wanted to go back and play that role. It was very difficult, but I still wanted to do it because of my love for the cinema and also because they respected me and gave me moral support. So I went about the job very seriously. And I had come to believe I really was a director. I was not acting anymore. I was that new person.”

Cinema loves dramatic transformations like the one just described, but the Ahankhahs don’t buy it for a second. They reject Sabzian as an imaginary director, saying he was only a lying actor, and still is. At this point, the film has our sympathies in its cross-hairs.

If virtually every filmgoer is a cinephile to some degree, few will readily sympathize with the duped, polite cinephilia of the bourgeois family. This despite (or perhaps because of) the likelihood that the Ahankhahs resemble us far more than we resemble Sabzian, the poor man who carries cinephilia—cinemania—to dark, Dostoyevskan extremes. Close-Up likewise casts its lot with the accused; which is to say that it identifies with Sabzian rather than that it necessarily believes him. It wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps to redeem the guilty obsession it finds in (and shares with?) him.

It is impossible not to be touched by Sabzian, in any case. He refuses to be reduced to a “case,” a pitiable member of the class where poverty’s desperation and mental disturbance so often converge. As he maintains his stoic dignity and appeals to a justice beyond the grievance lodged against him, the court in its way comes around to him. The judge maneuvers Sabzian and the family away from their hostile stances, toward reconciliation and forgiveness.

The film’s remarkable final sequence begins as Sabzian is released from prison. As he emerges from the gates, he is met by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and breaks down weeping. Kiarostami’s camera observes the scene from inside a van some distance away; the hidden mic Makhmalbaf wears breaks up, providing fragmentary sound throughout. Then Makhmalbaf takes Sabzian on his motorcycle and sets off through the Tehran traffic; the theme music of Kiarostami’s The Traveler comes in. The two men stop to buy flowers. They are heading for the Ahankhah house—and the epiphanic meeting that ends the film—yet the most exultant image of all is simply the director and his admirer pressed together on the motorbike, removed from suffering and indignity, united, for once, in friendship and art.

The image of improbable union recalls something that Sabzian said during his trial, in that strangely poetic way of his: “I asked the Muse why he was hidden. He answered, ’It is you who are hidden. We are slaves of a selfish part behind which is hidden our real being. If we get rid of the selfish part, we can behold the beauty of truth.’” Close-Up shares that mystical dedication to unveilings and beauty. It also knows that at times truth can’t be had through the facts, but must be approached indirectly, by way of deception.

In every way imaginable the film stresses duality; extremes and contradictions; mirror-ideas which are innumerable but begin with art and nature, or perhaps God and creation. The fact that its themes touch on our notions of identity and role-playing and such is largely incidental, though important to the film’s transnational appeal.

It’s almost impossible to encounter Close-Up, I would say, without in some way being startled by it. It was one of the first Iranian films I encountered, in 1992, and I recall my lingering surprise that it seemed more deeply sophisticated than any contemporary American or European film. What possible viewership could it have been made for? The Iran it conjured appeared somehow both medieval and postmodern—and little in between. (Visiting Iran later only bolstered this impression.)

When I met Kiarostami for the first time, in New York in the fall of ’94, I told him straightaway that Close-Up was my favorite of his films. He said it was his own favorite, and that it seemed to have a growing following, though in Iran it had initially been misunderstood and derided; someone he’d just met, he said with mild wonderment, had compared it to Citizen Kane. This last remark typifies the filmmaker’s exquisite tact; its veil of bemused modesty covers Kiarostami’s astute and healthy sense of his own artistic worth.

The comparison obviously shouldn’t be stretched too far, but Citizen Kane and Close-Up both adapt the techniques of documentary to fiction, suggest multiple paths to “the truth,” and focus on men whose final quality is their unknowability. Most of all, the films are anomalies that somehow became paradigms of their respective eras, and that now bear reputations which encompass not only the works themselves but also the auras of opinion that have grown up around them. Kane, after all, is not just a major Orson Welles creation but “the greatest film of all time,” a largely mythic accolade that took over two decades to coalesce and that had a lot to do with the emotional and intellectual buttons the movie happened to push in France in the post-WWII period. Close-Up’s still-coalescing renown has a similarly international basis, since it reflects, in part, the West’s evolving view of Iran’s cinema.

That cinema began emerging from the systemic ruin of revolution in 1983, following a shrewdly conceived government initiative aimed at reviving the once-thriving Iranian film industry. By 1990, the program’s most notable successes—including Amir Naderi’s The Runner, Bahram Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger and Kiarostami’s own Where Is the Friend’s House?—had begun attracting serious international attention. All of these films lyrically, compassionately depict children in impoverished circumstances, a similarity that came to suggest a noble but confining stereotype: Iranian films, like some others from the Third World, it was said, were basically Italian Neorealism redux, full of radiant urchins and the glow of humanistic concern.

Close-Up, being essentially a Bicycle Thief in which the stolen “vehicle” is not a bicycle but a film director’s identity, instantly complicated that definition in the most useful possible manner. Suggesting a direct line from Rossellini to Godard to Kiarostami, it seemed to recombine the social concern of Neorealism with the French New Wave’s cerebral self-expression and formal idiosyncrasy, and to project the whole into the vitalizing context of a post-revolutionary Islamic culture. The film’s key innovations—the unorthodox mix of documentary and docudrama; the self-reflexive musing on cinema and its impact; the simultaneous exaltation and questioning of the auteur—were not entirely new to Iranian movies, but Close-Up presented them so forcefully as to establish a couple of new trademarks. Thereafter, Iranian cinema meant not just “films about poor children,” but also “films about film” and “films that explore the line between fact and fiction.”

If a movie’s importance is measured by its influence, Close-Up’s is there to be seen in numerous Iranian movies of the 90s, including several by the two directors at its center. Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (a 2000 release in the U.S.), and Makhmalbaf’s The Actor (1993), Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), Salam Cinema (1995) and A Moment of Innocence (1996) all foreground filmmakers and filmmaking, and creatively intermix reality and fabrication. Together these films comprise a uniquely poetic and staggeringly complex set of reflections on (and, in effect, inter-artist conversations about) the meanings and potentials of cinema. Beyond Iran, meanwhile, Close-Up seems to have anticipated a decade when “artistic” filmmaking increasingly equated with cinematic self-consciousness, the late-inning kind that sums up and deconstructs rather than inaugurates: if you look hard enough, you can see the Kiarostami film’s shadow stretching all the way down to American Movie and Being John Malkovich.

Yet Close-Up is never ironic or glib, as those films sometimes are. And it attains a kind of mastery, as they do not, by surpassing cleverness with profundity. Its deepest attractions in fact antedate anything that might be called fashionable. The theme of the imposter, for one, is old enough to give the film a constant hint of the uncanny; it evokes doppelgangers, twins, the supposed supernatural powers of mirrors, even the belief among Muslims that the figure crucified on Calvary was not Jesus but his double. Here we skirt the territory of Borges and Calvino, Jung and the brothers Grimm, where caution must be exercised. To suggest that the essentials of Close-Up’s story, including the fascination with film directors, are universal would be to miss half of the equation.

This occurred to me recently when I reread the transcript of an interview I did with Kiarostami in Iran about Close-Up. At one point, the translator interjects the comment (to me), “Only in Iran would you find someone like Sabzian.” Indeed, and here we glimpse the paradoxical alchemy that connects Close-Up to much great art: on the one hand, Sabzian is as universal as Quixote or The Little Tramp, while, on the other, he’s absolutely specific to Iran. Perhaps in other nations—though not many, surely—you will find eloquent, reflective paupers who are up on their Tolstoy, but where else is there one who is fixated on the artistry of his country’s film directors? This belongs to Iran alone, because only Iran effectively walled itself off from the world in 1979, thereby sealing under glass, as it were, a great ‘70s film culture, which it then revived, privileged and released back into the world in the 80s.

In 1996 Susan Sontag published a famous essay bemoaning the decline of cinephilia, meaning the cinephilia of her youth. I thought at the time, and still think: she should see Iran. There one finds cinephilia as perhaps existed in Paris in the mid-‘60s. People are movie mad. Filmmaking has the kind of cultural cachet once reserved for poetry and novels; directors are intellectual icons. TV is still a faint glow that no one pays much attention to (except when it shows old American movies like Shane) and cinephilia is very much tied to literacy; newsstands are festooned with film magazines of every description. In other words, the culture that produces a cinematic renaissance like the one including Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is the same culture that, almost ineluctably, will produce a Sabzian.

It should be added that when Close-Up was in the making—halfway between Iran’s 1979 Revolution and today—that culture was in a period of crucial flux. In July of 1988 the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, which had cost a million lives, ended in a bitter stalemate. The cessation of hostilities meant that many Iranians began to focus on the failure of the Revolution to achieve its high-flown goals, especially among the still-suffering urban poor—like Sabzian. It also prompted certain hardliners to shift their hostility from the Iraqis to the liberals who dominated the Islamic Republic’s cultural bureaucracy, including Minister of Culture (later President of Iran) Mohammad Khatami, whose ministry had effected the revival of Iran’s cinema. Then, in February of 1989, Iran’s culture wars went global when the Ayatollah Khomeini—who would die in June, ending Iran’s revolutionary decade—issued a death sentence against the author Salman Rushdie for alleged heresy against Islam.

You get distant hints of both of these currents in Close-Up: the fading of revolution’s glow perhaps prompted one poor man to transfer his allegiance to the figure of a film director, just as the chilling of the cultural climate may have increased Kiarostami’s tendency to speak metaphorically about the links between cinema and society in Iran. It was a time of growing divisions, including those represented by the two directors we see in Close-Up.

Kiarostami, who was nearing 50 when he made the film, had grown up in a comfortable middle-class family, studied art in college, and had made two features and a number of shorts prior to 1979. When the young intellectuals working under Khatami set about creating a cinema of quality for the Islamic Republic, he was one of a number of pre-revolutionary directors they entreated to begin working again.

Makhmalbaf, who was just over 30 at the time of Close-Up, was his opposite number in almost every respect. Self-educated, he had grown up devout and poor in Tehran’s lower-class southern district. At age 17 he participated in a terrorist action against the Shah’s police, was wounded and captured, then imprisoned under torture for four years. Released by the Revolution, he became a fundamentalist polemicist and playwright before turning to filmmaking. His first films were relatively crude exercises in post-revolutionary orthodoxy. But as his skill as a director increased, he also became more independent-minded, questioning his former certainties and scrutinizing the inequities of post-revolutionary society.

The three films he made in the mid-‘80s—The Peddlar, The Cyclist and Marriage of the Blessed—were works of stinging social criticism that propelled Makhmalbaf to the front ranks of Iranian filmmakers. They also made him an admired figure across a wide swath of Iranian society, as Close-Up shows. Sabzian’s deception begins when he is on a bus holding the screenplay of The Cyclist, a woman asks what he is reading, and he impulsively claims to be the book’s author. Behind that ruse, quite evidently, is an identification that borders on worship: for Sabzian, Kiarostami is a filmmaker, but Makhmalbaf is a hero of extraordinary proportions.

Our own cinephilia never approaches the extremity of emotion Sabzian gives voice to in Close-Up. “Unfortunately,” he says haltingly, “I have not been able to practice the Koranic injunction that says, ’Remembering God is the best consolation for a troubled heart.’ And whenever I am depressed or overwhelmed by troubles, I feel a strong need to cry out the anguish of my soul, the sad experiences of my life, which no one wants to hear about. And then I find a good man who shows my sufferings in his films and makes me want to see them over and over again. A man who dares to expose the people who trade on other people’s lives—the rich people who are heedless of the simple needs of the poor, which are basically economic needs.”

Although it goes against the film’s aura of good will to point this out, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf actively detest each other, and have through much of the last two decades. Close-Up marks a brief and curious respite in their mutual loathing. The hostility evidently began with Makhmalbaf, who spent part of the ‘80s vituperatively denouncing pre-revolutionary directors, including Kiarostami, as decadent, bourgeois remants of the old regime.

Then, after 1988’s Marriage of the Blessed, Makhmalbaf underwent another of his chameleon-like changes of mind and began making nice with his former adversaries, whose artistry, it seems, he had begun to admire. Kiarostami says that he met Makhmalbaf for the first time in a movie theater just prior to the genesis of Close-Up, when the younger director approached him and asked him to take a look at a script he had written.

What happened next is, appropriately, a matter of dispute. In the summer of 1997 I interviewed the two filmmakers separately and they gave me very different accounts about the origins of Close-Up. Both versions begin with the directors meeting in Kiarostami’s office. Where they diverge is over the issue of who had the crucial copy of Sorush magazine, and who first thought of making a movie about the strange case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator.

Makhmalbaf claims that he’d already had the idea to make the movie, and that he was holding an advance copy of Sorush, which had not yet hit the stands, rolled up in his fist as he talked with Kiarostami. After Kiarostami asked to see the magazine and scanned the article, Makhmalbaf says, he began enthusing, “This is fantastic, this is unbelievable,” and immediately started to argue that Makhmalbaf couldn’t be the one to film the story because he was part of it. Kiarostami, naturally, says that the initial concept was his.

In his version, the magazine is already out and a copy lies on his desk as he talks to Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami doesn’t think much of the script Makhmalbaf has shown him (one can imagine him nervous at Makhmalbaf’s presence), so he turns the subject to the Sorush article, and the idea for Close-Up sparks. Kiarostami then convinces Makhmalbaf to borrow a car with him so that they can make a little expedition to explore the idea. They go first to the police station where Sabzian is being held, and learn more details about his case. Then they drive to the Ahankhah house, where a droll scene unfolds.

Kiarostami goes to the door and announces himself. The daughter of the family asks skeptically for some ID. They have just gotten rid of a fake Makhmalbaf, she says, they certainly don’t need a fake Kiarostami. Kiarostami doesn’t have an ID, but he says he has something just as good: Makhmalbaf, who is sitting in the car. He produces Makhmalbaf and the family—one can imagine their intitial befuddlement—admits the two filmmakers. Tea is served and the conversation runs late into the night. By the end of the evening, as Makhmalbaf tells it, Kiarostami has very adroitly bamboozled everyone concerned, including him, into playing roles in the film.

Bamboolzement of various sorts dominates the film’s legend from here on. Although Zeitgeist’s publicity surely won’t stress it, Close-Up, a film about a double, has its own double. The version of the film shown the first two times in New York (at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 1991 and the Walter Reade Theater in 1992) differs from the one currently in circulation. The earlier version was more chronological, beginning with the incident of Sabzian meeting the woman on the bus. Kiarostami changed the movie, he told me, after seeing it projected at a festival in Munich where the projectionist accidentally mixed up the reels. Rather than being offended, he decided he liked the scrambled chronology better and reedited the film accordingly. When I expressed surprise at this, he replied matter-of-factly that a movie is good or a movie is bad, and neither fact is affected by the order the reels are shown in. (Godard is one of the few filmmakers who would surely agree.)

If Sabzian is deceptive, Close-Up, it turns out, is even more so. Very few scenes in the film that appear to be documentary actually are. The trial scenes, in fact, are elaborate fakes (and the use of 16mm thus is one of the film’s stylistic tricks). Kiarostami himself orchestrated what happened in the courtroom, including the family’s forgiveness (they actually wanted Sabzian to be locked up). Kiarostami also scripted much of Sabzian’s testimony, although, as he carefully pointed out to me, it was all taken from things actually said by Sabzian, whose speech really is clogged with literary references, mystical aphorisms and cinephilic jargon. In fact, Kiarostami conducted much of that testimony; seated beside Sabzian, he asks most of the questions we hear coming from off-camera during the trial.

The film’s amazing conclusion depicts Sabzian’s actual release from prison, as I understand it, and his tears are genuine. But much that surrounds the incident is deceptive. Makhmalbaf’s appearance, of course, was arranged by Kiarostami. Kiarostami’s camera being “hidden” is an unnecessary device that slyly converts a documentary technique to dramatic purpose. And there is this: the “sound problems” caused by that bad mic on Makhmalbaf are also fake, applied to the soundtrack after the fact (Kiarostami does something similar in his documentary Homework). This little trick, it would seem, is crucial to the film’s final impact. After straining against the annoyance caused by the in-and-out sound, the viewer inevitably experiences an emotional surge when the beautiful theme of The Traveler suddenly overwhelms the mechanical dissonance.

Perhaps most remarkable is that the judge in this case was somehow bamboozled into turning the trial over, in effect, to Kiarostami. This alone is weighted with more symbolism than any non-Iranian can parse, yet one of its implications must be read as favorable to the Islamic Republic. Virtually every serious Iranian feature from before the Revolution, including Kiarostami’s, exudes a dark, cynical, fatalistic mood. Post-revolutionary features, even when strongly critical of certain aspects of society, are far more positive and bouyant. That Close-Up is easily one of the most exultant of all can’t help but testify to the society that produced it; in effect, the film shows the Revolution’s aim of a society transformed by faith being achieved, at least in one instance. The qualifying irony is that the real “just ruler” here—like Keats’ unacknowledged legislator—is an artist, and the transforming power is the belief that we invest in art’s beneficence.

Close-Up invites endless interpretation, but Kiarostami is clear about his reading of it. He says it is about the power of imagination, and of cinema as a vehicle of dreams. As he put it to me: “With the help of dreams you can escape from the worst prisons. Actually, you can only imprison the body but dreams flee the walls and without visas or dollars can travel anywhere. In dreams, you can sleep with anyone you want. Nobody can touch your dreams. In a way dreams exactly embody the concept of freedom. They free you of all constraints. I think God gave human beings this possibility to apologize for all the limitations he’s created for them.”

Kiarostami has also said, “We can never get close to the truth except through lying,” a prescription that can easily be misread. We might well place the emphasis on the lie, but Kiarostami places it on truth. Though truth is real, he implies, it is not a given but is created through will and the ethical sense—the intent—that links artist and viewer. In the end, Close-Up turns cinema’s mirror back on us, asking us to see that Sabzian’s escape and reconciliation are constructed of our own compassion.

Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic for Metro Magazine and the director of Moving Midway.

Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted from the December 29th, 1999 issue of New York Press. My thanks to the author for his permission. Close-Up is currently playing at Film Forum in Manhattan through Thursday, April 1st. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 22nd, 2010 by the Criterion Collection. A new essay by Godfrey will accompany the release.

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

2.5

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.

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Photograph
Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma

After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.

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The Wandering Soap Opera
Photo: Cinema Guild

The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.

The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.

In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.

In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.

There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.

That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.

It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.

Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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