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Jean Cocteau (#110 of 4)

Enfant Wonderful On Heartbeats and Xavier Dolan

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Enfant Wonderful: On Heartbeats and Xavier Dolan

IFC Films

Enfant Wonderful: On Heartbeats and Xavier Dolan

When I first saw Xavier Dolan in his debut film as a director, I Killed My Mother (2009), I immediately thought that he looked like a Jean Cocteau drawing, with his impertinent nose, his big, swirly ears and the curly hair that fell down over his forehead. In that movie, which he wrote, directed, and acted in at the age of 19, the Quebec-raised Dolan seemed a kind of cinematic Raymond Radiguet, who was Cocteau’s young lover and wrote a major novel, The Devil in the Flesh, before his death at age 20. Many critics saw Dolan’s visual influences as a director, the borrowings from Wong Kar-wai and Jean-Luc Godard, but his rude sensibility as a writer and as a squirrelly, antic performer are all his own. Dolan deals directly with the large feelings of youth; it’s clear that he works mainly by instinct, and I hope he’s able to keep throwing out movies fast.

I Killed My Mother and Dolan’s second film, Heartbeats, seem to me like breaths of cold fresh air after being trapped last year in stuffy, darkened rooms, cinematically speaking. They take great pleasure in things like color, shape, and form, and their effect can be extraordinarily sensual, as in the I Killed My Mother scene where Dolan and his boyfriend do some Jackson Pollack drip painting and then make love on the floor all covered in paint. Dolan shoots the lovemaking in slow-motion fragments, and he intensifies this effect throughout Heartbeats, where nearly half the film takes place in slow motion imagery set to lush music. Some might find all this slow motion exasperating, but why not use the camera to slow life down in order to really look at it? Isn’t that what most romantics would like to do? In Heartbeats, Francis (Dolan) and Marie (the extremely striking Monia Chokri) are both in love with Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and they always seems to be moving toward him slowly, trapped by their feelings but trying not to show their obvious discomfort in his presence.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s La Voix Humaine

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Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s <em>La Voix Humaine</em>
Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s <em>La Voix Humaine</em>

’Tis the season for surreal culture shock. First it was the fried balls. Forget popcorn and potato chips; from bitterballen to oliebollen, unless it’s round and fried, it ain’t a snack here in Holland. Then it was Sinterklaas—or, more precisely, his helper Zwarte Piet (best explained by David Sedaris in an essay for Esquire a few years back). Suffice to say, the sight of towheaded tots trotting down the street in blackface can make even a seen-it-all New Yorker like me gawk. And now: Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, a French play performed in Dutch with English surtitles projected perfectly center-stage above the action. (Interestingly, five days before I attended the show at the spectacular, castle-like Stadsschouwburg, Spike Lee held a discussion/book promotion at the theater. Alas, I heard he didn’t have much to say about Zwarte Piet.)

But I have quite a bit to say about La Voix Humaine, a one-woman show starring the luminous Halina Reijn (who also stars in the company’s Children of the Sun as the invalid Lisa) as an alternately determined and desperate mistress who is trying to break up once and for all with her lover over the phone. While Michael Shannon and his headset may have New York audiences in stitches in Mistakes Were Made, Ms. Reijn and her regular old receiver (or “terrible weapon” as she refers to it at one point) drag Amsterdam theatergoers through a nonstop, emotional tight-wire act for nearly an hour.

5 for the Day: Animated

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5 for the Day: Animated
5 for the Day: Animated

Being a kid in the 1970’s had its advantages, the least of which was not being responsible for the horrific clothing your parents made you wear. It was a time when cereal companies weren’t afraid to use the word “sugar” in their cereal names (“Super Sugar Crisp”, “Sugar Smacks”, “Sugar Pops”) because it accurately depicted what you were eating. Kool-Aid, also full of sugar, would bust through walls to quench your thirst, mentally preparing you to identify later with his fellow wall-buster, the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull. Unless you had a Coleco Telstar, you were happy to go outside and play the games Spike Lee used in the montage that opens Crooklyn. And cartoons were everywhere.

On the sixth day, God created man, and the three broadcast networks created cartoon junkies. Saturday mornings were filled with cheap-assed Hanna-Barbera cartoons, cheaper assed Filmation cartoons and shorts that used to play in theaters. The networks ran Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry shorts, neither of which were made for kids. The Looney Tunes looked awful by then, yet I wouldn’t realize it until I bought those remastered DVD’s. Meanwhile, “Schoolhouse Rock” taught me about math, grammar and history, even once saving me on an 11th grade U.S. History test years later.

At the (now landmark) Loews Jersey Theater, St. George slew the dragon in the clock at the top of the building, and every summer, I attended the Disney Summer Hit Parade. The Hit Parade was a way for Disney to get people to see their live action crap by pairing it with a classic Disney cartoon. The Loews Jersey was built in the 30’s, and looked a lot like Radio City Music Hall on the inside; the sound system was great and the screen and auditorium were huge. Even though the Disney classics looked a little raggedy by this time, I could still experience them as they were meant to be experienced. I fell in love with the animated form, even if I had to also endure Angela Lansbury in the days between her murderous turns in The Manchurian Candidate and Murder She Wrote. (Jessica Fletcher was killing all those people, you know.)

Today, we have entire cable channels devoted to cartoons. One of network TV’s longest-running series is a cartoon (The Simpsons). And each year, at least one of the top 10 grossers is a cartoon. Yet in terms of critical appreciation, most animation still gets sent to the back of the bus. So today’s “5 for the day” is devoted to full-length features that were more than just cartoons to me—features I return to often, primarily because of their visual style, but also because they offer themes, images and ideas that trump most live-action features, and break out of the ghetto in which animation so often finds itself committed.