Not so much a fantasy as a fantasia, Alain Resnais’ first novel adaptation, his second adaptation (after Mélo) and, unless my memory fails me, his fifth film in CinemaScope (after Le chant du styrène, Last Year at Marienbad, L’amour à mort, and Private Fears in Public Places), this brittle comedy may also be the most purely surrealist of all his films, especially in its emphasis on irrational impulses (as well as its non-sequitur final shot). And the fact that it’s often creepy (as well as very personal) is surely more of a plus than a minus; it hasn’t been acknowledged nearly enough that Resnais’ best and most beautiful films — including Statues Also Die, Toute la mémoire du monde, Le chant du styrène, Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, Marienbad, Muriel, Providence, Mon oncle d’Amérique, Mélo, and Not on the Lips, among others — usually turn out to be his creepiest. (An exception to this rule is L’amour à mort, which is exceptionally creepy but also far from Resnais’ best.)
Seen twice on Friday at the New York Film Festival — first at a press screening, then at the $40 opening — this is a film whose pastel hues and intricate color coding (e.g., the multiple associations of blue with the hero, played by André Dussollier, and the various associations of red with at least two of the main women in the story, played by Sabine Azéma and Anne Consigny) may come even closer to comic-book images than those in I Want To Go Home. Wild Grass seems personal above all as an expression of Resnais’ (personal) shyness, although it doesn’t for me qualify as one of his masterpieces. It’s fascinating to ponder how his first two features as well as his last two to date focus on illicit passion, even though the blocking and frustration of that passion in the latter two films seems far more prominent (as it is in Muriel). What gives this odd provocation much of its thematic interest is the cheerful way the secondary characters (Dussollier’s wife, Azéma’s fellow dentist and best friend) become so warmly complicitous in not only tolerating but nurturing the mutual obsession between the two leads. [9/27/09]
1957 was clearly a bumper year for John Frankenheimer on Playhouse 90: the eleven shows that he directed included The Ninth Day (January 10, the only one I can faintly recall having seen at the time), The Comedian (February 14), The Last Tycoon (March 14), and then a second F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, which I’ve just seen for possibly the first time, Winter Dreams (May 23), costarring John Cassavetes and Dana Wynter. (That’s Phyllis Love, another costar, in the above illustration.) All of which probably helps to explain why I considered Frankenheimer an auteur before I ever used that term, during my early teens, for his work on Studio One as well as Playhouse 90.
As masterful in way as The Comedian and The Last Tycoon, Winter Dreams departs from Fitzgerald’s material a lot more than The Last Tycoon by concentrating on the sort of details that the original story leaves out, involving (for instance) the hero’s parents and college room mate, and by ending many years before the story does. (The script is by James B. Cavanagh.) The tone is quite different, too; Fitzgerald’s 1922 story is a reverie whereas the adaptation is much more obviously obsessional. And Frankenheimer’s style in this case couldn’t be further from the Wellesian mise en scène of The Comedian; if anything, the lingering, even protracted lap dissolves with closeups of Cassavetes (and, later Wynter), returning again and again to the same climactic make-out scene on a sofa, are hyper-Sternbergian. But it’s also possible to detect some early intimations of Cassavetes’ own future style as a film director to match the intensity of his own performance, much of it in close-ups. [11/26/09]
It’s been over five months since I submitted this brief article to FIPRESCI for their web site, at their (characteristically urgent) request, in mid-June, just after attending the Seattle International Film Festival as a member of the FIPRESCI jury. It seems pretty certain by now that they won’t be running it, because Seattle isn’t even listed among the fourteen “coming soon” festival reports currently promised on their site.This is basically why I’m running it here — so it won’t go to waste. — J.R.
The Undermining of Intimacy: Home and Everyone Else
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
As different as they are in other respects, one interesting facet shared by two tragicomic European features included in the New Directors Showcase at the Seattle International Film Festival, Ursula Meier’s Home (2008) and Maren Ade’s Alle Andersen (Everyone Else, 2009), is that they both show the gradual deterioration of intimate relationships that starts to occur between or among individuals in isolation from “everyone else”, after they start to become less isolated. In both cases, contact with the outside world seems to operate as a kind of contamination, although the possibility is posed in each case that the
sickness is already present from the outset, but needs the objectification provided by the outside world in order to become fully evident.
Meier’s Home, a second feature, introduces us to an eccentric but lovingly and happily close-knit family living in the country next to an unfinished superhighway — mother (Isabelle Huppert), father (Olivier Gourmet), older daughter (Adéläide Leroux), younger daughter (Madeleine Budd), and son (Kacey Mottet Klein) — who are gradually driven bonkers by the sound, pollution, and lack of privacy brought by passing vehicles once the superhighway opens. More precisely, all of the family members seem to go to pieces except for the older daughter, who manages to escape relatively early.
One could perhaps criticize Home for being a bit too simplistic and even programmatic in charting this family’s deterioration (characteristically, the older daughter’s disappearance is never explained clearly in terms of motivation and is basically introduced like a theorem), but there are none the less various ambiguities about the characters and their interrelationships that are difficult to resolve. The older daughter, who seems relatively detached and aloof, may be “saner” than her parents and siblings, but it takes us most of the duration of the film to discover this fact, highlighting the degree to which sanity is a relative rather than absolute quality, a quality determined by context.
Ade’s Everyone Else, a second feature, has a much smaller cast of characters — mainly a single couple, Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger), who are vacationing in Chris’s mother’s house in Sardinia — but, here again, their deterioration, at least as a couple, seems brought about largely through their contacts with the outside world, principally with a second couple. The film’s overall dramatic trajectory, including the gradual alienation of Gitti from Chris, can be traced between two occasions when Gitti falls into a swimming pool and “plays dead” — initially as a comic performance given to Chris’s young niece, and subsequently as a prank-like incident precipitated by the other couple. In this case, the overall psychological development, far from being simplistic or programmatic, is characterized by a great deal of ambiguity regarding the identities and feelings of both Gitti and Chris. A major issue here appears to be how much Gitti and/or Chris are making up their own rules, in flight from bourgeois conventions, and how much they’re merely pretending to do so. As in Home, our inability to pass final judgment on the characters becomes the basis of what makes them interesting.
What’s most disconcerting about Jane Campion’s affecting evocation of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, which I caught up with tonight in Edinburgh, is that it has an exquisite soundtrack for me — erotic, tactile, essentialist in the best sense — only when Keats’ poetry remains unheard. Whether it’s being recited by Ben Wishaw as Keats or by Abbie Cornish as Brawne, the issue isn’t how or how well it’s being recited, which I have no particular quarrels with, but the fact that it gets recited at all. I was admittedly grateful in a way to hear Wishaw recite all of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the final credits, despite the distracting musical accompaniment, even while a good half of the audience was leaving the theater, because there, at least, it wasn’t competing with Campion’s filmmaking. But I’m less sure about the other employments of Keats’ writing in the film, even though the letters arguably seem more justifiable than the poetry, at least from a narrative standpoint.
One of Campion’s strongest suits has always been her eroticism, and the best part of A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times (as it often is, for him as well as for Manohla Dargis) comes not in the review proper but in the squib at the end appended to the MPAA rating: “It is perfectly chaste and insanely sexy.” Amen. But the sexiness of the film’s Bressonian qualities and the sexiness of Keats’ poetry are not only contrary but in some ways counterproductive.
In the December issue of Sight and Sound, Campion tells Nick James, quite revealingly, how serious an influence Bresson’s A Man Escaped exerted on the film. But oddly enough, she locates this influence in the images and in their simplicity, not in the sound or in the relationships between sound and image, which is precisely where I’d locate the eroticism (and Bressonian influence) of Bright Star.
Adding the richness of the poetry and the music to that mix becomes to my ears (and eyes) a kind of overload, with poetry/music and other sound elements in competition with one another — a kind of belt-and-suspenders strategy that is certainly understandable and undoubtedly defensible from many standpoints, but none the less debilitating formally and even (more arguably) sensually. Paradoxically, the best aspects of the film — Cornish’s remarkable performance, some of the images, most of the sound editing — all work best when Keats’ poetry isn’t interfering with any of them. [11/8/09]