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Published in print and online January 27th, 2014, Trent University’s Arthur Newspaper

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Director Noah Baumbach (director of The Squid and the Whale [2005] with Jesse Eisenberg, and screenwriter for Wes Anderson pictures The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [2004] and Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009]), and co-screenwriter/actress Greta Gerwig (Arthur [2011], No Strings Attached [2011], Lola Versus [2012]), have given us a film to stir up conversation amongst North Americans in their 20s.

Frances Ha (2012) begins with 27-year-old Frances and her best friend/roommate Sophie, together sharing a cheap apartment in New York. With the pair’s college days long in the past, Sophie now needs to break the living situation with Frances as career and boyfriend have placed adult demands on her. Our protagonist is then left to search for new accommodations, new roommates and friends, and as she loses her position as an apprentice in a dance company, a new career as well.

The film shows us the troubles college grads face when their careers of choice do not immediately follow their graduation. Restless, uncertain about the future, without friends, money, and employment, Frances’s comedic and aimless wanderings through the streets, apartments, and houses of New York, Sacramento, and Paris, contribute to her growing sense of homelessness. Sophie, the one stable element that had kept Frances going the last few years, pops in and out of the story to drive home the divide between them.

We have with Frances Ha an indie-romantic-comedy, as the familiar story of a separated but in love heterosexual couple is here replaced by two female friends that must reunite because, well, that is what couples do (in the movies).

Gerwig dazzles us as Frances, her awkward and stilted delivery reminding us of Woody Allen’s acting and direction of his actors in Annie Hall (1977). Baumbach mentioned in an interview that Woody Allen is “an influence I wholly absorbed but at a certain point I had to shake. Now [with Frances Ha] I’m on the other side of that, there’s something so exciting about making movies in this city with him as the person I try to emulate.”

Besides the city of New York and Allen’s presence, perhaps the most wonderful moment of Frances Ha is watching Gerwig dance on the sidewalks to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” an homage to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986) in which Denis Lavant, as a passion-fueled Alex, rushed down a street to the same tune. This is one of many allusions to the French cinema of roughly 1959-1986 (but particularly the early 60s). Frances Ha is shot digitally then transferred to black-and-white, already a gesture toward the French New Wave.

Sophie Mayer, in her review of the film for Sight and Sound (August 2013), notes that Baumbach’s film might be the antipode to Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), a feature we are pleased to screen at Market Hall on March 19th. Frances’s long and exuberant dance in the street, so full of joy, is contrasted with Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) late night jog through downtown New York. His run occurs at the point in the plot where he’s become completely sickened by “sex, lies, new technology and uncomfortable roommates” (Mayer) – themes that both features share, but explore in different ways.

We hope you can join us for Baumbach’s Frances Ha on Wednesday, Jan., 29 at 8pm at Market Hall (140 Charlotte St.).

Part 1

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I’ve been enthused about Bruno Dumont’s films since beginning my study of contemporary cinema. While I appreciate his films up to and including Flanders (2006), his films after 2006 seem to have fallen a little short of his aesthetic goals, or, a hint at some work to be done in the future, he has been too concerned about the competition between himself and Carlos Reygadas (a real competition or something I’ve alone noticed). Dumont and Reygadas share the same stylistic and thematic interests: long takes, long scenes, tableau rather than cause and effect plot, non-professional actors who resemble Bressonian models, an emphasis on the look/personage of the performer (Eisenstein perhaps), sparse dialogue, lack of psychological depth, unclear temporal frame, madness and violence, ambiguous sexual encounters (shot explicitly), religiosity (monotheism), religiosity and interpersonal relationships, religiosity and community, and miracles, to name a few.

Dumont’s first four features had less to do with religiosity than his most recent three which are explicitly religious or transcendentalist in tone, plot, and story. This is despite his professed atheism. Reygadas, a self-proclaimed Catholic, has followed the same trend: his first two features secular or atheistic – Battle of Heaven (2005) merely had the backdrop of Catholicism but was not its focus – and his two latest films overly transcendentalist (in Schrader’s sense). Silent Light (2007, an homage to C.T. Dreyer’s Ordet [1955]) ends with a miracle and Post Tenebras Lux (2012) begins with Satan or a satanic creature.

Dumont says that cinema is the perfect medium for spirituality, “its tendency to cut to the core and reveal to us the very substance of beings and objects” (Cineaste, Fall 2013). He goes on to say that the foundation of religion is in fact art, and “future art will replace religions and their institutions.” In his statement there appears a drive to move beyond the religious, yet, he cannot seem to wrench himself free of it. I suggest that Dumont’s inability to get out of religion is, as he says, because of cinema’s “fairly extraordinary ability to transfigure [reality]” on the one hand, and on the other, the generic conventions of the contemporary art film.

Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) is the most ambiguously spiritual of Dumont’s recent films. It is devoid of story, although contains some plot or events. We have Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche), the sculptress/artist, in 1915. At this time in her life she was a patient, held perhaps against her will, in an institution for the mentally unstable. We are informed early on that her brother Paul will pay his first ever visit on Saturday. She anticipates his visit. An hour into the feature we are introduced to a very spiritual Paul. He makes his way to Camille; they have an exchange. Paul then exchanges spiritual words with a priest or priest-figure who works at the institution. The film ends in medium close-up on Binoche.

In the art film I identified the lack of an investigation into characters’ psychology as an essential feature. Given this trait of art cinema, is there a better person and set of characters to depict than those in a mental health institution?

First, the patients around Claudel. Their motivation and relationship to Claudel is, as expected, ambiguous. Claudel is occasionally asked by nurses to care for some patients momentarily and is treated by doctors and nurses as if she is not as physically, emotionally, psychologically unstable as the others. The “real” patients are there to contrast Claudel’s position as one in which she should perhaps not be there. In the doctors’ and nurses’ recognition of Claudel’s condition, the relationship between her and the employees is not further developed, and therefore ambiguous. An old and seemingly uninterested psychologist challenges her on some angry remarks about Rodin, but no further evidence of her psychological instability is really addressed.

Seen from a different angle, the other patients take on a meaning of their own. In the first cafeteria scene, three women are eating their meals. Their words indecipherable, their banging on the table and playing with food providing a real sense of improvisation or authenticity. These characters, or perhaps persons, look as if they really belong there. Another component of the art film genre I have not yet mentioned is its capacity for producing the real – not realism as a style, but confronting spectators with the real, a reality. In this case, perhaps these individuals require care by healthcare professionals. The whole scene had the feeling of an Ulrich Seidl feature, or the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King.

Towards the end of the film, Camille’s closest patient (friend?) informs her that Paul has arrived. Dumont lingers in a close-up of this patient, here, I think, like someone informing the wise men of Jesus’s birth in year zero – she is a messenger of the good/Good/God. This woman has the same look of transcendence as David Dewaele at the end of Hadewijch (2009) and during the miracles of Hors Satan (2011). Something “more” (deeper meaning) lurks behind their acts, thus the lingering close-ups, but less intensely in Camille.

Second, the character Claudel. For Dumont, this is the first use of a well-known professional actor, or in better words, the first use of a star. (Twentynine Palms [2003] featured professional actors, but they were not stars.) Dumont chose Binoche because Claudel herself was a star, and the former also an artist. “To create by using an artist is like asking a peasant to play a peasant, a sailor to play a sailor. In short, it is my usual method. The chemistry is the same. Juliette Binoche is Camille Claudel: the character disappears and dissolves in the person of the actor” (Cineaste, Fall 2013). This statement by Dumont reminds me of King’s use of actors for his actuality drama A Married Couple (1969). There, a couple of actors are documented, filmed on the theme of their married life. Both are thoroughly performative to say the least. Returning to Camille, Dumont’s art cinema tactic of casting non-professional actors, as if their lives resembled the characters portrayed, is therefore maintained. Or so he had hoped.

But Binoche’s acting is far too professional. Her outbursts in tears at a production about Don Juan and her long speech against Rodin were so perfectly executed that the dynamic or authentic appeal of the non-professionals in previous Dumont films was lost. Yes, a strange criticism, but from the art cinema I’ve come to expect a certain authenticity through performance/inauthenticity (rather than an accurate portrayal of emotion through acting.) Binoche is a trained star and will remain as such.

She will be a star even as she gets older. I asked myself as she nakedly dipped into a bath: Is this really the Binoche I’ve seen in films past? Her very brief nudity at the beginning of Camille was a shock, and now I see that it was a shock that should have been expected. Binoche’s nudity was nevertheless as unannounced as Julie Delpy’s in Before Midnight (2013) and the extreme case of Emmanuelle Riva’s aged body in Amour (2012). In each of these films an aging star reveals herself to audiences, as if to challenge past audiences’ desire for the more youthful actress.

The main issue with Camille was its narrative, or lack thereof. The historical year of Claudel’s life, 1915, was to correspond to Binoche’s age. Thus a story is already secondary to the portrayal. But without some narrative component to frame Camille, the film turns into a kind of whodunit. Why is she instituted, what is her psychological issue? Christopher Sharrett sees the film as a blow against the men who treated Claudel unfairly; however, this reveals itself in one way only, i.e., in Binoche’s sorrowful speech to the doctor about Rodin. Yes, she was perhaps wronged by Rodin (I know nothing of Claudel and her story), yet the doctor notes this was 20 years ago, therefore brushing aside her complaints as (perhaps) part of her psychological issue. The “destruction of women by men” (Sharrett, Cineaste, Fall 2013) is nowhere apparent, clear, or represented. We would be much better with a Catherine Breillat film, or for the more Hollywood-keen spectators, Woody Allen’s fantastic feature Blue Jasmine (2013).

Camille appears instead as neither spiritual or transcendentalist, as with characters in Dumont’s prior films, nor do we have here a satire or mockery of Christianity and its believers as in Seidl’s successful Paradise: Faith (2012). Hadewijch and Hors Satan are serious about its content, although without a specific message; these two films were able to investigate the relationship between religiosity and art film aesthetics – there was an honesty about the generic conventions of the art film genre, a sticking to its conventions then pushing their limits in stylistically interesting, and psychologically complex ways for the spectator.

Sharrett suggests there is always “something else” going on in a Dumont picture. This is what I meant by the deeper meaning of art cinema – art cinema (sometimes dis)honestly asks spectators to unravel or deconstruct the images and sounds, associating those hidden meanings with the intention or message of the auteur. This is the generic convention of art cinema and how spectators have critically received it, i.e., when they see something positive or productive in a film or oeuvre of course. (I do not touch upon the boredom, pretentiousness, or spiritually incomprehensibility some spectators would see in art cinema.) With Camille I can’t find what this something else is, despite Sharrett’s claim about the destruction of women by men. The film lacked substance, which is true for most of Dumont’s features; in his previous attempts to produce (bodily) sensations in the spectator, and not making narrative or psychological sense, his prior output maintained a beauty that was unique to art film genre. Camille is ultimately an unsuccessful film in Dumont’s oeuvre, devoid of story, content, spirituality, and style. Everything in this film is simply dull – Dumont parodying a Dumont film. Too much nothing, not enough sensation, and definitely no sense.

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Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012)

 

For the last two years I’ve been working on contemporary art cinema. I’m coming closer to a definition of what art cinema is as a genre. Declaring that art cinema can be approached as a genre may seem strange because of the diverse national, political, and aesthetic interests of the filmmakers on the festival circuit. If we look carefully at the most successful products of the major festivals in the last 15 years however, a number of trends, styles, tropes, and narrative patterns emerge. (My classification of art cinema as synonymous with the festival circuit films is also to say that critics aid in determining and promoting these features and directors as part of art cinema – cf. Film Comment’s Top 20 list of films without a distributor in the January/February 2014 issue, films which premiered and circulated at the festivals.)

I find that the key element of the contemporary art film is spirituality/transcendentalism in the style of Andrei Tarkovsky. Contemporary filmmakers have returned to the style and tone of Tarkovsky, this much is clear. On the festival circuit numerous examples could be cited, but its effects have already filtered into Hollywood. Consider Hollywood’s adoption of the art film genre, e.g., in Terrence Malick’s recent work (I once said The Tree of Life [2011] wished it could be Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light [2007]) and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011 – not a Hollywood produced film, but starring Hollywood actors). The art film has as its syntactic components both deeper meaning (often spirituality through eroticism) and ambiguity (often shown through ambiguous sexual encounters, relationships, or deeds lacking in motivation). Art cinema, as a genre, has continued to develop clear-cut formulas for impressing critics and audiences at film festivals and therefore securing distribution deals which, naturally, tout the film’s successes at festivals. Indeed the art cinema’s economic success is dependent upon the festival network, including its ties to critics and magazines, distributors and art-house theaters, and the reception by spectators through their engagement with a given film’s deeper meaning and explicitness.

Any genre film has its best and its worst features. The best seem to be those which have a firm grasp of the signs or semantic components and the syntactic aspects previously established (through a genre’s output up to that point). The filmmakers then extend these generic limits, most importantly, via the narrative conventions. The best performers (John Wayne, James Stewart for the Western) most frequently star and oftentimes the best genre film displays reflexivity about its status as such (John Ford’s films and Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks [1961] seem appropriate here for the Western again). The least discussed of the genre films are those which do not extend or push generic conventions and adopt instead the easily identifiable semantic and syntactic elements, actors inappropriate for the part, and an (intentional) unawareness of its status as a genre film, i.e., without a certain reflexivity.

This quick analysis would apply then to the art film and if we scanned the pages of critical reviews and theoretical treatments we would find my summations to be true. The praise of a given feature or auteur, from critic and academic, would champion the elements I’ve described as best and suggest room for improvement or inappropriateness in the category I’ve designated worst. See for instance the Sight and Sound review of The Act of Killing (2012). There we see that the problem with this documentary is its lack of reflexivity, its inability to display its process and construction. On the other hand, the success of the film is its supposed capacity for truth-telling, its images edited together in such a fashion to be authoritative on its subject (what Mary Ann Doane has identified as an essential feature of the documentary voice, its authority). The persons documented in this film also perform in such a manner to warrant a credibility or believability to their acts, deeds, and transformations (due in part to the way the film was edited, again, hinting that this process of editing needing to be shown lest we begin to doubt the performances). The Act of Killing just serves as one example of critical commentary on genre.

My next post will assess Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) in light of my reflections on the art cinema as genre and the film criticism that results/has resulted from its status as genre.

Part 2

Hot Splice

Steve McQueen’s film Hunger hinges on a stunning scene between an IRA man and a priest. Here’s what the Times of London’s correspondent asked the actors about how how they did it.

It is known simply as The Scene. To those who fêted it at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and those who have seen it since, it is the breath-taking centrepiece of a film called Hunger that is both politically controversial and philosophically sublime.

It is 23 minutes of whiz-bang dialogue and crackling ideological debate between the movie’s central protagonist, the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), and a moderate Belfast priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham). The scene includes a 17-and-a-half-minute single shot of the two men – according to Guinness the previous record holder for a single shot on film (rather than video) is an eight-minute scene in The Player meaning that Hunger could be the holder…

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I don’t usually publish these promotional materials on the blog, but thought there might be some interest.
Films include: Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Martin Doepner’s Rouge Sang (2013), Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy (2003), Barbet Schroeder and Charles Bukowski’s Barfly (1987), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, (2012), among others.

http://trentarthur.ca/author/troy-bordun/

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Rouge Sang

Martin Doepner’s Rouge Sang (2013) sets itself in the deep woods of Quebec, New Year’s Eve 1799. We are introduced to a family of five who live a modest, happy existence. On this day, the father must venture into town. While the patriarch is absent, a group of British soldiers, insultingly called Red Coats by the Quebecois, appear at the household in need of shelter and medical aid as a snowstorm approaches.

The tension between the Quebecois family and the Red Coats, quite high already since the former want the latter out of their territory, explodes when the young boy of the family overhears the soldiers discussing and laughing about killing a “thief” earlier in the day. Further evidence suggests the wife’s husband is this thief. Before the dawn of New Year’s Day she must take her revenge.

The rest of the plot is a bit of a bloodbath as Espérance ingeniously takes killing into her own hands. The theme of the empowered yet ruthless female protagonist is standard for the horror genre, as Carol Clover and Linda Williams theorized in their texts on feminism and film.

By setting the film in Quebec in 1799, and by beginning with the family, we are forced to identify with them and ultimately despise the sexist soldiers. In a nod to the horror films of past decades, Doepner presents this despicable quintet of men, not unlike those in Straw Dogs (1971), Last House on the Left (1972), or I Spit on Your Grave (1976). Yet, unlike these violent features, after the wife has tidied up her killing spree, a plot twist allows us to reconsider the appropriateness of her violence, and more importantly, the cycle of violence in general.

The husband returns in the morning unannounced; he was also trapped by the snowstorm and stayed in town. The thief discussed earlier had robbed him of his goods, thus the soldiers’ possession of the husband’s horse and wares. Initially we are glad the thief received his due and we sympathize with the now dead soldiers; as we think more carefully about the events, no one should have been killed in the first place. A final plot twist which concludes the narrative drives this point home.

Rouge Sang takes place almost entirely inside the house, setting a claustrophobic tone; we want those soldiers out of the house as much as the wife and children do. The Red Coats drink heavily and celebrate the New Year – we can smell their drunkenness and we breathe in the filth of weeks and months campaigning in the deep woods. The settings, costumes, and make-up shine, each element contributing to the overall effect and our belief in Espérance’s seemingly justified violence. But it is a violence too quickly enacted, albeit cleverly deployed and expertly covered up. This much the film teaches us.

For its didactic conclusion, the uniqueness and realism displayed in the scenes of violence, the performances and mise-en-scène, Rouge Sang will one day be regarded as a classic of Canadian Horror Cinema.

 

Press Release for the film, printed in Arthur Newspaper