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The film’s conceit is its triumph; its execution is another matter.

Metabolism

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasă seara peste Bucureşti sau Metabolism, Corneliu Porumboiu, 2013) is another product of slow cinema. Porumboiu establishes his penchant for self-reflexivity in the opening sequence. The camera shoots from the backseat of a car. In the front seats are a mid-career director and the actress of his film in progress. The director discusses the merits and pitfalls of the recent shift to digital. The actress does not seem to fully understand the significance of shooting an 11-minute reel vs. the infinite reel of digital. The conversation drags for about seven or eight minutes, uncut. Every other chapter of the film is likewise a sequence image, often with some camera movement to follow the actions of the characters. However, there is nothing of Tsai Ming-liang’s staging and framing here; the camera moves to follow the dramatic action, while Tsai’s camera operates as on observer of a scene – in Tsai’s films the inclusion of human characters often feels incidental.

The plot of Evening Falls is rather minimalist. The film documents the relationship between director and actress, intimately and as it relates to the film-in-progress. The director has hit in a snag in his process; in the opening sequence, the actress demands that he provide justification for her nude scene. But this is not the elaborate tussle of director and performers as in Sex is Comedy (2002) by Catherine Breillat. Rather, Evening Falls is at pains to demonstrate the effort involved in providing that justification. We watch endless rehearsals, script revisions, dinners and meetings, all to no real end. Shooting a nude scene, the plot seems to suggest, is always more than shooting a nude scene. Thus when the diegetic world of Evening Falls delivers us the nudity of the actress in a sequence that is choreographed in a similar manner to the film-within-a-film, Porumboiu wants us to believe that nudity is neither justified nor necessary – it is yet another attraction or is already in excess of story and plot. The strange thing about Evening Falls, then, is its reflexivity, its distanciation. Nudity, like every aspect of the film, is always framed with the viewer in mind – it carries no meaning except what the spectator is able to generate for him- or herself.

So, an hour and a half of slow cinema to prove a point. The dialogue and new relationship between director and actress proves to be much more ambiguous than those depicted in Sex is Comedy: the actress is not exploited by her director/producer or her own ambition as in Starry Eyes (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, 2014). Perhaps the film is a metacritical response to recent art cinema: contemporary art cinema seems to require the body of a woman to establish itself as a work of art. If a director can legitimate the use of an actress’s nude body, he has achieved something great; if he cannot, he is criticized for exploitation or producing a work of pornography. Evening Falls takes the ironic stance on present-day filmmaking – all excessive, all exploitative, all pornography.

Some have declared the act of looking at a film to be a form of voyeurism. Porumboiu might be showing us that filmmaking too is part of this activity of voyeurism and the only escape from it is an ironic detachment.

In this article, I argue that actors’ and actresses’ performances are key objects of analysis in addressing the affective and ethical challenges of extreme films. Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) and its fictionalized making-of, Sex is Comedy (2002), incites an ethical engagement not merely in the sense of textual analysis, but requires a deeper investigation of the star, Roxane Mesquida. The reflexivity of the paired films – the latter as a staged re-enactment of the sex scene of the former, re-performed by lead actress Mesquida – results in an experience of an affective bleed: once we see the performative challenges Mesquida faces in the latter film, we return to the earlier and are doubly affected by both the horror of fictional rape, and the trauma the actress underwent to convincingly perform that violation. These two films pose the question of whether onscreen acts of physical and emotional violence manifest in the bodies of actors and actresses off-screen, and further, to what affective and ethical end. In agreement with Kath Dooley (2014, ‘“When You Have Your Back to the Wall, Everything Becomes Easy”: Performance and Direction in the Films of Catherine Breillat.’ Studies in French Cinema, 14: 2, 108–118), I claim that Breillat must place these demands on her performers in order for her critiques of patriarchy to gain their strength.

Studies in European Cinema 2015

Free link to article

Sex is Comedy (2002)

I’m not sure where filmmakers lost sight of the reality of romantic relationships, but it seems important to remind them that jealousy is not part of the process of developing a healthy partnership. I’m thinking of two Canadian films: Clement Virgo’s Lie with Me (2005) and Bruce McDonald’s The Husband (2013).  The problem with both these features is that jealousy is taken to be a natural and accepted facet of compulsory monogamy.

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In Lie with Me, David falls for Leila. Later, Leila is “caught” dancing with two men. David then berates her, names her a slut, and forces anal sex upon her. Leila apologizes, will never dance again, etc. We see Leila panic, in various states of crises; we see the effects of misogyny on her and unfortunately she cannot help but participate. In short, stronger female characters are necessary. Had this film been made in France, by Catherine Breillat for example, David’s jealousy would have led him to murder; but in the end, the two reconcile their differences, and fall even deeper in love.

David’s desire for complete possession of Leila is, in fact, not a natural part of their budding relationship. It is nothing short of psychotic. The only legitimate response that Leila should have given David, and in other romantic love stories of this type, is Gloria’s in Gloria (2013): she tells her jealous partner to “Grow a pair.”

McDonald does us worse in The Husband. There, jealousy attains an ever greater legitimacy as Henry’s wife is caught fornicating a teenage boy. Henry’s friends and family “understand” the husband’s plight; not only had the wife broken their (impossible to uphold) promise of monogamy, but it was with a minor. Any erratic behavior then, on Henry’s part, is totally rational.

I’m sick of this approach to love. Dominating a partner is for the dark, psychological narratives that border on horror films. This is its place, not in the positive and affirming (quasi-realistic?)  love story. I want to see fictional couples growing a pair and addressing jealousy in all its seriousness: as an unhealthy aspect to love, not a small and necessary part in a relationship’s process or striving for longevity.

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I apologize for the length. My humorous title plays on the length a bit, something to the effect of: this post is long enough to warrant multiple chapter headings.

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s “freely inspired” Blue is the Warmest Color turned one of the most powerful and unique stories of love into one of the blandest and universally accessible. The graphic novel was rich in character development, narrative, plot, dialogue, internal monologue (in the form of diaries), surprise, beauty, and color. Kechiche’s film transplants these wonderful elements into the mundane. We have seen this film before, save approximately 10% of the film comprised of expertly choreographed and shot sex scenes. Nevertheless, Blue is an art film in the worst sense of the word.

The film refused all the elements of the novel that I found so engaging, so my problems are about adaptation and narrative. First, and most importantly, Adèle’s diary has almost no place in the film. The novel was structured on the diary. Beginning with Emma’s brief residence in Adèle’s parents’ home, she reads through her former lover’s personal thoughts after her death. This becomes all the more interesting as the flashbacks inform us that Adèle’s parents exiled their daughter because of her relationship with Emma. In the film Adèle keeps a diary every now and then and, as if Kechiche had forgotten, about two-thirds into the film, Emma mentions to a friend that her lover keeps a diary and is an excellent writer. It is never broached again because, given the ending of the film, it would be superfluous.

The conflict between Adèle and her parents is omitted from the film additionally. In the novel Adèle moves from her childhood home and into a place with Emma. In the film, in perfect accord with the ambiguity of art film, Adèle appears as a live-in partner with Emma quite spontaneously. This would seem to mark the elusive second chapter in the film’s French title (La vie d’ Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2). No intertitle indicated chapters. In the novel, what was a heart-wrenching scene, full of tears and screams and an ejection and disavowal of their daughter, in the film, the lovers’ choice to live together is neither monumental nor terribly interesting.

The break-up between Emma and her former lover, thus replacing this monogamous partner with Adèle, is not discussed in the film. Again, in the novel, we have a confrontation between Adèle and Emma’s partner; the film does not bother to address the complications of the partner swap. What the film does feature, unfortunately, is a very jealous Adèle, a jealousy which then gives her the impetus to cheat on Emma and the latter’s subsequent ejection of the former from her home once the extra-monogamous affair is exposed. Adèle, in tears and without the capacity to account for her affair, is destroyed by Emma’s seemingly justified dissatisfaction and disapproval of non-monogamy.

And, at more than three-quarters through the story, I felt completely disappointed in the refocusing of the original narrative. A beautiful story of a young girl’s coming-of-age, her new desires for Emma, her difficulties with heteronormativity, are here turned into a universal account of a love story on par with heteronormativity (monogamy, jealousy, etc.). What is more rational, justified, and universally understandable than, firstly, jealousy and cheating, and secondly, punishment for cheating! My reading of this event in the film is that it serves as a deliberate attempt to make an otherwise inaccessible and mostly unidentifiable couple accessible and identifiable, i.e., psychologically bland and undifferentiated from popular psychological states and responses. Look here, the film seems to say, same-sex couples have the same problems as heterosexual couples! While certainly true, the novel does nothing of the sort. Julie Maroh’s graphic novel presents two unique individuals whose problems begin, first, internally, then expand into familial issues, and lastly, broach the complicated reception of friends and society of their same-sex love. Kechiche was less inspired by the novel than misinterpret what made the story so wonderful.

Take an early scene in Maroh’s book. Adèle and Emma are growing attached and fond of each other. Emma says her goodbyes for the day and, almost in tears, mentions to the sexually uninitiated Adèle that she will one day make a man very happy. Internally, we see Adèle reflect that Emma is in fact the one she wants. She rushes after her and, in this passionate scene, the two perhaps have the best sex of their lives (Adèle most certainly, since it is her first time).

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In the corresponding scene in the film, the two lay next to each other in a park. Smiles are exchanged, they kiss, and the next scene is one of the five sexual encounters the film depicts. The passion has been extinguished from the beautifully drawn and dialogued graphic novel. In the novel I was almost weeping; the film bored me with this bland display of seduction.

In a recent Cineaste review (Spring 2014), Darragh O’Donoghue briefly mentions the adaptation problem as well. He writes, “Kechiche’s relationship to his source material is problematic. Whatever the merits of a much-garlanded middle-aged male filmmaker in adapting a work begun by an author in her late teens and completed over five years as a labor of love – and ironically for a film now famous for its lesbian sex scenes – it is clear that Kechiche’s charges serve to ‘un-queer’ its narrative. Maroh inserts her comic into a long-established tradition of coming-of-age/coming-out stories,” and the film clearly changes this focus.

The superiority of the graphic novel is evident, to say nothing of the film’s omission of Adèle’s death. In her brief review of the film for the Criterion edition, Rich could not praise the film enough. Rich outlines the performances, the cinematography, the tactile quality of many of the images, and many other cinematic feats of a seasoned professional filmmaker. Blue is a thoroughly an art film, thus garnering the Palme d’or at Cannes last year. The film, however, takes its cues from David Bordwell’s analysis of art film.

As I’ve mentioned Blue goes to great lengths to deny a cause and effect narrative logic. It presents a heightened realist style, complete with real spaces, direct cinema cinematography, temporal gaps, and eroticism. It is naturally episodic, episodes which sometimes grant us access to the life of Adèle, other times not. The story of the graphic novel is shunned in favor of plot: “who is telling this story? How is this story being told? Why is this story being told this way?” I’m not sure how to answer any of these questions. Refer to Maroh’s book perhaps.

Furthermore, Adèle’s life is without a goal or meaning, thus Emma’s insistence that she become an artist and be more than a nursery school teacher. There is no real indication of the social or cultural forces at work conspiring against same-sex relationships, something the novel exposed with both clarity and apt critique. Rich notes the timely release both in France and the United States, both countries undergoing massive conflict about same sex marriages, yet Kechiche does not dive into such problems.

Overall the film succeeds in rendering itself ambiguous, Bordwell’s key term for a description of art cinema. Ambiguity plays itself out perfectly in the very last shot, again living up to Bordwell’s analysis of art films, namely a feature’s open-endedness. As Adèle exits Emma’s art show after bearing witness to her former lover’s new life with a new partner, the last shot is of Adèle strolling away down a street. Kechiche might as well have done a long tracking shot and ended on a close-up freeze frame of her face. But what will become of Adèle?? we think leaving the cinema or when turning off our blu-ray players. Kechiche knows about the ambiguities of life, we surmise; “he knows that life is more complex than art can ever be, and the only way to respect this complexity is to leave causes dangling, questions unanswered.” Blue is an art film, no less. As Bordwell suggests in his 2007 afterword to his earlier piece on art cinema, success at film festivals secures a feature’s status as art film. There were fewer films more successful than Blue last year.

I suggested at the beginning of this entry that this love story, touted by one critic as the greatest of the 21st century, is nothing new. In fact, if I had the time and space, I would argue that this film has already been made, both recently and in the same country. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse, 2011) follows the same narrative arc and takes place over the same amount of time. A young high school girl meets and has a relationship with her first love; they break up, get back together, and encounter each other later in life. The two films share too many similarities to bother naming, the key difference being the earlier film’s heterosexual couple. My difficult task, like Vivian Sobchack’s in her article in Film Comment (Jan-Feb, 2014) on Upstream Color (2013) and To the Wonder (2012), would be to make an argument as to why I prefer Goodbye to Blue. Sobchack’s recourse to poetic imagery to justify her preference is insufficient to say the least. I suppose a good reason to prefer Goodbye is its ambiguity; while we are left dangling, in exactly the same way Kechiche leaves us dangling, Hansen-Løve hints that the memory of that first love will shape all other loves. There is thus something ironic in the title in that one can never truly say goodbye to their first.

All my complaints aside, the eroticism of Blue is worth praising. Rich is correct in pointing to the sex scenes between Adèle Exarchopoulous and Léa Seydoux and admiring them. I’ve yet to read about the actresses’ possible mistreatment at the hands of the filmmaker and his team, but the result is as wonderful as the nude sculptures on display in the film. I enjoyed the emphasis on the characters’ backsides as something like a motif. More importantly, there has not been a sexually explicit film that takes the pleasure of its characters so seriously. Long gone are the dispassionate if not disturbing sex scenes found in the films of Kechiche’s French peers (Bruno Dumont, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, to name a few). In Blue the multiplicity of positions, the emphasis on vocalizing pleasure, the tendency of the camera to almost get down and dirty with the performers, make the scenes stand out from the bland story otherwise presented. Rich incorrectly suggests the camera documents every crevice, for it is still taboo in art cinema to show female genitals, even in a film as erotic and artful as this one (although the unsimulated sex is, I think, unquestionable).

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Critics are right to return again and again to the few sex scenes. They are as memorable and as beautifully choreographed as they are explicit.

One last note on the Criterion edition: it had been approved by the director, which is something necessary for a film of this magnitude. What has been neglected are the lack of special features. The Criterion edition, whose products are often crammed full of interviews and commentary, features a trailer – available online anywhere -, an 18 second “TV spot,” and a short written piece by Rich. In the absence of visual content, there could have perhaps been a short text on just exactly what the controversy was regarding the actresses’ performances, or perhaps a reprinted interview with the director. For the price, this edition is lacking in substance for the cinephile or curious observer. That being said, I can forgive Criterion because the necessity of releasing the film quickly, while the hype still lingers, is certainly a smart and profitable move.

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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