Monday, September 30, 2019

Desplechin's Law and Order Episode

Oh Mercy! (2019) - Desplechin
oh mercy
Roubaix, a little northern French town near Belgian border, is where Arnaud Desplechin's new film, Oh Mercy! takes place. It happens to be the director's hometown. He didn't have good things to say about Roubaix in Ismael's Ghost, his last film. He described it as the poorest, crime-ridden rathole, the city in decline. But when I interviewed him, he told me that he is making a film about its townsfolk in the next film. As a result, Oh Mercy! is Desplechin's episode of Law and Order with some compelling acting by two of France's leading actresses - Léa Seydoux and Sarah Forestier.

Narrated by a well meaning young cop Louis(Antoine Reinartz) who was just transferred from another town, Oh Mercy!'s trajectory is just as erratic and unexpected as many of Desplechin's past work. And it's delightful. Anchored by Chief Daoud (great Roschdy Zem), the police precinct tries to keep law and order where drug abuses, runaway cases, disorderly conduct, break-ins, false accusations based on racism are daily occurrence. The town is in bad shape with years of neglect and its mostly immigrant population barely getting by. Born in Algeria, but Daoud has been living in Roubaix most of his life. He knows the streets and he knows its people. He never raises his voice when questioning or interrogating suspects. He is firm yet deeply cares about what's happening in the lives of his townsfolk.

The film follows multiple threads at first, in real Desplechin fashion. Only in mid-way we revisit the one of the threads involving two young women which takes over the rest of the film. Claude (Lea Seydoux) and Marie (Sarah Forestier), two druggy friends living in a dangerously under-occupied, decrepit building in a neighborhood where you don't want to go out at night. They called the police before for breaking and entering, which Louis couldn't solve. It is most likely the girls lied, trying to get others in trouble. This time though, they report someone breaking into another apartment in their building. And the Daoud team finds an old woman strangled to death in a burglary-gone-wrong situation. All the usual suspects threads lead them to nowhere. And there's something that doesn't really add up in two girls' testimonies.

Louis, who has slight feelings for Claude, struggles to keep his temper in check when interviewing her. He knows she's lying. Marie, who is withdrawn and extremely shy, with her deer in the headlight expression leaves everything up to Claude when testimonies are concerned. They will need to interrogate the girls separately. It will be a she said, she said situation. Someone's gonna crack and spill the beans.

Seydoux and Forestier are great in their very unglamorous roles playing petite criminelles. But it's Roschdy Zem deserves an award for this. The sordid story is nothing to brag home about. There are millions stories like this we see on TV every night. But it's Desplechin's so very human portrait of these characters that is the heart of the film. There are several compelling scenes in the film but the one most stuck with me is Daoud's cool observation of the girls' relationship that sums up their entire history. He tells Claude what he sees - A pretty girl who was popular in school. But she finds out she can't really get what she wants or want others to get it for her in real life. Time in a town like Roubaix wasn't kind to her. She is stuck with her childhood friend who still worships her. They live in a day to day life in a squalor. It's a bad relationship. She knows it all to be true.

Oh Mercy! is certainly different from any other Desplechin film I watched over the years. But it's any less intriguing. The love he has for his hometown and its inhabitants are undoubtedly palpable. Desplechin is a master storyteller and humanist. Oh Mercy! is a very moving experience.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Tropical Noir

Wild Goose Lake (2019) - Diao
Wild Goose Lake
The follow up to Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan's blistering noir that put him on the international cinema map, Wild Goose Lake is another stylish noir/policier. If Black Coal Thin Ice was a cold noir with its wintry setting, Wild Goose Lake is the opposite- its subtropical setting and constant rain provide the film soaked with atmosphere and vivid colors under flickering fluorescent lights. And it's a beauty, thanks to Diao's regular cinematographer Dong Jingsong. Along with recent Long Day's Journey into Night, Wild Goose Lake continues the tradition of 'Tropical Noir' of Wong Kar-Wai's work.

It starts out with a large gathering of motorbike stealing street gangs in the basement of a hotel. While divvying up the territories, a scuffle breaks out among rival gangs. When the dust is settled, a thin truce is made between the Crazy Cat Brothers and Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge). But unbeknownst Zhou's gang, the rising Crazy Cat Brothers made a deal behind the scenes to take over Zhou's territory, starting the same night. Zhou's gang gets attacked, and Zhou becomes a subject of a manhunt after he accidentally kills a cop while on the run.

Police Chief (Fan Liao of Ash is Purist White, Black Coal Thin Ice) organizes a large tactical unit near Wild Goose Lake to scour the erea and apprehend Zhou. Wearing civilian clothes, these cops are stationed in every nooks and crannies on the street, always watching every movement of extremely busy and crowded tourist town. But Zhou remains elusive. He gets help from Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei), a 'bathing beauty'- a euphemism for lakeside prostitutes, who was sent by Zhou's gang. But now Zhou has large reward money on his head, he wants to turn himself in in custody of his estranged wife, Shujun (Regina Wan), so she can get the reward money. Things get messy of course, since everyone has his/her own agenda.

The police chief's relentless pursuit yields many close calls with Zhou. On motor bikes and on foot, its frenetic, large scale chase scenes in the squalid living quarters of densely populated suburban sprawl provide some of the most thrilling moments in the film. There are also some kinetic, almost cartoonish violences happening here and there: there's a sudden decapitation on a motorbike and one involving an umbrella. I laughed out loud at its Takashi Miike level inventiveness.

The film also showcases the changing China: from the emergence of middle class and its subculture - 'bathing beauties' with their wide brimmed straw hats, lessons in which motorbikes are more valuable and easier to steal, to the rigid police state with CCTV in every corner and sheer precision of its well trained tactical force in action. Attention to detail and controlled chaos Diao manages in the film is nothing short of astounding.

Wild Goose Lake is a good looking film to be sure and well acted, especially Hu Ge, with his soulful long-face and Kwei Lun-Mei as unlikely femme fatale. Yet it is not as taut as Black Coal Thin Ice. It sets up the motion nicely, but it doesn't have a momentum to follow through its 113 minute running time. Watch it for its beauty. Watch it for atmosphere. The film is still well worth the ticket.

Night of Sexual Escapade

Liberté (2019) - Serra
Catalan director Albert Serra has been practicing his brand powdered-wig costume dramas in cinema, art galleries and on stage (not particularly in that order) for quite some time now. First conceived as a gallery performance art, his The Death of Louis XIV and its companion piece Roi Soleil were either stroke of genius cinematic daring-dos or insufferable indulgence pieces depending on whom you ask in the cinema circle.

Then comes Liberté which started out as the stage opera first commissioned by Berlin’s Volksbühne in 2018, Serra seems to take advantage on the film medium and expound/expand his horizon of the limitless possibilities of ways in presenting the same subject. And he seems to be relishing it in this film version.

In Liberté, we are introduced to a group of French ex-patriots in the woods at night in ornate hand-drawn carriages fleeing on the eve of the revolution. They are on the run in Germany, where they hope to spread a philosophy of moral, political and sexual indulgence. They are regrouping with the help of Duc de Walchen (played by Helmut Berger of Visconti films). Slowly but surely, the group engages in voyeurism, all sorts of pan-sexual and s&m activities all night until dawn.

The film is intentionally minimally lit. It's in the woods, there are trees and leaves everywhere to obscure the views. And it's criminally dark. If grandiose and ornate production design and suggestive nature were the point of his stage version of Liberté, It’s the darkness and restraint from showing too much is the point in his film version. Yet the film is still filled with graphic sexual imagery.

It slowly starts with these libertines lurking and spying on each other in underbrush. Placid penises appear here and there. Mind you, these are not the most attractive people. What we can make out, many of them are hideously overweight, deformed and amputated. They whisper to each other some of the most pornographic scenes imaginable.

Serra is making the most out of cinematic medium here that he couldn't dare do on stage - graphic sex scenes obscured and not full on porno level but are still very shocking nonetheless: close ups of vaginas, pissing, flogging, bondage, etc. And in turn, he makes voyeurs out of all of us. And it goes on and on and on. The hushed moaning and screaming are mostly drawn out by the chorus of insects at night.

But these repetitive and prolonged sequences reminded me of the effects of repeated sex scene in Cronenberg’s Crash. You don’t see the eroticism anymore after a while. You become numb. Like most of Serra’s work, there is a hint of parody in these shenanigans. I mean, it’s actors in wigs stroking themselves in the woods in a movie called ‘freedom’. I think with Liberté, Serra reached the new height in his formalist approach to costume dramas. He is an artist who will run amok with his approach when given a chance and Liberté is probably the best example. I do like the playfulness in his method when it comes to parody when seeing the past with irony. Liberté goes on a little too long but it’s still a fascinating ride.

Identity Crisis

Synonyms (2019) - Lapid
Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli man, is first seen with spitting out words and their synonyms, like a broken automated dictionary, in French which is obviously not his native tongue. He arrives in a posh part of Paris, gets all of his meager belongings stolen in a flash, including clothes and a sleeping bag that he just laid out on the floor, in a large empty apartment. And there is no hot water. He passes out from exhaustion and hypothermia. His young neighbors, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire of Anaud Desplechin's My Golden Days) and Caroline (Louise Chevillote), find him and revive him. They are almost parody of what 'a Parisian couple' is like - Emile is a writer who is forever working on a book titled, "Night of Inertia" and sexually ambiguous, coquettish Caroline plays oboe in an orchestra in her spare time. Emile, fascinated by this hunky, naked young foreigner, gives him clothes, a cellphone and wads of cash.

Soon Yoav moves into a squalid apartment across the river, still keeping contact with the young couple. He is an angry young man who is running away from home and refuses to speak Hebrew. He describes Israel as Ignorant, mean-spirited and crude. He is fit and has strict daily regimen for survival. He is listless, directionless and tactless. He gets a job as a security detail at the Israeli consulate. There he befriends with a typical macho soldier type, Yaron (Uria Hayik), who describe France as a hornet's nest for terrorists. Yaron forcefully asserts his Jewishness everywhere he goes by shouting "I am Jewish!" and humming Israeli national anthem loudly in a crowded subway to Parisians who could care less.

With his good physique and boyish good looks, Yoav gets involved in the art project by some pervert French photographer who tells him to penetrate himself while naked spread eagle on the floor, yelling in faux ecstasy in Hebrew. He feeds stories from his military service to impressionable Emile, telling him that he can have all of his stories as if he can truly hand over his former life to someone. He gets involved with Caroline even though whose high culture antics doesn't sit well with him. The flashback from his military service plays out, accented with absurd moments like dancing soldiers serenading a pop song during a military honor awarding ceremony.

Synonyms can be a difficult film: it can be seen as rudderless and abrasive. Sense of irony dominates the film as Yoav struggles with his identity. It's packed with dueling exaggerated visions of perverted and uncaring Europe (France in particular) and the uber military culture the director Nadav Lapid grew up with. The film concludes, as Yoav trying to open the door by slamming his body against it, you can't escape where you came from and the gap between the world you are trying to assimilate remains shut closed. But the film works, thanks largely to Tom mercier's physical as well as verbal, at times verging on slapstick level on both counts. The film is often hilarious and at times poignant and filled with manic energy. Shai Goldman's handheld camera work is aces also.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Female Gaze

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) - Sciamma
Talking about female gaze. It's all about that. Sciamma's period piece centers around two women. One, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait painter whose job is that of a photographer back then. The other, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), fresh plucked out of the convent to get married off to her dead sister’s Italian suitor that she’s never met. It was her mother (Valeria Golino)’s insistence that her portrait be painted and sent to Italy before the wedding. Marianne is supposed to be there for a week. In and out. A quickie.

Héloïse already refused to pose and to be painted by another portrait artist and sent him packing, leaving a creepy portrait painting without a face when Marianne arrives by the sea. But the mother insists on Marianne not telling Héloïse that she is there to paint her portrait, but paint her in secret from glimpses while acting as ‘walking companion’.

With their walks by the beach together, they get to know each other a little. Héloïse is understandably gloomy about her impending fate. Marianne sympathizes while trying to get glances of her subject of the painting. Marianne paints a portrait quickly in a week. But since she feels guilty of not informing her subject, she wants to show it to Héloïse before she says goodbye.
Héloïse’s reaction takes Marianne by surprise. She thinks it’s lifeless. It is not nice to assume that she knows the subject. Deeply offended and ashamed, she smears the painting and asks the mother to give her more time. Héloïse, now intrigued, volunteers to pose. They get 5 more days.

Whether it was due to Héloïse jumping into the ocean, Marianne's lascivious (but professional) glances or Marianne seeing Héloïse’s dress catching fire by the bonfire at the beach, they fall in love. They have only few days together and when they depart, their heart will break.

What’s remarkable about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its timelessness. This is not another tragic drama about women trapped by their circumstances. There is a joyful vivrancy about the film. They fully accept their fate, laid out by period and society. Yet they enjoy their few days together and remember it forever. It’s super life affirming and uplifting, rather than sad. Certainly one of the year’s best.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Charming Klutz

A New Leaf (1971) - May
It comes as a big surprise to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) that he is broke. It seems that his trust fund has run out and his contemptuous uncle isn't helping. What about his ferrari, what about his tailored suits, what about all the exclusive restaurants and clubs he frequents, what about his butler?

With the help of his butler whose job is at stake, Henry gets a brilliant idea of marrying some rich society girl for money in order to secure a loan from his uncle. He finds his intended victim in Henrietta (director Elaine May), a extremely klutzy botanist with big round glasses that don't seem to stay on her face ever. And she seems to gobble up all of Henry's sweet talk into marriage after three days of courtship.

Henry's scheme of marrying someone/anyone for money and killing her off takes a different direction as he becomes in charge of her estate which is in total disarray. He gets to like his position being a protector of a hot mess of a woman.

A New Leaf highlights May's comic talents - the toga scene where Henry and Henrietta is spending honeymoon and Henry cutting off price tag hanging from Henrietta's oversized clothes while she is wearing them are some of the many uproariously funny bits in the movie. Matthau's smarmy, nonchalance matches perfectly with May's discombobulated eclecticism. The movie is a blast. I can't wait to check out May's other films.