(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2006)
Patrice Cheareau may quietly be making a case for himself as one of the world’s best directors, and his new film Gabrielle is a major addition to that dossier. Set in the 1890’s, the film’s premise is plain enough – an arid bourgeois marriage is broken when the wife (Isabelle Huppert) leaves a note that she has gone to another man; three and a half hours later she returns, and the anguished aftermath begins. The film depicts an age where marriage is as much a social as a private affair, a matter of contract and convention rather than of love, and the positions of the two main characters grow increasingly complex (beyond what can be satisfactorily charted after just one viewing); her greater pragmatism is satisfying as a feminist construction (in the classic tradition whereby one responds positively to any female character who’s less morally and spiritually constrained by the boundaries of the times than the man she’s with) and yet it’s distinctly brutal: the movie reminded me of Scorsese’s description of his Age Of Innocence as his most violent film. Cheareau’s approach is masterfully analytical, but not cold; he opens up the action with various devices that could be flashy if they weren’t so effective at pinpointing the underlying trauma and sharpening our analytical engagement with what’s depicted. I suspect that on repeated viewing the ending will reveal itself as even bleaker than I thought first time round. Perhaps one of the year’s finest films so far.
The Da Vinci Code
In a world so deeply affected by fundamentalist religious fervour, The Da Vinci Code’s underlying premise is far from valueless: what if Christianity were based on a basic misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus? I haven’t read Dan Brown’s book, and never will, but the film’s treatment of the question never gets beyond blah blah blah: it’s shamefully undemanding on the intellect. That aside, as just about everyone has said, Ron Howard’s movie is a dull, foolish product with almost nothing to recommend it. It’s no great surprise that Howard brings no analytical prowess to the exercise, but I was frequently taken aback by the extreme lameness of the basic plotting. Add to that the wretched, contrived dialogue and the grim performances and it makes for a long two and a half hours. The pits.
At least X-Men: The Last Stand is entertaining, as two groups of assorted mutants face off against each other for the future of a vaccine with the power to cure all mutations, sacrificing several central characters and a big piece of the Golden Gate Bridge in the process. The first two films were directed by Bryan Singer, who was generally praised for sensitivity to character and for the way he brought out the mutants’ metaphorical possibilities, but this always struck me as a relative assessment at best. Still, this time round, new director Brett Ratner delivers a distinctly more conventional package; you look back at the end at the huge and distinguished cast and can barely remember any of them having done or said anything interesting. Various allegories and parallels just lie there lazily. But like I said, it’s not dull.
In a recent week, three of the four screens at Bayview Village were showing the Israeli co-production Live and Become, the broad Catskills-flavoured American comedy Keeping Up With The Steins, and the French Little Jerusalem. The fourth screen was showing The Da Vinci Code. This seems to me to bear some profound meaning that I am not currently drunk enough to explore further. Anyway, Little Jerusalem is set around two sisters from an orthodox immigrant family in Paris, examining with great precision the personal, sexual, economic and societal pressures impacting on their lives. It’s familiar material in some respects, and one could have wished for a fuller resolution, but it’s philosophically bracing, has intense anthropological interest and a subtle approach to character. It leaves you pessimistic about the prospects for a tolerant multicultural community, but maybe that’s why you then need to cross the hall to see The Da Vinci Code, within which a paradigm-defying answer doubtless lurks.
The Israeli Free Zone didn’t screen at Bayview, but rather at Canada Square. Readers may have noticed that I haven’t been writing many long articles lately about recent movies – but rather dispensing with them in bulk (like this week) and then contributing longer pieces on older films. That’s just the way it grabs me right now. But I did decide in advance that I’d devote more space to Free Zone, and was all poised to blend in observations on the Middle East and the recent CUPE resolution and so forth. Well, I changed my mind. Free Zone isn’t worth it. This anecdote of three women (Israeli, Arab, American – the latter played by Natalie Portman) thrown together on a road trip between Israel and Jordan has good travelogue value, and it’s not at all stupid, but it’s far too strenuous and obvious in constructing its allegorical significance. It reminded me in some ways of Crash, although it would take an article to explain that.
A better film to write about at length would be John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which is set in 1880’s Australia but otherwise resembles a classic Western – a story of revenge and murder in a faltering civilization, thick with blood and flies and heat and suffering. Ray Winstone is a police captain who captures a notorious bandit (Guy Pearce) and his harmless younger brother, and makes a proposition – to save the one brother, Pearce must find and kill another, played by Danny Huston. The film contrasts Winstone’s fragile attempts to bring civilization to the Outback with the brutal (and yet, in some senses, more sensitive and refined) sensibility of the Huston character; in the end, a chapter is closed, and organized civilization lies one step closer, but at a cost that heralds huge anguish to come, and is tinged with a surprising sense of loss. The film has very good performances and is quite superbly executed – thrillingly and exactingly specific about its time and place while tapping all the pleasures of the genre. By its nature it holds you at a horrified distance, entailing I expect that it will be a film that’s intensely admired more than loved, but I don’t see how its particular project could have been much better executed. Another of the year’s best films!
Fatih Akin made the blistering Head-On, one of my favourite films of a few years back. Crossing The Bridge: The Sound Of Istanbul is an offshoot of sorts, as the musical director of the earlier film returns to immerse himself in the breadth of modern Turkish music, from hip-hop to balladeering. The film is entertaining enough, with lots of good aural and visual colour and texture, but I doubt you couldn’t say that much for the music scene of any modern, even relatively diverse city; as it goes on it feels like you’re spending too much time staring at a single corner of a very large room.