Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Week in Review - 26/4/09

This week was exceptional for its quality more than its quantity. Le feu follet and Pandora's Box are both outstanding films that lifted my spirits immensely, in spite of their potentially bleak subject matter (suicide and Alzheimer's respectively). To see two films of such high standard in the same week is fantastic and highly recommend them both. I really liked Palermo Shooting as well.

  • Selvi boylum, al yazmalim (The Lady with the Red Scarf, Atif Yilmaz, Turkey, 1977)
  • Les amants (The Lovers, Louis Malle, France, 1958)
  • Le feu follet (Louis Malle, France, 1963)
  • Pandora’nın Kutusu (Pandora's Box, Yeşim Ustaoğlu, Turkey/France/Belgium/Germany, 2008)
  • Lulu und Jimi (Oskar Roehler, Germany/France, 2008)
  • Palermo Shooting (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/Italy, 2008)

The Lady with the Red Scarf
Other than opening and closing night films, this is the only other Turkish Film Festival film I could squeeze in at ACMI. It's a classic film, based on a novel and very popular in Turkey and elsewhere. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I didn't like it at all.

This kind of melodrama would play out well in India and other countries where films tend to be, shall we say, simple. I found it beyond melodramatic, moving into soap opera and downright corny. I could have walked out at any point and left a few minutes early for Melbourne Cinémathèque.

Les amants
Louis Malle's second film, and a little disappointing after his thrilling Lift to the Scaffold. The film looks good and starts of with promise. The story of a philandering provincial couple has all the right tension. However, after Jeanne Moreau's character has done so much to convince us what a completely selfish bitch she is, I couldn't buy into her falling in true love with a stranger and elope with him. I wonder what Malle's intent was. Was he just messing with our expectations? Messing with our heads? Was there supposed to be some intuitive chemistry between these unlikely lovers that I missed? I love Moreau as an actress. In terms of both looks and demeanour, she's like a French Bette Davis.

Le feu follet
This is one of the most remarkable films I've seen from this era (early 60s). Stylistically, Le feu follet looks French New Wave, but thematically, it's decades ahead of its time. At times, it reminded me of early Cassavetes. Full of wise insights into relationships and the human condition, the film is basically an under-stated portrait of a suicidal alcoholic.

Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) wanders the streets of Paris, in all it's glorious urban decay and beautifully filmed in black and white. We've already seen his service revolver, perhaps a remnant from a distant war, with which he intends to kill himself. The film follows Alain as he visits his old haunts, saying good-bye to those he considers friends and associates. We know he is doomed, because no matter how sincere are the attempts to help him, he is beyond help. All he wants is to leave.

Alain's occasional outbursts about his personal failures reveal much about the mind of a depressive man, and much about the nature of relationships. It also demonstrates the destructive nature of alcohol. This is a film I could watch over and over. Some may find it depressing, but I find it life-affirming. There's still another week to go of the Malle season at Melbourne Cinémathèque, but this is my favourite so far.

Oh, and by the way, does anyone know the significance in the film of 23 July (scrawled on the mirror)?

Pandora's Box
This was the closing night film for the Melbourne Turkish Film Festival, and what a film! This is a pan-European production, and it shows. While family friction is a common dramatic theme (hinted at in the film's title), old age and Alzheimer's disease aren't.

The latter subjects were, of course, tackled in Sarah Polley's Away From Her. I have much respect for Polley and don't doubt her sincerity and integrity. However, her romanticised story, also featuring an elderly woman with Alzheimer's and starring an impossibly gorgeous Julie Christie, just isn't in the same league as this amazing film by Yesim Ustaoğlu.

Pandora's Box tackles multiple themes, masterfully handles them all, is poetic, naturalistic, funny (without trace of comedy), dramatic and moving. The festival blurb forewarns us of the adult sibling conflict, which is not as prominent as I expected. It is merely an element, woven into a greater tapestry, the tapestry of life.

The film is to different degrees about various types of relationships, generational change (thematically similar to Summer Hours) and the effects of Alzheimer's as well as documenting the rural and urban divide. The latter element seems to be a recurring theme in European cinema, as a way of life that has remained largely unchanged for many decades (if not centuries) slowly dies.

The main character of the film is the elderly Nusret played by Tsilla Chelton, a 91-year old French actress who learnt Turkish for the role! Her performance is so convincing, so realistic, that it's hard to believe that she is acting. Her blend of smouldering attitude and frail vulnerability is terribly moving. The whole ensemble cast performs wonderfully, a credit both to their skills and the direction.

An element of the film that I strongly related to was the way in which virtually all the characters in the film rejected, in one way or another, the controlling nature of one of the siblings. It alienated her husband, her son, her siblings, and even her mother in a very amusing and poignant way.

The film is filmed in a very naturalistic and beautiful way without the slightest trace of pretentiousness. The music, which seemed to be absent until the 80-minute mark, is subtle, full of melancholy and added beautifully, especially in its restraint. The film was a lovely way to finish the festival and I left on a high. Now I want the DVD, and intend seeking out the director's earlier works. Check out the official website.

The closing night film was preceded by various presentations. This is the inaugural year of the Turkish Film Festival and the indicators are that it will continue and grow on the success of this year. Expect a longer, larger festival next year, and without the clash it had this year (with the Festival of German Films.

Lulu und Jimi
Fortunately I was forewarned about this film, screening at the Festival of German Films. It was compared to early Ozon, ie, bizarre/unconventional melodrama, and that's largely whey I made a point of seeing it. Bizarre it certainly is, entertaining too. It has shades of Lynch - Jennifer more than David - with its over-the-top plot, bright colours and its surreal aburdity and fantasy. I respect its audacity but it doesn't pull it off quite as competently as it wants. The lead actors aren't completely convincing and the dubbing for the English dialog for Lulu is a bit rough. Still, it's a lot of fun and way left-of-centre.

Palermo Shooting
What do you do when you're a famous international film-maker, you've been around for a long time and made a lot of films, two of your favourite directors die (on the same day) and you're feeling your vulnerability. Well, if you're Wim Wenders, you'd make Palermo Shooting and, despite it being canned at Cannes 2008, I really dug it. Mind you, Wenders' previous feature, Don't Come Knockin' wasn't exactly warmly received, but I liked that a lot, too.

Palermo Shooting is, however, a very different type of film. It's a small budget project, a film that could be compared with Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth. Compared, because they are both made by established and aging directors that deal with the passage of time and death (albeit treated in very different ways). In a sense, they might both be considered indulgent, about subjects that are very personal to the respective directors, but I think that perception is unfair.

Death and aging (also a theme in the above Pandora's Box) is every bit a part of life and a universal experience, a topic ripe for exploration in cinema. Finn is an in-demand photographer, well-heeled and well-travelled. He's experienced much and is known in all the right circles. But he can't sleep well. He has recurring dreams, and he is suffering an existential crisis. If that sounds a lot like a Bergman film, it should. Filmed at the time of the dual Bergman-Antonioni deaths, Wenders salutes the great masters and incorporates aspects of their work into the film. Berman is most apt, as existential crises and a preoccupation with time, aging, death and the meaning of life are themes he dealt with throughout his life's work.

The film most obviously references Wild Strawberries with the surrealist dreams of Finn and The Seventh Seal, with Dennis Hopper taking the role of Death, and thematically with Winter Light's existential crisis. I think critics take issue with the audacity of a director taking on such iconic films but then, Bergman himself was ridiculed for the being too arty farty towards the end of his career. I had no problems with the self-conscious references, and I thought Wenders take and variations on these was quite moving (and funny at times, too). There were aspects of the writing that seemed a little unpolished, but always managed to stay on track, even if it seemed they wouldn't.

Death, consciousness and the meaning of life are topics I've contemplated since my childhood. Less than a week ago, I was discussing with a friend how my entire outlook has changed since my motorcycle accident in which I too looked Death in the eye (figuratively, of course). It's had a quietly profound effect on me, and I really related to Finn's existential crisis. I even articulated to my friend that I felt death was simply like walking through a door, a door we don't walk back through. I was thunderstruck when virtually the same dialogue appears in the film. Of course, when one walks through a door and doesn't return, we are gone to those who remain, but we continue in another room. This cosmic-view is a strong argument against suicide, another subject I would like to write on in this context, but not now. It was also relevant to another film I saw this week - the brilliant Le feu follet (see above).

Palermo Shooting is a return by Wenders to his native Dusseldorf. It's a personal film, it's an indulgent film. It tackles some of the most relevant, important and universal themes of life. It's explorative, it's derivative, it's moving. I don't think it's for everyone, but I loved it. Riding away from the cinema on my motorbike, I was surprised how much it moved me and affected me in a physical way.

My exposure at the Festival of German Films 2009 hasn't really been representative of German cinema: One, Two, Three is American (though set in Berlin), Lulu und Jimi has an American protagonist and much of the dialogue is in English, and now Palermo Shooting, a significant part of the dialogue is in English and features a couple of American actors (Dennis Hopper and Milla Jovovic as herself). I really wanted to see Jerichow, but life got in the way (the missus says cinema gets in the way of my life, but what does she know?).

No comments: