Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Week in Review - 3/5/09

In preparation for the Spanish Film Festival (13 - 24 May), which features a Luis Buñuel retrospective and exhibiton, not only have I been watching a number of Buñuel's films on DVD, but two of the three films I saw on the big screen seem to have been inspired by his surrealist film-making. There's a number of films I want to see at the Spanish Film Festival, but the Buñuel retrospective particularly interests me. I've also been asked to contribute to the festival blog. Unlike the German Film Festival, whose blog was contributed by two writers conversant with German cinema, the SFF bloggers are basically local bloggers who are discovering Spanish cinema through the festival. I'll have more to say about this soon.

The Malle season at Melbourne Cinémathèque has now come to an end. The highlights for me were Lancombe, Lucien, Le feu follet and Au revoir, les enfants. Ascenseur pour l'échafaud was also quite impressive, especially as a first film. I love the way these short seasons/mini-retrospectives give a taste for a director's work. Louis Malle made over 30 films, so now I've got a taste to explore some of the others - any suggestions appreciated.

  • Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA, 2008)
  • Au revoir, les enfants (Goodbye, Children, Louis Malle, France/West Germany, 1987)
  • Zazie dans le métro (Zazie in the Metro, Louis Malle, France/Italy, 1960)
  • Le journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel, France/Italy, 1964)
  • Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, France/Italy, 1967)
  • Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel, France/Italy/Spain, 1972)
  • Le fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel, France/Italy, 1974)

Synecdoche, New York
Synecdoche, New York was originally going to be directed by Spike Jonze but by the time Charlie Kaufman had the script ready, Jonze was tied up with Where the Wild Things Are, and Jonze agreed to Kaufman's directing it.

There's a similar style to the earlier films written by Kaufman, which is hardly surprising as he has such an idiosyncratic style. But the themes and story are quite different. This film is really about a man's unhappiness within himself and wanting to achieve something both personally and professionally. Thematically, it's quite bleak, not that different to Le feu follet, but with Kaufman's clever and playful devices, it never feels down. He has a way of conveying some emotional truths in a way that people may not otherwise be receptive to them. I suppose you could say similar of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There's a lot to admire in the film, including some lovely performances all round, and it really takes repeat viewings to absorb all the layers of details. The characters in the film seem to inhabit a Buñuelian universe, though instead of a person dreaming about a person dreaming about something absurd, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Caden Cotard is a director whose masterpiece is a self-reflexive piece of cinema in which characters play versions of himself and those in his life, which becomes convoluted to the point of the absurd.

The film has been described as experimental, but I don't agree. I think Kaufman is very much in command of what he does; it's just that he has a very surreal/fantasy/absurdist way of telling a story. There's not a lot of directors that have successfuly worked in this realm: Luis Buñuel as already mention, Raúl Ruiz and David Lynch are names that come to mind.

The narrative of the film is probably more ambitious than anything we've seen with Kaufman's name, and quite frankly, I think his lack of directorial experience is a factor in it not working quite as successfully as it might have been had Jonze been attached. Mind you, as a first film, it's quite an amazing achievement and the ambitiousness of the project is awesome. There's a real shortage of unconventional films that celebrate the power of imagination so overtly, so I think it deserves credit for taking the risks it does.

Synecdoche, New York opens this Thursday 7 May exclusively at the Nova.

Au revoir, les enfants
Au revoir, les enfants is sometimes described as Malle's masterpiece, which I think is a fair call. It certainly is a great companion piece to Malle's earlier Lancombe, Lucien and, given its strong autobiographical element, is both poignant and sheds further context to the earlier film.

I love the way that the film documents a way of life that simultaneously is dated yet universal. The depiction of life in a provincial Catholic boarding school is full of authenticity and seems almost documentary-like. Hopefully, there's not too many children growing up today in such conditions. The universality of it is the cruelty of children towards each other and reminds me of the bastardisation I experienced in my youth.

I particularly identify with Holocaust stories because I no doubt lost many distant relatives in that tragic episode of human history. In fact, my great-great grandfather left Russia in the 1800's and emigrated to then-Palestine, presumably escaping the bloody pogroms of the day. His three sons migrated to Melbourne in the 1880's and were prominent members of the Russian-Jewish community that clustered in Carlton. I still remember my great-grandmother's two-storey Victorian terrace on Swanston St, now long-demolished.

My only involvement in Jewish life during my adulthood has been to attend weddings and funerals. I rejected Judiasm in my teens (right after my barmitzvah, in fact, but that's another story, involving a nasty Polish rabbi), but I also rejected all religions. But that was then. I now respect all religions and all cultures, and part of that has been to accept and honour my own cultural roots. So I embrace my Jewishness, even though I don't consider myself Jewish per se.

Back to the film, I can't watch a film like Au revoir, les enfants without feeling a connection to those who suffered. To single out people based on one arbitrary fact is just barbaric, just like the so-called ethnic-cleansing of so many nations since. Growing up in the shadow of World War II, there was a sense that "this must never happen again", yet how wrong have we been? Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Kurds... the list goes on.

The story in this film, from the perspective of the child, is powerful enough. But the ending is just shattering, how Malle describes how the moments of the film's ending have haunted him for the past forty years. The film joins a number of powerful post-war films that also depict the war from a child's perspective: Malle's Lancombe, Lucien, Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood, Klimov's amazing Come and See, and others. Malle's film also recalls Andrzej Wajda's Katyn in that it is a strongly autobiographical account of the war.

Zazie in the Metro
The Senses of Cinema annotations for this film certainly helped me to appreciate this film from a deeper perspective that I otherwise would have. And having seen the first two of Malle's films during this Melbourne Cinémathèque season, it was great to see the third. But it still did little for me. Sure, it was nice to see the urban decay of Paris, and I found it interesting to see similarities with Buñuel in terms of absurdity, but it still seemed a bit too steeped in slapstick to be a serious critique of contemporary social and political norms. For me, it's worth seeing only in the context of the varied body of Malle's work.


poignantPoint said...

Synecdoche, New York

- Ultimately an uninspiring time in the cinema for me. In fact, I had had enough about 20 minutes from the end. Went home and had a nice meal instead. Unconventional narrative yeah, but really not much meat on its bones.. Oh well, I hope others enjoy it.

Paul Martin said...

Yeah, fair comment. I also thought the last half hour dragged.