Sunday, April 11, 2010

Father of My Children (Le pere des mes enfants)

Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love
(France, 2009)

Films depicting the film world have the same engrossing quality as films, for that cosmos is exciting and glamorous; it’s about stars and art and money. Most little kids yearn to be famous movie stars when they grow up, so a film about the people who actually inhabit that inaccessible world plucks a thrill. In Mia Hansen Love’s new movie Le pere des mes enfants (Father of My Children), which she also wrote, Grégoire (Louis-Do De Lencquesaing) is a sexy, fortyish, irresistible producer of art house films. The films are so good, so original, that most flop at the box office, and the company is deep in debt with no hope of further credit anywhere.

The movie opens with the frenetic pace of Grégoire’s life, cell phone constantly to his ear, body in motion through the office as employees snag him for updates and decisions. It’s the same in his car as he heads to his country home for the weekend—he talks to his producers on sets. Then his wife calls: where are you? Should we wait dinner for you? Pressure pursues him from all sides, but we get the sense of his deep passion and commitment to work—its magic; it’s stronger pull than his interest in his family of five women: Sylvia his wife ( Chiara Caselli), Clémence his adolescent daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing), and Valentine and Billie, his precocious and delightful little girls (Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss). Without question he’s a loving husband and parent, devoted to his women and their well-being, but work tears him away, not just because he can’t resist it, but because of its overwhelming demands and now, financial crisis.

The film’s title Father of My Children suggests Sylvia as the protagonist, telling her story about what happened, but this is not the case. The story is Grégoire’s despite his “presence through absence” for the second half of the movie. It’s his life, his character, his denouement. The women are his family and what becomes of him profoundly affects them and their futures. His fate also creates the stage for some tremendous performances on the part of his women.

Not to give away entirely the plot of the movie, it serves a fine purpose of exploring one kind of suicide—the CEO kind, where financial disaster seemingly leaves no outlet for the powerless leader. Why are there no choices left for these types (when there might be for other types)? And why in the crashing rubble of their empire do they forget their loved ones. They aren’t to blame for forgetting, this movie makes clear, but their self-focus causes untold emotional harm within the family. Outwardly, Grégoire shows no sign of his destitution and despair, but rather converses optimistically to his accountant and creditors. He even takes on a new script by a young man he met on his way to the office. His inspiration for work, for film art is turned on, but the forces working against that drive eventually leave him no escape routes, or ones he personally can accept. The only inkling we have of his executive overload is when he’s driving to meet his family at their country home, against his instincts, for he has too much pressing work. He says to his daughter on the cell phone: “Anything nice to tell me?” Then, when the phone passes back to his wife he says, “Say something nice.” The girls tell her to say she loves him, and so she does: “Ti amo, ti adoro.” A tired droop of gratification crosses his face showing his need to hear something loving and supportive to sustain him.

Grégoire’s life and dilemma stays with us long after we’ve left the theater, as does the world with which his family is left, its cohesion and loving wholeness irreparably gouged by his departure. The script is too intelligent to fall into sentimentality; the emotions explored are live and believable.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Monday, April 5, 2010

Ordinary People

Written and directed by Vladimir Perisic
(France, Serbia, Switzerland, 2009)

When a movie with Serbian origins opens with soldiers being roused from bed to start their daily duties, we know some awful events are going to unfold. This shocking anti-war movie by Serbian director Vladimir Perisic transcends the standard war movie by becoming a meditation on the twisted side of human nature that war awakens. The baby-faced, teenage protagonist Dzoni (Relja Popovic) joined the army after high school because he couldn’t find a job. By sheer chance, then, his being, his life, his soul went down a certain road where the latent killer in man would be brought out. If he had found a job instead of the army, his life would never have encountered such atrocities and lasting consequences.

The movie takes place in silence, a tense silence in blazing summer heat at an abandoned army base in the middle of nowhere. The seven soldiers who were bused there mill around waiting for orders that are certain to be bad news, since the bus radio had announced “harsh reprisals of terrorists.” The soldiers suspect their lives are linked to the reprisals, but in what way remains a mystery. The silence, oppressive heat, and tedium in the overgrown army base become an irritant, for there’s no way to escape it, to go somewhere else. The soldiers are under orders and the audience is just as captive and restless.

The only sounds are made by humans, such as their crunching footsteps, the lighting of a cigarette, or the arrival or departure of vehicles to the base. Finally the reason for being there takes place, which is best to leave unstated in order to preserve the movie’s impact. Throughout, powerful meanings seep out of the story’s silence: After each event (there are three or four in all), Dzoni stares and thinks, and we stare at him and think. We ruminate on the same things, our memories have the same haunting visions replaying relentlessly. When Dzoni stares at his hands several times, we think as he thinks: these hands of mine did that. His horror is ours, but his is worse for he’s the soldier, by chance.

In the film’s interminable silence we keep pondering: The army is nameless, the war is nameless, the place is nameless. All wars, all atrocities are the same as this nameless war. All good young men who become soldiers like Dzoni have a place deep inside them where the killer-demon lies. What brings it out? When it is self-defense or survival of some sort, the murderous action can be forgiven. But when it’s forced through war atrocities, it becomes the most shocking action imaginable. Such behavior may be forced out of Dzoni, but once it’s unleashed, he becomes the owner and perpetrator of it, which feeds his deep, grieving meditation afterwards, and also ours.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Between Two Worlds

Directed by Vimukthi Jayasundara

(Sri Lanka/France, 2009)

Poetic cinematography of lush tropical landscapes and puzzling scene sequences create the momentum in Vimukthi Jayasundara’s new movie that offers a surreal and also mythical window on Sri Lanka. From the opening image of a man dropped from hundreds of feet into the ocean to subsequent vignettes of his experiences near his rebel-infested village, the viewer soon realizes that no borders exist between fact and fiction, or reality and dream or myth. This blending is creative art and at the same time confusing, for given Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war the audience would like to separate fact from fiction, learn about the country. But that’s not the movie’s motive.

In the middle of the film, two fishermen on a rock retell a universal myth where a beautiful princess will bear a son who murders his two uncles who are kings. So the princess is locked away on an impenetrable island but gives birth anyway, and though the baby is taken by the uncles and given over to fishermen to kill, the baby survives. The kings hear of this and kill all young men his age, but not the prince, who has hidden in the hollow of a tree. Later he fulfills his destiny, killing his uncles and becoming king. The camera moves to a tall tree with a hollow in it.

The fisherman’s myth parallels Jayasundara’s protagonist Rajith (Thusitha Laknath), the youth whose experiences we follow and come to understand as part dream, part reality, to the extent that we do not know for sure what is real and what is imagined, though we can guess. We can guess he imagined the white van spilling into the lake; his murder of a boy and then his sister-in-law; the emptying of the poisoned reservoir by the village’s young virile men; and their subsequent massacre. When we see a final image of Rajith hiding in the hollow of a tree—the only survivor of the imagined massacre—the fisherman’s myth finds a new incarnation and underscores the mythical essence of the picture. The viewer can emerge from Between Two Worlds thinking that Rajith has a fractured psychology as a result of childhood trauma from the protracted civil war—living in constant fear and silence to escape murder; or, he has schizophrenia that feeds the vivid hallucinations we witness on the screen. Whatever the cause of his odyssey-like experiences, or even his existence, that blend dream and reality (hence the title “between two worlds”), the viewer is treated to a work of film art that attains scintillating perfection.

The filming of lush tropical landscapes—steeped in low fog over grasses or bordered by mountains so green they look like fresh wet paint—sustains the movie, forms its rich foundation for the Odyssean structure that plays out without one slip of contrivance or sentimentality. The terrain’s overpowering green is punctuated by the colorful shirts of the characters, clothing often distinguishing who is who in this fable. Skin is also a color—Rajith’s slender male torso is bare from early on when he sheds his orange shirt. When the young men of the village form assembly lines to empty the reservoir with buckets, they chant and strike valiant, warrior poses, their gleaming musculature reaching us in a visceral way—these are young, strong men, ready to fight, to defend. And yet when they are attacked by costumed enemies in the next scene they stand on the lakeshore like passive victims.

The cinematography of barely disturbed earthly wonder, coupled with partly naked men moving stealthily through tall grasses to avoid enemies, and also Rajith’s repeated attempts to rape women, remind us of the primitive origins of mankind. Survival created warriors of young men; existence was about defending a small settlement from enemies; male lust superseded respect for women; and brutality defined civilization. This is the world of the movie, told in the medium of cinematic art.

Music and natural sounds, such as the woodpecker, are key to the movie’s full experience. Sound both narrates for and orients the viewer with a gifted touch. It leads us into each new episode of Rajith’s odyssey. For instance, at the beginning, the pan on the fog-mantled mountain is so long we wonder if something went wrong in the projection room. Sorrowful, wistful flute music plays. Then scary sounds come in—charging hoof beats, screams, war whoops, as the cloud lifts off the mountain. This is the curtain going up on the stage; the show will begin. And with the flute followed by distant menace introduce us to the film’s deep contrast—sweet life and brutality.

Next, as if in response to the war whoops, Rajith drops likes an arrow from the sky into the sea, as if the victim of enemies. The scene cuts to a line of listless city police tapping their sticks, just waiting for a chance to use them. Back to the seascape, Rajith lies drenched on the shore, slowly rises, and begins climbing a cliff next to him. Slowly dim sounds of voices, war cries, guns, even cannons, rise in volume as we arrive to the next scene of city-street chaos, the wild looting of electronic shops, and the vicious beating of one youth. Rajith arrives in time to add his kicks to the beaten boy, showing us at the very beginning his primitive-man character. In no way do we ever like Rajith in this film, and yet, something in his slender-youth vulnerability and lack of a safe world, create a note of sympathy for him.

Frequently and ingeniously an ominous tension is created by the low, unchanging buzz of a tanpura or similar drone instrument. It faint noise transforms the utterly green landscape into a sinister place where heinous savagery, lurks in grasses and forests. This tanpura sound contrasts to the reoccurring flute. One other instrument plays a significant role, the lugubrious cello, whose periodic presence mourns senseless death and gore.

Finally, silence dominates the soundtrack, with bird chirps emphasizing the quiet. Any wrong move or manmade sound might lead to a hidden rebel shooting the perpetrator. No one is safe in that pregnant silence. And when the tanpura faintly buzzes underneath the silence, or horses whinny, the audience knows bad trouble is just ahead. What are the whistles we hear? Are they birds or signals between men hidden in the grasses?

Towards the end Rajith has his fortune told by an itinerant psychic with a green parrot. He will survive and all good things will befall him. Like the prince in the fisherman’s tale, Rajith somehow survives the massacre of the village men that happens next (though he dreamt it). He wanders in his confused state past the barbaric scene that shows no trace of itself. We hear and then see his brother’s wife calling for him, looking for him. The camera returns to the tree hollow of before and soon moves in to show Rajith’s shiny dark face inside.

Between Two Worlds saturates the viewer in both natural beauty and the primordial violence of mankind that go hand in hand, never to be separated. As in so many stories that show this, we once again leave the theater asking: What was the purpose of these lives?

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved