Saturday, October 28, 2006

New Film: Climates

Be advised: the following post contains spoilers.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates (Iklimler), starring director Ceylan and his wife Ebru, compels its viewer to read the film as auto-biographical by dint of the director's casting of he and his wife as a couple who are in the process of breaking up. Indeed, it doesn't take Ceylan long to depict the split -- the director's character Isa, a photographer, initiates the parting following a session photographing ruins with his bored girlfriend in tow, and a dinner party where the latter laughs hysterically after Isa attempts some small-talk with the host. Following a dream sequence of Ebru's Bahar, where she is buried in sand by Isa after he tells her that he loves her, the male lead tells his girlfriend that he believes they should split up in a sequence where we first see him rehearsing and that we see the actual communication, without realizing that she is listening (Nuri blocks the scene to hide Bahar's participation). Shortly thereafter, director Ceylan shows Bahar leaving and it would seem that the film will continue to follow her post break-up.

However, in the next scene it is Isa who returns as the subject. Subsequently, Climates follows the male lead through its second act as he returns to his professorial job, and later, bumps into a couple of friends in a book store. After the chance meeting, Isa arrives at the woman's flat to find to find her parting ways with her boyfriend for the evening. The woman, Serap, lets him in and the pair soon engage in violent floor-play that concludes with Isa force-feeding the woman a stale nut on the floor in the midst of copulation. As such, Ceylan identifies the sadism of his male lead that will again manifest itself in the third and final act when Isa travels to a distant locale where he discovers his ex is working.

At this juncture, it might be worth noting that Climates operates as a sort of revisionist Turkish Voyage in Italy (1954) to the extent that it also follows a couple, with the director's real-life wife playing the female lead, as they part and reunite while traveling through the director's homeland. The revisionism comes in as the couple does not ultimately reunite, though they do get back together for a night of passion. This moment is filmed in a series of close-ups that obscure the couples' mouths, making the emotional component unclear. That Nuri uncharacteristically uses a modernist score during this passage further marks its debt to L'Eclisse (1962), as does also the film's concluding dissolve, where Ebru disappears leaving only the mosque behind her. Yet, it is less Antonioni than Rossellini who appears to be the picture's source -- in fact, as Andrew Sarris once remarked quite rightly, Rossellini-ennui preceded Antonioni-ennui -- provided the opening setting in the ruins (transposing a key scene from Voyage), the couple's reunion, and that film's similar autobiographical component.

That Rossellini and Bergman, however, were nearing the end of their relationship during that film -- where the couple does stay together, thanks to "miracle" that did not occur outside the film -- while Nuri and Ebru remain together following a film where they split, does seem to situate Climates as reversal of the earlier, epochal modernist text. In fact, Climates is built upon these junctures of expectation, be it the shifting focalization, the scene where he tries to get back together with her while they sit in a van, but are repeatedly interrupted by crew-persons loading the vehicle, or the concluding divergence of the two characters. To be sure, Climates does echo the visual rhetoric of modernism, utilizing as it does long takes, to say nothing of its articulation of ennui, but even in Nuri's compositions we can see a reappropriation of modernist form for his irreverent ends: particularly revealing is the sex scene where Isa and Serap creep closer and closer to the camera -- and to the aforementioned nut -- or the above-noted scene where we are made aware that Isa is breaking up with Bahar only after the fact, as if to mute its impact.

Yet, it is not simply the director's ironic blocking, but his use of high-definition video that separates it from its high-modernist sources. This new technology provides both an infinite depth of field that is well-suited to the picture's alienated subject matter, as it does a tactility that would seem impossible without it: the snowflakes that fall at the end of the film, for instance, come closer to the camera than would ever seem possible; and the flakes shot out the window have more definition than film could ever muster. Moreover, the film's usage of yellow (during the sexually-explicit sequence) possesses a truly preternatural character. And indeed in its very adaptability, Ceylan manipulates his compositions of dark skies to match the psychology of the film's ruminative male lead. Then again, Climates cuts against an obvious reading of the film as a sequence of landscapes -- and climates -- that convey the pair's collapsing relationship as they break up in a summer paradise and tentatively get back together in a harsh winter clime. (In fact, even the noted sky-scape nearly precedes the couple's reunion.)

All of this is to say that Climates is post-modern in the sense that it stakes out new territory within the modernist framework that it expressly positions itself within. It is a film that repeatedly shifts the epistemological basis for the images -- the film undercuts itself -- often connoting irony in the process. Still, Climates never fails to express a concise worldview, which perhaps even the director's biography belies: that life is filled with sadness and that relationships don't last. This proposition, however, given its evident incongruity to with his biography, has not mediated the director's need to express himself, which he has done in unmistakably first-person form, whether or not it adheres to what we know of his personal life.

Lest it is not yet clear, Climates is one of the year's most inventive art films, and indeed one its best as well.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

New Film: The Departed & a Flags of Our Fathers debate with Matt Singer

Martin Scorsese's The Departed seems to have everyone on its side (save for a few important detractors listed below), scoring a box office victory in week one, registering a considerable 93% "fresh" rating among America's critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and placing 48th in IMDb's on-going survey of its reader's favorite all-time films. It is, as the story is seeming to be written, "His most purely enjoyable film in years". So why then did I find The Departed to be a deeply troubling, magnificently flawed foray into pornographic violence? Well, if we keep reading David Ansen's review, that's because "it's not for the faint of heart."

Before we get to the charge that Scorsese's film is "pornographic," which I am strongly convinced it is, let us first consider the picture's visual style. Note the use of visual, and you may already have guessed what I'm up to: The Departed is one of the vaunted director's laziest visual works of art, which is to use that latter term more than generously. There basically is no visual in The Departed, as Scorsese and his cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus) have foregrounded most of their subjects, often keeping one figure out-of-focus in the extreme foreground, while another character interacts with them in the recesses of that same close-in space. Moreover, as film scholar David Bordwell points out on his blog, the average shot length for the over 3200 shots in The Departed is approximately 2.7 seconds a piece -- compared to 7.7 seconds in such superior Scorsese pictures as Mean Streets (1973) and The King of Comedy (1983) -- making it difficult for the viewer to focus upon what little there is in the film's mise-en-scene.

All of this is to say that The Departed could just as well be heard only as it can be seen (as always, Scorsese's film seems to score with respect to its soundtrack). In saying this, one could easily object that scant visualization is by no means a signifier of bad filmmaking, to which I would agree. Then again, as opposed to the paradigmatic cinema of the austere, Robert Bresson's, where the spare visuals call attention to that which exists beneath the surface, namely to the spiritual dimension of life, in Scorsese's film, there is nothing beyond his flat visual. Indeed, what is perhaps most troubling about The Departed is this absence of a moral core, its failure to critique the misanthropy which the film depicts (as critic Armond White argues rather cogently) even as it revels in the carnage on screen. With The Departed, Scorsese seems to have crossed over into postmodernism, while in the process revealing a sensibility and personality that is nothing if not cruel.

Of course, I would be remiss were I not to mention the film's redeeming facet (in the parlance of Jonathan Rosenbaum) which in the case of The Departed I would say is its fine male lead performances by both Leonardo DiCaprio -- who my girlfriend really thinks I look like, which makes me feel good -- and especially Matt Damon. Then again, the film's original, far superior incarnation, Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002), equals if not surpasses Scorsese's on this front as well in its awe-inspiring teaming of Andy Lau and Tony Leung. And at least the Hong Kong version does not have to contend with Jack Nicholson being "Jack Nicholson" for every split-second of the actor's screen time.

Further, the earlier version also does not manifest the insistent psychologizing of the Scorsese version, in part no doubt to that national cinema's tendency toward episodic narratives, and away from the psychological naturalism of the American cinema. (Both Bordwell and another of the picture's high-profile critics, Dave Kehr, make mention of this cloying proclivity.) Similarly, in its usage of more naturalized violence, The Departed attains a degree of the pornographic that the stylization of Infernal Affairs mediates. The Departed is a viscerally experience, to be sure. My only question is how can we endorse such brutal violence at the service of such facile nihilism?

Moving on, I was hoping to construct this piece as a portrait of two directors moving in very opposite qualitative directions, that is of Scorsese becoming less and less a major director with each passing film -- though the first half of The Aviator (2004) showed a great deal of acumen -- while Clint Eastwood further solidifies his standing as America's greatest active director with each passing film. While Eastwood has done nothing to jeopardize this status (so long as he remains the creator of The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), The Gauntlet (1977), Bird (1988), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), Unforgiven (1992), the sublime A Perfect World (1993), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Space Cowboys (2000), Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) -- all of which are major works of art) he has done nothing to help it either. In fact, I would not hesitate to call his latest, Flags of Our Fathers, the director's weakest film since his thoroughly dispensable Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).

While there is just enough in Flags of Our Fathers to make it an Eastwood film -- and therefore worthy of our attention -- such as the film's rethinking of myth (The Outlaw Josie Wales, Mystic River) the picture's anxiety toward inadequate parenting (True Crime [1999], Million Dollar Baby) or even a visual style marked by both volumetric interiors represented via wide-angle lenses (The Bridges of Madison County) and also strong chiaroscuro (Million Dollar Baby), there isn't enough otherwise to mark this as essential cinema, though it does flirt with summarizing our moment. To this end, if The Outlaw Josie Wales said something profound about America's loss of faith in itself in the years following Vietnam and A Perfect World encapsulated the early 1990s anxiety concerning children raised in single parent households, Flags of Our Fathers should have said something about our contemporary anxiety with respect to Iraq, which again it almost does. As the film frames the issue, war is made palatable by symbols, and particularly photographs, be it the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that is the focus of the film's narrative, or the execution of the Southeast Asian that made us doubt American's virtuousness during Vietnam. (Is Iraq's image Abu Ghraib, or are we still waiting for that one image that helps us to redouble our will? Eastwood leaves us to speculate.)

Of course, to criticize a film for not summarizing its moment is a bit unfair, even if its director has done this so successfully in the past. The larger flaw of Flags of Our Fathers is in its utilization of a flashback structure, which its narrative would at the same time seem to necessitate. Specifically, there is one sequence wherein we are directly delivered from a close-up of strawberry syrup covering a bowl of ice cream (made to model the film's image-subject) to a placement on the battlefield that cannot help but strike one as a painfully literal. While at least Eastwood does not succumb to producer Steven Spielberg's propensity to connect character subjectivity to incidents beyond their possible range of experience (he does this in his own World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, 1998) this frequent movement between past and present does not seem to serve the director's greatest strengths as a director. At the same time, Eastwood does share Spielberg's bleached-out color schema, as he does his interventionist camera work during battle.

Then again, his direction of battle scenes, in particular, does show his enormous range: as when the black sand explodes in front of the intervening camera producing substantial visceral impact. On this basis alone I hold out hope that Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) can still give the director his great World War II film. If only he hadn't changed the title from "Red Sun, Black Sand," which was in itself a masterpiece.

Matt Singer responds:

So now you look like Leonardo DiCaprio? Is it possible Lisa was taking a piss?

And I think you missed the boat on Flags (haven't seen The Departed yet). You seemed to review a movie that didn't exist -- the movie you wanted to see -- instead of the movie that Clint offered. Plenty of people have tried to make the movie into something about Iraq, and you seem to wish that it was a movie about Iraq. Why can't it be a movie about World War II? I don't understand that.

And I thought the flashback structure was ingenious and, the moment you singled out as too literal, the ice cream sundae, was perhaps my favorite moment of the picture. Granted, Eastwood takes liberty by using the moment as a key into a flashback, but given this is based on true stories, I took this to be based in something that really happened (I haven't read the book -- someone correct me if it doesn't appear in Bradley's book). Is something is too literal if it actually happens?

Comparing this movie, even in passing, to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a really low blow. And you like Clint! How could you do that?!?

Michael J. Anderson replies:

As to your criticisms, I think most are well grounded -- basically I did not make my case well enough, which I will admit. So let me grasp at what I think is Flags fundamental flaw: its flashback structure. If we are to look for a superior treatment of the same motivating theme -- the persistence of trauma -- I would call your attention to Eastwood's Mystic River. In the case of this work, the trauma depicted is in childhood, which coalesces with a key theme from A Perfect World, namely that children are made to grow up too fast -- in the case of the later film, to disastrous results. In both cases, this theme is subsumed by a linear narrative that provides just a hint of circularity with its opening and closing images -- a primary Eastwood trope. Likewise, with Mystic River, where this theme is more explicit, said trauma has implications for the actions and therefore for the plot of the film.

To the contrary, Flags of Our Fathers depicts this element for its own sake, which has a stifling effect on the narrative. Let me make this analogy: say you are driving on an interstate and you slide over onto the shoulder. As you do so, you feel a series of jarring bumps as you have driven over a "rumble strip." I think we could say a similar experience occurs during each instance of shell shock structuring the narrative -- sure it gets the point across; but it lacks in the subtlty that the director often achieves in expressing human psychology through action. I guess my basic critique is that the film lacks the director's characteristic economy, which in the opinion of this writer links the director to Hollywood's finest. (Also, for an Eastwood devotee like myself, this flaw as noted above strikes me as all too similar to the key problem with screenwriter Paul Haggis's monumentally over-determined Crash, 2004; so it's all his fault, in other words.)

Eastwood himself has admitted that he tried to re-construct the narrative without this structure to no success, which I think points to its weakness: that it doesn't lead anywhere other than this most basic point of that enduring trauma flows from wartime experience. Eastwood at his best, i.e. A Perfect World or Mystic River, would have expressed these ideas through action, that is in the subsequent actions of the characters, or even in what we as spectators might (wrongly) think that the actions of the characters were, again as in Mystic River. And from this subsumption of action within the contours of plot, moreover, it would be possible to universalize from the narrative what precisely this trauma signals in our current experience -- as Eastwood has communicated the theft of childhood (endemic to our times) in both, or the mass trauma of 9-11 in Mystic River. No similar conclusion can be drawn here, because again the (literal) image of Iraq is unclear, and we have no entry point through which we can extend the film's critique.

All of this is to explain why Flags of Our Fathers is not Eastwood at his best. I hope my feelings have become more clear.

Matt rebuts:

You have written more, and written far more clearly, but my initial statement stands. You are upset at the movie for not what it is, but for what it's not. Specifically, you are upset that Eastwood's depiction of trauma in Flags differs from his depiction in earlier films like Mystic River and A Perfect World. You give a lengthy and cogent explanation why the earlier model is superior, but I think that's mostly an excuse for your belief, rather than the basis for it. The unspoken (but more genuine) reason you hold for opinion -- in my eyes -- is that you, as a devout auteurist, want Eastwood to depict trauma as one way across all his films, because that strengthens your auteurist reading of his films. By trying something different, he skews from one of the things you've found in his films to link them all together.

I certainly agree that the choice of using the flashbacks throughout instead of as prologue and epilogue is less subtle and more blunt: but in a war film, I don't think subtlety is necessarily a plus. As much as it is about trauma, I took Flags to be about perspective. When the American people see Joe Rosenthal's photograph, they see heroism and triumph. When the men in the photograph see it, they see the horrors they've endured. And because everyone loves that photograph, the men in it can't escape it. And every time they see it, they are confronted with what they'd done. I wrote in one of my reviews of the film that my grandparents, both WWII vets, did not like dwelling on anything from the war except the most frivilous stories — just as Bradley, author of the Flags book, didn't even know his father was in the famous Iwo Jima picture until after he died! The more I've thought about it, I've considered what a great sacrifice those brave men made when they came back home. They smiled and sold those war bonds, and pretended like being atop that mountain in the Pacific was a great accomplishment, not day 5 of a 30 day trek through hell. As good as Mystic River is, I thought Flags was even more moving and poweful.

And it was manly, too. And manliness is awesome.

And now you've gone from comparing Flags to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to Crash?!? Wow.

Michael redoubles:

By Mentioning Crash -- and really, as underwhelming as I think Flags is, it remains light-years ahead of the Haggis picture in terms of its quality -- I meant to step outside my little auteurist framework and ask whether this deviation could be due to a collaborators' contribution... which is another way of me saying, 'why do I think this film is so far inferior to the director's better efforts?' (So yes, you're right in your critique.) But, Midnight in the Garden... is material ill-suited to the director, as is this picture. Hence the comparison. And that it is material shaped by Haggis leads one to the second comparison. I might throw in Spielberg as another check on the film's quality, though a producer's role in shaping a film is far more unclear often times. Then again, perhaps the film's scope can be related to his participation. And if anything, those parts that look and feel like Saving Private Ryan are among the better moments in the film.

Matt retorts:

I concede your cleverness, turning my auteurist argument about you against me. Perhaps the Yale debate team could use your skills.

But I press on nonetheless! Midnight in the Garden is a terrible movie but a remarkable soundtrack: I remain convinced to this day that Eastwood made it mostly so he could put that soundtrack in his CD collection. And I'm glad he did; it's in mine too. If you wanted to make an Eastwood auteurist argument related to jazz and his movies, Midnight in the Garden can be recouped. A little, anyway.

I'll agree that the main Iwo Jima battle resembles Saving Private Ryan with one distinct difference, though I should warn in advance that I haven't seen SPR since 1998 so my recollection isn't perfect. The thing that Flags has that SPR does not is a remarkable number of shots designed to ape what a real war photographer's shots might look like — I'm thinking specifically of the shots of the camera falling into the water as it leaves the transport for the beach, and also of a camera getting covered in dirt as men storm past it — images I took as a credit to the work of men like Joe Rosenthal who were yet more unsung heroes of that battle (you don't see Rosenthal touring America with his subjects, after all). Spielberg's version is a grunt's eye's view, but it is a beautiful, perfect one in its own grisly way. Eastwood's shows the seems a bit more, yet another element that ties into his showing the reality behind a legend, and another perspective to the multitude he shares. I quite prefer Flags to SPR.

You won't find many people who hate Crash more than me. Maybe it helped that I didn't know Haggis co-wrote this movie until I saw his name in the end credits, maybe not. I think even if Flags wasn't based on true lives, it would still feel infinitely more authentic than Crash.

Monday, October 09, 2006

New Film: Private Fears in Public Places

Constituting what may well be his finest work in twenty years, Alain Resnais' masterful Private Fears in Public Places (Cœurs) showcases a greater integration of form and content than has been the norm in the legendary Left Bank director's latter-day, theatrically-inflected cinema (of which his supreme Mélo [1986] and the more recent Not on the Lips [2003] are paradigmatic). While an element of the stage returns in this reconfiguration of a play of the same name, particularly in those interior scenes filmed from an overhead position where the camera passes above the walls from one room to the next, Resnais has invested even these passages with newfound meaning: in this instance, as the director makes clear in one of the film's ultimate sequences, the said high camera location connotes a god's-eye view. Indeed, rare within Resnais' corpus, Private Fears in Public Places explicitly engages Christian belief, as one of the film's multiple protagonists, Charlotte (Resnais axiom Sabine Azéma) confesses a devout religiosity. She lends co-worker Thierry (André Dussollier) a videocassette of Christian music, which the latter accepts only because of his desire for the red-head. As it happens, following the glibly contrived video, of which we see various fragments, Thierry discovers soft core porn at the conclusion of the tape. Convinced that it is the same Charlotte, he hastens to borrow a second tape. (These tapes become the film’s on-going comic relief.)

Thierry lives with his sister Gaëlle (the much younger Isabelle Carré), whom he thinks goes out partying with her friends every night. Commensurate with the film's disclosure of secrets, we soon learn she is looking for love, which she finds in lay-about Dan (Lambert Wilson) after the latter breaks up with his fianceé, Nicole (Laura Morante), whom we initially meet in the first scene of the film, where she is shown a ridiculous apartment by realtor Thierry. Rather than looking for the apartment himself -- or a job -- Dan spends his evenings in a bar tended by Lionel (Pierre Arditi).

To complete the film's interlocking series of relations, Lionel seeks evening care for his elderly father (who Resnais never shows on-screen, though do see the foot of his bed and often hear his scatological rants). This leads us back to Charlotte, who according to her faith has charitably agreed to substitute for Lionel’s usual care-giver. Lionel (in possession of his own secret that has led to the estrangement that is evident between he and his father) inquires as to whether Charlotte's faith brings her peace, and after paging through her Bible, where the forgiveness is in her religion. She responds that it is in the New Testament, and later tells him that she, like him, doesn't believe much in hell, though she does believe we all have the Devil inside us. This is certainly the case with Charlotte herself, though Resnais does not simply reduce his picture to a critique of Christian hypocrisy. In fact, we see in one of her final gestures that she, no less than the lascivious Thierry or the drunkard Dan is fighting this very same Demon, which importantly she is able to do successfully. If Lionel claims that he has never been able to accept this stuff, he still packs a New Testament when he departs late in the film, giving one a sense of the power that these question might have for the director himself as he nears his eighty-fifth year.

Yet, religious curiosity is less ubiquitous in Private Fears in Public Places than is another hallmark of later life: loneliness. This existential condition in fact extends from the film's thirtysomethings, to Lionel's dying father (to whom Resnais is much closer in age). Certainly, it is essential to emphasize the degree to which Private Fears... is explicitly an old man's film: the film consciously depicts the winter of one's life, which stylistically Resnais reinforces through the use of a snow effect over each of the picture's structural dissolves. Indeed, Private Fears in Public Places represents both an elegiac first-person account by a director not exactly known for direct personal expression, and also to date the year's most elegant piece of filmmaking.

Friday, October 06, 2006

New Film: Belle Toujours

As with his recent Oporto of My Childhood (2001), Manoel de Oliveira's Belle Toujours begins with a lengthy orchestral performance that the director films at a perpendicular angle. Interspersed with these long takes are shots of a crowd that features the aging Michel Piccoli and Bulle Ogier, whom we quickly discover are old acquaintances, though it similarly becomes clear that the latter wants to have nothing to do with the gentleman. Then again, to most audiences of this film (with a perfunctory knowledge of the picture's subject) we are already well aware that these two characters are Henri Husson and Séverine Serizy of Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) -- Catherine Deneuve played Séverine in the original -- encountering each other after a lifetime apart. After establishing this off-stage space to relate to the proscenium, through a series of glances, Oliveira then concludes this sequence with the musicians bowing to the camera.

Following this opener, we soon get an arial view of Paris that is accompanied by a similar soundtrack, following M. Husson's attempt to track down Séverine in the city's nocturnal streets. As such, Oliveira encourages a reading of his film, at least in part, as a 'city symphony,' the Paris of his youth and the consistent stage upon which/in which the two films have been orchestrated. However, as it has been noted, Belle Toujours differs from its source in its casting of the female lead. To this point, it should be noted that as Deneuve has worked with the director on multiple occasions in the past, it would seem less that he failed to get the actress he wanted than that his casting of Ogier was intentional -- and perhaps represents a second debt to Buñuel, and particularly to the director's ultimate That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) with its two Conchita's. Here, this discordinant casting seems to signal the director's advocacy of cinema as theatrical, and particular the fact that these are not two people over a 40-year span but rather two characters. To this end, Ogier more than once reminds us that she is not the same person she once was, speaking for her character of course.

Indeed, what is most striking about Belle Toujours is not how it resembles Buñuel's work -- unlike the earlier film, Oliveira's features Henri as its guiding perspective; hence the pictures' very different attitudes toward Séverine -- but rather how fully Oliveira's sensibility permeates this work. This is to say that Belle Toujours is very much the work of an old man (Oliveira is currently ninety-seven and is at work yet again) given not only its preoccupations, but also the freedom with which he depicts: again, we watch a large portion of an orchestral movement, the bulk of a meal featuring the two principles -- both by the way demonstrate the director's old world refinement -- and in the picture's lone surreal moment, minus its basic conceit, a rooster appears momentarily in a hall. (For works that are similarly free, one might think of the great final films of John Ford, 7 Women [1966], or Jean Renoir, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir [1970] -- Oliveira has earned both comparisons -- where unmediated artistic expression seems to trump all issues of structure or taste.)

Speaking of the aforementioned preoccupations, Oliveira returns to a contested spirituality that defined his work in the middle of the previous decade. In fact, Séverine at one point late in the film says that she's alone with her soul, wherein Oliveira eliminates virtually all of the scene's light, illuminating only this spiritually tortured woman and her alcoholic foil Henri. In this respect one might argue that Belle Toujours is closest in subject -- and also quality -- to the director's underrated 1996 feature, Party, though there is actually a good deal of the director in aging man-of-the-world Henri, who is importantly played by previous stand-in Piccoli (I'm Going Home, 2001) . Then again, with the consistency of the auteur's preoccupations over the previous decade and a half, it is hard not to see him in all his (lead) characters, as could be said of his absolute masterpiece Abraham's Valley (1993).

Regardless, the portrait of the director that emerges in Belle Toujours is of a man of the old world again, of infinite culture, whose inevitable passing may just represent the end of this civilization on screeen forever. In the meantime, Oliveira continues to work at a level unmatched on his continent, both in the frequency with which he completes films, and also for their unwavering high quality. Here he has made his best picture since I'm Going Home and one of the year's most purely enjoyable art films.