Saturday, September 29, 2007

The 45th New York Film Festival: The Romance of Astree and Celadon

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

If, as is rumored, The Romance of Astree and Celadon proves to be octogenarian writer-director Eric Rohmer's final film, the nouvelle vague's senior auteur will have accomplished something truly remarkable - and perhaps even unprecedented for a film director of his level of productivity: namely, Rohmer will have completed a feature filmmaking career spanning nearly fifty years and some twenty-plus features without having once directed a single work of even middling quality. This is not to say that The Romance of Astree and Celadon is merely 'good'; perhaps more than even his late masterwork The Lady and the Duke (2001), The Romance of Astree and Celadon serves to consolidate and even extend a number of the director's key themes. This is to say that The Romance of Astree and Celadon is truly up to the extraordinary task of being the director's finale, not that we wouldn't relish more still from one of the medium's supreme masters.

Adapting Honoré d'Urfé's novel of 5th century Gaul life, The Romance of Astree and Celadon claims to reproduce less the period depicted than its 17th century readers' imagination of the earlier period. Commensurate with this goal, the director features canvases painted in the seventeenth century, a castle built well after the novel's setting and importantly a grafting of the Christian faith onto the Druid-themed source material. Also Rohmer, in typical hyper-realist fashion, apologizes for setting the film in a location other than that represented in the novel - as per the place's disfiguration in the coming industrial centuries. That is, rather than utilizing matte painting to substitute for that which could not be recreated with a high degree of verisimilitude (as he does with the 18th century Paris of The Lady and the Duke) Rohmer substitutes locations, confirming the place that the environment plays in his pastoral narrative.

Indeed, this untrammeled nature appears on both the sun-dappled 16mm cinematography (on the same format he used for his supreme masterpiece Summer [The Green Ray; 1986]) or in the ubiquitous bird songs that fill the film's soundtrack. Hence, The Romance of Astree and Celadon serves to synthesize Rohmer's hyper-stylized period work (The Marquise of O, Perceval, The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent) and the naturalist ethos of his contemporary corpus (everything else): here we have a film that maintains Rohmer's interrogation of the problematic of period recreation, while introducing a series of natural locations that define his more widely-appreciated present-day works.

In these landscape, Rohmer commences with a misunderstanding between the film's eponymous lovers, Astree (Stéphanie Crayencour) and Celadon (Andy Gillet), where the former sees her male paramour in the arms of another - comparable to a similar misunderstanding appearing late in An Autumn Tale (1998) that features Rohmer axiom Marie Rivière, who also appears as Celadon's mother (uncredited) in this opening scene. Following Astree's clandestine sighting of Celadon, the young woman states her desire to never again see Celadon, leading the latter to attempt suicide. Suffice it to say that he survives his attempt, though he does find himself in the presence of three nymphs (including a second Rohmer regular Rosette).

Of course, it is in their amorous company that Celadon's love will be put to the test, as so often occurs in Rohmer's universe. Likewise, this theme of fidelity - similarly characteristic for the director's corpus - allegorizes religious faith, though in the case of his latest it is with the added valence of a pre-Christian Druidism that nonetheless sounds an awful lot like the director's trinitarian Catholicism. Here, we have Celadon's philosopher of love brother arguing the case for fidelity - where magically two lovers become the same person - versus the musician's philanderer, who says we love what he have yet to carnally love. He is the unbeliever, the film's Antoine Vitez to its Jean-Louis Trintignant (i.e. the Marxist philosopher and the Catholic in My Night at Maud's [1969] to which The Romance of Astree and Celadon shows an unexpected resemblance). And like that film, Rohmer's latest establishes the conflict through conversation before providing its double in the consequent plot.

In the film's closing passages, among the most absolutely sensual in the contemporary cinema, Celadon, resolute in keeping his promise to remain forever out of Astree's sight, takes on the appearance of a Druid priest's missing daughter - after encountering her sleeping body (and uncovered legs - cf. Claire's Knee [1970] in a forest grove). Soon thereafter, her bare snow white breast proves too much for the frustrated Celadon, which compels the costumed lead to passionately grope his soul mate. Noticing that her girlfriend has no chest, she asks Celadon who (s)he is. Having since changed into her clothes, Celadon responds he is Astree, thereby literalizing the construct introduced by the former's brother. With his identity thereafter disclosed, Astree jubilantly responds "live, live, Celadon," with only the closing credits to follow. As such, Rohmer gives us a truly great ending - surpassed in his corpus only by the single "oui" that concludes Summer - to what may prove his truly great final film.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New Film: Eastern Promises

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

As Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman has pointed out (among others, certainly), David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, from a screenplay by Steven Knight, is "very much a companion to A History of Violence [2005]." That is, like the director's earlier masterpiece, Eastern Promises examines the gap between surface - between the person that one appears to be - and sub-surface, or the conflicting/conflicted reality of the individual. Whereas A History of Violence utilized this distinction to craft a hero (Viggo Mortensen, as will be also the case in Eastern Promises) whose perfected exterior conceals a phenomenal capacity for violence, Eastern Promises reverses this equation to disguise - in the person of a Russian ex-con turned mobster - another whose peaceful proclivities may out-weigh his apparent sadism. In other words, as Hoberman likewise notes, we have another potentially schizoid, Cronenbergian hero.

In Eastern Promises, the process of concealment is achieved not only through the exigencies of character, but in the appearance of Mortensen's flesh itself. The actor is covered in prison tattoos - as we are told, purportedly commensurate with a Russian axiom, that the man without any tattoos "doesn't exist" - which narrate the story of his life. Indeed, in one of the film's pivotal set-pieces, Mortensen is tattooed with stars on his knees and over his heart to officially and inexorably initiate his character into the Russian mafia. However, this tattooing is revealed to be a set-up, a gambit on mob king-pin Semyon's (Armin Mueller-Stahl) part to pass Mortensen off as his dandy son (Vincent Cassel), whose life a clan of Chechen mobsters demand. His flesh is manipulated to deceive. Of course, the fact, as will be revealed subsequently, that Mortensen is an undercover agent dictates that the very story inscribed on his flesh is itself a lie.

Even so, the violence his body suffers, whether or not under the auspices of undercover work, are entirely authentic. In the film's most notorious set-piece - its truly extraordinary bath house hand-to-hand combat sequence - the wounds that Mortensen's Nikolai incurs are very real indeed (as were the bruises to the film's nude star). His body is here subject to an extraordinary, disfiguring violence, even if it doesn't quite compare to that he inflicts on others: namely, in the dead mafioso's fingers that he clips off or in the Chechen's eye that he stabs only inches in front of the camera lens. This is a film of grotesque, hyperbolic violence - of slit, truly gaping necks - that somehow still succeeds in shocking thanks to the suspension of disbelief entered into by its horror-trained audiences.

Speaking of Mortensen's flogging, his body, as film scholar Lisa K. Broad suggests, is made to suggest that of Christ's crucified figure, replete with an incision on his side. In fact, Broad notes that Russian iconography is emphasized throughout the work, be it in the impregnated Virgin who sparks the film's investigative story line or in the frequent close-ups extracted from background detail that call attention to the traditional form of the icon. (Indeed, Mortensen, in the first indication that his character may exceed his obvious villainy, hands a prostitute an icon portrait - imploring her to stay alive a little longer.) And as Hoberman notes, apropos of its iconographic content, this is "a Christmas story complete with a miracle." We have our Holy Family.

Then again, comparisons to icons aside, Cronenberg's style is foremost an instantiation of a profoundly old-fashioned classical Hollywood continuity technique of editing. With metronomic regularity, Cronenberg establishes his scenes with a long or lateral tracking shot, cuts in to a two-shot composition and then into a shot/reverse-shot schema - before re-establishing and again launching into subsequent articulations of the same technique. (Broad additionally notes that Cronenberg frequently utilizes wide-angle lenses, as is typical of his visual style.) Even so, Cronenberg calibrates the framing lengths of his shot/reverse-shot pattern to accentuate singularities of the various character relationships that he shows in dialogue. In other words, while there may be no passages that explicitly exceed the bounds of classical continuity editing as does the opening, thematizing real-time sequence of A History of Violence, Cronenberg's minor manipulations of classical style maintain the expressive individualities that exemplify this technique at its very best.

Then again, Cronenberg does seem to find a second model for his decoupage in the bath house sequence - according to Broad - beyond that of classical-era Hollywood: namely the perfected analytic editing of Robert Bresson and Pickpocket (1959). That is, in striking comparison to The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007), again in the insight of Broad, where the most visible moments are felt rather than seen, Eastern Promises shows us far more than we would ever have the opportunity to see (secured through a series of clarifying close-ups). Indeed, what we see often shocks in Eastern Promises, through its sheer gratuity, often coupled with the most old-fashioned of forms. Actually, one could argue that the film's use of English, French and Polish speaking actors to create a milieu entirely foreign to them and the film's Anglo audience trades in the same evocations of an earlier moment in Hollywood filmmaking.

In sum, Eastern Promises may just be the English-language film to beat in 2007. It is also one of the director's better efforts, placing just below career peaks Dead Ringers (1988), A History of Violence (2005) and the highly-underrated Spider (2002). Importantly, Eastern Promises, like Spider, clarifies one of his earlier themes - this time on the tattooed flesh of the director's newest axiomatic split performer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Masterpieces of the Early Sound Cinema: Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets (by, Lisa K. Broad)

Rouben Mamoulian’s second film City Streets (1931), with a screenplay by Dashiel Hammett, screened yesterday at Film Forum as part of a larger Mamoulian retrospective. In it Gary Cooper plays a straight arrow and sharp shooting carnival man who is roped into the mob when his girlfriend is framed for a murder committed by her bootlegging father. Mamoulian famously remarked that the film contains 10 murders, none of which are seen.

The film opens with a low-angled shot of trucks barreling down the eponymous boulevards before passing over the camera, a close-up of a mysterious liquid leaking out of the back of one of the vehicles prompts an explanitory cut a to a beer bottling plant, and finally to a pint of beer being dispensed in extreme close-up. The camera lingers on the head of the froth in the glass as a light, effervescent bubbling sound is picked up on the soundtrack, a pregnant moment which distills the exuberance that greeted the sound cinema in the early 30s – the new and improved beer bubbles of the talking cinema can be seen and heard.

A man moves into the shot and downs the glass prompting a cut-to a close-up of a large wooden vat of beer being filled with a hose, the rushing and bubbling of the liquid fills the soundtrack, drawing a fascinating contrast between the recorded sound of moving and still liquid. After a beat the camera pulls back to reveal a crowd of bootleggers around the still, arguing over their territory. One man pulls a wad of bills out of a hat – a silent-film style close-up draws the spectators attention to the initials marking its crown – and pays the other. At the conclusion of a tense but amiable discussion between the men, the camera returns once again to admire the swirling vat of liquid that will bring joy and heartache to many as the narrative continues.

A first instance of the latter comes to the fore as a graphic match transports the story from the froth of forbidden ale to the threatening waves of the river where the hat with the initials is seen floating. Here again the sound of the water is highlighted. In this way, Mamoulian the consummate cinematic innovator is not content merely to highlight the existence of cinematic sound – as he did with great success in 1929’s Applause – but its possibility for subtlety and variety. He gives the spectator both the auditory thrill of jazz clubs and gun shots, and also the nearly scientific fascination (audio-microscopy) of recorded beer bubbles. Mamoulian also plays with early sound film conventions, providing a close-up of a bird in a cage but refusing the audience its song – the bird’s owner notes that it hasn’t produced a tune all day.

Despite the aural fireworks, City Street’s image track holds its own just fine. The scenes in the seaside carnival provide plenty of spectacular bells, whistles, flashing lights, and funhouse mirrors while the love scene between Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as Nan yields up breathtaking beauty. A 180° panning shot sweeps the moonlit beach and finds the lovers ensconced on a large rock in the surf. Cooper and Sidney are both lovely to look at, and the moonlight reflected off the water gilds their faces as they embrace, squabble, and embrace again.

A clever and appealing use of shadow and smoke throughout the film – a gangster converses with an offscreen man whose giant, speaking shadow can be seen on the wall; a nightclub scene is so fogged with smoke that each lamp casts a delicate halo – creates a mysterious yet playful tone similar to that of Jean Renoir’s early sound masterwork La Nuit Du Carrefour (1932). While City Streets is every inch the sound film, it harkens back to silent-film convention in its frequent use of extreme close-ups, attention-directing camera movements, and associative montage. In this way, Mamoulian places heightened emphasis on the materiality of both the sound and the image tracks, creating a film that is constantly directing the audience’s attention to its own virtuosic construction.