Monday, September 01, 2008

"Doomed Love / Amor de Perdição (1978): Manoel de Oliveira's Greatest?" - Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (Amor de Perdição, 1978), an adaptation by the director of Camilo Castelo Branco's nineteenth century novel, has very recently emerged as the knowledgeable cinephile's choice for the greatest of Oliveira's films - a position, it should be added, that has found a convenient alibi in the film's virtual invisibility (it remains unreleased anywhere on VHS or DVD). Following a recent 16mm screening of the 265-minute picture at Washington's National Gallery, this piece's two authors can do nothing but agree with the above position, however unlikely it might seem that one of the director's least seen should rate as his very best. That this position is in no small measure a product of the narrative's real emotive strength only reinforces the unlikelihood of its obscurity (in the clandestine context of Oliveira's high art corpus, of course).

Unlike the impossibly arcane focus on Portuguese history and nationality that characterizes many of the director's better films, Doomed Love trades on the more universal Romeo and Juliet plot that Branco's novel triangulates with a second love interest for its male lead Simão (António Sequeira Lopes). The aforesaid devotes himself fully to Teresa (Cristina Hauser), who naturally is the daughter of his father's sworn enemy. Simão is himself worshiped by the beautiful daughter of a blacksmith, Mariana (Elsa Wallencamp), though his star-crossed love for Teresa, accepted if not tacitly endorsed by the second woman, prevents their coupling. Suffice it to say that neither of Oliveira's pairings will find satisfaction, though Mariana will press her lips against Simão's at the moment of his death and then will join him - diving alone through the canted frame - under the water's surface, following his burial at sea.

With Mariana pulling Simão below the water, to be followed by the latter's correspondences floating to the water's surface, where they are promptly snatched by a single hand, Oliveira crystallizes the central thematic preoccupations that animate Doomed Love: this is a film that uses text to reveal that which is hidden by surfaces, as instantiated by the narrator who reveals himself to be the novel's author, and possessor of the letters, in the film's closing voice over. This strategy, while purportedly exceedingly faithful to Branco's novel, nevertheless naturally breaks with cinema's own predilection for exterior manifestation. Here, the novel's interior voices are related in voice-over, both off-screen and on, which both match the images on camera, procuring a redundancy, or more interestingly perhaps, fail to synchronize. Among the finest examples of the latter is Simão's assassination of Teresa's cousin - and fiance - of which we are told of as the pair face one another. Following a fifteen-second gap, the on-screen narration reaches the aforesaid voiced-over revelation, thereby highlighting the novel form's summary quality.

In fact, Doomed Love is structured upon the formal differences between film and literature, appropriating the latter to underline the artificial quality of narration in cinema no less than in the art of prose. This arbitrary quality appears in Oliveira's framing choices, such as in Simão's brother's horse back departure through the woods - adopting a singularly obscuring angle - or in the picture's utilizations of zooms that traverse the interior spaces before abruptly stopping. Then again, Oliveira's organization of space as often emphasizes the inherently cinematic, as when an extended take framing Teresa behind a diamond-shaped iron screen continues to highlight the architectural device throughout the shot's duration, thus becoming not simply a novelistic detail but a figure generating a phenomenological experience in its own right.

This non-literary duration occurs throughout Doomed Love, as in an excessive passage depicting Simão lying face first on his bed or in an interval in which Teresa's father's servants light the candles of a chandelier and roll up a carpet in preparation for the girl's birthday dance. Here the mode of representation again trades on the experience of lived duration, though it does so with the inflection of opera, and of the servant chorus doing double duty as stagehands. Oliveira has adopted this tradition in a medium that no longer requires its practicality. Likewise, the blacksmith João himself seems to follow from theatrical antecedents, even speaking his lines directly into the camera as an actor in theatre or in the opera might speak directly to its audience. By contrast, Simão's younger sister pulls a chair into the camera's immediate foreground as she discloses her family's fate in direct address. In this moment, it is as though the camera is being addressed as a camera, as a device to record for an unspecified future.

Then again, it is the film's past-tense that shines through most clearly, from the opening titles that will only later be fulfilled in Simão's transport to India, to the picture's obsessive strategy of narration that seeks to tell a family history in the same language as the novel. This is a cinema of the past, and thus of fate, of "doomed love," rather than of the perpetual present-tense that the medium traditionally utilizes. To this end, Mariana's premonitions of Simão's future serves to make the future past, evisioned as it is in her off-camera imagings. These hallucinations, as well as the on-screen spectre of a dead, dictating Teresa provide the film with some of its less conventional modes of address. In the end, Doomed Love is a catalogue of modes of telling in its many cinematic and non-cinematic forms.

Further, this strategy of summary is further reinforced by Oliveira's uses of sound and dialogue that (seem to) literally transpose the source material, such as in a conversation between Simão's parents where the voice-over specifies that they argue. In so doing, the filmmaker eliminates the dialogue that would comprise this argumentation, choosing instead to adopt the novel's summary quality. They simply argue, silently.

This effort of transcription may also be found in the extreme low-key nocturnal passages that recur in Doomed Loved, though in these instances it is a matter of detail rather than elision, even if elision is the visual effect of pronounced darkness. Most spectacularly, the film's principle action set piece occurs in the pitch black of night, eschewing cinema's technically-demanded perversions of naturalism in conventional day-for-night strategies. In greatly reducing the visual field, Doomed Love, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Victor Erice's El Sur (1983) follows Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) in simulating its period's lower key lighting. In other words, it seems to be very much an art film of its particular moment.

Then again, as always, Manoel de Oliveira's modernism singularly partakes in a relation to the arts that generated cinema, from the novel to opera. Indeed, its stage-bound settings refer more to opera or theatre than art cinema's conventional documentations of place, such as in the plaster board sea-going and stage-coach vessels that reinforce its constructedness. Yet, while much of the director's corpus ultimately underscores cinema's deficient nature, as an augment of theatre, here Oliveira's anti-cinema adds to its medium, providing a means to supply the sub-surface while reframing cinema as precisely what it is: not life, but art - and art which is as gloriously and exhilaratingly arbitrary as its many antecedents.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Prisoners of Possibility" @ Senses of Cinema

I would like to direct Tativille's loyal readership to the latest publication by frequent site collaborator, Mrs. Tativille herself, Lisa K. Broad: Prisoners of Possibility: Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive as 'Quantum Text'. Suffice it to say that her new piece is infinitely more intelligent than anything you'll read on this site - at least more intelligent than anything authored solely by Mr. Tativille.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Film: A Girl Cut in Two / La Fille coupée en deux (2007)

Though it is not without its peaks,* the cinema of nouvelle vague maestro Claude Chabrol retains a certain minor quality across its fifty years, forever favoring the divertissment of acerbically-pictured bourgeois duplicities as something other than thematic view-point. This something other might profitability be called a genre, were it not so wholly identified with Chabrol himself, in much the same way that Hitchcock's thrillers strike us as Hitchcock's first, rather than as ordinary or even extraordinary instances of a larger category. Chabrol has similarly crafted an artistic identity that is consubstantial with an immediately recognizable signature form, as if to prove the veracity of the auteur theory that he once helped author. Indeed, the formal application of what is essentially an organizing principle - namely that the films of a single director might be profitably read with and against each other - serves as the engine of the enduring "New Wave" movement, whether its Rohmer's tales/comedies/seasons, Rivette's allegories for narrative creation and mise-en-scène, or Godard's self-reflexive dissections of film form. Chabrol, almost more than a Rohmer - or even a Mondrian - works in the slightest of variations.

A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille coupée en deux) adheres to this same principle of small difference, figuring a Marquis de Sade beneath the cultivated exterior of provincial author Charles St.-Denis (François Berléand). Though surrounded by developed sensuality, whether in the graceful form of his saintly wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli) or the darker expertise of the startling Capucine (Mathilda May), St.-Denis nevertheless seeks the company of blond, weather-girl bombshell, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier). Sagnier's twenty-something is introduced by the first of a series of hard-cuts that finds the on-camera personality standing before a blank green screen. St.-Denis presence in the studio, and subsequently in a nightclub, alongside Benoît Magimel's Paul Gaudens - a stranger to both Gabrielle and the film's spectators, but not to St.-Denis - provide two near introductions before a formal meeting at a book signing the next day. Suffice it to say that St.-Denis propositions the much younger Gabrielle - and that she soon reciprocates.

In following St.-Denis to "Paradis," his urban work sanctuary featuring a presumably much-used double bed covered by black and faded jewel tone-stripped sheets, Gabrielle implicitly rebuffs the advances of the more age-appropriate (and obscenely wealthy) Paul, who is himself the perfect Hitchcockian dandy, a marginally heterosexual heir to the eponymous Lodger (1926) and to Strangers on a Train's Bruno (1951).^ Like St.-Denis, with whom he shares a mutual, albeit mostly undefined enmity, Paul is captivated by the lithe young beauty, whose attraction for the spectator - or at least for the heterosexual male viewer - seems as much conditioned by Chabrol's narrative structure and camera work as it is by Sagnier's actual physique. Certainly Sagnier provides a striking presence in her white-cinched overcoat and in a corsetted red top - shot before a flat, single-toned red backdrop. Yet, early on at least, Sagnier seems to be on screen too rarely, turning her back to the viewer or cut away from by Chabrol when it is her beauty precisely that organizes the narrative. Chabrol keeps us desiring this woman's presence, until another hard cut, following an unspecified, off-camera act undertaken by St.-Denis and Gabrielle in an upscale brothel, inspires the female lead to solemnly ask to be taken back to his flat.

This conspicuous on-screen absence serves as one of the director's principle narrative strategies in the relatively opaque A Girl Cut in Two, where the details of what is left off-camera remain immured from speculation. For all of the film's sadistic implications, Chabrol's mise-en-scène retains an exterior chastity,+ only hinting at the degradations that befall the willing Gabrielle during her sentimental education - the image of Sagnier on hands and knees in black negligee (and with peacock feathers attached to her rear), which may well be seared into the spectator's consciousness by the film's ultra-sexy poster, is perhaps the most obvious exception. Chabrol in other words balances the puritanical and that decadent that his surrogate St.-Denis proposes as the two possible states for the current French character. As the Chabrolian sub-genre dictates, the one is located behind the other.

*At the top, one must include Les Cousins (1959), Les Bonnes femmes (1960), An Unfaithful Wife (his masterpiece; 1969), Le Boucher (1970), Violette (1978), and La Ceremonie (1995). A second level of contenders might further contain Le Beau Serge (1958), Les Biches (1968), Wedding in Blood (1973), Story of Women (1988), Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and Flower of Evil (2003).

^ Richard Allen has a fine consideration of this character motif in Hitchcock's Romantic Irony (Columbia University Press, 2007)

+ Chabrol's handsomely lit and lensed visual style (by frequent Chabrol collaborator, cinematographer Eduardo Serra), notable as so much French cinema for its pale blue tones, is commonly articulated through the distinctively classical technique of shot/reverse-shot editing. Among the best examples of the cutting is Gabrielle's meeting with her television station supervisor in the latter's office. For the film's filtered look see Paul's mother at home late in the picture's runtime.

This piece is dedicated to the memory and inspiration of the late Manny Farber (1917-2008).

Friday, August 08, 2008

From Catastrophe: Jean Renoir's The Southerner (1945)

There are moments in the history of the arts when apparent cataclysm yields sterling results. One such instance is the break-up of the greatest band of the 1980s, The Smiths, after just four LP's. Sprouting from what seemed to be a cultural calamity, Morrissey's solo career may not stand up to The Smith's corpus song-for-song and album-for-album - not even The Beatles arguably can match The Smiths in either category - but there can be no denying the richness and even variety of his post-Smith's output. His is a career without which the best in latter-day indie rock would seem unthinkable.

Likewise, director Jean Renoir's exit from France following the critical and commercial disaster of his ultimate master work The Rules of the Game (1939), marks another such node in the history of artistic expression. No filmmaker can claim the sustained level of achievement that Renoir attained during the 1930s in his native France, where with one masterpiece after another the son of the Impressionist both defined an entire industry, as well as a film movement ("poetic realism") while exceeding his time - save for the even more tragic two-feature career of Jean Vigo - effortlessly. "The French Renoir" was the greatest of all French directors, proving the celluloid heir to that nation's venerable naturalist and (again) Impressionist traditions.

Hollywood, on the other hand, and particularly its studio settings, certainly must have seemed ill-suited to facilitate the director's characteristic realism. Yet The Southerner (1945) emerges as a full flowering of the director's mature - location-bound - idiom, in its case transposed onto the flat cotton fields of the American south. The Southerner further marks the middle point between Renoir's 1939 The Rules of the Game and his late period masterpiece The River (1951), both chronologically and thematically.

Borrowing from the earlier film, Renoir infuses his American film with a like carnality, fixing chiefly on its male protagonist Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott). Sam maintains an active conjugal life with his wife Nona (Betty Field), is forthrightly desired by a pretty young neighbor girl (Noreen Nash) and is twice pursued over his single pal - who in serving as the narrator in the film's picture book opening fulfills the role of the plump Renoir surrogate ala Octave. (He similarly offers comic relief in a pair of unexpected outbreaks of violence that reinforces the link.) Sam's mother, moreover, is displayed in the apparent aftermath of a tryst with her aged fiance, lying beside the gentleman in the partial shelter of the cotton crops. Looking forward, The Southerner's physicality anticipates Renoir's under-appreciated ode to sensuality, Picnic on the Grass (1959).

In fact, The Southerner repeatedly looks ahead, though often to the less distant The River. In embryonic form, The Southerner anticipates that later film's cyclical understanding of human history and its organization of life into seasons, depicted in a calendar illustrated by its Americanist drawings (cf. John James Audubon); the snake motif is referenced but not developed; and lastly, it refers to and even suggests the possibility of dead children - a theme again that overlaps with The River.

The aforesaid child, Sam and Nona's son, is endangered by their villainous neighbor Devers's (J. Carrol Naish) initial refusal to share water and later his insistence that he not be given milk (for his "spring sickness"). We are told that in both cases, these supplies can be easily spared the child, which basic human sympathy would dictate. In this regard, and in the ever-present suggestion that Sam and his family might have their lease revoked by a potentially malevolent landlord, Renoir's American cinema reintroduces the communitarianism of his leftist French film practice - though as (almost) always, the director's politics are worn lightly.

Renoir's humanism, however, is equally clear in his portrayal of the highly sympathetic proletariat Tucker's, whether it is the perpetually hard-working Sam or his strong-willed wife. She is in fact the one member of the family who seems to be able to reign in the often unreasonable Granny (Beulah Bondi) - she complains when one of her two blankets is used to make a coat for her granddaughter; in certain respects, Bondi's character seems to anticipate Pather Panchali's (1955) similarly curmudgeonly matriarch. Actually, that Bondi has been cast in the part sheds some light on Renoir's famous assertion that Leo McCarey knew the true nature of people better than anyone else in the American cinema: surely it was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) that inspired the quotation?

Still it is less these characterizations than The Southerner's visual interest which truly assure its high level of accomplishment: the horizontal cotton fields often picturesquely framed by the Tucker's dilapidated farm house; and the dark storm clouds gathering above Granny's head; the enormous catfish pulled from the muddy river; and the conclusion with the film's protagonists wading out into the overflowing artery; the opossum hanging in the tree; and Nona collapsing onto the dirt field, her arms burrowing beneath the dry surface. In this last moment in particular, The Southerner's physicality is translated into gesture, producing a film of almost ineffable carnality.

And of course, metaphor adheres in the film's landscape, whether it is the slow leak in the farm house's roof or in the downpour that signals catastrophe for the Tucker's. Yet, it is the untransportable nature of the director's visuals, be it Michel Simon's flotation in Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) or Betty Field's collapse into the dirt that mark Renoir's cinema at its very finest. From The Rules of the Game's failure would come one of the lesser-seen treasures of America's war-era cinema - as well as one of its greatest, and most tactile, single moments.