Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Best of 2012 In Review: The Deep Blue Sea

Adapted by the director from Terence Rattigan's eponymous 1952 play, Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea (2011) opens in a procession of powerfully cinematic figures, from the filmmaker's Ophülsian (commencing) crane work to a breathy collection of cross-dissolves and fades that seem to inhale along with the on-screen heroine. As Rachel Weisz's Hester slips into a suicidal unconscious, Davies' film slides imperceptibly into Hester's recent fire-lit past, thereby initiating a Proustian temporality that will continue to obtain throughout the remainder of the filmmaker's highly refined reworking of Rattigan. With Samuel Barber's stringed Concerto sobbing along with the unhappily married lead, Davies cuts to the obsessed-over object of Hester's diffusely-lit memory, Tom Hiddleston's impeccably tailored, laddish combat veteran, Freddie Page. With their kiss - wrapped in the amber warmth of a London pub - becoming an almost gender-less knot of pale white flesh, Davies' camera circles above his adulterous pairing in the first of a set of similar rotations that will return the viewer back to Hester's receding present. It will remain for a sudden hard sound edit to snap Hester and the spectator back into the diegetic now, to break the narcotic spell of Davies' opening romantic salvo.

Through its masterful manipulations of space and time, light and sound, Davies' Deep Blue Sea beginning bolsters the filmmaker's already unimpeachable status as the very best that the British cinema currently has to offer. So too does the physical precision that Davies pulls out his performers, whether it is Sir William Collyer's (Simon Russell Beale) hovering hand that in the faintest measure of his all-but-absent sensuality makes next to no tactile contact with the surface beneath it, or the achingly beautiful rhythmic rise and fall of wife Hester's seizing chest. The Deep Blue Sea's feeling for gesture, in this respect, elicits comparisons to the extraordinary observational acumen of the director's Mizoguchian masterpiece The House of Mirth (2000), while the fragmented temporal structure of Davies' very great Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) returns in Hester's fluid subjectivity. Similarly present is the Liverpudlian Davies' pop sensibility, which as it happens belongs much more to The Deep Blue Sea's pre-rock-and-roll early fifties moment than to the 1960s British Invasion sound that Of Time and the City (2008) excoriates.

Davies' diegetic use of pop, in his signature sing-along format, serves to construct The Deep Blue Sea's proletarian public. In the film's first group sing, a collective public-house rendition of  "You Belong to Me," Davies establishes the class disparity that divides lovers Freddie and Hester, and which finally denies the latter full membership in the film's postwar community: where Freddie freely belts out the 1952 hit, Hester only sporadically mouths the familiar pop lyrics. However, amid the socially leveling experience of World War II bombardment, Hester and her husband Sir William are allowed temporary membership in London's closely knit public: in another of the film's fluid long-takes, Davies discloses the upper-class couple, huddled together on a populated tube platform, as they sing along with the Dublin street anthem, "Molly Malone." In this flashback-within-a-flashback, inaugurated by an architectural madeleine, Lord and Lady Collyer join an historical British public that is finally defined by a shared popular culture.

Even more than its carefully rendered class dynamics and its exceptional aesthetic sensitivity - save for the supremely focal remembered warmth of the postwar period's interior illumination and the dull morning light that stages the work's prodigious melancholy - The Deep Blue Sea emphasizes the staggering romantic commitment of Hester to her beloved Freddie, a love that Hiddleston's objet du désir ultimately refuses to reciprocate. Lady Hester risks everything for Freddie's occasional gift of himself - an offering that he only rarely extends to the endlessly devoted heroine. Hers is an absolute in passion that landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) nonetheless distinguishes from real love. (Mrs. Elton defines genuine love rather as wiping someone's ass to preserve their dignity.) For her cuckolded husband - whom it should be noted learns of the affair in a static, behind-the-back framing of Weisz that constructs an expectation of discovery - their story is fundamentally tragic, a worthy heir to the filmmaker's Ophülsian and Mizoguchian sources. For Hester, however, her great love of a man who does not share her feelings is merely "sad," not least of all as it proves an experience that can be overcome. Indeed, Davies ends with an emblem of perseverance: in a circular return to the film's nocturnal opening, the psychologically ruins of the Second World War are presented in the clear light of day, following an unexpected shift in Hester's heretofore gloomy disposition.

The Deep Blue Sea is currently available on the Netflix Instant streaming platform and on home video.   

Sunday, December 02, 2012

New Film: Holy Motors (2012)

A work of enterprising vision and aggressive newness that finds all narratives exhausted, Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012) emerges as one of the year's most fully realized ruminations on the current and coming status of film art. With flash Muybridge inserts, Hugoesque fiction and a battery of prosthetic disguises, Carax's first film in thirteen years brings the century of cinema's invention into contact with the incidence of its digital expiration and even its extrapolated fictionalized future. Holy Motors is a film without an outside, a cinema that is all cinema - a cinema as dream, in the spirit of Carax's opening metaphor - that nonetheless feels the fatigue of the productive act in the ages of the DCP multiplex, satellite broadcasting and inevitably, Internet image-making.

Holy Motors constructs its allegory for the twenty-first century artefactual experience as a omnibus-style sequence of nine "appointments" (in addition to a reflexively surreal prologue, de-constructive musical intermission, and post-human epilogue) that the aptly named M. Oscar (Denis Lavant) keeps over the course of a single, extended work-day. Chauffeured to each by professional associate Céline (Édith Scob, pictured, beneath the mint-green mask), Oscar is charged with incarnating a series of disparate figures that he cometically contrives in the spacious backseat of stretch limousine. (Holy Motors almost inevitably suggests an aleatoric companion-piece to David Cronenberg's fellow Cannes premiere, Cosmopolis; 2012.) In thus relying so exceedingly on the mise-en-scène of the celluloid index (make-up, costuming), Carax's film openly resists the transformative capacities of digital editing.

What Holy Motors opts for instead is already and more profoundly present in Muybridge: the movement of a body in space. In Carax's latest, the ubiquity of Lavant's physical presence suggests nothing less than the displacement of the traditional film index onto the actor's body. In fact, the body is so central to Holy Motors that it remains the focal presence even when it is submitted to technological effacement: in the instance of M. Oscar's employment as a motion-capture actor, it is not the animated adult-fantasy imagery that provides the chief source of the passage's spectacle, but rather the astonishing bodily contortions performed by Lavant's co-star (in addition, of course, to the glowing abstractions produced by the body-suit sensors). In any case, it is the body in space once again that perseveres as Carax's subject - even when it is submitted to digital conversion.

Oscar's fantastic motion-capture 'appointment' contributes to Holy Motor's comprehensive cataloging of genre, with forms as disparate as Gothic horror, deathbed melodrama, the musical, and science-fiction comedy also included in Carax's encyclopedic project. This same omnibus structure equally serves to inscribe the changing cultural tenor of contemporary Paris: indications of radical Islam, single-parent households, demographic exhaustion and (of course) celebrity all emerge over the course of Carax's nine-part narrative. (In attempting on some level to contend with Paris as it is now constituted, Holy Motors achieves a surface-level contemporaneity that is absent all-too-often among art-house French imports.) Finally, Carax's shifting subjects and settings afford the director the opportunity for revisiting his own cinematic past, from the return of his "Merde" (2008) sewer-dweller to the sparkling nocturnal presence of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf's (1991) focalized structure.

It is Paris ultimately that completes Holy Motor's historically grounded sense of the cinematic index. However, it is a Paris that the spectator will never fail to behold without the filmmaker's self-conscious mediation. Holy Motors is cinema that perpetually reminds its viewer of its status as fiction, explicitly transforming the often familiar, though rarely less than fresh narratives that surrealistically unfold as a series of acting 'appointments' into the stuff of the capitalistic commodity. Holy Motor is a film for our media-saturated moment and one of the few releases of 2012 that might just merit the title masterpiece. Minimally, Carax's latest represents a career peak for the director, and at the risk of damning with faint praise, a new high for the filmmakers of France's Cinéma du look.

This review was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Holy Motors is currently being distributed in North America by Indomina Releasing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Film: Tabu (2012)

Orchestrated brilliantly in a measureless variation of silky gray tones and underwritten ironically by a light twinkling of ivory, the 35mm prelude for Miguel Gomes's third feature Tabu (2012) subtly sets the internal parameters for the fast-rising Portuguese director's sidelong take on F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty's eponymous original. Gomes's robustly referential fiction opens on a dejected intrepid explorer, a Robinson Crusoe-type in darkest Africa, who in Wes Anderson-esque ethnographic voice-over laments the loss of his beloved wife. The latter however will appear as an apparition-like presence to the suicidal bereaved, before taking her place in a still photo beside the now dead explorer's melancholic crocodile alter-ego. Gomes thus infuses the faux ethnography of his crisply cinematic open with a Bataille-inspired surrealism that (together with the Flaherty-inflected former) will continue to obtain, as categorical opposites, throughout the remaining two halves of the forty year-old director's post-colonial, post-structuralist narrative.

Inverting Tabu: A Story of the South Seas's (1931) two-part organization, Gomes's twenty-first century incarnation opens with "Paradise Lost," a Rouch In Reverse bit of first-world ethnography that soon finds first-half lead Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in a semi-fluent English exchange with an itinerant EU traveler. Pilar is then summoned by her elderly neighbor's African servant Santa (Isabel Cardoso) after the aged Aurora (Laura Soveral) loses a fortune at a local casino. Arriving, Aurora confesses her folly, observing that "peoples lives aren't like dreams," before narrating the fantasy (replete with gambling, monkey men, and dead women who fornicate with celebrities) that somehow convinced Aurora to imprudently try her luck. Gomes's luminous black-and-white 35 captures the elegant Aurora, masked by her prominent, dark-rimmed sunglasses, as she narrates her fever-dream atop a slowly rotating restaurant platform. In so doing, Gomes provides a richly lensed, lightly uncanny visual backdrop for what amounts to part one's first incursion of the surreal - a sense of everyday unreality that will return immediately thereafter in Pilar's flare-lit visit to a local Roman catacomb.

As 'Paradise Lost' progresses, Aurora accuses Santa, her fellow remnant of Portugal's colonial past, of devil-worship and witchcraft; she pleads with the devoutly Roman Catholic Pilar to entreat St. Anthony on her behalf (something that the focalized lead will do, impolitely, at a UN protest). In Gomes's Tabu there is no substantive difference between religious belief and superstition; both belong to a category of belief that no longer obtains in part one's alienated, post-Christian European civilization. With Aurora's health continuing to decline thereafter, she begins to speak in a surreal code that will become lucid only with the consequent arrival of "Paradise." Before reaching part two, however, Gomes stages one last set-piece in a liminal shopping-center jungle, which is to say in a threshold space that connects and combines the first half's urban capitalist-twilight with the second part's primitive plantation economics. As Gomes thusly exchanges his Oliveira-esque isomorphic dialogues for voiced-off recollection, part two commences with its very specific and radical aesthetic break.

With 'Paradise' being restored in part two, Gomes replaces the expansive 35mm gray-scales and crystalline conversations of the first half for a grainy 16 stock and even more conspicuously, a non-dialogue soundtrack (which nonetheless incorporates post-synchronous sound effects and even vocal pop performances). That is, Gomes trades in the loss of sound cinema for the paradise of Murnau's silent-shot, post-synchronous sound original. Of course, in dividing his film into sound and silence, 35 and 16mm - with a brief, super-8 home movie diversion in part two - Gomes procures a vivid sense of technologies and textures that, in the contemporary aftermath of the digital turn, speaks to the filmmaker's overriding scholarly impulse. We see this same instinct likewise in the filmmaker's encyclopedic approach to the stylistic figures (from the festival long-take to trick POV set-ups), media forms (the still image, the films within the film of part one, and even the Blissfully Yours-inspired scribbling on the image) and most distinctively of all, the modes of narration that structure Gomes's Tabu (the mimesis of part one, voice-over diegesis of part two, and the letters that conclude the film). As in his very fine Our Beloved Month of August (2008), Gomes seeks to include everything in his 2012 follow-up.  

If the latest Tabu is most obviously a consummate work of historical reference and obsessive piece of postmodern scholarship, this is not to suggest that it, in any respect, lacks more conventional narrative and psycho-sexual pleasures. The adulterous, taboo romance of the young Aurora (Ana Moreira, pictured, in 16mm) and her globetrotting musician lover Ventura (Carloto Cotta) will provide many of the film's more lusty pleasures, while the Iberian translations of "Be My Baby" and other period pop hits introduce a kitschy experience of nostalgia that is no less immediate. However, as pleasures go, there are none more bracing - and memorable - than Tabu's densely luxurious black-and-white visuals.

New York-based Adopt Films will be opening Tabu at Film Forum on December 26, with a series of single dates to follow, including Minneapolis's Walker Art Center on January 11.