Friday, June 01, 2007

The Best in Romantic Comedy: Knocked Up (2007) & Antoine and Antoinette (1947)

Writer-director Judd Apatow's Knocked Up opened Friday to near universal acclaim and the prospect of sizable box office. While I was a big fan of Apatow's largely under-appreciated television work (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), I was also a detractor of his previous feature, The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005), which was another well-reviewed box office hit that nonetheless struck me as one-note. With Knocked Up, Apatow exceeds these previous efforts in every respect, creating easily one of the funniest comic features in the past few years. In other words, Knocked Up fulfills the substantial promise of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.

As many of my readers are familiar undoubtedly with the premise of Knocked Up, I'll be very brief: Seth Rogan's Ben Stone, an apt name for the out-of-work (except for his development of a porn website) pot-loving illegal alien from Canada - a bogeyman to put the southern border's worst to shame - knocks up beautiful E! on-screen personality Alison Scott (Katherine Heigel) after a night of dancing (Ben may indeed throw the dice too many times, but that's all he's got) and one too many cocktails. Ben has his charms, to be sure, but the idea that she and he would end up together, regardless of the shots consumed, strains credulity.

After learning she's become pregnant following the pair's unprotected one-night stand - Ben just assumes she uses a "dam" or something, which he knows is disgusting - Alison reveals her pregnancy to her mother (Joanna Kerns) who says they'll get rid of it. She even reminds her of a relative who had a "real" baby after terminating a similar pregnancy. By contrast, Ben's father (auteur icon Harold Ramis) refuses to look at the pregnancy as a tragedy, reminding Ben that he's "the best thing that ever happened" to him, which Ben claims depresses him. In fact, Knocked Up may be the most pro-life mainstream Hollywood film in quite awhile - as Ben furtively tells the infant the story of its conception late in the film, he tells the child that failing to use a condom was the best decision he ever made.

This is not to say that Knocked Up is exactly safe for conservatives: beyond the fact of the one-night stand, Apatow's picture largely trades in sexual explicit jokes and stoner humor, with Ben's friends being more or less stereotypes of this latter sort - say That 70's Show with the cast of Freaks and Geeks (a skeevy Jason Segel may be the cringe-inspiring highlight, though its nice to see Martin Starr getting work, sporting a beard that is another of the film's running jokes). Still the film's profanity is no more the point ultimately than is its default pro-life stance. In the end, Knocked Up serves to reassure its twenty-something audiences (as also its protagonists from that same generation) showing them that there is nothing to fear from growing older and starting a family, however unconventional its construction. This is a film that gives its listless male viewers a gentle push toward responsibility (and its career-focused young female spectators the reassurance that having a child isn't life-ending - in fact, it helps Alison's career in Knocked Up), which both Ben and Alison accept at separate junctures of the pregnancy/film. Apatow's vision is unexpectedly generous - and in a way old-fashioned - coming on the heels of The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Of course, Apatow's style remains televisual in Knocked Up: nearly every scene is constructed on the basis of a shot/reverse-shot editing structure, with the dialogue delivered in excessively shallow compositions of the scenes' actors. Inebriation, both during the original one-night stand and in a subsequent trip to Vegas produce two of the only deviations from this system. Indeed, Knocked Up is basically a film of one-liners, with Rogan and Alison's brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd in one of the film's most charismatic performances; his on-screen wife Debbie, Leslie Mann, is another stand-out) delivering many of the film's best lines. Be forewarned, nonetheless, that Apatow's humor combines graphic locker room banter with keen pop culture references; in other words, if you don't know Wild Things or Matisyahu, Apatow's humor might not be to your taste.

More universal in its light humor, and far more remarkable in its filmmaking technique, Jacques Becker's Antoine and Antoinette (1947) first came to attention for its Cannes prize victory sixty years ago, and as such deserves to be celebrated in a year where that same festival recently handed out its sixtieth anniversary prize. Instead, Jean-Pierre Melville's recent smash success (Army of Shadows, 1969) has assured that he will again represent film past during the summer retrospective season - this time with Le Doulos (1962). All Antoine and Antoinette has going for it is an infinite reserve of charm and boundless warmth, of a degree that has been rarely (if ever) achieved on screen. Obviously these are no competition for fashionable cynicism.

Antoine (Roger Pigaut) and Antoinette (Claire Mafféi) are a poor, early twenty-something married couple. He's a typographer and she works in a large department store where she's in charge of the passport photos machine. The exceedingly attractive Antoinette is constantly receiving propositions from the store's patrons and especially from a wealthy, middle age store owner M. Roland (Noël Roquevert). He continually attempts to lure her with the promise of riches her husband does not have the means to provide - in fact, it seems as though he has succeeded in doing this with another of his female employees. Nevertheless, Becker leaves us no doubt that the couple is very much in love, whatever their material wealth.

Fates change, however, with the discovery of a winning lottery ticket in one of Antoinette's volumes. The pair plot out what they'll do with their jackpot winnings of more than 800,000 francs - a new dress for her, a couple of new suits for him, a motorcycle with a sidecar (far better than his bicycle with the wrecked tire). Going to bed, the ticket is placed in a secure position as Antoine bides his time until he can collect their life-changing winnings. He is finally going to be able to give his beautiful young bride the life she deserves.

Suffice it to say that Antoine and Antoinette complicates their collection of winnings, though the plot machinations are not those we initially expect. In so doing, Becker reveals the core of pathos that defines his narrative: Antoine is not the sort of man (without revealing too much of the Le Million-inspired plot, we are led to believe he'll never be the sort of man) who can give his wife wealth. How then can she be happy with him, when her beauty assures that countless men could and would do exactly that? This again is the essence of Becker's film; Antoine and Antoinette discloses an essential young male anxiety.

At the same time, in the object noted above, Antoine and Antoinette also offers a fantastic solution to the basic problem highlighted. So too is Knocked Up a projection of male fantasy: a listless, twenty-something impregnates a beautiful E! news anchor - much to Apatow's credit the protagonist does not know this before hand - with whom he would have no chance in any known universe. Okay, getting a girl 'knocked up' is shall we say not exactly a male fantasy, but being with a girl like Katherine Heigel most certainly is, unemployed Canadian pothead or not. Simultaneously, Apatow offers a glimpse of twenty-something anxiety commensurate with the new century: here, of getting older, of taking a job, and most importantly, of starting a family. Again, Knocked Up reassures us that things will work out. This is his generosity.

Becker's finds his in the form of film magic Antoine and Antoinette employs: here, the intervention occurs in the improbable discovery of the ticket. Antoine and Antoinette does not deny the currency of the anxiety, even when Becker gives us every sense that Antoinette will stay with Antoine regardless. We just really want everything to work out for both of them, and for there to be no reason for Antoinette in particular to regret being with Antoine. Actually, the same hope that they'll work it out permeates Knocked Up, though Alison does have a good deal more cause to choose not to be with Ben; in this respect, Apatow and Ben must work some magic of their own - cleaning his character up, getting him a job, namely in securing the lead some theretofore absent responsibility.

Of course, the magic of Antoine and Antoinette, to return to the earlier film, is not confined to the film's plot, but instead infuses the picture's immediate post-war settings (shot in longer duration takes that showcase the Parisian locations, both public and domestic) and the director's whimsical technique, which feature devices such as the iris underscoring the film's debt to early cinema and particularly to René Clair. Then again, Antoine and Antoinette provides one of the most definitive anticipations of the nouvelle vague that would transform international art cinema a dozen years later. This is filmmaking at its freest - the director's subsequent Rendez-vous de juillet (1949) provides an even more explicit link to the free-forms of jazz that Antoine and Antoinette seems to mimic on occasion. Antoine and Antoinette remains one of the nearly forgotten treasures of the international cinema, so deserving of remembrance in this its sixtieth anniversary.

In the end, like Knocked Up, Becker's film is about joy: whereas the former locates it in children, commemorated over the film's heart-warming closing credits, Antoine and Antoinette finds this same quality writ in its protagonists' situations - once again, of being young and in love. The precariousness of joy is to be defended at all costs, be it in the rearing of children or in the magical intervention of film itself.

1 comment:

P.L. Kerpius said...

"though its nice to see Martin Starr getting work, sporting a beard that is another of the film's running jokes). "

--My favorite part was when they called him "Martin Scorsese on Cocaine." Ha!!