Yumurta (2007)

31 05 2008

About as surprisingly great as Nachmittag is disappointing. That is to say, a perfect example of what I look for in “contemplative” cinema. I could produce a list of directors and films that this film invites comparisons to (Tsai and Angelopolous quickly come to mind) but it would risk demolishing what is undoubtedly one of the most personal cinematic experiences of all-time. Indeed, this can be classified under the genre of “lost souls finding each other” which I love so dearly but it’s plenty of other things as well. In other words, a perfect example of everything I look for (and love) in cinema.

Lonely Yusuf returns to his childhood home following the death and funeral of his mother. While he is indeed familiar with the surroundings, he is also sad and alone. He goes to his mother’s house to collect what little family belongings are left. While there, he meets Ayla, a much younger girl who has been taken care of his mother for the past couple of years. She informs him that her mother’s final wish is for him to sacrifice a ram in her honor. He is against such a concept, but goes ahead anyway, inviting Ayla to come along. Along the way, they begin to form a connection, but they both struggle to express their feelings.

It’s nearly impossible for me to not like a film about alienation, loneliness, isolation, and so on, especially when the themes are addressed so ingenuously as they are in this film. It would be a lie to consider the film unique as it pretty much plays off all the textbook traditions of Tsai, Tati, and so on but a lack of originality is not the mark of a problem. Truth be told, Kaplanoglu throws in some rather rapid editing, from time to time, but still this very much a “slow” film that will leave many people restless and eventually, befuddled. It’s a bit of an art film cliche, I suppose, but I could care less when the results are so perceptive, accomplished, and poignant.

All of the technical perfections don’t even compare in importance anyway, to just how personal of film Kaplanoglu has made. Such a element goes far beyond aesthetics or shot lengths. While the muted colors of the cinematography and the tension brought on by the film’s austerity do make it deeply engaging, it’s the film ability to side-step anything dramatic and immediately engage the viewer in a mental way. One could argue that the film is “inconsequential” in that sense but I would contest that going through the events that these characters go through is very consequential in a mental sense. Nothing physically happens, but blown opportunities, repressed feelings are things that you simple cannot forget. There’s been plenty of films that have expressed such ideas, but never quite as brilliantly as Kaplanoglu has right here.

The word “contemplative” is thrown around a lot, but it definitely applies here and again, it has more to do with the characters than technical accomplishments. There’s many sequences of the would-be lovers just driving and staring off into the distance of the sun. There are shots that echo Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop of all things, but that also remind one of the personal sadness that is so present in Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. I suppose one could make the connection between this and Theo Angelopolous’ Beekeeper as well since it also depicts a would-be romance on the road. I think that such comparisons downplay just how rewarding this film is as it is an experience all on its own. Yes, there’s certainly echoes of other great films (such as the ones listed above) but that doesn’t make this ring any less true. This is absolutely one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of the 21st century and a perfect introduction to a director who could very well be the most important for this generation.

Nachmittag (2007)

30 05 2008

I should (and perhaps, will) be kicking myself in the head for not enjoy this film as much as I should. It offers pretty much my favorite approach to filmmaking; long static shots with precise cutting. As much as I like Schanelec’s formalistic style, it doesn’t really fit well with the monologue-esque dialogue that this film is so heavily dependent on. All the actors give their lines in a believable, nuanced manner but the fact of the matter is, people need to shut up. A triumph in aesthetics, but a chore when it comes to caring about the characters.

Irene returns to her broken and separated family. She is out of touch with her son, Konstantin, a struggling writer. He’s still recovering from a nasty break-up with Agnes, who has returned after a semester away at college. Like with his mother, he is awkward and distant from Agnes, preferring to spend time to take care of Alex, who seems to be on the final point in his life. Tensions increase as Irene invites her boyfriend over. He intrigues Agnes, who ends up spending more time with him than Irene does, but alienates Konstantin.

It’s ironic that a film depicting the distance between people is captured in such a claustrophobic way. As mentioned before, the film is quite dependent on dialogue, but Schanelec seems to be developing a new aesthetic for scenes of conversation. I suppose one could say that such an austere, rigorous, and unorthodox approach is reminiscent of the great Yasujiro Ozu, which is fitting considering that this film does have a lot of similar family issues, though they are handled in a very different fashion. A more modern connection could be made to Jane Campion’s Sweetie, which also handles shot/reverse shot sequences in a unconventional way but these comparisons probably overshadow the fact that Schanelec is creating a new (and different) way of shooting conversation. As someone who generally likes films to downplay the importance of dialogue, I find such experimentation interesting, albeit very frustrating.

To come back to my original compliant, there’s simply too much talking and too much of it is too eloquent. Again, the film is based (very loosely) on an Anton Chekov play but even then. In a way, it really dillutes what could have been a fascinating character study because when someone launches into a monologue or a recount of some uneventful story, it feels like the filmmakers are just going through the motions. There are some truly wonderful sequences here such as the one where Agnes and Konstantin wander around the city. It’s one of the few scenes that seems to let the actors act without getting bogged down in a “serious” confrontation. For the most part, this is a really fantastic film that I’m probably just being harsh on for not perfectly meeting the standards of usual minimalistic filmmaking.

Triangle (2007)

29 05 2008

An admirable experiment made unremarkable by the fact that all three directors play things very safe. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting some sort of masterpiece but I still anticipated something a bit more than just a nicely photographed action film. If Hong Kong action films were at the risk of drifting into self-parody then this film does nothing to prevent that. It unintentionally shows just how unimaginative these guys are since they all basically submit to conventions. Still, a half-decent way to kill 90 minutes.

Three men, all plagued with a list of personal problems, devise a possible heist. They are given a tip that treasure is hidden inside a legislative office. One of the heist participants, Bo, is an even tighter predicament as his wife, Ling, is having an affair with an officer that continues to tail them. That’s pretty much it, though, of course, there’s plenty of gunfights and car chases to bring up the film’s running time.

Tsui Hark is the first one up and he is at a distinct disadvantage because he has to essentially setup the whole film. Unsurprisingly, he chooses something skull-crushingly banal. Look, I’m fine with these films since they all end up looking beautiful but considering the fact that this is essentially an experiment, can’t we find something a bit less contrived? It seems that Tsui puts the other two directors (Ringo Lam and Johnny To) in positions that basically cuts off any type of creativity.

To their credit, all three do try at least one “out-there” idea in their respective segments. Ringo Lam throws in some weird Wong Kar-Wai/perfume commercial dance sequence and Johnny To throws in a fat retarded guy. Of course, the film looks great, too, even though I might go as far as to say that all modern Hong Kong films look this good. And yes, it is entertaining in a mindless superficial way, but even just as that, it’s still loaded with problems.

Part-Time Work of a Female Slave (1973)

28 05 2008

A brilliantly composed film, as one should expect from Alexander Kluge, that builds up too much momentum in its first couple of minutes. To his credit, it must be extremely difficult to live up to showing close-ups of a live abortion but he does fairly well thereafter. If anything I wish Kluge would simply tone down some of the more overt political statements. While some of that stuff is quite funny, at least in this case, it also threatens to date this otherwise wonderful film.

In order to put food on the table, Roswitha performs abortion while her husband, Franz spends all day researching. Her operation is uncovered by a rival abortion clinic and forces her to find a new way to support her family. Franz takes a job in a research facility, which enables Roswitha to have more free time. Instead of turning her focus to her children, she becomes deeply involved in politics and social work.

The opening section is fantastic and perhaps even a bit overwhelming. As always, Kluge demonstrates an innate understanding of capturing images and doing so with beautiful results. The big deal, so to speak, behind this film lies in the fact that an abortion is shown in great detail. It is with the same confidence and spontaneity that the rest of the film is shot with, even though the content never comes close to being so grotesque. Perhaps I’m alone in finding sequences of people washing their hands to be riveting but it is to Kluge’s credit that he can make something like that be exciting. The first half of this isn’t all too different from Harmony Korine’s Gummo, a film which I reference here far too much as the standard of “poetic cinema.” I did intend for that to be a compliment.

Then out of nowhere, the film slips into an outspoken (but not heavy-handed) satire. This is all fine by me but I also wish he would give up on some of his political tendencies and make a film that is more representative of his abilities as a filmmaker. Still, there’s nothing really wrong with this film. It’s about as perfectly crafted as anything he’s every done and for my money, probably his most immediately intriguing. A very problematic film, but a wonderful one, too.

À travers la forêt (2005)

28 05 2008

Not too long ago, I discreetly sang the praises of Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Le doux amour des hommes, a film which seemed to triumphantly announce a new defiant voice in French cinema. One on par with Denis, Desplechin, Assayas, and so on. In that film, Civeyrac’s wonderful eye for visuals clashed awkwardly with the aesthetics of a digital camera. In this film, he’s upgraded and the result is one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. However, he has unfortunately traded in the simple “relationship drama” setup of his previous film for something less straight-forward and more metaphysical.

Armelle is coping with the death of her boyfriend, Renaud, rather poorly. Her two sisters treat her ongoing depression with different approaches; Roxane is slightly more caring and buys into Armelle’s accounts of supernatural sex, while Bérénice is far more realistic and advises her sister to find a replacement. Instead, Roxane takes Armelle to a medium. While there, she spots a man that looks identical to Renaud but, as it turns out, he is involved with someone else.

Within the time frame of a mere sixty-five minutes, Civeyrac establishes an atmosphere bursting with poetry. The entire film is built from ten shots, which can be described as “floating.” They’re just tracking shots but Civeyrac captures every sequence with an easy-going flow that is free from interruptions. In a way, the long takes are reminiscent of Miklos Jancso had he only worked in a more closed environment. Lest I forget that every shot seems to be created with the objective of capturing as much as beauty as possible. In that case, it certainly helps to have Camille Berthomier, who carries what would otherwise be an unlikable character, in the lead role.

So I guess I could simply say that this is pretty much a case of a film that has all the technical things right, but none of the dramatic ones. Instead, I’m quite undecided on how I ultimately feel about the narrative. Normally, I would never praise a film that is about something so (self-consciously) spiritual but Civeyrac is a talented enough director for me to think he is above such a style. Actually, if anything, the film’s whole supernatural story leaves me rather indifferent since every sequence is captured with such care and attention. Really, the film’s biggest problem is the few sequences in which it reverts to a level of conventional horror film. There’s one scene, in particular, that seems to have been directly lifted from Repulsion or Inland Empire. No matter how important it to the film as a whole, it is really embarrassing to have such a silly “scary” moment. Remove such unflattering sequences and I might be a little less cautious in calling it a masterpiece. For now, it is great advancement in cinema, but also an experiment that has some nasty side-effects.