L’Humanite (1999)

5 06 2008

It was quite funny to watch this, a film completely unorthodox and (seemingly) free of influence after watching Assayas’ great but not so original Late August, Early September. I am not quite sure if this so much a compliment to Dumont as it is a statement of being totally blown away by this anti-investigation film. You’d think one could anticipate such craziness having already seen Twentynine Palms but apparently not. As fascinating and bizarre at this film is, it is also sort of too cynical in a way. It has a very heightened sense of mockery that does indeed taint an otherwise perfect film. Whether they be positive or negative, I can’t see anyone not having a strong response to his. It has infuriated countless filmgoers already but there are some (such as myself) that have been witness to a film that will easily outlive its more conservative peers.

The film starts unassumingly (but still brilliantly) enough. A long, wide static shot of a seemingly healthy landscape. The colors saturate to the point of appearing alien to the audience, which is fitting since Dumont himself believes that all film lovers are aliens. The principle character, Pharon de Winter, is introduced and done so rather dramatically. He runs, trips, and lands face down in the mud. He gets up, and enters his car rather methodically. It is clear at this point, that he has been deeply disturbed by something. The camera quickly cuts to a mutilated young girl whose rape and death serves as the launching point for the protagonist’s descent into madness. Perhaps the word “descent” gives a false impression as there is no dramatic lapse into stress. It also important to note that the rape of this eleven year old girl does not inspire a relentless detective persona in Pharon. Quite the opposite in fact, as the investigation itself plays little to no role in the film’s overall scope. Unsurprisingly, many people expecting some sort of Claude Chabrol thriller will end up disappointed, if not completely enraged.

Then, we are introduced to Pharon’s next door neighbors, Domino and Joseph, a sex-fueled couple who seem to be struggling. They invite Pharon along for their dates, probably due to his unobtrusive nature. Joseph tends to make a mockery of him, constantly pushes Pharon into awkward situations while Domino is more friendly and open towards Pharon. Tensions increase between parties in almost all of their meetings while the investigation itself is going poorly.

The above description is generally the case for almost all of the film as we do rarely find new “breaks” in the case, or developments and so on. Even when there is a significant occurrence pertaining to the investigation, it is downplayed and made little note of. On the other hand, Dumont studies the condition of Pharon, who clearly cannot only be traumatized by the rape and death of an 11 year old that he did not know. Along the way, we get “clues” offered as explanation for his state such as the fact that he still lives with his mother, or that wife and daughter died. Perhaps the latter is the definitive explanation for some but again, we are never given clear answers and more importantly, we don’t need them.

Dumont’s film is unquestionably a difficult one. Even those who considered themselves “veterans” in minimalistic cinema can have a hard with L’Humanite; I certainly did. The film clocks in just under two and a half hours composed mostly of long static shots of painful yet uneventful vignettes. From time to time, the camera appears aimless, following around Pharon as he drifts from location to location. It will be perplexing to some as to why Dumont approaches filmmaking in such a way. He is more alienating to audiences than even the forces of Bresson, Pasolini, and (early) Fassbinder put together. The reward is great for those who stick with the film, though, as it delivers one of the biggest emotional punches in cinematic history and has almost nothing to do with the fact that the criminal is revealed. Even after the film ends, the experience is not over. When I finished my initial viewing of L’Humanite I resided in a feeling that the film is enormously accomplished but too aware of its eventual impact on general audiences. I thought, perhaps, that it was even too slow for someone with such a high tolerance for this stuff as myself. Only today, the morning after, do I realize that has overpowered my thoughts to the point that I have to consider it a masterpiece. It is not an immediately rewarding experience like the work of fellow minimalists Tsai Ming-Liang, or Semih Kaplanoglu but rather one that is so perplexing and bizarre that it begs to be pondered over.

Late August, Early September (1998)

5 06 2008

Easily Assayas’ most emotional accessible film but probably one of his least accomplished as well. For once he finally centers his focus is on people and their relationships with no genre “subverting” or pandering to confine himself. On the other hand, it lacks the technical confidence of his later films. While he does seem to be doing the handheld tracking stuff quite well, it is nowhere near as seamless as it is in, say Clean. In addition, this does come quite close to being cliche French coffee-talk cinema. A problem subdued thanks mostly to a wonderful cast. While Assayas had yet to develop some of his better tendencies, he also had yet to develop some of his lesser ones. A mixed experience, but one that is undoubtedly from Assayas’ mind.

Gabriel, an aspiring novelist, is transitioning from one relationship to another. He and his presumed ex-girlfriend, Jeanne, are selling their apartment. In the mean time, he and Anne are discussing the concept of getting their own apartment together but Gabriel feels he needs some time alone. This doesn’t happen, though, as his friend Adrien falls ill. They discuss and meditate on the state of their relationships, as well as the inevitability of becoming middle age. As Adrien’s health lays in a balance, Gabriel begins to reevaluate the state of things to try to prevent himself from losing what he really wants.

All the characters here seem a bit too conscious of their place in society, which may or may not have been Assayas’ intention. Though they all appear smart, witty, and well-read, they are also terribly misguided, not to mention very confused. Perhaps it is a sad irony, a critique on Assayas’ part, on how silly some of the people that fall into this super-chatty crowd can be. Make no mistake, though, this is no condescending misanthropic look at the world but rather a very warm and perceptive look at a small group of people. It probably helps a great deal that the film boasts one of the best cast ever assembled in recent history. Once again, Jeanne Balibar is completely captivating, even if her screen time is somewhat limited. Mathieu Amalric probably plays this type of a role a bit too much (someone generally out-of-touch with the world) but he’s great as always.

The film’s only major drawback is the fact that the grainy film stock doesn’t particularly compliment the usual Assayas style. Perhaps budget restrictions left limited options but it is hard not to think that this film wasn’t suppose to look so grainy, even though Assayas himself has said otherwise in interviews. He is still very confident with the camera using the usual long handheld take aesthetic that has become somewhat of his own. It’s really quite a shame that this there isn’t more of his earlier films out on DVD because one can’t help but be interested in seeing the man’s complete line of progression. Even if this isn’t up to par with Assayas’ usual cinematic beauty, it does have a humanistic edge that tends to be lacking in his cleaner (no pun intended) efforts.

Utajo oboegaki (1941)

5 06 2008

Back on yee ‘ole melodramatic route with Shimizu. This film ends up feeling a lot less over the top than Forget Love for Now (Koi mo wasurete, 1937) but still of the very bleak vein. It doesn’t have the same carefree plotless and easygoingness of many of his features, specifically all of those that came in Shochiku’s first boxset, but it does have an equally great “professional” sensibility. Also, this is probably his most technically accomplished work, featuring Bela Tarr-esque observational tracking shots, proving that Shimizu really was relentless as an innovator. Not one of his greatest works, but one that reinforces just how intelligent he was as a person and as a director.

Uta, a restless itinerant performer, is taken in by a wealthy tea merchant. All he asks of Uta is that she teaches his daughter how to dance. Rumors quickly begin spreading regarding the specifics of Uta’s relationship with the tea merchant. He dies and leaves an enormous debt behind for his family. The merchant son is too young and inexperienced to take care of the business. Uta encourages him to go back to school, which he does, leaving her in charge of the company.

It should be noted that it is relatively difficult to fully comprehend all the events because, as the screenshots clearly show, this isn’t the greatest looking copy of all-time. That said, Shimizu, as usual, is very straight-forward in his storytelling approach which makes it very possible to comprehend even the more random and inessential sequences. While I still prefer Shimizu’s style in Kanzashi, Arigato-san, and so on, I can still greatly appreciate this film’s very accomplished aesthetic. Even if we are diving into the melodramatic here, we are doing so rather gracefully, which isn’t at all like the similarly minded tragedy that Kenji Mizoguchi was making at around the same time. Overall, this really is just a wonderful, slightly too “down” (so to speak) film pulled off in a very undramatic fashion.