Ne touchez pas la hache (2007)

13 06 2008

Another solid effort from Rivette, but a step-down from Histoire de Marie et Julien, which remains my favorite. For what it’s worth, this is probably one of his more comedic outings and it is brilliantly disguised as a “prestigious” period piece sort of film. If anything, it’s probably a parody of that sub-genre as it reflects none of the usual tones of such films. Instead, this is very funny, “light” type of film that showcases Rivette’s talent as a filmmaker. In addition, it seems that he is beginning to shy away from the surrealistic touches of his earlier features. On the other hand, this is rather an inconsequential film. It never really explores any deep emotions like the best of Rivette’s films do. In other words, a holding pattern, but a very enjoyable one.

Armand de Montriveau arrives at a secluded Spanish colony, beaten and heartbroken. He attends a small Church service but can’t prevent himself from breaking down. Things begin to become clearer: he is searching for his lost love, Antoinette de Langeais. He finds her but things are different now. For example, she is now a nun. The two cannot partake in a conversation without the supervision of one of Antoinette’s Spanish-speaking superiors. Armand makes his intentions clear but Antoinette resists. The story backtracks five years to their initial meeting, which details the complications that seem to have always existed between the couple.

At a sparse (at least by Rivette’s standards) running time of 131 minutes, Don’t Touch the Axe is not only one of Rivette’s shortest feature length films but probably his most accessible as well. Of course, the diminished amount of time needed to invest helps a bit, but the very light comedic touches play perhaps the biggest role. For what its worth, this is also one of Rivette’s best looking films, though almost all of his films tend to look nice anyway. Combine some good-looking visuals with a few laughs and another great performance from the always wonderful Jeanne Balibar and you’ve got a very good movie.

Musuko (1991)

13 06 2008

Another triumph from the great Yoji Yamada. In other words, nothing really new from him. Here we have a fleshed-out, sprawling, multi-character drama that will inevitably evoke of past Ozu films. It’s an impossible comparison to avoid for Yamada, not to mention for any other remotely “slow” modern director from East Asia. In this case, though, we have a particularly Ozuian setup carried out by a well-sized family. Towards the end, it becomes more obvious what characters are essentially the focus (the father and his younger son) but the supporting roles are just as competently realized. Those who expect something a bit more arty (i.e technically accomplished) may be a bit disappointed, but no doubt, this is a fantastic piece of filmmaking.

Tetsuo is invited back to his childhood home, by his father, for the one year anniversary of his mother’s death. He is reluctant to go because he’s never really earned his father’s approval. His college-educated brother, who is now a father of two, has always garnered the attention of the family. He goes anyway and is invited by a onslaught of concerns from family members. Tetsuo is asked to stay past the departure of the rest of his family, so he can look after his father for a couple of days. Instead, their feelings boil to the surface to the point that father essentially disowns him. Poised to become independent, Tetsuo takes up a job in a steel factory. Awkward at first, he quickly adapts to the blue-collar lifestyle and in the process, falls for a deaf-mute deskgirl.

When I refer to this as being less “arty” than one may anticipate, it is a criticism of Yamada’s cinematic world. His aesthetic isn’t necessarily austere or even contemplative, but it is very organized and precise with very few technical gimmicks. The technical is hardly his focus, though, or at least so it seems. Like his predecessors, his films are strictly character driven but unlike Naruse and Ozu, he downplays aesthetics to the point that his style is hardly even present. Again, this sounds like criticism but its not. Perhaps Yamada has always attempted to be stylish, but its never really noticeable and this is meant in the best possible way. Visual bland, but in a way that seems to, if anything, enhance the believability of all the characters. This is not the same as Ozu or Hou, who both represent a minimalistic type of cinema, but a less breathtaking but equally interesting way.

For about the tenth time, I want to mention that this is not at all a fault of the film, or Yamada’s skills in general. It is hard to articulate just how the visuals in his films “work” (in a sense) when they are rather unexciting. It’s a bit like intermediate formalism, I suppose, that seems to unintentionally stumble upon moments of unequaled poetry. If that makes sense (and it probably doesn’t) then its noteworthy because of the parallels with Yamada’s narratives. All of his films have a very specific type of poignancy and this is no exception. This, of course, comes from the ability to relate to the situations presented but also the undramatic fashion in which Yamada presents it. Easily one of the best Japanese films of the 1990s.