Bungalow (2002)

12 07 2008

If there were any doubts (and in my mind, there weren’t) in Ulrich Kohler being one of the best directors working right now, then they can surely be tossed aside. His second film and first masterpiece, Bungalow, manages to contain everything that would make his follow-up Windows on Monday so great but such elements are presented in a slightly different way. This film ends up being too short to really match the greatness of Ulrich’s later film, but it really is just as great. Bruno Dumont and Michael Haneke make similar films, but I would go as far as to say that Kohler tops both of them. He’s making the warmest and most humane films within the whole “cold European minimalism” spectrum of cinema.

A reserved and alienated youth by the name of Paul decides to run away from his duties in the army. He returns home to find that since his departure, some things have changed. Immediately, we notice his girlfriend, Kerstin and her very odd behavior. She tells him that “things are no longer the same” before leaving on her motorbike. Meanwhile, Paul notices the arrival of his brother Max who has brought along his girlfriend, Lene. Unaffected by his break-up with Kerstin, Paul begins to show signs of an interest in Lene. This stirs up more problems with his brother, who he has never really gotten along with and to make matters worse, the military police is on the search to find and then arrest the recently escaped soldier.

Oddly enough, I’ve heard Bungalow described as being a “political” film, which seems pretty silly, not to mention completely false. If one were to group the film under any sort of category, it would probably be the “bored, angsty, and alienated teens” genre, which certainly covers a wide variety of aesthetics. In particular, Bungalow features the thematic and visual grace of Dumont’s Life of Jesus and Flandres. The latter should probably only be mentioned to provide an example of another film that depicts the army in such a formalistic fashion. Unlike Dumont’s film, Kohler never shows any missions nor does he show any signs that Paul has ever been in danger. In fact, the protagonist’s decision to run (actually just stay behind at a Burger King) seems to come from sheer boredom. So yeah this is not as intense as a Dumont film, nor is it as cynical but that’s probably why I like it so much more.

One of the biggest reasons why Kohler’s sensibility is so less heavy than his peers is the humor, a weapon also used by Tsai Ming-Liang to avoid the depths of truly cynical cinema. Like Tsai, Kohler’s humor comes from very subtle moments, in which the audience is forced to observe the absurdity of a situation, but also comes to term with the emotional repercussions. The laughs here do not sugarcoat the situation, but never does one feel an arrogant sense of “seriousness” that is possibly present in the films of Michael Haneke. This is not to slam Haneke and other misanthropic filmmakers, but instead, proves what is so fantastic about Kohler’s cinematic world. There is real heartbreak here and real people feel it, but these people are fully realized and not chess pieces in a sadistic game. That might sound a little hyperbolic (as well as cliché) but it goes to show just how much of a humanist Kohler is and thus, an amazing director.

Eager Bodies (2003)

12 07 2008

Xavier Giannoli’s debut, Eager Bodies, is not the most unique or striking of films, but it is a very good entry in that shakycam relationship cinema mostly dominated by Ray Carney-championed American directors. Along with Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Man’s Gentle Love, Giannoli’s film is one of the few French films of this ilk. Perhaps unfair, but the comparisons to Civeyrac’s aforementioned feature are inevitable. From a narrative assessment, they aren’t very similar but they are both relationship-driven French films made on a very low budget on digital. Eager Bodies has a shriller setup but it actually becomes the much less plot-driven of the two films. It lacks Civeyrac’s attempts at poetry, but on digital, those seem pretty awkward anyway. This is a much more straightforward film, but pretty good none the less.

Charlotte and Paul are in love, but their relationship hits a road bump when Charlotte has to undergo chemotherapy. Understandably, both are quite scared, but they begin to respond to the process differently. Charlotte becomes extremely depress, violent, and almost entirely passive-aggressive as Paul begins to spend less and less time with her, and more and more time with her cousin, Ninon. Charlotte anticipates and mentions the idea of Paul and her cousin having an affair before it actually happens, but once she accuses Paul, it begins to come true.

The events seem to have been taken straight out of a soap opera but they are handled quite naturally and never seem particularly over the top. It definitely helps that, like Civeyrac, Giannoli seems to have a fantastic sense of capturing intimacy. The, ahem “sex” scenes are much chaotic and spontaneous than they are in Civeyrac but equally poignant. Giannoli seems to be trying to do a Michael Winterbottom type of approach with jump cuts and close-ups but Giannoli’s scenes end up being a bit too fragmented to the point beyond comprehension. On the other hand, he does seem to give a lot more depth and attention to his characters than Winterbottom, or even Civeyrac for that matter. Perhaps this is just a result of the acting as it pretty fascinating. Some scenes are so intimate and believable that even Maurice Pialat would be proud.

Laura Smet’s character could have easily been reduced to the level of being disgusting and unlikable and only further her boyfriend temptation to have an affair but she comes off in a more realistic light. She is annoyingly passive-aggressive and manipulative, but in a way that is completely believable. In fact, most of her outbursts make no sense whatsoever. At times she does sway to the line of being a “bad” character but when one takes in to consideration everything else that has happened in the film, her whining seems understandable. The friction in Paul and Charlotte’s relationship is initially frustrating due to their inability to express how they obviously feel for each other but that is exactly what makes the film as great as it is. Such frustration is akin to the frustration that the characters themselves are likely feeling. The people here (not to mention people in real life) cannot provide monologues directly reflecting their thoughts like in a Eric Rohmer film.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

12 07 2008

While it doesn’t live up to the ridiculous amount of hype it has produced, Leo McCarey’s legendary Make Way for Tomorrow does ultimately come off as being a fine film. Of course, it is nowhere near as profound and moving as the film that it famously influenced, Tokyo Story, but then again how could any Hollywood film? I’d argue that no Hollywood director could (or well ever in all likelihood) match the subtle tragedy of Ozu’s masterpiece. Not to ruin anyone’s expectations, but McCarey’s film doesn’t even end up being the Hollywood version of an Ozu film, but rather a great film in its own right.

An elderly couple is forced out of their home by the bank. The couple has produced five children, all of whom are fully grown adults with families of their own. At first the children are eager to adopt their parents into their households but circumstances lead to the parents living in separate houses. As time passes, the children quickly become bothered by the burden of their parents and realize that it is, perhaps, time for their folks to move on. The children plan for their father to take a trip to California while the mother will be sent to an old folks home. This gives the couple one last day to spend together and take in the sites and sounds of their past experiences.

The first hour isn’t anything really special, just a “character study” film in the Hollywood sense. In other words, very quick characterizations propelling plenty of side plots and trivial scenarios. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, and McCarey does actually have a pretty decent comedic sensibility but these scenes, while much more easy-going and entertaining, are nowhere near as memorable as the final twenty minutes or so. It’s either ironic of completely fitting that the film’s most fascinating moments lie in the parts that seem the least attached with Ozu’s later and greater film.

Perhaps it would be a bit of an exaggeration to equate the final twenty minutes to something Wong Kar-Wai would do, considering that McCarey’s aesthetical qualities are so tame in comparison. At the very least, though, the final meeting between the two parents is just as great as what Alain Resnais did in the 60s. In fact, I would be willing to give McCarey more credit if only for his decision to not show any flashbacks but instead, have the characters reflect on their memories. Does this completely redeem the schmaltzy and manipulative sensibility? Hardly, but in all honesty almost all Hollywood films of the time period had such a style, if you can even call it that. Considering the circumstances, what McCarey pulls off is quite an accomplishment.