Pleasures of the Flesh (1965)

12 10 2008

With all the exciting buzz surrounding Nagisa Oshima’s retrospective in New York, I decided to re-introduce myself to a man who I once considered my favorite director. It’s been a little less than a year since I saw Death By Hanging and The Man Who Left His Will on Film, the two least enjoyable Oshima films I’ve encountered. Watching these two in such quick succession turned me off for awhile, but watching this, I’m beginning to remember just what I liked about Oshima in the first place. This isn’t an emotionally overwhelming masterpiece or anything, but just a really good movie.

The film starts out on a perhaps all too J-New Wave sort of setup: a violent and impulsive man, Wakizaka, falls for Shoko, a young and naive girl. In an act of love, he kills a man that violated Shoko when she was eight years old. A man visits Wakizaka a few days after and tells him that he witnessed the murder. This mysterious man is about to spend five years in prison and asks Wakizaka to watch over a large amount of cash that he embezzled. He accepts, but a year before the man’s release Wakizaka becomes terribly depressed and decides to spend it all within year and kill himself afterward.

That sense of tragic romance that is so prominent in a lot of films in the Japanese New Wave is here too, and it is somewhat of a negative characteristic in my opinion. All the men seem to be proned to violent reactions and everyone seems to be seriously considering suicide. Combine that with a man essentially looking for a reason to justify his existence and you probably won’t get a particularly inspiring movie. Oshima works well within this region, though, with a rigorous style that perfectly compliments the coldness that Wakizaka feels. This came a couple years before both Boy and The Ceremony, the two more well-known examples of Oshima’s “cold and distant” cinematic form but it is just as technically refined.

If there’s anything really negative I can take away from the experience of this film, it’s that my original impression of Oshima that was created from Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial has been completely destroyed. While those are probably the least “mature” films I’ve seen from him, they are also the most accessible and most immediately enjoyable. It’s not like these later, less energetic films are deep, subtle, profound character studies, either. It seems with time that Oshima’s style got a lot more heavy, which makes some of his work from this period seem a little too self-conciously serious.

Haut bas fragile (1995)

12 10 2008

This film is a sprawling, multi-character, senseless piece of cinematic beauty, or in other words, a typical Rivette movie. There’s so much stuff going on here, yet so little of it makes sense. Not a problem with me, as I’ve come to expect this sense of mystery from Rivette. There is one particularly unique (in comparison to the rest of Rivette’s work, that is) element here and that is the 1950s Hollywood musical sensibility that elegantly drifts in and out of the three main stories. It’s jarring, no doubt, but it’s something to separate the film from Rivette’s other efforts.

There are three stories here, and each follows a woman that is either trying to separate from her past and come in touch with it. Two of the women, Ninon and Louise, cross paths on occasion but it never amounts to anything substantial. The stories all share supporting characters, but not in a “converging lives” structure that has dominated Hollywood in recent years. Somehow, it’s almost as though Rivette is deconstructing the narrative structure while simultaneously anticipating it. I realize how laughably pretentious this all sounds, but its not as though Rivette does this in a cerebral manner. After all, musicals are anything but intellectual.

While Godard does (and has done) “deconstructions” his approach is the polar opposite. Godard, in his infinite wisdom, poses questions in the most academic of ways. Rivette, though, almost makes his questions fun. If Godard’s essays are advanced learning than Rivette’s are introductions for toddlers. That sounds a bit like an insult, but I guess it is just another way of pointing out Rivette’s playfulness, which is very prominent here. In this film in particular, it’s as though Rivette has taken the advice from a screenwriting teacher and has performed all the technical things, such as having a structure. But, he has also cynically neglected what screenwriting lessons imply. Saying Rivette’s films are plotless isn’t entirely true, but they aren’t carried, driven, or even built around a story.

So instead, we have many sequences here of characters carrying out seemingly irrelevant tasks and displaying gestures devoid of drama. I guess plenty of other “minimalists” do this, but no one does it like Rivette. This isn’t even implying that he is the best, though he may very well be, but he is most unique in doing so. For example, no one makes sequences of characters walking as exciting as Rivette does. In my mind, it is our human nature to constantly assess meaningless gestures as being something deeper. I’m not entirely sure why that makes Rivette’s unique form of cinema such a joy to watch, but it still is.

This desire to constantly “understand” the meaningless or simple plays a large part in this film in particular, as many of the characters deal with the same exact problem. In Le Pont du Nord, for example, there are characters trying to make sense of a crudely drawn map but it is a bit different in this film. The issues seem a bit more personal and even more complex. Take Ida, for example, who is haunted by a song that she has known since her childhood but she cannot find any information about it. The thing is, the song’s singer, Sarah, may or may not be Ida’s mother. Melodramatic on paper (there’s even a scene where Ida suggests she heard the song in the womb) but it nothing becomes of it. The ending, which is one of most purely Rivette-ian moments of his entire career, shows Ida holding a conversation with Sarah, but nothing happens, and the film ends on Ida walking into the streets.

I personally haven’t had the time to put the pieces together, but I honestly don’t want to, in this case. The joy of Rivette’s film, no matter which film it is, comes from what we don’t know. Characters interact, and they seem to have a history, but we are never told to what extent these people know each other. As a result, character psychology comes from one’s own subconscious, developed not only from characters in other Rivette films, but characters from our own life. For as gimmicky as this film seems, it is one of the most purely self-reflexive things I’ve ever seen, which is a great accomplishment since it probably wasn’t Rivette’s intention to begin with.