Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Malick’

The Tree of Life – Trailer

December 21, 2010

As I think I’ve alluded to several times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Texan film maker Terrence Malick. I say Texan, but biographers can’t even agree on his place of birth, a sign of a man sticking to his privacy…  It is safe to say that he has not been overly productive in a career spanning more than 35 years. So far he has directed only four films, with a fifth and perhaps sixth nearing completion . Each of these four films is a masterpiece.

While vastly different in subject matter, all of Malick’s films share some narrative and thematic concerns to an extent that it is impossible to mistake his films for belonging to any other director. Badlands from 1973 was seemingly about the serial killer (or spree killer, if you want to be technical) Charles Starkweather, Days of Heaven (1978) about seasonal harvest workers in the American Midwest during the depression. Both these films feature frequent use of voiceover, and in both cases that of a young girl commenting in turns precociously, naively and philosophically upon the meaning of the action. Combined with the wonderful photography and a very particular focus upon nature as an internal as well as external force, the films take on a timeless quality not often found in films from the 70s. Let me rephrase: Where do we find morality and goodness when nature just exists without a care for us, where do we find meaning?

After taking a 20 year break from film making, Malick returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. The all male war film prohibits the female voice from the earlier films, instead Malick sticks with his voice overs, giving them to several characters as a way of getting into their heads, but also to create a polyphonic – if I can be excused a wankerish term – voice of a shared humanity. While containing plenty of action, it is perhaps the quiet, the sudden absence of human sound, that creates the strongest reactions, in this viewer at least. The Thin Red Line is so good that it hurts, and a film I’ll never grow tired of. This, by the way, is also the case with his – so far – last film, The New World (2005).

The New World must have been a commercial catastrophe, and I feel lucky that someone actually allowed Malick to make the film at all. It has everything that commercial films these days should avoid. It doesn’t spell out its theme, it is quiet and meditative for long stretches, and the few battle scenes are musically accompanied by Mozart rather than some generic nu-metal. It is seemingly a love story, but most of all it is a film about history and about humanity’s place in the passing of time. What is culture, what is society, what is good and evil, what is faith? At the end, there is an image of a tree allowed to grow as tall as it pleases, and that image to me is as exciting as any I’ve seen on film.

Anyhow, this leads me to the reason for this post. Malick’s latest project, The Tree of Life, was meant to premiere a year ago, but he didn’t feel the film was quite finished. A copy was delivered to Cannes in order to participate in this year’s contest, but again Malick decided he needed a bit more time to tinker. This is not unusual when it comes to Malick, (in)famously using much more time in the editing room than shooting his films. After Cannes, one was going for a November premiere, in time to participate in the Oscars, but the distribution company for the film was dissolved. The Tree of Life was finally optioned by Fox Searchlight, who has decided on a Cannes premiere in May 2011.

Much is still unknown about The Tree of Life. A tentative description would be that it’s about growing up in the fifties, where a boy is torn between nature and culture/society in the form of his mother and father. One teaches the eternal, the other the cruel ways of the world and how to get along in it. While this may seem trite to some, I have every reason to trust a director that has not let me down yet. That trust is not lessened by the trailer currently making its rounds on the net. I think I would have preferred this without the participation of big names such as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but then again it is doubtful that without them the film would have been made at all, so we’ll have to be content.
Find the trailer here or here.

Simultaneously while making this coming of age tale, Malick also turned to special effects legend Douglas Trumbull in order to film scenes assumed to contain the beginning of the world itself, dinosaurs and so forth. Little is known about this, and while it has been rumoured that some of these scenes will find their way into the main tale, some reports also talk about a separate film meant for IMAX showings. I actually suspect a combination of these, and that The Tree of Life will indeed present the battle for the boy’s morality in a perspective going back to the beginning of time, showing how the particular story relates to an eternal struggle, so to speak. This is, however, pure speculation.

Enjoy the trailer! I’ve seen it quite some times now.

New TV. The New World,New Edition.

August 6, 2010

Well, I have finally bought a new TV, thank God! I’ve been searching for half a year and gather I must have studied every Audiovisual forum known to more or less civilized languages. I couldn’t be happier with my final choice, a Sony LCD that sports better picture quality than sets costing the double of my new friend. Most people seem to want ultra-thin sets, and this is where their money goes. Me, I couldn’t care less whether my set is 3 or 10 centimetres deep, as long as the TV doesn’t turn David Lean into Aaron Spelling.


Anyhow… The first two Bluray films we saw on this 7th wonder of the world, were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The New World. Best to feed the TV some quality films, so it doesn’t pick up bad habits or thinks it can just begin to slack off! I think this was the third or fourth time I watched The New World, and this time in its Extended Edition.

While often just a marketing ploy, in the case of this film, I have to say the extra minutes – each 41 of them – contributed positively to an already very, very good film. Whereas before actions and motivations had to be surmised or guessed at, I felt that with its new running time of almost 3 hours, the film seemed a fuller and even more immersive experience. The director, Terrence Malick, never one to leave the technical aspects of his films to chance, re-edited the film and oversaw every nuance of colour and sound in the new high-def mastering. Do yourself a favour and seek out the new version if you have the means. That last long shot of the tree broke something inside of me. In a good way. If you have paid attention and are not a stranger to yourself, it will break something inside you as well. In a good way.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Malick’s new film is called Tree of Life. It was almost premiering this year in Cannes, but Malick decided last minute that he needed more time with it. This can, of course, mean anything from a couple of weeks more to a couple of years. Malick has only made four films, all of them masterpieces. Needless to say, I’m awaiting Tree of Life with baited breath and a slight fear that perhaps this time I will be disappointed. I never am, though. No, sir. I never am.

Incidentally, while watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it struck me that Snow White never calls her male companions dwarfs, rather Little Men. Political correctness in 1937?  The film itself has no qualms about calling them dwarfs, both in the narration and in its title…

Speaking of BluRays. One of the companies that has not immediately begun to flood the marked with more or less high definition editions of their back catalogue, is Studio Ghibli. Most expected that with the release on BluRay of the studio’s latest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the rest of the companies’ titles would follow suit. This hasn’t happened. Disney, who owns the Western distribution rights to Ghibli, has been in frequent contact with the company, requesting titles for the BluRay market. Ghibli, however, seem to take their time, hopefully because they want to protect their many masterpieces from fast and shoddy releases.

Former president of the company and leading producer, Toshio Suzuki, said that he suggested Ghibli’s break through film, Nausicaa, for the Blu Ray treatment, but sensed hesitation from the Disney side, who evidently wanted more commercially viable releases. Still, Suzuki has continued to digitalize Nausicaa, deciding to clean up the original print, but still taking care not to make it more clean than the original once was. Director Hayao Miyazaki only demanded that they not change the imperfections of the film: A film is an element of its time, it grows old like everything else, and perhaps herein lies its value. Any imperfections are signs of the process, and has as big a place in the history of the product as anything else. No artificiality!, the old master demanded. After having seen the near finished result, he only wanted they stress a bit more green in the colour spectrum. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two…

Suzuki ends the interview with this: “Okui-san came (to) my room (the) next day (after the screening). He said “Miyazaki-san cried, didn’t he?” I answered in this way, “Nausicaa is not yet over.” Both I and Miya-san remember all of the events and every cut“.

Nausicaa is supposed to be released on Blu Ray in Japan one of these days. As for when it and other Ghibli films will reach “the West”, we have to wait and see. Amazon has put some titles on its web pages without suggesting any date.

BIFF, Day Seven: Still Walking

October 29, 2009

Today we are travelling to South America and Japan. One journey I will take only once, the other I can’t wait to take again.
The Colombian road movie Los Viajes del Viento has two strengths that make up for many of its conventional traits: It never descends into a too typical South American sentimentality and it has the luxury of taking place in a geography that is seldom seen on films. The story is about an old, taciturn accordion master who recently lost his wife, and the young boy who may be his son. The old master wants to travel across the entire country in order to give back his accordion to his master. As legend will have it, he once won the instrument in a duel with the devil. The boy sees apprenticeship with the old man as his only possibility to make something of himself and thus follows his unwilling companion stubbornly through some spectacular landscape and hairy situations.

los-viajes-del-viento1While beautiful to look at, the film didn’t really stand out in any particular way. You could substitute the old accordionist with, say, a kung fu master, or a literature professor, or any old sage with a special gift to impart on the young, and the basic story would pretty much be the same. And in the history of films, God knows this has been done again and again. The accordion only really comes to the fore in an early duel with a younger braggart in a music contest. Like the rapper’s duels in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the accordion contest consists in psyching out one’s opponent by rhyme and insult while sticking to the chosen accordion tune. It may sound far fetched, but this part of the film really worked.

vientoThe travelogue, or road movie, is often an excellent way of highlighting a country’s geography and supporting the local tourist industry. Often, the tourist industry will help finance the film if the country is represented as a series of tourist vistas. This being Colombia, I’m not convinced that the ploy will be entirely successful, but we, the audience, win anyway. Especially since most of us will not get the chance – or take the chance – of visiting the country, I can’t think of a better way to be able to experience Colombia’s breathtaking natural vistas than in the comfort of the cinema chair, where the most immediate danger is an aneurysm triggered by some popcorn-munching moron by our side.

los-viajesUltimately, the film is worth seeing for its depiction of nature and the very varied geography – or geology. The stone formations towards the end were a sight to behold, as was the endless salt flats, the village built almost on the lake itself, and the Indian village atop a mountain. I have not seen exactly these sights before and felt fortunate to witness them in this way. The film also strikes up some laconic humoristic moments and I did chuckle a time or two. As for the main plot, I didn’t feel that it resolved itself entirely satisfactorily, but, as is my habit in these posts about films that most have not yet seen, I shan’t be spoiling the end here. The titular symbol of the travelling wind has a double bottom, referring both to the literal wind that has shaped the country and the various wind instruments. There is a scene where the wind blows through a piece of wood with a whistling sound, perhaps telling us that the tradition of these men has its roots in nature itself, in a time before Man, and that all we contribute are complications of that theme.

afterlifeHirokazu Kore-eda has made some seven films, not including his TV-work and some short films. Unfortunately not all of these are readily available in the west. His first film, Maborosi, an Ozu-style examination of a young widow trying to find a new lease on life after the loss of her husband , had a limited international run. But it was his second feature, the often wonderful After Life, which made him into a household name, if that house was an art house. (Yes, I know, bad pun…) In 2001 he made Distance, perhaps inspired by the gas attacks of a suicide cult in Japan; the Aum cult‘s nerve gas attack on the city’s subway system. Then came Nobody Knows, which got a wider release and was nominated in Cannes and won a number of Asian awards. The story of a group of children left to their own devices after their mother takes off, was a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. Kore-eda directed over almost two years, and the children visibly live in the film. There are scenes in Nobody Knows that should break most hearts that are not already irredeemably broken. In 2006, two years after Nobody Knows, he made Hana, about a samurai who doesn’t really want to be a samurai. He is no good at fighting and wishes he could spend his days helping the poor people of the village in which he takes up residence. His very latest film is Air Doll, about a blow up sex doll that turns human Pinocchio-style. I have not seen this yet, but those that have, comment that it is remarkable in that the film never is exploitative, nor even is interested in the sexual aspects of this offbeat story. The film is more about what it means to be human and the innocence of the non-human in comparison. The first thing the doll learns after becoming human with a beating heart, is to lie.

still-walkingThis lengthy introduction is spurred by my absolute satisfaction with Kore-eda’s penultimate film, made in 2008, and shown this day in the BIFF-festival. Still Walking is perhaps the first perfect film I’ve seen this year. I really can’t find any faults with it. The only film coming near it in quality is the Swedish Burrowing, which I spoke of in a former post. The two films have in common that they are influenced by other directors. In Kore-eda’s case, the spectre of Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu, is present, but not overwhelming, while in Burrowing, Terrence Malick is perhaps an even more present godfather.

The majority of Still Walking takes place within 24 hours, but including the epilogue, the time covered is three years. The real scope of the film, however, reaches much longer, as both the past and the future is so implicit in these 24 hours, that the film nears an almost general understanding of the human situation, particularly our place in the everlasting links between generations, from the very first to the last. I was most impressed by the way in which the director achieved this generality from a very specific time in a specific family.

still walking grandfatherA man who has just lost his job brings for the first time his wife, who is a widow, and her son to the annual family reunion. He clearly is not on good terms with his mother and father; “you should call your mother more often“, the father tells him. “I can’t stand listening to all her complaints“, the son answers. The father is a retired doctor who feels useless and socially in a no-man’s land, as he hasn’t anyone to continue his practice, and therefore must still play the role of village doctor himself, even though he is not up to it.

Seemingly, much of the reason for the family’s strained relationship, is that the eldest son lost his life in a drowning accident many years before, while saving a young boy from the waves. This son was the father’s favourite, and is in hindsight made to have represented the hopes for the family’s future. Every time the conversation begins to run more or less easily, the mother mentions some details about the dead son, and the family is thrown back into non-communication.

The reason for the reunion, is indeed that it marks the anniversary for the son’s death. Also present here is a sister with her husband and two children, who the father finds noisy. We can only assume that had the dead son had any children, they would be just as noisy. This is a film where I don’t want to tell much about the plot, as much of the enjoyment comes from gradually piecing together the dynamics of the family and just what has gone wrong in their lives. It is never -apart from the death of the son, which paradoxically has brought them together – the big, life-changing events that make these people be who they are, what they have become. Kore-eda is a master in communicating much bigger truths by very small movements and glances. Sometimes he lets a phrase linger a bit longer than necessary in order for us to grasp not only the context of the phrase, the feeling behind it, but its consequences, insignificant as they may seem before we have the entire picture.

still_walking_02_148953cIt’s a cliché, but movies is really a universal language. I almost can’t think of better ways for us to see the common humanity between us all, than by immersing ourselves in works by masterful directors like Kore-eda. I felt more recognition in this film than in any Hollywood work I can recall. Nothing sudden or life-changing happens in the film, yet I felt a wiser person after having seen it, perhaps even wanting to be a better person. In this film, the characters don’t have “arcs”, as they evidently teach in Hollywood script classes. The characters that we observe become persons more than characters, and persons, for the most part, don’t suddenly learn something or change just because they have attended a family dinner, even though a number of American Thanksgiving films want us to believe this. They go on with their lives, as best they can, or maybe not even that.

What makes the film magic to me is also a consequence of the characters not only being oblivious to their shortcomings that we as spectators can detect in them, but that they actually go on living as if there never was anything particularly important about the day we have spent with them. They just go on, or as the film says in its title, they are still walking. (This phrase also comes up in a song the grandmother insists on playing on an old record player, and which she says she has a special relationship to. The song so subtly illuminates something of the past of the characters that we don’t quite grasp it before a shot of the grandfather doctor’s later reaction. The world of memories and forgotten times that comes into light here is staggering).

The only hint of sentimentality in the film, is when the unemployed son’s voiceover comments on what has happened in the three years since the family dinner. The words are spoken very matter of factly, but that very restraint is heartbreaking in its seeming neutrality to the lives that are commented. I would love to present the importance of the grandmother’s speech about butterflies and how that speech is reproduced later on, but this is such an integral part of the experience that I must leave it for the individual viewer to assess.

Still_Walking_2_149507aNot only is Kore-eda a master of presenting the social interaction and directing the actors into an almost completely naturalistic style, also his setting of the story deserves some mention. The film is shot in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, a seaside town with streets climbing upwards the mountainside from the sea. Seeing the wonderful locations, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of streets so typical of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Whisper of the Heart. There just is something very magnetic to me about this kind of setting, some serene quality that helps convince me that this site is ideal for the family home, a piece of childhood we all will always carry with us. The lack of the typical features of the big city helps the film to achieve a feeling not only of timelessness, but of placelessness. While very much a Japanese setting, the feeling is more general, of the kind of place that we find beautiful in hindsight, but that we had to move away from. The reasons probably felt important to us at the time, but any place we have lived in our formative years is bound to hold the ghosts of our younger selves in some way or another, still offering us possibilities of who we could have been had we by chance chosen differently.

stillwalking2Again, all this essaying runs the risk of making the film sound as if it could be boring. It is not. In fact, there are many scenes with a wonderful understated humour, not least in the comments by and about the grandmother and grandfather. As in any real grouping of human beings, be it a family or a group of friends, there is humour to be found in familiarity. Kore-eda, being concerned with reality, has the gift of finding the humour that springs from a common humanity, from recognition, even in the idiosyncratic. The actress You (yes, that is her stage name), who played the irresponsible mother in Nobody Knows, here gets the chance to use her quirky personality in a role that never seems as it is an imposed vehicle for her brand of acting. Her presence and comedic (her voice makes me think of a Japanese Meg Tilly) timing is so strong that when she leaves the film, we suddenly feel that we have been deprived of a comforting presence in what is, after all, a scary situation; reality. Or as close to reality as we want to come.

Offering us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives, Kore-eda still makes us feel as if we’ve known them for a long time. His telling of this story is so effective that, even as we think that nothing very important happens, we get to learn everything that we need in order to fully grasp the situation as well as its ramifications. All the characters are given flesh and blood and lives that are not neatly solved by a contrived Hollywood script. Still, the miracle is that we don’t miss the solution, even though we’ve been indoctrinated to expect it. When all is said and done, we can leave and know that all is not said and it is not done. In fact, the way the characters are not able to come to terms with their shortcomings, or their disability to solve their conflicts, is the very thing that gives the piece such a powerful end. After this film, I really had to take some minutes to let the credits roll before I could or wanted to move. Those were good minutes.

BIFF, Day Four. The Festival Strikes Back.

October 26, 2009

Such a good start of this day! The Swedish Film Burrowing (Man Tänker Sitt) is the first true masterpiece of the festival. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better (new) film this year. Experiences like this make everything worth it; the amount of mediocrity and pretentiousness (hello again, Un Lac!) one usually has to wade through in order to happen upon small jewels like this. The film is directed by first time directors Henrik Hellstrøm and Fredrik Wentzel. If they stick with their partnership, I can’t but think that we have much to look forward to in the coming years.

BURROWING_POSTER_WWWThis is a small film, both in length and, I presume, in budget. This means nothing more than that every scene is the perfect length, everything the film wants to tell, it tells admirably and with confidence. Hellstrøm and Wentzel has made a true film, in that the sentiments it wants to communicate are not easily reduced to words, but created by images and sound. The result is at times heartbreaking. More than being just a simple back to nature fable, the film lets us see people interacting with other people and how they have each discovered an emptiness in the world that perhaps has no remedy, but that in nature can somehow be reduced. A society needs rules, but when these rules take over each aspect of human interaction, they have a deadening effect on the soul, and personal identity becomes suspect.

I feel that it is difficult to address these issues through formal language, as the very uttering of the sentiment is based on a need to be understood by as many as possible, an agreed upon system. This is where Burrowing so admirably does the job better than I can in this review, as the film is not easily reduced to a clearly delineated argument. Some of the best novels of the world has talked about these issues, the estrangement of man in society is one of the oldest tales and constitutes an important part of what we call tragedy.

cabin_walden1The film starts with a quotation of Henry David Thoreau, famous for his Walden, about a man retreating from civilized society into the wilderness, into nature, for two years and two months. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he says in that book, which could have been used in the film as well. Instead they use another Walden quotation, from the economy chapter: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior“. The film then cuts to a young boy walking along a lake. We hear his voice narrating. This innocent, yet wise in its way, voiceover will intermittently accompany us to the very end of the film. And what an end it is! Damn, if my eyes didn’t fill up… I could write about the poetry of the scene and how well the words illuminates all the preceding scenes we have witnessed, but that would be to deprive you of the pleasure of finding the beauty of the film for yourselves.

man tenker sittAs I mention an innocent-sounding voiceover and a longing and fascination for nature, I guess most will come in mind the films of Terrence Malick, and they wouldn’t be wrong. If Malick had been raised in Swedish suburbia, this is the film he would have made. Or something close to it. There is a scene of the boy walking through high grass, or weeds, while his voice tells of his understanding of the grown ups’ world, partly naively, partly containing a wisdom that disappears with the death of innocence, of the Eden of childhood. Soon enough the boy will be put in a suit and forced to nod politely to meaningless conversations about meaningless non-topics. It is at this point he reaches a decision. That decision has to do with the other small tragedies we witness.

man_tanker_sitt_2_press1One of these is the estrangement in a young man “without direction”, always carrying his baby in his arms. The scene where he changes diapers in a parking lot and is accosted by a well-meaning woman who threatens to report him to the social services seems very real and true. She doesn’t know anything about him, but has a vague feeling that society will punish her if she does not report such an obvious break with society’s norms. The young man is seemingly unable to take “control of his life” and thus has no place in the world of humans.

Then there is the Russian émigré who meant to stay a few months in Sweden, but has now lived there thirty years. He spends his days trying to spear fish in the small brook that runs between the houses. Who are you?, a suspicious neighbour asks him. He laughs, as if he has been told a joke.

There are others, all with a restlessness they seem unable to put into words, even in their own heads. Everyone stretched so thin in the need to show their neighbours “good behaviour”, that something is about to break, to break out into violence or self destruction. I think this is a feeling that is not limited to Scandinavia and their political model of social democracy, although I assume that plays a part in it.

I’ll end my recommendation by talking briefly about the music used in the film. I have never before heard of the composer, Erik Enocksson, but the way his music was used in the film made him an integral part of the experience. He has composed some almost Bach-like polyphonic and beautiful songs. They are very explicitly linked to the theme of the film. I think all the songs are in Latin, and although I’m not exactly fluent, I was able to discern some snippets.
Somnio, somnio, I heard repeated some times, meaning “to dream“, or “imagine follishly“, I think. Other lines were “Hic non serenitas regit”, which I think means something like “There is no peace/serenity here”. Hic qui virem regit, I think can mean “Here where Man – or perhaps Green – reigns“. Non Qui Periculi Imminent must be translated as something like “There is no danger here”. And other lines about wolves and bears, possibly star signs. The final line I was able to work out was Non Spiriti Mali, “there are no bad spirits here“, or something to that effect. I mention these lines as they can tell a bit about the simple, yet complicated feelings that the film addresses.

All this might lead you to think the film is boring. It is not, certainly not if you think that you can contribute a bit yourself to the little plot there is. The film is really put together like a series of situations that are linked by the characters’ mutual discontent, albeit for different reasons. Apart from the wonderful images, there are situations bound to draw a smile or a tear out of recognition. The film will have a Norwegian premiere in November, and hopefully other countries will also be able to see it outside festivals. It deserves a much bigger audience than I fear that it will have. Please see this!

mary_and_max1The next film of the day was the Australian claymation film Mary and Max, by Adam Elliot. This is a bittersweet tale of two outsiders, who find comfort and the possibility for a meaningful life in each other’s correspondence. One is a young unattractive Australian girl, the other an older fat New York Jew with Asperger syndrome. The result is a kind of 84 Charing Cross Road for extreme outsiders. The film is by no means as depressing as it sounds, although it deals with depression and many of life’s tragedies and setbacks. In fact, it is very funny. I think the entire cinema was laughing every two minutes. I really liked this, and the animation – or claymation, to be correct – is fantastic. And it’s for adults, so the filmmakers deserve credit for making a film in this format that doesn’t depend on millions of children or unethical merchandising to keep the production afloat. Recommended!

Fryktelig_lykkelig_141457bAfter Mary and Max, I had to go to work, so I was unable to see more films before the last film of the day. This was the Danish Fryktelig Lykkelig, Terribly Happy, directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, most known for his TV-work. Terribly Happy wants to be a Coen brothers film, but is no such thing. A policeman is transferred to the countryside where the local village is peopled by all kinds of weirdoes and the Danish version of Texan good ole boys. The protagonist is a bit of a moron right from the start, and thus his fall from grace doesn’t contain any grace to begin with. This makes for a very bad story, clichéd and contrived. For some reason this was among the most popular films in Denmark last year, even among critics. Don’t, I say, make the same mistake as the Danish. They tell me there is something rotten in that state. Had this film been on TV, I don’t think I’d bothered to watch it through. I guess it is passable entertainment, or rather, hardly even that.

However, even the mediocrity of the Danish couldn’t take away the satisfaction of the Swedish neighbours’ Burrowing. Remember this title, should it present itself to a cinema near you. Or even at some distance.

BIFF, Day Three

October 25, 2009

Due to circumstances beyond my control (work), I didn’t get the chance to see that many films this day. I did, though, have an unpleasant encounter with a member of the film jury, which – if not anything else – convinced me that the winner of the festival’s jury prize will be left entirely to chance and incompetence. I wish the festival leaders had considered their jury choices a bit more carefully. More on this later.

mr_nobody_1jpg_rgb2I first became aware of Belgian director Jaco van Dormael with his 1993-film Toto the Hero, which generally got rave reviews and which I liked. I seem to recall that I felt it put an unnecessary sentimentalism to the world of the child protagonist, but I think that was part of its theme. Not having seen the film since its cinema run 16 years ago, I don’t want to compare it with his latest work, which was my first film of the day.

Mr. Nobody is by far his most ambitious project to date. It cost close to $50 million and features at least B-list Hollywood actors. It is filmed at several locations; Belgium, the famous Studio Babelsberg in Germany, in Canada and at several other places. Most of the money, though, must have gone to the impressive special effects which are very, very good. Very complicated fx shots integrate seamlessly with the “real” world and a number of editing tricks and film styles are on display.

The film is not only ambitious from a financial or technical perspective. The story seeks to sum up the entirety of the universe’s existence, and not only this universe. It is at times a period film, a science fiction story and a contemporary love story. It is about storytelling, parallel universes, time travel, religion, immortality and death. Most importantly it is about love.

jaredletomrnobodyJared Leto plays the grown up version of the protagonist Nemo Nobody and he does it well. I think this is his first leading role in a film of this magnitude. Then again, there are not that many films of this scope. In a way I felt the film was never quite only itself, but borrowed from a number of films and from the history of film. Perhaps it had to, but I felt at times that the director had seen the works of other directors he admired and tried to emulate them and, by combining their tropes, hoped to find something personal enough to call his own.
There is a bit of Darren Aronofsky’s the Fountain here, but on an even bigger thematic scale. Kubrick’s 2001 is quoted in some images. In a scene depicting humanity’s pre-existence, the moments before we are conceived, Van Dormael used the Melanesian music from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line while at the same time putting this music to images of white and black children playing innocently together in a heavenly innocent state. So, in other words, welcome to the beginning of The Thin red Line! The basic concept of splitting destinies – of turning into several future versions of oneself – based on a choice made while standing by a train, is found in the less ambitious Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors. The drowning in a car scene reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Europa (By the count of ten you will be dead, as Max Von Sydow laconically narrates in that film). In a way Mr. Nobody is two and a half hours awaiting said count. I could go on, but you get the point.

malickforestIt is not easy to sum up what this film is about. When the protagonist is forced to make a faithful choice at the age of nine (I think), he is separated into two persons, depending on which choice he makes. Within these two possible characters comes a further three choices – which makes it six characters(?) – based on his choice of girlfriend as an adolescent. One version of himself turns out to be a lecturer in astrophysics, who sometimes enters the action to lecture the viewer about the history and philosophy of the universe. He says there are seven dimensions in the universe; six of these are spatial, while the seventh is temporal. He then poses the question of whether the temporal – time – inhabited more than one dimension. (I take this from memory, so forgive me for any inaccuracies!) To complicate matters further, another one of these personalities takes up writing, creating a fictional world that in the film is presented as just as real as the non-fiction worlds. This fiction takes the action to space (to Mars) and the future. However, another future is also depicted in the film, a future where the protagonist is the last mortal human alive (and thus, the last who remembers love and lust; you don‘t need children if you live forever…) There is a point to this, but I won’t discuss it here, so as not to spoil the film.

While the plot of the film seems incredibly advanced and ambitious, to its credit, we are never lost and most times understand perfectly where we are in the story and what is depicted. Actually, I had no problems with the science fiction elements of the tale. They are well thought and very well executioned. It is in the way the film revolves around the concept of love that I feel it loses itself a bit; it becomes a bit too much.

11One kind of love that is decisive for Mr. Nemo Nobody is the child’s love for his parents. Another kind of love is the puppy love between nine year olds, then the lustful love between adolescents and finally the emotional, during and at times hard and stressful love between spouses. Put together, this becomes a whole lotta love, as the song says. Now, if the love theme had been presented a bit more smartly, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. (While it is presented in a complicated tale, this doesn’t make the kind of love on display any more “intelligent” or new to the viewer). Especially irritating is the extremely cliché ridden music the director has chosen for the soundtrack. There are just so many times you can hear Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream… Almost every scene has music that has been used so often before in films that it brings you as a viewer out of the film’s universe and at least I began pondering boredom and references rather than the action taking place before me.

Another unfortunate effect of the music has to do with its placement. When the protagonist as a young boy sees a girl his age, nine, swimming, a lusty soul-number is played, thus turning her into a kind of sex object. This is disturbing and can’t have been the director’s intention. While he wants to tell us that the protagonist falls in love at this moment, there must surely be better ways to sonically enhance this element!

Then there is the fact that all of Nemo’s love stories revolve around three girls that he meets as a young child. I find it a bit far fetched that these same girls shall also be his only interests in adolescence and in marriage. The film is, then, not only about premeditation, but about an emotional stiltedness, as if Nemo doesn’t really evolve during the film and this is the reason for his future being so clearly delineated into his separate possible selves. The name Nemo, by the way, does not refer to the captain of the Nautilus. You’re better served by reading it backwards.

MrNobodyIn closing, I’ll venture to say that the word ambitious will surely be used in pretty much every review of this film. (It wasn’t finished in time for Cannes, so it hasn’t been shown that many places yet). While it is certainly intricate, it ultimately doesn’t convince me. While I’m perfectly willing to take any leaps of logic that the film requires of me, I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up. I have a strong feeling that there are internal discrepancies within the fantastic logic. This should have been worked out a bit better, but I think I will need to see the film a second time to really pinpoint these errors. (And the ones I could point out would ruin the ending, so I’ll refrain).The problem is that, as much as I admired the film for what it’s trying to do, it was just a bit too long and ultimately not all that it could have been, so a second viewing will probably not take place in the immediate future. But if you are in the mood for a lengthy love story told in a brilliant technical style and with a basic sience fiction concept underlining it all, by all means take a chance on the film! I think it deserves an audience and it is without doubt a much better film than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was half the rave at this year’s Oscars, and which it also shares some sensibility with. Being the better film of the two, I’m also sure that it won’t find half the audience of Fincher’s unfortunate detour into drivel and mediocrity.

While Mr. Nobody may be flawed, it is at least interesting enough for me to have given it more attention and space than most films. This is more, much more than I can say for the next film I had the misfortune to attend this day. I guess I should have seen the warning signs; it being French the clearest.

thumbnailUn Lac – A Lake – is a minimalist work about an epileptic boy, his sister and family in an unknown wintry location. This is the second film as writer/director for Philippe Grandrieux, his fourth as director. On this film, he also serves as cinematographer, so he is an auteur in the real sense. The problem is that he is just not a very interesting one. Most of the actors are, for some reason Russian, and it is filmed in France and Switzerland. And the landscape does seem wonderfully oppressing and beautiful at the same time. That is, if any of the images had been in focus. (The images of the brother and sister found to the left are pretty much the only two clear images of the film)

Grandrieux uses a handheld camera style that is extreme in its use of closeups and movements following the characters so closely that we are supposed to see the world as they themselves do. The mother of the family is blind, though it took me some time to decipher this. Many of the scenes are filmed in near darkness and the ones that are not are foggy and out of focus. The brother has a close relationship with his sister, possibly incestuous, but I was never able to tell for sure. His epileptic fits grows in frequency. He is at times very happy for no apparent reason, at times he is moody. One day he is by the cold lake that seems to be the only contact with a wider world. A young man arrives. He says his name is Jurgen. Soon this man starts a relationship with the sister and finally they sail off on the same lake. This is the film. Or what I managed to see of the film.

UnLac_iwDo not misunderstand me. I have no problems with challenging films, be it in narrative or in film style. This film, however, is ridiculous, very boring and unbearably pretentious. The dialogue is almost non-existent. Perhaps this is a good thing, for when they speak, they speak platitudes. “You are my sister”, the brother says. Then he adds: “I am your brother”. Yes, well, you had me at sister…

Of course one can read something symbolic out of the minimalist setting and action. The more minimalist a work is, the easier to regard it as symbolical of something. But here even the symbolic meaning is trite and clichéd. Perhaps the director wants to deal with archetypes, with a biblical simplicity. If so, he fails miserably. Is he interested in hidden pockets of humanity, of humanity’s place in an unforgiving and uncaring nature? Well, he doesn’t come even close. Perhaps he wants to talk about female sexuality and awakening. If so, he says nothing new and certainly nothing of interest. – If you want an arty film about this, watch Picnic at Hanging Rock again! You will be grateful for it. Do not waste your time with Un Lac. With the basic setting of these characters in this kind of nature, you have to be pretty incompetent not to make it even slightly interesting or even beautiful even in a harrowing sense. Unfortunately, competence has no place here.
It strikes me that writing even disparagingly about the film, I make it sound better than it is. Give me a camera, this location and these characters and I would have made a better film. Look away, there is nothing to see here! By the way, this was a film I had high hopes for and that I really wanted to like. More the fool me.