Posts Tagged ‘film’

Le voyage du ballon rouge

August 11, 2008

Frequently hailed as one of the greatest living filmmakers, this is Hou Hsiao Hsien’s first film outside of China/Taiwan. Hou dedicated the film to Lamorisse, whose Le ballon rouge inspired this material. At once, it is easy to spot the brilliance in his filmmaking, as the camera tracks the titular red balloon gliding across the streets of Paris, cowering behind tree-branches and deftly maneuvering the train station. The balloon is of course symbolic: here representing childhood and an age of innocence, indifference and freedom, such as that of little Simon. Simon’s mother, Suzanne (Binoche) on the other hand is a busybody, constantly occupied with work and sparing little time for her son who is tended to by a timid babysitter Song.

Hou is extremely observant, both of his environment and of his characters. And to me, that’s also where his film fails. The film observes, but never probes. It never questions the characters, never expresses them, maybe even expose them. Understandably, with the boy Simon, it is quite difficult to formally develop the character (although Vlacil did it in a shorter time with The white dove) and Hou tracks the child across his routines of playing pinball, learning the piano or playing video games on his playstation. But Suzanne just turns out to be a bundle of mess – constantly being irritated by her neighbours, possibly feeling distanced from her other adolescent child, and desperately missing her husband now in Canada. She uses her teenage daughter as a pretext for kicking out her neighbours, and struggles to communicate with Simon, who incidentally feels quite at ease with his babysitter and half-sister.

What I liked most about this film was its use of space. Hou juxtaposes the insides of the tiny Paris apartment with wide-angle shots of the balloon floating above Paris. This mimics the dichotomy of the film’s themes: pure unrestrained freedom as opposed to a state of conformity and disorder. Even with the crummy apartment, Hou is careful enough to work within the limits. Observe how the film slowly “reveals” Suzanne’s apartment. For the first half-hour or so, all we see is the tiny dining table and the kitchen, and then we get a brief glimpse of Suzanne’s attic bedroom. Then the shabby living room with books sprawled across the floor, a TV and Simon’s playstation. Suddenly, the piano is moved into a corner we never knew existed. And then, the eternally meek and distant Song shows us Simon’s bedroom attic opposite Suzanne’s.

Hou’s conservative approach to filming spaces is surely what defines this film. But it shouldn’t have been so. If only he had expressed his characters more.


New French Extremity #1

July 30, 2008

In 2004, James Quandt wrote in Artforum, ” The New French Extremity sometimes looks like a latter-day version of the hussards, those Celine-loving, right-wing anarchists of the ’50s determined to rock the pieties of bourgeois culture; but for all their connections (shared actors, screenwriters, etc.), the recent provocateurs are too disparate in purpose and vision to be classified as a movement.”

In the case of Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, the film’s provocations, meant to disarm the stereotypical viewer adjusted to the familiar rumblings of cinematic narrative, fail to evoke a sense of empathy or understanding for its characters. Arguably, the film strongly delivers on its “shock” value, exposing charred human repulse in the most vulnerable of circumstances, and the denouement in Twentynine Palms accomplishes its primordial purposes of inciting disbelief and awe, its intensity further amplified by the utter lack of cognizant events for the most part until then. But what is one to make of the meaningless violence? Quandt probes further:

“What new or important truth does Dumont proffer that his audience needs to be slapped and slammed out of its sleepwalk into apprehending? In his sophistry, Dumont may place himself in the tradition of provocation, from Sade to Rimbaud to Pasolini, but Twentynine Palms has none of the power to shock an audience into consciousness evident in the elliptic violence of Bresson’s L’Argent, the emotional evisceration of Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, or the bitter sexuality of Pialat’s A Nos Amours.”

The film’s masculinity overwhelms and erodes whatever arousal it prompts within the common man during its numerous sex acts. Ballistic grunts and screams almost echo within the distant sky or the nearby ceiling. The hummer, imbued as a phallic symbol, is the vehicle of transport in which the two main characters, struggling to communicate, spend most of their time in. Darren Hughes, in his Senses of Cinema piece, writes:

“As an example, when all is said and done – after the endless driving, the pain-faced orgasms, the countless miscommunications, and the brutal, brutal violence – Twentynine Palms, I think, is really a film about a red truck.”
I think I agree.

The White Dove

December 19, 2007

twd1.jpgFrantisek Vlacil’s The White Dove is an extraordinary film. Made in 1960, and part of the Czech New Wave, the film is beautifully done with frequent low angled shots lovingly looking upon the film’s characters, in particular capturing the desolation and crushed hopes of the young boy Michael (Michal) and the sullen beauty and melancholic appeal of the girl Susan.

Michal and Susan represent opposite ends of the childhood spectrum; Michal leads a constricted life, in meek submission of his failure to stand up to his friends. He is now voluntarily handicapped and refuses to climb out of the wheelchair. The cameara reveals the dark spaces around him, the black corners that shroud his apartment, the spacial depth outside the window and the narrow corridors of the building.

They together serve the purpose of identifying a kind of congestion, restraint, loneliness and helplessness in his life. The urban locality is dull and bleak, seeming to close down on him from everywhere. All this frustration is vented out by his shooting a white dove perched on top of his apartment building.

twd2.jpgThe dove belongs to Susan and has lost its way in a race. Susan represents the freedom that’s missing in Michal’s life. Surrounded by the calmness of the infinite sea, she lives an uninhibited and carefree life. Her sorrow and pain at having lost the dove is what connects her with Michal in a strange way. The dove in essence transfers her gaiety to Michal and infuses his dullness into her formerly vibrant self.

The artist and Susanne’s brother seem to play secondary roles but are equally important in the film. The artist is the one who rescues the dove and enables Michal to rediscover his childhood thus freeing him from his self-enforced captivity. His drawing of the white dove flying against a black sky and a bloodshot sun with flowers looming in the foreground is one of the many many beautiful moments in the film.

Vlacil’s handling of the camera, especially in scenes where he shoots Michal remind me of similar techniques employed by Tarkovsky when he focuses on Ivan in Ivan’s childhood. They both seem extremely similar to me: low angles slightly looking up to the face and evoking a pathos that no other film can match, and their tracking of subtle movement both on and off the frame are remarkable. This film’s scanty dialogue and brilliant use of music make it an even more indulging experience. The last shot of the dove, finally freed and flying away from the city is connected to its destination and to Susan by the sounds of the water splashing on a beach. It anticipates an untied and memorable childhood for both the protagonists (and the dove).

[An article on Frantisek Vlacil’s films].