Saturday, January 30, 2010

The 400 Blows (1959)

Directed by François Truffaut.
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Claire Maurier.
In a Nutshell: A young boy is labeled a troublemaker by his parents and teachers.

The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographical tale about its director, François Truffaut. It is sparse and simply plotted, but not a “coming-of age” that shrugs off misfortune with a veneer of nostalgia. Truffant’s alter ego is Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a boy on the cusp of his teen years. A product of impoverished living and inattentive parents, Antoine is unlucky enough to be picked on by his teachers for minor offenses. His attempts to evade trouble (read: lying) and a misguided attempt at homage only dig him a deeper hole. Small acts of childish thievery do not do him much better. Though his story is not that of tragedy, Truffaut effectively brings us closer to Antoine’s troubles and the desire to break free.

One of the film’s linchpins comes in the debut performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud. While projecting a childish disposition, he has the world-weary gaze and broken spirit of someone much older. It is a deeply natural performance using the impishness and melancholy of youth. As a landmark film of the French New Wave, it is the identification Truffaut felt within cinema that resonates strongest throughout The 400 Blows. One example is the solace Antoine finds in the readings of Honoré de Balzac, mirroring Truffant’s relationship with cinema. Balzac’s words become so ingrained within Antoine that he does not recognize plagiarism when he lifts words for a school paper. Like Godard, Truffaut is playing with our perception of cinema, implying that our experiences and cinema have now become one and the same.

But even without the cinematic subtext, The 400 Blows is effective in its portrayal of the adult carelessness that can leave children in alienation. Antoine may not be the model child, but is unworthy of his teachers’ demonizing and his parents’ immaturity. Truffaut stages the distresses of Antoine’s life with minimal flourish to suggest just how routine everything has become. They cannot understand Antoine’s growing teenage restlessness but the sincerity of Truffaut and Léaud make it heard. The famous closing shot, a still of Antoine’s face after a recent escape, shows an eternally frozen look of the vacant, unfocused rebellion that defined many a childhood. Truffaut would follow Antoine through many chapters of his life, but The 400 Blows continues to stand still in the joy and sorrow of our youth.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Time Regained (1999)

Directed by Raúl Ruiz.
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Béart.
In a Nutshell: Marcel Proust reminisces about his past while on his deathbed.

The film Time Regained is based on the final volume in Marcel Proust’s In Search of the Lost Time. While on his deathbed, Proust (played by various actors at various stages, but largely by Marcello Mazzarella) reflects on his past though not in a straight recollection. His thoughts are distortions, influenced by his own writings (in this case, the final volume) and told in an episodic, stream-of-consciousness narrative. Characters swim in and out of focus while conflicts mount and then disappear. It is a disorienting feel, but one of a raging mind lost in thought. Films of this nature do confront some limitations. An episodic manner can leave ideas and plot points hanging in the air and a cohesive story is never entirely realized. Raúl Ruiz seems less concerned in accurately adapting Proust’s work than using it to illustrate the nature of our memories.

While this impedes any dramatic momentum, the film can be enjoyed for the significance to Proust that comes with each vignette. Memories of love, betrayal and class warfare float up from Proust’s dying mind; frozen moments that he would never relive, but would never regret. His experiences equal our own, as do our fondness for them. For those unfamiliar with Proust’s work (myself included) Time Regained provides enough of his perspective to provoke curiosity. Proust was obsessed with the past and its impact on our present-day selves. Ruiz’s dream-like narrative passes seamlessly through time to make Proust as vivid a child as a dying man, while holding desperately onto his memories against the passage of time. Time Regained was never meant as a straight adaptation, but is a beautiful meditation on the thoughts we hold dear; little fragments of heaven lost in time.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Directed by Michel Gondry.
Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.
In a Nutshell: A couple undergoes a procedure to erase each other from their memories.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from the pen of Charlie Kaufman, is a unique work of narrative surrealism and a touching romance for our technological era. The film opens with two strangers Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) meeting on a train where the two feel an unexplained spark, possibly déjà vu. In flashback, we see that the two were in fact a couple for roughly two years. However, a nasty fight led to Clementine erasing Joel from her memory “on a lark” through the medical firm Lacuna Inc. A hurt Joel decides he wants Clementine erased, though mid-process he begins to have doubts and tries holding onto the faintest memory of Clementine.

We enter into Joel’s subconscious and watch his relationship unfold in reverse order, with Clementine vanishing from sight. Joel relives and tries to alter his memories, trying to tuck Clementine into scene from his childhood. It makes for an inventive storytelling tool to explore the power of our perceptions. The good times appear far more vivid in Joel’s recollection, which constructs his own version of Clementine (who he thinks she was) to aid Joel in avoiding the memory wipe. Through the heartbreaking struggle, we can see the manner in which our personal recollections define our relationships and ourselves.

Such a twisty story needs its human core and the against-type casting of Carrey and Winslet weigh down the free-spinning illogic. Carrey is reined in and mannerism-free as a lovesick introvert still prone to awkward fumbling around girls. Less constrained is Winslet who turns Clementine into a bundle of aggressive spontaneity and barely concealed neurosis. Both are ill suited but the film identifies their union as a longing for companionship. The reunion of Joel and Clementine suggests that our stupid mistakes and the impassive dominance of technology cannot interrupt true love. We leave Joel and Clementine with optimism, hopeful that they will rebuild was has been destroyed. For all its disorientation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind cherishes our relationships and how they color our remembrances. Sometimes all we have left of our joy is our memory, and once that becomes lost, so do we.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Solaris (1972)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Starring Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis.
In a Nutshell: A man is visited by an apparition of his dead wife on board a space station.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s work expresses a pensive quality that can be refreshing or infuriating, depending on the pace at which you are accustomed. A movie like Solaris, a crown jewel in his filmography, does not immediately gain depth through its languid pacing and Tarkovsky’s lingering hold on shots. But it helps to draw us into the film’s aura and its meditations on our existence. Our main character is psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) who has been instructed to evaluate the conditions of a space station science crew orbiting the ocean planet Solaris. A pilot had returned from the planet claiming to have seen a child on the planet’s surface, despite his data holding little water with the science brass on Earth. On board, the crew is distant and uncooperative while a video log of a dead scientist warns Kelvin of any supernatural activity, eluding that it drove him to suicide.

Kelvin then finds an apparition of his deceased wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) created by Solaris’ psychic effects. Hari is not a pure replication, but a physical manifestation of Kelvin’s memories (minus any knowledge of the real Hari’s suicide). She starts to gain thoughts and emotions of her own despite being constantly aware over her non-existence. This unfolds at an almost unbearably slow pace, but Tarkovsky uses this a means to explore the issues of Hari’s sudden manifestation. If Hari is nothing but Kelvin’s memories, does this make her real? Through this incarnation of Hari, we see both the unknown around (the planet of Solaris) and the unknown within.

Solaris is not a guns and spaceships science fiction film. It is not even a sci-fi film about discovery (like 2001: A Space Odyssey, a vastly dissimilar film). But with the sci-fi elements Solaris provides, Tarkovsky can explore what it means to be human and our place in the universe. Yes, the film is lengthy and slow, but can establish a lonely, unfamiliar atmosphere to reflect on. It stands as a rare science fiction film built on emotion rather than intellect while still utilizing the genre’s freedom. Solaris is more an experience than a structured film, but a hauntingly beautiful one at that.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Directed by Alain Resnais.
Starring Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi.
In a Nutshell: A man tries to convince a woman of their past relationship.

Now this is one heck of a cinematic puzzle. Last Year at Marienbad is no clear-cut tale; its story folds time and space over each other until memory and reality become indistinguishable (both to the audience and the film’s characters). Alain Resnais has claimed the film had no meaning, but that does not give it less merit. As an experiment in film narrative, Marienbad is captivating, even if my hold on the film is still developing. The initial plot is initially and deceptively simple; a woman referred to only as A (Delphine Seyrig) attends a party at a château. She meets a man, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) who claims the two had a relationship last year at Marienbad and planned to meet at the château at year later to leave her controlling partner, M (Sascha Pitoeff).

The movie flashes back to the night of A and X’s encounter, and every shot changes. Costumes, scenery, and even the exact events at each encounter never stay constant. Characters change their perceptions and remembrances as new details come to light, almost as though some unseen force is changing their minds (and therefore the events) at whim. On the surface, it is narrative nonsense, a stream of consciousness that rolls truth, lie, and fantasy into one incoherent visualization. Taking into account Resnais’ “meaning” to Marienbad, I conclude that the film is simply that; an exercise in the control and the surreal. Characters do not act on their own, but as though under a spell (A becomes increasingly receptive to X as details from their alleged encounter fill in, X remembers M committing a murder, and then changes his mind). They are puppets, just as every single film character is a tool utilized by its director and writer. A is ordered around and bends to X’s will while M creates conflict (or maybe not).

What I believe Last Year at Marienbad can be whittled down to is a look into the subjunctive, a depiction of controlled perfection in the mind of its author. The lavishly designed château becomes a ghostly labyrinth with its guests occupying their space like statues. Francis Seyrig fills the air with an organ score worthy of a horror movie, drawing us further into the mansion’s haunting elegance. The atmosphere creates an unreal atheistic for its constantly shifting story, which exists for its creator (X) to tell it his own way. Last Year at Marienbad provides no answers, and has been famously reveled for its ambiguity. I can hardly fault it for its artificiality and its lack of resolution; that is the point. Last Year at Marienbad is no more than a means to observe the way we control our own memories, what we choose to omit and desire, whether they exist or not. But such a puzzling film has no clean explanation; this is only how I remember it.