Thursday, April 8, 2010

my favorite film scenes

Recently, @fayedilla mentioned that, during an interview, she was asked what her favorite film scenes were. Given that I'm a web developer by trade, if I'm ever asked that question, I doubt my answer would have quite so much riding on it as her's did, yet I couldn't help but ponder what my response would be....

This list is a first attempt, is utterly incomplete, and is in no particular order:

Assault on the Third Castle Scene (Ran, 1985, Akira Kurosawa).

The emotional impact of the stunning and horrifying images are heightened, not dampened, by the suppression of their corresponding sound effects. The sinister score and the detached cinematography masterfully illuminate the frank cynicism that pervades this classic.

Walking on Water Scene (Being There, 1979, Hal Ashby).

Without this final scene, we would still have a great film. Yet both the ambiguity and the caprice of Peter Seller's character suddenly walking on water elevated this film beyond mere social commentary into a philosophical category all it's own.

Club Silencio Scene (Mulholland Drive, 2001, David Lynch).

Words can not communicate the terrifying weirdness of this scene. I'll simply say that watching this scene for the first time in the theaters, I discovered filmmaking. Powerful, terrifying, transformative filmmaking. Congrats to David on catching this big fish.

The Realities of Growing Up Scene (Up, 2009, Pete Doctor).

Leave it to a kid's film to devastatingly encapsulate our collective failure to live up to our dreams. If you've seen Up, you know exactly which scene I'm talking about. If you've never seen it, then I pity you.

Interrogation on the LaPadite Dairy Farm Scene (Inglorious Basterds, 2009, Quentin Tarantino).

If you ever had any doubt that Quentin Tarantino is the MASTER of dialog, then look no further than this opening scene. The polite banter, the bigoted sophistry, the masterful building of tension - not since Billy Wilder has America had such a gifted writer of dialog.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

favorite films of the decade

this was the decade of my cinematic awakening. the decade where i learned just how much i enjoyed film, and just how great film can be. i saw all of my favorite films for the first time this decade. many of those films were old classics that i was simply discovering for the first time. some of those, however, were released during this decade. of those released in the last ten years, these are my favorite:

31) ocean's eleven
(USA, 2001, Steven Soderbergh)
ok, hollywood, LISTEN UP: THIS is what a remake should be. take a crappy film, give it a sexy new spin and a cleverly crafted script, and hand it off to soderbergh. STOP REMAKING CLASSICS.

30) madagascar (USA, 2005, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath)
what is a simple bite on the butt between friends? come on, give me a nibble.

29) 28 days later (U.K., 2002, Danny Boyle)
for god's sake, when will those damn scientists stop experimenting on monkeys!

28) let the right one in (Sweden, 2008, Tomas Alfredson)
ah, inappropriately young love. and bloodsucking murder. <gush>

27) star trek (USA, 2009, J.J. Abrams)
ok, so it's the death of roddenberry's philosophical vision. but who cares? the other entertaining blockbusters of the decade wish they had a tenth of the wit of this perfectly blended spectacle.

26) the royal tenenbaums (USA, 2001, Wes Anderson)
a true friend is the one willing to knife you in the side when you're being an ass.

25) lost in translation (USA, 2003, Sofia Coppala)
one of two movies in my line-up where you can't hear the secrets whispered at the end.

24) there will be blood (USA, 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
just watch your milkshake. or there will be blood.

23) up! (USA, 2009, Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson)
how is it that the opening sequence of a kid's film is the most poetic, succint, and devastating expression of the realities of growing up in all of cinema?

22) intermission (Ireland, 2003, John Crowley)
look, don't piss on collin farrel's leg. just don't.

21) the darjeeling limited (USA, 2007, Wes Anderson)
if you were one of those that complained about this film because it showed india as if it hadn't
changed in the last 50 years, then you missed the point. big time. get over your political correctness.

20) the lives of others (Germany, 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
the brutal, sincere portrait of the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. without the the right to say and think anything we desire, we will wither and crumble.

19) summer hours (France, 2009, Olivier Assayes)
art, life, and the promise of the next generation.

18) the life aquatic with steve zissou (USA, 2004, Wes Anderson)
deadpan berserker, hydrogen psychosis, and the crazy-eye!

17) encounters at the end of the world (USA, 2008, Werner Herzog)
fuzzy itty-bitty wittle penguins? i don't think so. there are those who would have us believe that nature is fuzzy, warm, and harmonious. and there are those who remind us that nature is actually a form of collective murder. thank god someone as eloquent and brilliant as herzog is in the latter camp.

16) science of sleep (France, 2006, Michel Gondry)
cardboard, cellophane, and stop-motion animation do a better job of translating - and inspiring - our imagination than cgi ever could.

15) spirited away (Japan, 2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
we grow up in our imagination.

14) howl's moving castle (Japan, 2004, Hayao Miyazaki)
The mixture of boundless optimism and uncanny eerieness.

13) grizzly man (USA, 2005, Werner Herzog)
only someone who pulled a boat over a mountain could have the patience to scour tredwell's hundreds of hours of unedited footage to plow the deeper mysteries of human existance.

12) eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (USA, 2004, Michel Gondry)
apparently the best relationships are mixture of heaven and hell, and there's nothing you can do to get out of it. so don't even bother having your mind erased.

11) still life (China, 2007, Jia Zhang-Ke)
you can destroy thousands of years of culture in the blink of an eye, but you'll never stop corruption, greed, and individual tragedy.

10) in bruges (U.K., 2008, Martin McDonagh)
who knew a movie about hitmen in fucking bruges could be so wonderfully poetic?

9) in the mood for love (Hong Kong, 2000, Wong Kar-Wai)
love is tragic. but don't let that stop you from whispering the secrets of the universe into a hole in the wall before sealing them up with mud.

8) little miss sunshine (USA, 2006, Jonathan Dayton)
god bless our fucked up families. my wife and i nearly died laughing in the theaters.

7) audition (Japan, 2000, Takeshi Miike)

6) platform (China, 2002, Jia Zhang-Ke)
china, 1980's - a pivotal moment for art wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies.

5) ponyo (Japan, 2009, Hayao Miyazaki)
soske loves ponyo! great films aren't works of art; they're magic.

4) broken flowers (USA, 2005, Jim Jarmusch)
bill murray's doleful expression is the waggish epitome of human loneliness.

3) inglorious basterds (USA, 2009, Quentin Tarantino)
a cinematic grab-bag of dramatic brilliance. christoph waltz and brad pitt are pitch-perfect polar opposites.

2) my son, my son, what have ye done (USA, 2009, Werner Herzog)
only in his documentaries has herzog has ever acheived such inspired, poetic brilliance. and all it took was a midget, a tree stump, and a minute long stare into the camera!

1) mulholland drive
(USA, 2001, David Lynch)
this movie, more than any other, opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema. thank you, david lynch. ¡no hay banda!

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lorna's Silence

"Lorna's Silence," the latest award-winning film from the Dardenne brothers, begs discussion. Like John Sayles's "Limbo " and the Coen Brother's "No Country for Old Men," its unresolved ending has polarized audiences and critics alike, leaving us guessing at both the protagonist's fate and the filmmaker's intent. Though there are a myriad of elements available for analysis and debate (including the Dardenne brother's increasingly nuanced examinations of those marginalized in the European economic integration following the collapse of the Soviet system), the film's inconsonant form and incongruous ending deserve special attention.

Like most capricious escapades, 'Lorna' falls together like a jigsaw puzzle. The confoundingly elliptical narrative structure that slowly doles out disparate elements of an obviously doomed criminal scheme has very solid roots in the classic film noir of half a century prior. What's interesting is that, of course, this isn't a noir. The hand-held cinematography, the steady pacing, the absence of a soundtrack (a Dardenne signature), all form the antithesis of the moody black-and-white photography and taut suspense we expect from the genre.

Arta Dobroshi's portrayal of Lorna, a conscience-stricken Albanian immigrant whose modest dreams and meager means lead her to a life of crime, is simultaneously heartfelt and reserved – and all the more impressive given her unfamiliarity with the French language (when she was cast for the film the only words of French she knew were the days of the week). With veiled restrain, Arta communicates the contradictory falterings of her character, simultaneously eliciting an unsettling mix of sympathy and revulsion in us. Jérémie Renier's performance as Claudy, a junkie, is both the physical and visceral 180 from his recent turn as the responsible family man in Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours." His timid yet tenacious pleas for help will invoke empathy in even the most hard-hearted. Yet neither of these characters neatly fit the mold of the noir fall guy, which begs the question: why did the Dardenne brothers spend the first half of the film developing an elliptical form more akin to films made 60 years ago? In the noir, the developmental omissions are in the service of suspense, but in 'Lorna,' the directors have ventured a cinematic metaphor: the narrative structure mirrors the confused state of our protagonist; just as we slowly peel back the layers of the criminal cabal, Lorna slowly comes to grips with her own conscience. It's a daring marriage of form and content, and though it's certainly not the first to attempt such a feat, it's easily one of the most successful.

Even more audacious than this, though, is the ending (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask). In a film like this, the criminal plans of the characters always fail; what makes each of these films unique is how the characters react to that failure. Without giving anything away, I can say that Arta's performance is largely responsible for transforming this film from an exercise in human cruelty into an altogether spiritually surreal experience. The Dardenne brothers have continued their examinations into the possibilities for hope and redemption, offering up new evidence for the tragedy of the human experience while leaving any conclusions entirely to us.

Last Word: Featuring superb performances and narrative originality, 'Lorna' continues the Dardenne brother's unsparing look at the inhumanity lurking in all of us.


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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Trial of Joan of Arc (dir. Robert Bresson, 1961)

Nowhere is Bresson's belief that all "art lies in suggestion" more apparent than in his 1961 film, "Trial of Joan of Arc." Blindingly economical, weighing in at only 65 minutes, Bresson stripped the film down to its absolute essentials, exposing Joan's interior struggle and delivering an intense, rapid sequence of events. He also managed to give us one of the most accurate – and sincere – portraits of Joan by laboriously excerpting the film's dialogue verbatim from the transcripts of her original hearings and her posthumous rehabilitation trial.

At the time of its making, the popular image of Joan was that of an "earthy" peasant shepherdess and captain, a sexist stereotype furthered by Hollywood's numerous dramatizations of Joan's life. Bresson wisely avoids cliché, instead presenting to us a beautiful, intelligent women, a defiant philosopher of the soul simultaneously afflicted with self-doubt and fearful of her impending death. Rejecting historical reconstruction and concealing the layouts of the hearing room, jail cell, and outdoor arena where her public execution takes place, Bresson dislodged Joan from her historical setting and brought her into the present. He repeated this technique throughout his career, from his early film "The Ladies of the Bois de Boulougne" (an adaptation of Diderot's Jacques le fataliste) to his final masterpiece "L'Argent" (taken from Tolstoy's short novel The False Coupon).

In his attempt to present a paired-down, near-documentary version of reality, Bresson further pruned his already spare cinematic arsenal. "Trial" was the first of his mature works to avoid narration, a technique he had become associated with in his previous three films ("Pickpocket," "A Man Escaped," and "Diary of a Country Priest"). He also eliminated a score for the film, leaving only the drum and bugle core to accompany Joan on her death march to the stake. His reasons were two-fold. On the one hand, he felt that given the brevity of the film, a score could only get in the way of the essence of Joan's struggle; but more importantly, he heard in the text of the trial and in the rhythms of the exchanges between Joan and the priests a musical symphony all its own. His success with eliminating a score from "Trial" likely encouraged him to later reject the use of music in his films entirely, stating, "Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added. The noises must become the music."

Perhaps the most striking element of the film is the way in which Bresson elevates Joan from those around her. From the very outset, Joan is photographically isolated from her earthly surroundings, a
separation that continues all the way to the end when she's finally
expelled from this world by fire. Though she is often present in the same room with her interrogators, they never inhabit the same image, severing their inter-relationships and precluding the possibility of reconciliation. The effect focuses us on Joan's silent struggle with herself, her soul, amplifying our own senses and making us hyper-aware of even the tiniest lilt in her voice or crease in her brow.

When Bresson accepted the Jury Prize for "Trial" at Cannes 1962, Otto Preminger stated, "We all have our Joan, but yours is the best." Yet over the years, this film somehow hasn't managed to gain the recognition and following it deserves, possibly overshadowed by the much more well-known "The Passion of Joan of Arc" by Carl Theodore Dreyer and crowded out of an innumerable field of popular dramatizations. It's a tremendous loss, since "Trial" is both unique among its peers and easily one of Bresson's finest achievements.

Last Word: "Trial" is a stunning tour-de-force of minimalist economizing that transcends the historical constraints of the events and delivers a Joan timeless and eternal.


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Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson, 1951)

‘Diary’ is both a clear break from the conventions of mainstream French cinema and the work of a director in transition. Made in 1951, Bresson’s third film displays many of the characteristics that we’ve come to associate with the auteur, including a preference for “models” instead of actors, a plot without any conventional dramatic rhythms, and revealing the effect before the cause. It’s also a paradoxically touching film that ascetically avoids most of the emotionally manipulative techniques cinema typically employs.

The film, based on the celebrated George Bernanos novel of the same name, follows the trials of a young, sickly Catholic priest attempting to take charge of his first parish. Two attempts at adaptation had already been rejected by the author before Bresson: the first, by the popular screenwriters Jean Auraenche and Pierre Bost, had grossly dramatized several key scenes in the film, even altering the novel’s ending; the second attempt, penned by Pere Bruckberger, had transposed the historical setting to that of occupied France, shifting the focus from the tediously spiritual to the politically sensational. By the time Bresson was asked to make it, Bernanos had died.

Both the novel and the film focus on the spiritual life of the priest through his diary. Bresson had stated, “In my eyes, what was striking was the notebook of the diary, in which, through the curé’s pen, an external world becomes an interior world and takes on a spiritual coloration.” Throughout the film, we watch the priest’s hand write in his diary while his voiceover speaks what he has just written, anticipating and often spilling over into the scenes that follow. Most filmmakers would have rejected this approach as boringly redundant, but in Bresson’s hands, the doubling of image and sound intensifies and reinforces the action while illuminating the hidden dimensions of the medium. This deliberately constructed approach stems from Bresson’s own dictum, “Your film – let people feel the soul and heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands.”

Though many critics have lauded ‘Diary’ as one of the most successful adaptations of a novel ever made, Bresson’s real feat was creating a film faithful to the book while simultaneously pressing his own stamp onto every single scene. And while his first two films feel more like the works of a genius frustrated by an industry hostile to artistic originality, ‘Diary’ exudes an aura of discovery. Bresson had abandoned the studios and stages to film in the countryside, and had chosen Claude Laydu, an aspiring Swiss actor just starting out in acting school, to play the lead in his film. And though he filled out much of the remaining cast with professional actors, he tightly controlled their performances, speech, and movements, leading several to bitterly complain that he wouldn’t allow them to exhibit the “expressiveness” they had learned on the stage. Unlike his later films, however, Bresson gave great freedom to his cinematographer, yielding a more conventional mix of medium and long-range shots, closeups, and even tracking shots. We're left with a greater sense of spatial and inter-character relationships than in his later films, and this, coupled with a lamentably generic score, may serve as a stepping stone into Bresson's world for any newcomers to the auteur.

Last Word:
‘Diary’ was a seminal moment for film; fresh and unexpected, it expanded the medium’s horizons and
irrevocably hurtled Bresson down his brilliant, tortured career.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bresson and the Anti-Film

"No actors. (No directing of actors).
No Parts. (No learning of parts).
No staging. But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)."
- Notes on the Cinematographer, Robert Bresson

Notoriously taciturn, we know so little about Robert Bresson's life, his upbringing, his relationships. But we have something more telling than any biography: a half-century career that spanned 13 films, and his book "Notes on the Cinematographer" – a small collection of fragmentary ideas, each at most a few sentences long, that he wrote to himself between 1950 and 1974. Together these form the portrait of an artistic contrarian: a man dedicated to the creation of a new art form, who conceived of film in a way that radically precluded all that came before him (and all that has followed since).

CINEMA (Photographed Theater)
Bresson and the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky tied for the "Best Director" prize at the 1983 Cannes film festival; Bresson for his last film "L'Argent," Tarkovsky for his second-to-last film, "Nostalghia." Orson Welles, presenting the award, announced Bresson first; as the 76 year old filmmaker hobbled across the stage, many in the audience booed. Bresson was passé. Tarkovsky was the new. The moment was especially awkward for Tarkovsky. He revered Bresson's films, but in return, Bresson held Tarkovsky's works in contempt.

This lopsided appreciation was no anomaly. Many beloved filmmakers have praised him: Godard, Scorsese, Truffaut, Malle, Melville. Yet Bresson's conception of cinema eliminated the possibility of reciprocity. Cinema, or as he put it, "photographed theater," was sham, a reproduction. It held as much value as a photo of a painting or sculpture. "But a photographic reproduction of Donatello's Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer's Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything."

Bresson audaciously and perhaps naively envisioned a wholly new art form independent of the theater. The lie of acting worked in theater only because of its homogeneity; everything in the play is false – the gestures, the intonations, the sets, the lighting – and he believed that this consistency could yield truth. But film naturally encompasses the real, and the dynamic feedback between audience and actor that gives life to the theater dies on the celluloid. "No marriage of theater and cinematography, without both being exterminated. The mixture of true and false yields falsity."

Model / Automatism
Bresson's first two films, "Angels of Sin" and "Les Dames du Bois de Boulougne," were made within the studio system, with star actors and union crews. And though we can certainly find plenty to praise in each, we're also witnessing a director struggling against an industry's expectations. In them, and especially with 'Les Dames,' he attempts to give cinematographic life to a system thoroughly embedded in the art of the theater. He pushed accepted standards and methodology to their breaking point, at both the expense of his actors and his own critical reception. Maria Casarés, the world-renowned stage actress who played the role of Hélene in 'Les Dames,' publicly upbraided Bresson, calling him "a genuine tyrant... we abandoned everything that could resemble a life of our own, a personal will, in order to drag before our sweet tyrant – for he was extremely sweet – a body, hands, and a voice that he had chosen."

It was clear to Bresson that to continue, he would have to abandon the star system. He was aiming at genuine authenticity, a mindless, thoughtless will that could outline a movement from the exterior to the interior. He called the people inhabiting his following films "models," and many, including Bresson himself, have referred to their presence as a sort of automatism. To the uninitiated, this might conjure images of robotic actors delivering lines without emotion, moving with a sort of jerky other worldliness. More often than not, however, we find a deeper layer of feeling and emotion in these performances, a sort of hidden dimension lurking just under the surface, facilitated by repetition and the abandonment of the will. "Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought."

Bresson also rejected the star system because he felt that the model could only inhabit a single role. How could an audience believe in a star if he or she is one character in this film, and another character in that? His models were single serving; for any of them to inhabit more than one role would eliminate the sincerity of being that he sought for each of his films. "[The star system] makes nothing of the immense power of attraction which belongs to the new and unforeseen. Film after film, subject after subject, confronting the same faces that one cannot believe in." And though his models elevate the effect of his works, they also rendered them that much more difficult for Bresson to make. His financiers were asked to invest money into a film filled with people gracing the screen for the first time; add to that his counter-intuitive style and his reputation as a spiritual film-maker, it's no wonder that on more than one occasion he spent decades finding funding for a project.

Bresson called his new art cinematography, but not only did his definition venture well beyond the work of a cameraman, his peculiar visual aesthetic runs contrary to most photographic precepts. For Bresson, a beautiful image had no value in film. If any particular shot has significant power over the audience, then it has lost its mutability. His art lies not in the individual image, but in the montage, the sequence. The particular has value and meaning only in relation to the whole; in isolation, we find only nonsense. "An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other color. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation."

He also believed that all art lies in suggestion, and consequentially, his films doggedly work at our subconscious expectations. Space is clipped, narratives reduced, and the images flattened. Consider the setting for "Trial of Joan of Arc." Though the actual courtroom was enormous, we're never aware of the dimensions, focused instead solely on Joan's face, the upper bodies of her interrogators, and the scribbling of the court reporters. The riotous crowds are never seen, only heard, gnawing at the corners of our awareness. The church's interrogators are nameless save for one, and though they are often present in the same room with Joan, they never inhabit the same image. Their separateness is absolute; their can be no reconciliation. All of this economizing simultaneously focuses us on the interior aspects of the characters while subconsciously filling us with tension, even dread.

Bresson's works are a kind of anti-film. Not because we're only capable of defining them by what they lack (we aren't), and not because he consciously set out to create the opposite of existing cinema (he didn't). Bresson repeatedly rejected any sort of abstract intellectualism as the basis for art; he searched for the new and unexpected, regardless of any preconceptions, even his own, cautioning himself to "be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod (the fish that arises from nowhere)."

No, they are anti-film because we're incapable of viewing them without bringing along all of the cinematic baggage that we've accumulated in our lifetimes. Where there are models, we see only bad acting. Where there is economy, we see only dull simplicity. Over time, we can grow accustomed to his art, appreciate it, even embrace it (to the point of risking conversion away from the cinema). But had we grown up watching the films of Bresson, we would likely find all other cinema maddeningly unnecessary, bloated horror shows plagued by histrionics and paroxysm.

Yet perhaps there's room in this world for both CINEMA and cinematography. Though CINEMA may omit the transcendent power of "A Man Escaped," Bresson's cinematography precludes the infectious hilarity of Tati or the illusionism of Lynch. And if no bridge is found twixt the two, at least we can thank Bresson for expanding the horizons of the possible, and for inspiring us with his audacious naiveté.


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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Devil Probably (dir. Robert Bresson)

Bresson's second to last film, "The Devil Probably," is easily the most experimental of all of his works. Its loose narrative (an original screenplay written by Bresson himself) borders on aimlessness, and he leaves out so many essential plot details that we're often left grasping for straws. It's also perhaps his only film that openly lectures to the audience; several scenes clearly and simplistically indict a global economy wreaking environmental havoc on the earth. Opening with conflicting reports of a suicide, it's also one of the more striking examples of Bresson's preference for showing the effect before the cause. We're constantly weaving back and forth in time, desperately searching for clues that might explain the encounters we've witnessed. And in the end, we're left without any answers or enlightenment.

Set in France nearly one decade after the failed student revolutions of May 1968, the film opens with two newspaper accounts of the death of the main character, Charles. One states that it was a suicide, while another paper alleges a murder-suicide pact. The rest of the 90-minute film is filled with flashbacks to the six-months prior to that event, covering seemingly unconnected episodes from Charles's life. He's inexplicably suicidal; some of his companions do their best to save him from his depression, while others simply try to make some money off of his despair. His plight mirrors the general malaise of his generation, disilussioned with the aftermath of their failed uprising. They no longer speak of creation, peace, or a new world; they can only speak cynically of destruction, and of the ease with which they can manipulate the masses.

"The Devil Probably" is unrelentingly bleak. Bresson admitted as much himself, stating, "Of all my films, The Devil Probably is the most ghastly. But none of them are despairing." For me, it's his only film that I've been genuinely disinterested in. The writing, like the plot, feels unfocused at best, and lazily didactic at worst. And though I in general appreciate Bresson's pencience for eliminating outcomes as a source of tension by showing us the effects before the cause, it's only because he typically crafts a story that creates its own tensions, regardless of the outcome. It's the burning "how's" and "why's" that give the best of his films their infectious single-mindedness. But 'Devil's' confounding plot mitigates against that necessary focus, and even serves to conceal that interior beauty that he so often displays through his peculiar montages.

Last Word: A daring experiment in form and narrative that in the end mitigates against Bresson's greatest strengths.


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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mouchette (dir. Robert Bresson)

Will this film make me laugh? Cry? Will I have fun for a couple of hours then forget all about it by the next day? If that's the kind of questions that run through your mind when evaluating a film, then for God's sake, please read no further. Robert Bresson is clearly not what you're looking for, and his film "Mouchette" will quite likely force you to ponder questions about life and death that you probably spend most of your waking hours trying to avoid.

Yes, it's bleak. Mouchette is a prepubescent girl who lives in poverty. When she's not at school or at work at a local diner, she's at home caring for her dying mother, baby sister, and wine-smuggling drunkard of a father. Her teacher slaps her for singing out of key, and her schoolmates despise her and her cheap wooden clogs. Mouchette's few joys in the film include throwing mud at the rich girls, decimating her opponents in a game of bumper cars, and caring for an epileptic murderer. Cheery, no?

The film delights in symbolism. We open with some of Bresson's most stunning and effective cinematography, a cat-and-mouse game between Arsene, the poacher, and Mathieu, the game warden. A figure concealed by dense shrubbery sneaks upon a clearing. Hands, in closeup, set partridge traps. Another pair of eyes watch, wait. The traps snap, and the game begins. Birds struggle helplessly in the nooses, writhing in pain. Mathieu carefully approaches one of the frightened animals, seizing it in a moment of weakness. He unties the noose, releasing the bird. Arsene watches his defeat, then flees the scene. The sequence economically anticipates the film's primary motif. Mouchette is like this bird, caught between two opposing forces: her own independent, noble spirit, and a society that despises her for circumstances beyond her control. She struggles, but in vain. Will someone release her from this trap? In a way, yes, though her "liberation" has left audiences implacably divided, often along religious lines.

"Mouchette" is the second time Bresson adapted a novel by Goerge Bernanos, the first being his internationally renowned success, "Diary of a Country Preist." Bernanos's style seems perfectly suited for Bresson; he deals with the interior aspects of the characters, their thoughts, the movements of their souls. Bresson's peculiar aesthetic seems uniquely capable of rendering these themes on the screen. The flatness of his photography, the automatism of his characters, the interdependence of his images, all point toward the hidden, concealed, yet inexplicably revealed. And though the "plot" defies all attempts at conventional analysis, the film is a wholly compelling exercise in form, layered with meaning, and divisive in it's conclusions. It's also an impressive sifting of characters, themes, and motifs, each of which stand on their own, yet combined form something altogether different.

Last Word: "Mouchette" is a touching film of rebellion and independence that unites audiences in their appreciation and divides them in their conclusions.


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