Monday, March 16, 2009

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)

Robert Bresson's second feature film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, was for me at once both greater and lesser than his more celebrated (and less conventional) films. Made in 1945, it was the last of his films to feature a cast of all-professional actors, and though the emotions exhibited were noticeably muted compared to the overwrought Hollywood fare of the times, the overall effect is like that of a slow simmer, an undercurrent of tension, instead of the automaton approach he elicited from the "models" in his later works.

'Les Dames,' taken from Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, weaves a cautionary tale about a woman's scorn. Rich, decadent, and beautiful Hélène learns that her cynical boyfriend Jean no longer loves her. Early on in the film, she opens up to him, pretending to have lost her feelings for him and pleading for deliverance from her guilt, thereby coaxing his own admission. Agreeing to remain friends, Hélène winds an elaborate trap, enticing him to first fall in love with and then to try to marry a women who, unbeknownst to him, has a notorious past.

Bresson's adaptation (co-written with Jean Cocteau) feels perfectly at home in his spiritual universe, a universe filled with pain and suffering - and redemption. When it was released, many critics received it poorly, unable to believe in a story set in the present yet predicated on century-old mores. Within a matter of years, however, the film obtained cult-status, and is still shown to this day in art-house theaters around the world.

Working with professional actors, I felt like I was witnessing the missing half of Bresson's vision, the passionate yin to his austere yang. But slowly I realized that I was also standing on the edge of an unbridged abyss. On this side stood a world with potential for visible connections, for emotional outbursts of love, hate. But Bresson left this world, crossing the abyss and occasionally radioing back bizarre new picture-scapes, lands where dispassionate decapitations, rape, donkey beatings, and other spiritual non-sequiter were the norm. Neither world makes sense without the other - yet neither can these worlds be bridged.

Last Word: Fascinating, engaging, though at times decidedly un-Bresson, 'Les Dames' merits appreciation for all that the auteur was able to accomplish within the studio system.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

People on Sunday

Last night, a friend tipped me off to a one-night screening of People on Sunday at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan's lower east side. It's a rare 1929 German silent film principally written by wunderkind Billy Wilder in the period just prior to the Nazi reign of terror.

People is an example of early avante-garde cinema, featuring a host of non-professional actors whose day jobs mirrored the jobs they portrayed in the film. They all belonged to a budding collective of young artists making films as group-efforts with minuscule budgets; People on Sunday had as many as 4 directors, with at least 3 of those directors doubling in other capacities like writing and cinematography. Their eventual fate leads us to contemplate one of the great what-ifs of history; before the Nazi's, German artists were at the forefront of international cinema, pushing boundaries, experimenting with just the right mix of innocence and naivety that seems to facilitate all the great artistic breakthroughs in history. But of course it didn't last, with many perishing under the Nazi regime and others fleeing Europe in the largest artistic and intellectual diaspora in human history. A few found success in their new environment; Wilder eventually made his way to Hollywood and went on to write and direct some of the world's most cherished films. Others slipped into obscurity, unable to adapt to new languages and customs.

Though I've had to accept that I will always have some hesitations about the artistic value of silent films, I have to admit that People on Sunday has more than any other come the closest to approaching the ecstatic emotions and wonder I've experienced watching some of my favorite films. Yes, there were the overwrought emotional outbursts and pantomiming, and yes, the cinematography at times reminded me of a starving child let loose in a candy store.

But at the same time, People on Sunday transcended these limitations and shortcomings, crafting a story that touches on the ineffability of love and the alienation of modern life with the grace of a poet. We watch as four young Berliners - two men and two woman - make their way out to the countryside on Sunday, their day off. The day is filled with adventure, love, pain, and redemption, and sold without gimmick and with a moral ambiguity we might not necessarily expect from an old film. And though I still can't imagine a silent ever equaling the artistic power of a modern film, I am impressed by a film - as much as it's filmmakers - that's shot on a dime, populated by amateurs, crippled without a soundtrack, yet still capable of surpassing the quality of the majority of films spewed from Hollywood's factories today.


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