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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