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Looking back on the first ten years of this century, it’s hard not to consider it one of the most appalling periods in recent memory. Rung in by tragedy and followed by a disgraceful variation on frontier justice (fuelled by pampered frat boy machismo), the decade dragged obnoxiously on with one outrage following another each one more egregious than the last. The economic gap between rich and poor has been steadily steadily growing over the last few decades, but I can’t recall a decade where the wealthy, privileged and connected were more arrogant and brazen. (The 1980s somehow now seem tasteful, even discrete.) It became customary, even accepted, for those in power to simply change or ignore the laws when they somehow (“accidentally” of course) broke them. Never exactly elevated, the level of public discourse deteriorated precipitously—especially in terms of politics—turning so shrill and hysterical that blatant lies we’re glibly repeated and accepted as truth.
Here in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper bid goodbye to the decade by shutting down parliament by fiat twice within a year, then, perhaps because he was logy from too much time away from work, looked like he was about to nod off during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Olympics.
At least there were a lot of good movies.
The decade began very promisingly, with magnificent work from Argentina: Lucrecia Martel’s miasmic variation on Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, La Cienaga); Quebec: Catherine Martin’s period piece Mariages, an exquisite, delicate romance cum ghost story, part Maya Deren, part Wuthering Heights; India: Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s masterful Tale of a Naughty Girl, the story of a young woman born into prostitution told with a quiet lyricism and often shocking moments of humour—the film is punctuated by abrupt cutaways to a man screening pornographic movies, alone, in an enormous cavern of a theatre; the UK: see Michael Winterbottom’s neo-realist refugee tale In This World; his sharp sci-fi parable Code 46; and his raucous account of the birth of the Manchester scene, 24 Hour Party People, though his best work in the decade was his cerebral, wickedly funny update of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; and Finland: Aki Kaurismaki’s Man Without a Past, though his best film of the period was his marvelous Helsinki noir, Lights in the Dusk.
But the defining moments of the decade were probably the large epic projects taken on by Lav Diaz (Evolution of a Filipino Family); Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher trilogy); Bernard Émond (his series on the Christian virtues, La neuvaine; Contre tout esperance and La donation); and, of course, Lars von Trier (his incomplete Amerika trilogy, Dogville and Manderlay).
Why they chose to work in these longer formats varies, obviously, from project to project, but given the shrill nature of public debate it’s hard not to see them as a kind of cinematic filibustering, an escape from the general hysteria.
Each of these filmmakers used the extended form to explore large, dominant themes which wouldn’t have fit comfortably in a more economical format. Diaz, for example, took aim at a wave of domestic nostalgia for the regime of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, carefully outlining the costs of absolute power perhaps, outlining the impact of the regime on a single family and how it reached even the most remote areas of the country. Paradoxically, Diaz creates a timeless rural world, where you feel in some ways that nothing has changed. A hundred years ago, the family would be struggling to keep the land arable and the livestock breathing just as they are in the film’s present. (The near tactile approach to history makes Evolution feel like a distant cousin of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer’s Day.)
(This sense of being outside of major developments, outside contemporary history even, is evident in Dasgupta’s film, which takes place at the time of the moon landing —an event which seems a galaxy away to the film’s principals.)
Beautifully acted and directed, Émond’s trilogy explores similar terrain while offering up is a pervasive and convincing critique of the implicit ethics and explicit chaos of modernity structured around the three Christian virtues: faith, hope and charity. The first film, La neuvaine, deals with Jeanne Dion (the phenomenal Elise Guilbault), a middle-aged doctor experiencing a spiritual and ethical crisis. (It specifically deals with the Christian virtue of faith.) Shattered by a truly horrific murder that she feels partially responsible for, Dion travels to the countryside—presumably to kill herself. She’s effectively rescued by a young man who grew up in the village. Like her, he’s dealing with tragedy—he’s mourning the loss of his beloved grandmother. But what really saves and invigorates her is the solitude and silence of the places she’s visiting. The grandeur of the landscape saves her by proving that there’s something beyond her own life and the moral chaos she’s been enmeshed in. All of this is rendered economically and quietly, devoid of the trendy pyrotechnics which now dominate movies. (Émond has called the stillness and considered visuals in this film an act of insurrection and it’s hard not to agree with him.)
The second installment, Contre tout esperance, is radically different in tone. Angry and kind of ferocious, the film follows a middle-aged couple who finally get together enough money to buy a small house. Their dreams are ultimately destroyed by bad luck, ill health and globalization. (Veteran Quebec actor Serge Houde imbues the wife’s English boss with a stuffy, old boy sense of propriety, privilege and arrogance while looking as if he walked out of a George Grosz drawing.) A film about powerlessness and the absence of hope, Contre tout is (was?) a prescient work—coming a couple years before the collapse of the American banking and insurance system. Superficially, the film seems more conventional than La neuvaine or La donation, or maybe familiar is a better word, perhaps because of its sense of outrage and its flashback/flashforward structure. (It’s a little like a neo-realist horror movie. It closes in on you.) Ironically, the film about hope is the most despairing entry. That said, it also the most emotionally direct film in the series.
The final film in the series, La donation picks up the story of Dr. Jeanne Dion, who no longer finds her work in an emergency room as rewarding as it once was, and answers an offer to take over a local practice run by Dr. Rainville (Jacques Godin) in Normetal, a remote village in Quebec’s Abitibi region. (A once thriving town, the population has dwindled and the economy evaporated.) Increasingly frail, Rainville has hit the age where work is far too difficult. The dramatic crux of the piece hinges on whether Dion will take over the practice and the responsibilities. Unlike her position in the emergency room, the job of a small town doctor is vastly more demanding in terms of personal involvement – a sacrifice she hadn’t anticipated or necessarily wanted to make.
La donation argues that there are other ways to live, other ways to relate not only to our surroundings but to one another. Instead of seeing community and other people as instrumental to our own desires, Rainville and eventually Dion (and Émond) see themselves as a part of a larger whole. It’s also magnificently shot. DOP Sara Mishara evokes the verdant and hostile greens of Francis Mankiewicz’s rural Gothic Les bons debarras, yet includes sequences that could have come out of a horror movie, like the unexplained appearance of an alcoholic delinquent mother outside Dion’s window in the middle of the night.
The works by the two Danish directors may seem completely different but that’s a rather superficial way to look at them. The first installment of Refn’s gangster trilogy, The Pusher, is obviously louder and brasher than the films by Diaz and Émond, but, by the second entry, he shifts gears significantly. Indeed, the two later films are clearly designed to rip apart the assumptions and presumptions of the first. Pusher (1996), the first episode, is energetic but relatively conventional—concentrating on a hero (Kim Bodnia) who wants to leave the trade but is too tempted by the lure of not-so-easy money. His situation is complicated by Tonny, a dimwitted accomplice (Mads Mikkelsen), who eventually screws him over and a fearsome and fearsome Serbian mob boss, Milo (Zlatko Buric). The second film, With Blood on My Hands, focuses on Tonny, who is neither as dim-witted or repulsive as he seems in the first section, and commits the one unambiguously selfless act in the cycle. The third, I’m The Angel of Death, follows Milo, who turns out to be a hen-pecked father with a host of personal problems (addiction and a complete inability to cook – he poisons his entire gang with bad samosas at a crucial moment). The scale and Refn’s insistence on overturning subjects suggests both The Godfather films and the “Henry V” plays—a far cry from the tired post-modern smugness of contemporary gangster movies.
As for the von Trier films, well, it’s difficult to think of a director who made a bigger impact and consistently challenged people on so many levels. The late 1990s Dogme movement posed so many trenchant questions—and offered up such an enticing DIY aesthetic—it haunted most film production at the beginning of the decade. Being von Trier, he followed the most notorious cinematic manifesto in the last half decade with an about face, abandoning the realist elements of Dogme for the studio-bound, live theatre approach of Dogville and Manderlay. The first was mistakenly perceived as anti-American (I guess because it was set there), though the film is largely about xenophobia and the mistreatment of outsiders or newcomers. (Americans may be good at both, but I don’t believe they’ve copyrighted them yet.)
Refugee Grace (Nicole Kidman) is initially welcomed and then abused in the most appalling manner because she has no possible recourse. (The arc of her story suggests nothing if not the helplessness of immigrant labour forces.) The vengeance she wreaks on them is both tonic and toxic, as it has to be. Liberalism (its arrogance, presumptions and inveterate distaste for tradition and detail) and race are the subjects of Manderlay, a more obvious and particular rumination on America. Though again, the lessons proffered could apply to anyone who ventures into a foreign space assuming superiority. This time out, Grace finds a gated community still living by the rules of the pre-bellum American South.
Where Kidman’s Grace was acted upon, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace is the prime mover in the story and the cause for much of the disaster which ensues, often because of ill-advised or ignorant decisions (she cuts down the tree line to build houses, only to find out it protected the crops) or her own needy ego. In both films, significantly, Grace finds communities which don’t coincide with her “modern” way of thinking—only to realize her assumptions were naïve or wrong-headed.
Almost simultaneously, von Trier collaborated with legendary Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth on one of the decade’s most adventurous explorations of the documentary form: The Five Obstructions. An exploration of an artist’s need for structure and inveterate hatred of it (as well as the inevitable obstacles before any act of creation), it provided a compelling and window on how an artist’s mind works and proved to be a consistently engaging head game. It shared this trait with two other films which upended the conventions: Robert Douglas’ Small Mall (a sort-of documentary—Douglas inserted an actor amongst his subjects without telling them—about the workers in a small mall whose primary goal in life is to get a job at the bigger mall) and my favourite documentary of the period, Guy Maddin’s rumination on his hometown, My Winnipeg, an even more gloriously witty head game then The Five Obstructions.