Web Only | TIFF 2009: Autumn Leavings

white materialBy Andrew Tracy

You may consult the issue proper (or issues past) for much of what actually matters in this season’s festival crop; see here some scraps from the Toronto table, richly appointed though they are.

White Material. Though the reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been decidedly mixed—with a quite understandable initial disappointment almost immediately challenged by wildly disproportionate praise—the one aspect that gathers nearly unanimous consent is the fortuitous combination of Denis and Isabelle Huppert. Yet while Huppert is certainly an impressive addition to Denis’ collection of beautifully crafted human objects—blonde hair, white shirt, and splash of freckles gleaming with dusky brilliance in the film’s African sun as she struts defiantly through an incipient civil war—it rather seems to me that it is the fundamental incompatibility between filmmaker and star which helps foster some of the film’s core imbalances. Denis’ familiar constellation of actors—Gregoire Colin, Beatrice Dalle, Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor (the latter two appearing around the edges of White Material, more totems than players)— are always more acted upon than acting in her films. Passive, almost unheeding before the camera gaze cast upon them, they are fascinating physiological rarities pored over by Denis’ sensuously attuned eye; she draws qualities from them that have less to do with performance than with simply being.

It’s for this reason that the surprising standout of White Material is Christophe Lambert’s appearance as Huppert’s estranged husband, youthful beauty given way to a beautifully decaying middle age: puffy-faced, peacefully resigned to his own failure, a faintly sad smile playing across his lips and displaying a touching tenderness towards his illegitimate mulatto son, he’s the perfect emblem for Denis’ portrait of crumbling European privilege in the film’s pointedly unidentified African nation. Yet it is precisely because Denis uses Lambert that he becomes effective; there is no means of using Huppert, one of those rare actors who is as much an auteur as any name above the title. Unavoidably aggressive even when playing passive, Huppert is a boon for a filmmaker with a comparably forceful sensibility (cf. her two Haneke juggernauts), but she intrinsically unsettles the allusive, floating quality of Denis’ aesthetic. Violence in Denis issues suddenly, shockingly from the immersive atmosphere and textures she has previously examined lovingly or erotically, as in the chillingly silent carnage wreaked upon a somnambulant household at the conclusion of White Material; Huppert carries that violence with her at all times, such that her own final, seemingly inexplicable action feels almost de rigueur.

It’s meant as no insult to one of the great cinema actresses to say that Huppert’s very presence heralds disaster, and that palpable inevitability hangs heavy over White Material, a drag on that weightless, floating sense of freedom that imbues even Denis’ darkest films. Perhaps it’s this embodied aura of predetermination that accentuates Denis’ more questionable dramaturgical decisions: the sticky politico-ideological implications of her abstracted, allegorical treatment of African civil strife; the thin, nearly translucent characterization of Huppert’s layabout son, who is destined for symbolhood the moment he appears onscreen; the John Sayles-like devices of the wounded, pseudonymous revolutionary hero The Boxer (de Bankolé) and the militant DJ whose broadcasts serve as a connective thread for Denis’ habitual fragmenting of narrative temporality and geography. One of Denis’ greatest talents is her ability to move fluidly and seamlessly between varying levels of narrative and signification (inside and outside, dream and reality, drama and allegory); this is perhaps the first time when one can hear the gears shifting.

The White Ribbon. Our editor summarily dispatched Michael Haneke’s fellow prizewinner in half a sentence in Cinema Scope 39; nevertheless, this studiously arid (white) elephant in the room merits attention if only to try and determine how such an accomplished filmmaking sense can ultimately yield so little. The first two-thirds of Haneke’s Heimat-aping historical drama—investigating the mysteriously sadistic goings-on and everyday domestic cruelty of a small German town in the early 20th century—is gripping in its elegant, subtle accumulation of narrative layers, wending its way through the communal and private lives of the town’s various social strata with a skill that earns that much-abused appellation “novelistic.” Greater than this, though, is Haneke’s unerring ability (in his filmmaking if not his unfortunate public pronouncements) to ground his didacticism in specificities of character and drama, to divine the overlap between carefully etched particularities of personality and the larger, more abstract determinations of social class. Auteuil in Caché (2005) is both a representative of bourgeois original sin and a character whose faults are uniquely his own, and Haneke’s treatment of The White Ribbon’s central “villain,” Burghart Klaussner’s autocratic pastor, evinces this same keen reading of the affinities and divergences of class and personal guilt.

Yet for all this meticulous groundwork of characterization and historical recreation—recreation not as superficially “faithful” costuming and production design but as patterns and nuances of human behaviour in a time far distant from ours (see in particular the marvelous scene where the film’s narrator/schoolteacher meets with his intended’s rough-hewn father)—The White Ribbon finally succumbs to Haneke’s hectoring literal-mindedness, as the subtle, implicit cruelties of family and class structure decisively cross the line into more overtly sinister, easily brandable transgressions. While Haneke strives to bridge the historical distance, to make his tale resonate beyond its built-in (and pointedly unmentioned) portent of proto-National Socialism by delving into the intricacies and overlaps of interfamilial and intercommunal violence, his perennial weakness for broad strokes pushes the viewer away from any need for self-examination—as with all such prestige items, one can cluck safely over the crimes of the past while exonerating oneself of any comparable culpability in the present. Denuded of dramatic or political affect, The White Ribbon can go about its primary business of collecting awards; indeed, perhaps the film’s most interesting aspect is how it constructs itself so successfully as a middlebrow prestige picture even as so many of its tactics—from Christian Berger’s black-and-white cinematography (rendered distressingly grayscale in TIFF’s digital projection, earning the wrath of at least one noted curator in the process), which leaches away the history-film selling point of production design, to the intentionally frustrating, ambiguous irresolution of the ending—nominally work against that very classification. Reception studies at least will profit from the film, even if audiences don’t.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans. The title, inexplicable definite article and serial colons all, must be cited in its entirety, in all its ungainly splendour and splendid ungainliness. From that idiotic moniker’s first appearance in what Reverse Shot’s Eric Hynes aptly dubs the “Skinemax-worthy” title sequence to the faux-redemptive aquarium fadeout, Herzog/Cage’s extended shaggy dog joke accomplishes the rare feat of being wholly disingenuous with complete sincerity. Professional madmen both, so comfortable in their respectively cultivated schticks that honesty has not so much been abandoned as ceased to be relevant, the two gleefully contrive to render every moment of their bizarre reboot/rip-off/piss-take as patently artificial as possible, from Cage’s gun-toting, zipper-up parking lot intercourse with a female bustee (while her now-ignored pick-up looks on glumly at gunpoint) to the helplessly hilarious climax where our antihero’s seeming toboggan ride to Hell is suddenly, miraculously reversed.

What continues to make Herzog preferable to fellow filmmaker-jerks like Von Trier is that his one is not constantly confronted with the task of gauging the distinction between put-on and sincerity: they exist harmoniously on the same plain, with a heedless what-the-fuck demeanour that, quite paradoxically in the present case, achieves a strange kind of conviction. In his fictional features at least, Herzog is moving towards some kind of filmmaking degree zero. Stripping away any hint of authenticity, any aesthetic sheen, any kind of reality absent the sheer, undeniable fact of people mouthing words and performing actions in front of a recording camera, Herzog reveals (and revels in) the futility of human activity in his very practice—and the fact that he’s spent the past decade in a ceaseless, evidently blissful whirlwind of professional activity makes the joke funnier and the pathos sharper.

Mother. Bong Joon-ho is in danger of earning himself a label, though what possible label could fit him will no doubt bedevil definition-hungry scribblers. Without yet departing from an essentially pulpy idiom, whether it be the serial-killer procedural of 2003’s Memories of Murder (rendered though it was as Sturgesian farce) or the monster movie hijinks of 2006’s The Host, Bong has become one of the premiere narrative film artists now working—and while that label does hang a trifle portentously over Bong’s commendably unpretentious head, this only shows how difficult it is to place him. Another small-town murder tale, Mother once again demonstrates Bong’s ability to render violence, sadism, and brutality (even that, most troublingly, of a sexual nature) at once entirely serious and screwball comic without offense. Similarly, Kim Hye-ja’s devoted matriarch, doggedly seeking to exonerate her simpleton son of the killing of a local schoolgirl, is the most vivid and majestic of Bong’s noble fools: pitiable without being pathetic, courageous without being admirable, innocent without lacking her own streak of violence. The economy, expressiveness and intricacy of narrative control Bong demonstrates in Mother, both within sequences and over the film’s entire arc, is simply extraordinary: rhyming images and actions without freighting them with extrinsically conceived significance, exhibiting a remarkably tight construction even in its contrivances, indeed joyfully using those contrivances as spikes of unlikely humour to leaven what is, in outline at least, some quite relentlessly dark material. That the film, absent any glaring faults and replete with such magnificently varied virtues (in defiance of that narrow-minded, one-note effectiveness that defines so much would-be auteur cinema), is still less than its predecessors indicates perhaps some of the limits of Bong’s perpetual and heretofore productive slipperiness: eluding definition, he also skirts meaning. Mother is an often dazzling display of virtuosity, but its resonance largely ends with its perfectly conceived final shot.

Vengeance. Self-awareness hasn’t exactly harmed Johnnie To—after all, his growing, fest-bred acclaim did yield the Gotterdammerung lark of Exiled (2006)—but it hasn’t necessarily helped either, as he’s started tailoring at least a portion of his voluminous output for the fest circuit. Vengeance, sporting fest favourite Sophie Testud and the not-quite-iconic visage of Johnny Hallyday in partnership with To standbys Anthony Wong, Ka Tung Lam, and Simon Yam, is To’s most glaringly obvious play for his international audience, where his now-standardized thematic preoccupations can be celebrated as some brand of automatic writing rather than stale devices (stripping the filmmaker of intentionality and agency being one of the typical corollaries of the investiture of auteurdom). There’s some affectionate fun to be had from the increasing baldness of To’s celebrations of blood-brothering, the best laugh-getter coming midway through when Hallyday—who has promised to bestow ownership of his Parisian restaurant upon the Wong-led trio of assassins if they lead him to the killers of his daughter and grandsons—comments, apropos of nothing during a stakeout, that his bistro is called “Les Frères” (“that means ‘Brothers’,” he helpfully explains).

None of this would matter, of course, if To’s visual invention could give it a lift, and Vengeance certainly has a couple of nifty ideas for its epic bouts of gunplay: a shootout in the woods, with passing clouds blotting out the moon and intermittently rendering the slow-motion, long-shot tracking of the battle a black canvas punctured by bursts of orange flame; an ambush on the flat plains of a junkyard, announced by giant bundles of trash suddenly appearing over a distant ridge, being pushed end over end as cover for an advancing army of assassins; a climactic showdown where an amnesiac hero tries to match a perforated suit jacket to his unknown target. However, these clever conceits are rather clunkily executed from the get-go, and choked off before they can attain the ludicrous velocity of Exiled. If The Mission (1999) already betrayed To’s quite self-conscious move towards formalism, it still feels as if his entry into festival circulation has led him to try and rarefy his work (or at least some of it) at the expense of his brass-tacks inventiveness—which makes the prospect of his projected remake of Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970) somewhat less that promising.

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