Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Vicky Cristina Barcelona

It seems to me that our reading of the film's central threesome determines our reaction to the entire picture. As Javier Bardem shacks up with both Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz (after having already bedded Rebecca Hall) in an impossibly perfect artist's villa, the set-up seems at first the grotesque fulfillment of Woody Allen's observation at the end of Annie Hall that since things rarely work out in life, in art one has a chance to correct them. But in the earlier film, all Allen wanted was to make things work with Annie and in 1977 the filmmaker's nebbishy charm was at its peak. Here, his stand-in Bardem is all arrogance disguised as Mediterranean forthrightness and he not only wants but expects the world as his birthright.

Still, lurid darkroom Johannsen/Cruz kissing aside, the sequence in which the three live together seems an honest enough testing ground for a more fulfilling alternative mode of living. As Johansson describes the arrangement to a straight laced couple, it's a mutually loving relationship in which all three members are sexually and artistically fulfilled and, even if it would be difficult to imagine Allen proposing a male/male/female trio and even if the arrangement is inevitably short lived, it represents a genuine flowering for all three involved. With Cruz's hysteria (unfortunately the chief component of her characterization) kept in check, Johansson receiving a crash course in the art of photography and Bardem hitting new heights of painterly excellence, the three forceful personalities are, if only for a moment, held in a perfect balance.

Allen's chief representation of patriarchal norms comes through the relationship between Rebecca Hall's character (Vicky) and her by-the-numbers husband (Chris Messina). A caricature of the rich, preppy, uncultured New York professional, Messina spends his time fretting over whether to buy a house in Westchester or Connecticut, addresses his wife as "babe" and - the kicker - dismisses an abstract painting as a mess of "Rorschach blots". If Vicky's always craved order, she soon realizes that marital norms may not be for her, at least if she has to share a life with this boorish specimen. If Allen stacks his cards a little too heavily against the desirability of continuing the marriage, he presents Vicky's struggle as an honest attempt to break free from such strictures, while acknowledging the comforting pull of convention that causes her to be fearful of interrupting her perfectly structured life. The husband may cut an absurd figure but, to his credit, Allen doesn't condemn Vicky for staying with him. In the end, the filmmaker eliminates any satisfactory modes of living from the film's catalogue of arrangements, but at least he's given us - in the Bardem/Cruz/Johansson threesome - a tantalizing glimpse of possibility. Even if he can't envision a world in which alternatives to an oppressive insistence on monogamous coupling can thrive, Allen freely acknowledges the necessity of seeking out new models of domestic organization.

Day of Wrath

Two moments of diametrically opposed readings. When Absalon looks in his young wife's eyes, he sees purity and innocence. When his son - in love with his mother-in-law - looks in those same eyes, he reads mystery and danger. When son and mother-in-law, now lovers, look at a tree reflected in a lake on the eve of their parting, the former notes sad resignation while the latter, still hopeful of continued romance, reads only longing. So each person sees what he wants; each gives his own preferred reading to events.

This time around, I submitted to the hypothesis that in the film's world witchcraft exists. There's certainly evidence to support it - from the clergyman dying after being cursed by Herlof's Marte to Absalon sensing his oncoming death when his wife secretly wishes it. Of course, we need not be confined to a single reading and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, what's important is that everyone in the film believes in the very real existence of witchcraft, but the film works quite well if we accept that the townspeople are right. Certainly it makes the film's shocking ending easier to accept (or at least to understand) in terms of character motivation, but this reading definitely doesn't come naturally to the modern viewer, especially when other interpretations are equally available.

Witchcraft existing; witchcraft existing only in the minds of the characters. Two diametrically opposed readings. Two ways of seeing. Both perfectly legible.

Shotgun Stories

The Netflix description labels Shotgun as a "cautionary... tale" and for once it's not inaccurate. But the film's less interesting as a warning against the dangers of old-fashioned Southern Grangerson/Shepardson blood feuds (whatever their contemporary political relevance) than as a sharply lensed portrait of languorous Arkansas life among a handful of "poor whites". We're firmly in David Gordon Green territory here (it's no surprise to see the George Washington filmmaker listed among Shotgun's producers), but not relying on that director's pseudo-poetic voiceovers and self-consciously pretty landscape shots (not meant as a criticism - I thoroughly enjoy those features of Green's films), Jeff Nichols gives us more of a feel for the patterns of the lived existence of his characters. Which is perhaps to say that Nichols has a more conventional expositional sense than Green - relying more heavily on standard narrative progression - but there's no question that he handles both incident and non-incident with enviable command. Recommended.

No comments: