Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Catching Up: Revanche, Three Monkeys, Une Femme Mariée and Adoration


The tale's as old the ages; the telling somewhat less. Two losers (a hooker and the errand boy at her brothel) ditch town, rob a bank and head for the hills. But the woman's shot by a policeman during the getaway and through a logistical coincidence (the cop lives next door to the errand boy's hideout), the latter sets about seeking revenge. Director Götz Spielmann films the early scenes at a calculated remove, fixing the characters in their scuzzy Euro settings with a series of static long shots (a pitilessly icy aesthetic that David Phelps dubs "webcam" cinema). But what starts as a coolly distanced enactment of a classic genre set-up - a post-modernist rendering of a pulpy crime tale - opens up as the film moves from the city to the golden-toned Austrian countryside, the pulp plotting gives way to a more complex emotional geometry and the cop and his wife edge our would-be bankrobber for screen time. As the guilt-wracked policeman (he meant to shoot out the getaway car's tires, not kill the woman) broods endlessly over his victim's photo, the other man just chops wood in the barn, an angry exercise that serves as temporary substitute for action. And when the action does come it's indirect, a round of hate-fueled sex with the cop's dissatisfied wife, carried out table-top in her perfectly turned-out home. So everyone gets what he wants: the man, his measure of vengeance; the woman, some excitement and, eventually, the baby her husband can't giver her; and the cop, perhaps, some measure of closure after a river-side chat with the would-be revenger, even as the latter first goads him to near hysteria. Still, for all their interactions, everyone ends up considerably more miserable than when they started, but by the final frame of Spielmann's genre-piece turned psychological drama, at least they've earned some small measure of self-awareness.

Three Monkeys

Speaking of genre... Turkey festival favorite Nuri Bilge Ceylan tries his own hand at a noir-ish exercise, attempting to lift his material to the ranks of epic tragedy through the sheer force of his portentous imagery. In the past I've been a fan of Ceylan's gorgeously composed, largely plotless works - particularly his 2006 offering Climates - admirably self-consciously arty pieces that dared to court insignificance. But in retrospect, I wonder if that film's beguiling imagery - and the lovingly photographed shots of the director's beautiful wife, actress Ebru - had distracted me from the film's essential emptiness. Perhaps in response to a perceived lack of substance in his films, Ceylan moves in the opposite direction with Three Monkeys, embracing something like a fully articulated plotline for the first time and filming the narrative events with a grave, if elliptical dignity. But while the director's compositional eye is as sure as ever - shooting in HD, working with a muted color palette, he creates a suitably oppressive atmosphere, framing his characters wedged into their close settings or set-off against an indifferent sky or seascape - his roiling aesthetic mixes poorly with the thinly sketched narrative, the latter continually registering as a matter of far less import than Ceylan's dramatic visuals would seem to suggest. Still, I won't soon forget the film's final image - a man standing on a seaside rooftop, a tiny figure in the widescreen composition, overwhelmed by a bleary gray expanse (a blend of sea and sky) as thunder streaks across the heavens and a train whistles by - even if the shot seems specifically designed to bestow a retrospective significance on the proceeding events with which they otherwise failed to register.

In Godard's Une Femme Mariée, the titular character - a cheating suburban housewife - struggles to differentiate between love and physical pleasure, between genuine feeling and the performance of feeling. Lacking much in the way of self-understanding, she doesn't get too far. Godard's never been very generous with his female characters (c.f. the notorious Miss 19 sequence in Masculin Feminin) and Charlotte's not much in the way of an exception. Unfamiliar with the Holocaust, by her own admission concerned only with the present (in Pynchonian terms, we might say she has a narrow "temporal bandwidth"), she spends her time flipping through women's magazines, reading about bust enhancement. But Godard posits her cultural myopia as an inherited condition, common to women of her age and social class. Following the famous montage of underwear ads pulled from her Elle magazine, Charlotte overhears the conversation of two young women - one of whom counsels the other on an upcoming tryst in which she's expected to lose her virginity. As we see the ways in which female behavior slots ever so neatly into its expected roles, it's easy to imagine Charlotte in an analogous situation just a few years prior and to see how such ingrained attitudes lead to her present confusion in which a sexual encounter that is actually pleasurable (unlike those with her husband) can be mistaken for love.

But hers isn't the only voice in the film. Moving beyond Charlotte's limited perspective, Godard introduces a series of documentary style sequences in which the subject addresses the camera directly: Charlotte's husband discussing historical memory vis-à-vis Auschwitz, her gynecologist cautiously advocating for birth control, even her child explaining in his impeccable childlike logic how to "get things done." Taken together with Charlotte's interior and exterior monologues, the result is a multi-voiced take on love, desire, modern life, advertising and performance that also happens to stand as one of Godard's most aesthetically rapturous offerings. Filmed in a slightly grainy black-and-white by Raoul Coutard and scored to a round of Beethoven quartets, the film is filled with any number of stunning passages, none more so than the opening sequence (which Bill Krohn, in his essay accompanying the new Masters of Cinema release, rightly compares to the overture in Hiroshima, Mon Amour) where the filmmaker dissects the anatomy of star Macha Méril, building a montage from isolated glimpses of a leg or a belly button while the woman natters on about the nature of love with her boyfriend.


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