Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Mundane and the Spiritual: Two Lovers, Birdsong

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Film director James Gray apparently has developed a divisive reputation over the course of his four films, some marveling at his epic ambition and emotional sincerity, others finding said ambition exceeding his talent. (Many French critics apparently love him, which some people I suppose take as an ominous sign---what happened to those days of Cahiers du cinéma influence?) I haven't yet seen his other films, Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, but if they are half as affecting as his latest film, Two Lovers, then I may well join the chorus of supporters.

Two Lovers---which is loosely based on Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights," previously adapted into films by Luchino Visconti (Le Notti bianche) and Robert Bresson (Four Nights of a Dreamer)---is ostensibly a standard romantic love triangle between depressed aspiring photographer Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives with his parents after he suffers painful heartbreak; the plain-Jane Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) with which his parents try to set him up; and the wild neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) who lives across his apartment bought for her by the married man with whom she's having an affair. To these characters, however, Gray's film introduces a treasure trove of complexities, details and grace notes, and gradually draws us into these people's lives, thoughts and feelings without ever resorting to sentimentality and clichés. The range of emotions these people experience---from the heights of ecstatic desire to the depths of bitter disappointment---are almost extravagantly romantic, yet Gray maintains a classical poise and elegance: operatic melodrama rooted in the quotidian. And yet Two Lovers never lapses into the merely dull or tasteful, because Gray is clearly right inside this world and his characters, empathizing with all of them while refusing to soften their darker eccentricities or ambiguities.

By the end, the film may perhaps not amount too anything earth-shatteringly profound---but why should it? The desires aroused by this love triangle surely mean the world to these characters, through thick and thin; we in the audience share in their emotional spheres, and surely that is one of the most appealing aspects of going to the movies. In Two Lovers, the glow of warmth and affection, and the dark clouds of bitterness and resignation, are enough to leave a lasting, moving impression.


Catalan director Albert Serra's Birdsong, which just completed a complimentary week-long run at Anthology Film Archives, doesn't, it must be said straight away, exist on the same emotional plane as Two Lovers. Nevertheless, it contains its own kind of magic, for those who are willing to adjust to the film's lazy, drifting rhythms. If it ever ends up in your neck of the woods somewhere, or maybe even on DVD, I strongly urge you to give it a shot.

Using as a starting point the story of the three Magi who trekked across a long distance to meet the baby Jesus, Serra reimagines the story as a playful meditation on the ways the mundane and the spiritual coexist in the real world. To that end, Serra uses extremely long takes and very wide shots to not only induce a trancelike state in a viewer, but also to visually suggest the insigificance of us mere humans in natural surroundings. The Magi themselves are painted as sometimes comical figures, getting into lengthy, Beckettian absurdist arguments over things like who's in charge and whether they should climb a mountain or rest overnight; but at other times, they are seen sitting and wondering about the unknown forces of the world around them (at one point the three discuss how it might feel to fall from a cloud like a raindrop). Later on, Serra immerses us in the humdrum lives of Mary and Joseph, portrayed as, really, just another married couple, with Mary seen taking a particular interest in a sheep they own.

And yet, after all of Serra's searching for God within the details of His earthly creation, the spiritual finally takes over for an extended, shining moment when the Magi reach their destination, kneel down and pray to Jesus: free of nondiegetic music until then, Pablo Casals's cello-driven arrangement of "El Cant dels ocells" suddenly roars to full volume on the soundtrack, and the visceral effect, in context, is sublime, ecstatic and pure, like an angelic spirit being taken to higher spheres.

The rest of Birdsong regains the same aimlessness that preceded that revelatory encounter; real life once again takes over, as the Three Wise Men decide on an alternate route home to avoid power-hungry King Herod. The absurdist discussions pop up again: the three find themselves lying in a forest discussing wondrous and frightening dreams. And in its concluding shot, Serra finds the three men far in the distance, exchanging their coats and seemingly joking around with each other (we don't hear what they're saying).

Filmed in striking black and white, Birdsong is marked by an eye for painterly images, beautiful landscapes and the human figures that are dwarfed by their surroundings and by everything they perceive and don't perceive. Perhaps most memorable of all, for me, are its night scenes: when it is night, the film's images are truly, inescapably pitch-black---the kind of night most of us suburban and city folk have probably forgotten thanks to neon lights, streetlamps and such. It's that kind of revelatory awareness of natural surroundings that makes Serra's film as breathtaking as it often is. Neither deeply religious nor staunchly secular, it situates itself somewhere in between, constantly seeking both the worldly and the beatific, often in the same setting. It's a search that, once undertaken, never ends, for some.


andrew schenker said...

Nice take on Birdsong - one of the things I like about the film is how it situates itself between the wordly and the secular (as you note) - often switching from one to the other mid-scene or evoking both simultaneously. Then the images - and the sensitivity to landscape - are pretty stunning as well.

On a side note, you didn't see it at the Anthology last Thurs. by any chance? Think I might have seen you there.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Yes! The 7 p.m. showing. You were there?

andrew schenker said...

Yeah, I thought I recognized you from your facebook picture but wasn't sure.