Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Merci to Art—and Love

NEW YORK - Before I tackle the next film in my film-review queue, I might as well briefly take stock in what exactly I have to be thankful for this year. It's that time of year again!

Everyone surely has something to be thankful for...but sometimes, in the ceaseless rush of daily life and the stresses of everyday living, it can be difficult to realize just how much you actually have. It's sometimes especially difficult for me: I think I'm just kinda psychologically wired to blow up the things that I think are missing in my life into a massive energy-sucking black hole. It is, in short, hardly a constructive way of living—to lament endlessly on the shortcomings in one's life—and I try to fight this ingrained tendency as much as I possibly can (even if I sometimes indulge in it just to get on my mother's bad side).

Thus, Thanksgiving comes at a rather necessary time in my life this year. As much as I may complain about my not-terribly-ideal living situation (living at home, far away from my preferred New York) and my lengthy commute, among other things, all of those drawbacks mean precious little in the face of the many forms of support, intellectual, emotional or otherwise, that I receive every day from both friends—both in person and online—and yes, family. (Friends and family, I do hope you feel the same support from me, in some way or another.) I am especially thankful for the constant indulgences of my parents, who provide so much of value for me these days—not least a roof under my head and a bed to sleep in—that I'm sometimes neurotic enough to feel I don't deserve their support, as if they're just handing privilege to me without a good reason why. (Frankly, the way I act towards them, I sometimes really don't.)

But the thing I'm most ultimately thankful for? Art. Great books, films, music, paintings, and the like. The intellectual and visceral pleasures afforded by art; the conversations great art can inspire. And I'm certainly thankful to have platforms and willing ears to hear me spout off on the works of art that really turn me on. Life is such an emotional rollercoaster, especially for me, that it's a relief to find in art something I can consistently turn to for relief and possibly even enlightenment (even when it's bad art).

In that spirit, here's another instance of me spouting off on something that turned me on recently:

Frontier of Dawn (2008; Dir.: Philippe Garrel)


Of the widely celebrated French auteur Philippe Garrel, I am only familiar with this film and his 2005 Regular Lovers. The thing that  fascinates me most about Garrel, based on these two works, is the degree to which he manages to infuse them with a sensuous, nostalgic romanticism while maintaining a distinct distance. The characters may be romantic in their natures, but the films surrounding them aren't necessarily embodiments of said romanticism. Even romanticism, Garrel seems to suggest, has its limits in the real world.

Youthful desire versus real-world disappointment was the great theme of Regular Lovers, a three-hour drama that gradually depicted, with unusual and revelatory vividness, the burnout of the fiery idealism that spread among the students who participated in May '68 in France. Frontier of Dawn is considerably less epic in scope, but it marries a similar visual style to an equally nostalgic yet intelligent and multifaceted look at pained romantic relationships among three young lovers: not just the ways they fall in and out of love, but, most poignantly, the ways the wreckage of a romantic relationship that has run its course can still haunt us long after the fact. (Its portentous-sounding title eventually turns out to be prefectly apt, being that it hinges on a character's after-the-fact awakening of romantic consciousness.)

When it comes to evoking the mysteries of romantic love onscreen, Garrel is far more sober in nature than, say, James Gray (whose wonderful Two Lovers traversed similar emotional terrain earlier this year). We don't easily grasp the characters' motivations in their three-way dance. Why does budding photographer François (Louis Garrel, Philippe's son) seem to suddenly lose interest in celebrity-actress Carole (Laura Smet)? Why inspires Carole her heartbreaking self-destruction, even as she ends her relationship with François? What attracts both François and the relatively more stable Ève (Clémentine Poidatz) to each other? Rather than providing simple answers, Garrel allows their actions to speak for themselves; he's more interested in the outward emotional effects of these characters' actions and what those effects reveal about their individual conceptions of love, and how those conceptions are shattered by reality. It's quite possible that not even these characters know what to do with the emotions welling deep inside them. All the while, Garrel bathes his film in deep tenderness of feeling and the rich textures of William Lubtchansky's beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which gives the film a kind of subtly doomy grandeur.

The surface beguiles, and the characters' inner psychologies fascinate—but, by its third act, as Garrel dares to venture into more mystical, ghostly terrain, Frontier of Dawn gradually acquires a weightier, more tragic dimension. Finally, one of the main characters jumps out of a window and a skull appears in a mirror. However the characters approach the volatile emotions of love, Garrel sees it all as a fragile landscape—not without its considerable joys, but one that ultimately leaves scars, psychic and/or literal, in its wake. Fatalistic, sure; but, as Garrel himself suggests by the low-key manner with which he sets out his vision of amour, c'est la vie.

(Frontier of Dawn will be released on DVD on Jan. 26, 2010; I saw this during a three-day revival run at Anthology Film Archives in New York.)

On a far more optimistic note: Happy Thanksgiving!

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