Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Only Angel Babies Have Wings

NEW YORK—I was going to weigh in on the Summer Hours backlash that's been brewing in cinephile quarters on Twitter the past couple of days, in which some have only now come out to complain—if I'm getting their collective argument right—about how boringly prosaic, middlebrow and ridiculously flawed its conception of bourgeois privilege apparently is. But I don't think anything I have to say about the film—other than the fact that I found it beautifully shot, probing and insightful in its own quietly tempestuous way, and that I was able to accept the characters and the milieu as they are—will change any of the naysayers' minds; apparently something about the film, be it class-related or aesthetically related, rubs them the wrong way. Not much I can do about that; besides, I could probably use another viewing of it before I can confidently make any more arguments in its favor. Not that it needs any special pleading from me, really; many film critics seem to be in agreement over the film's high quality, if the recently concluded IndieWire 2009 poll is any indication. (I mention this not as proof of anything, just as a statement of fact.)

So I'll just move on to the next film in my film-review queue, and leave the Summer Hours debate for another day, especially because some on Twitter are already starting to express ennui over the whole thing. Thus...

Ricky (2009; Dir.: François Ozon)

There's one point about this fascinating work of magical realism that I'd like to dwell on for a bit, and that's one cut early in the movie. I wish I had taken notes during my viewing of this film Friday at the IFC Center, because I don't exactly recall when exactly this particular cut occurs. (Maybe someone who has seen the film can refresh my memory?) Basically, though, it's a cut that elapses time, jumping suddenly and unexpectedly nine months later into a birth that we in the audience have not been prepared for. That birth is, of course, the baby-boy-with-angel-wings of Katie (Alexandra Lamy)—a struggling mother with a daughter (Mélusine Mayance) and a long-absent husband—and Paco (Sergi López), the co-worker with whom Katie falls in love. Yes, you read right: the baby boy has angel wings.

The reason I'm honing on this one elapsed-time cut is that, when I mull over this film in my head, I feel that this one moment—or, rather, non-moment—carries a whole host of intriguing implications in light of the wildly varied directions Ozon's film takes throughout the rest of the picture, and the blatantly fantastical tone its concluding moments evoke. Consider: Up to the point of that cut, Ricky mostly plays like a gritty working-class love story, emphasizing dreary—but never Frozen River-like condescending—realism. Then Ricky is born, and...well, I guess you can say all heaven and hell break loose, narratively and structurally speaking, as the story touches upon domestic angst, media sensationalism and finally spiritual healing.

It's a heady mix Ozon cooks up in Ricky, but its story pre- and post-elapsed time cut so clearly separate the gritty realist and magical-realist portions that I can't help but wonder: Could a good majority of this film be possibly, you know, a dream? The film's concluding shot of Lisa clutching Paco, eyes closed and head rested on his back as they ride on a motorcycle, suggests that something restful and peaceful has overtaken her; this comes right after a shot, bathed in golden tones (by cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie), of a newly pregnant Katie, acting almost as if the whole Ricky story had never really happened. The way these two images are framed and lighted are powerfully suggestive. Could this be young Lisa's dream of the struggle of her beloved mother to let go of (unseen but implied) marital troubles? Or maybe much of this is all in Katie's troubled, emotionally guarded imagination?

Dream or not—and whether it's one or the other is, in the end, probably beside the point—my intention in bringing up the many implications of this one cut is to suggest why I was able to accept the film's wild mix of tones and themes wholly on its own terms, as opposed to some critics who have found Ozon's mixture clumsy and unwieldy. That one cut is so jarring in the time that it skips over that, for me, it immediately signaled not only that something strange was about to occur in the story, but that something deeper might be going on underneath its charming fairy-tale surface. It may not be enough to take Ricky completely at face value, and that sense of mystery—never resolved, always tantalizingly suggestive—is something that I often crave in cinema, and which is present here, though never to a suffocating degree. Above all else, the film still works quite beautifully on more "normal" dramatic and emotional levels, as an allegorical yet intimately grounded drama about a small family dealing with past losses, present fears and future hopes.

(Ricky is still playing at the IFC Center.)

Oh yeah...and speaking of fantasy: For those who were possibly wondering, yes, I did see James Cameron's heavily hyped Avatar this past weekend (in 3-D but not IMAX). I hope to write about it sometime soon...but I have quite a bit planned for my blog in the coming week, to wind down 2009 and the decade, so I'm not sure when I'll have the time to get to writing about it (or the billions of other movies, most of them of the Oscar-contender variety, that I'll aim to see in the coming week). For now, I'll just say: It's no game-changer—or, at least, not nearly as much of one as Cameron would want you to believe—but as eye candy, it's probably the most dazzling thing I've seen on an American movie screen this year. Make of that what you will.

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