Monday, April 26, 2010

Flames of Cinematic Passion...Or Not


Everyone Else (2009; Dir.: Maren Ade)
La bête humaine (1938; Dir.: Jean Renoir)

There are some movies that I find a lot to admire on an intellectual level, but which nevertheless leave me unmoved on an emotional or visceral level. Alas, for the most part, Everyone Else—German director Maren Ade's dissection of the dissolution of a romance, and a film which has riding a wave of film-festival-circuit acclaim upon its release at the IFC Center earlier this month—is one of those movies.

There's not much I can criticize about Ade's film, really; in many ways, it is as impressive as its many fervent champions claim. Ade has made a film about the highlights and lowlights of a relationship that is well-nigh unassailable in its evenhandedness, humanism and patience in closely observing the joys and agonies of its two central characters, the cautious Chris and the more flighty and impulsive Gitti. The two lead actors, Lars Eidinger (Chris) and Birgit Minichmayr (Gitti), give performances that feel authentic and fully lived-in in just about every single detail, right down to facial expressions. And Everyone Else sets out an intriguing view of relationships that respects the mysteries of what brings people together in romantic union while taking us out of our comfort zones in the way she hones in on these two tenuously lovelorn characters. (Ade's film is rather like that masterful half-hour second act of Godard's Contempt (1963)—that lengthy break-up scene to outdo all lengthy break-up scenes—stretched out to feature length.)

If only this movie were more interesting to look at, then maybe I could be more inspired to fully join in the chorus of praise this film has gradually been gaining in the past year. Alas, Ade's visual sense stays numbingly prosaic much of the time. Everyone Else is set during the central couple's vacation in Sardinia, and, amidst the island's bright sunshine, Ade and cinematographer Bernhard Keller capture a lot of pretty picture-postcard shots with his two main characters in the frame. But there's not even a sliver of poetic expressiveness in any of Ade's images and camera movements; she shoots in the most careful, functional manner possible—and frankly, to my eyes, her filmmaking style doesn't feel all that different from pedestrian TV drama.

This, of course, might seem like small potatoes in light of what the film does right—which, don't get me wrong, is plenty. Chalk it up to personal taste, then: I respect Ade's intentions in Everyone Else, I sympathize with what she's trying to get at about the agonies and mysteries of romance, and I admire the hell out of her emotionally naked lead performers. But the filmmaking feels too staid to me to feel much excitement about.

That is why, later that day, I turned with great relief to Jean Renoir's 1938 feature La bête humaine—not one of the French master's greatest films, perhaps, but certainly shot with far more passion and freedom than anything in Everyone Else. Renoir had me right from the opening shot, with a camera set atop of a moving train as it makes its rounds through the French countryside (tangentially related side note: I wondered briefly if Claire Denis had these shots in mind when she pulled off similar ones in her recent 35 Shots of Rum—which finally came out on DVD last week, by the way). But there are plenty of instances of expressive framing and lighting to be savored throughout the film, most memorably at its dark climax; Renoir's mastery of the medium may be "invisible," as Pauline Kael once noted, but it's an invisible mastery that becomes even more impressive when one does notice it.

The story, based on an Émile Zola potboiler, is pure film-noir-ish melodrama—and indeed, Fritz Lang turned the same material into his 1954 film Human Desire; I haven't seen that (it doesn't seem to available on Region 1 DVD), but, as Dave Kehr notes in his Chicago Reader capsule review of the Renoir, it certainly seems like the amorality at the heart of Zola's plot might play more potently with Lang's chillier hand. Still, Renoir's take on the material plays pretty well as a fairly schematic noir-ish storyline transformed into something unexpectedly more empathetic in tone, for all the darkness at its heart. So Séverine (Simone Simon) may outwardly play the role of a classic femme fatale, but Renoir adds layers of nuance to the part, so that she emerges as a fully rounded, emotionally complex individual. Her husband (Fernand Ledoux), who orders a reluctant Séverine to help him murder the Grandmorin—one of the directors of a major railway company—for his money, refreshingly becomes increasingly distraught over the action he has taken. And train engineer Jacques Lantier, who witnessed the murder but keeps quiet about it when he falls for Séverine, is conceived by Renoir and played by Jean Gabin neither as the usual passive victim of others' machinations or as a devious scheming dreamer, but simply as a normal, warm-hearted guy at prey to both his emotions and to a trait passed down through the generations that has given him an intermittent mania for killing women.

In short, the psychological depths in the characterizations of La bête humaine are what keep you compelled in spite of Zola's deterministic bent. And, of course, Renoir's subtly exquisite visual sense keeps your eye engaged as well as your mind. That's more than I can say for Everyone Else. Sorry, Maren Ade, but you haven't inflamed any flames of passion in me for your movie.

(Everyone Else is still playing at the IFC Center and in limited release elsewhere. La bête humaine played on April 10 as part of BAMcinématek's Jean Renoir retrospective, ongoing until May 11; details here.)

How to Train Your Dragon (2010; Dir.: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders)

 More flames...literally. As of this writing, Dreamworks' latest animated picture looks to have beat out the likes of The Losers and the Jennifer Lopez-led rom-com The Back-up Plan this weekend at the box office; last weekend, it looked, for a few hours, as if it had also topped the heavily hyped Kick-Ass. (That piece of faux-genre subversion eventually did win out, though by all accounts its box-office take was less than its distributing studio, Lionsgate, had hoped.)

It's nice to see that this colorful, heartfelt, funny and thrilling Viking-era family adventure still seems to be finding a sizable audience even as its bigger-budgeted Hollywood brethren try to make their usual bombastic claims at multiplexes. I don't have a whole lot to say about the film beyond that, really; it gets my enthusiastic thumbs up. One thing I would suggest about the film going into it, though, would be to not take it too seriously as a social allegory of any kind. Like Avatar (and, er, Dances With Wolves before it), How to Train Your Dragon eventually hinges on the rift that develops between an entire culture that collectively demonizes a whole group—dragons, in this case—and one lone wolf (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who befriends a dragon and finds that one can coexist with them after all. This allegory of tolerance, thankfully, is handled with a light touch—but if the film is sincerely trying to put across a message of nonviolent understanding, then isn't it rather undercut by the decision to end the film with a standard violent action climax? Granted, the climax involves humans and dragons coming together to bring down a Big Bad (Dragon)...but still...if you think hard about it, it does feel a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

Also, John Powell's thunderous score could perhaps stand to have just a touch less thunder. Otherwise, though, an enjoyable flick—even in 2-D, which is the format I saw it in, after a friend of mine, for some reason, decided in this particular instance he didn't want to see it in 3-D. Did I miss anything special by not seeing it in 3-D, readers?

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