Sunday, February 07, 2010

Review Queue Burn-off, Part I

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I once again find myself with a fairly sizable backlog of films I've seen in theaters but haven't written yet about. Let's see how many I can knock off on this lazy snow-day Saturday...

The White Ribbon (2009; Dir.: Michael Haneke)

Michael Haneke is yet another widely-discussed modern-day auteur whose work I have yet to catch up on. So The White Ribbon is my first Haneke film—and it was a not entirely unfavorable initial encounter. Broadly speaking, it's a mystery tale revolving around a series of strange incidents that befall a closed-off village in Germany before World War I; within that genre framework, however, Haneke paints a portrait of a town that, behind its idyllic exterior, seethes with petty resentments, religious fanaticism and patriarchal abuse. Haneke aims to show, carefully and dispassionately, the mechanisms in which evil can be passed down from one generation to another—how fear can lead to authoritarianism, and how that process can be repeated throughout history. It's a dry and chilly experience, and its view of humanity isn't exactly cuddly, to say the least. Still, it is far from a shallow misanthropic wallow; Haneke displays a pained compassion toward the good people—including a schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who provides the voiceover narration for the film many years after the incidents in the film has occurred—caught in the middle of these behind-the-scenes conflicts. And by deliberately leaving the film's central mysteries unresolved, its final image carries a richer, deeper resonance. On the surface, that final image is an interior wide shot of all of the village members crammed into the town church, with the children in the rafters singing; coming at the end of a film in which just about every character is seen with suspicion, however, it takes on a more ominous character, hinting at the dangerous depths that lie behind the unassuming exterior. As a sum-up of Haneke's view of the banality of evil, it reverberates.

A Single Man (2009; Dir.: Tom Ford)

Consider me yet another member of the Colin Firth fan club as far as his magnificent lead performance in A Single Man is concerned. The film follows Firth's character, an English professor grief-stricken over his male lover's death, in the course of a day as he contemplates killing himself; Firth's great achievement here is to chart his character's varied emotions—ranging from despair to joy to nervous fear—with beautiful, credible vividness of expression, so that it feels like a portrait of a full inner life in miniature. (He'd easily get my Oscar vote over the overpraised Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.) The film surrounding Firth's great performance—an adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel—has been garnering less acclaim, with many critics accusing director Tom Ford of focusing more on creating glossy fashion-mag pictures than making a movie. To which I say: well, to each his own, but for the most part, I think his visual choices—his changes of film stock to differentiate between past and present, his occasional use of rapid-fire montage to signal distraction—persuasively express, through entirely cinematic means, the unsettled, despairing mind at the heart of the film. In other words, I feel more commitment to the film's characters and themes on Ford's part than many of its strongest detractors claim, and that's why I ultimately found A Single Man more touching, and less show-offy, than I expected it to be. It's no masterpiece (its ending still doesn't sit right with me, for one thing; to put it crudely, it feels kinda stupid), and it doesn't break any new formal ground by any means...but at least it's trying, and Firth's soulfulness pulls it all the way through its glossier patches.

The Girl on the Train (2009; Dir.: André Téchiné)

This latest film from French director Téchiné is divided into two distinct parts. Its first half focuses on the "girl" of the title, a struggling young woman named Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne, best known for playing the titular character in the Dardennes' Rosetta) who allows herself to seduced by a wrestler, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), and moves in with him. Their affair takes a turn for the worst, however, when Franck eventually spurns Jeanne after a botched robbery attempt leaves him permanently wounded physically and emotionally. It is then that Jeanne, for reasons that the film never fully explains, decides to fake an anti-Semitic attack and bring the made-up story to the police; the national press, of course, gets wind of this and blows the story up to a national scandal. (The film is based on a real-life French national scandal in 2004 that also turned out to be false.) That's when The Girl on the Train shifts focus from Jeanne to a Jewish family, the Bleisteins, whose patriarch (Michel Blanc) is a lawyer who agrees to try to get to the bottom of this matter when Jeanne's mother (Catherine Deneuve) becomes suspicious of the veracity of her daughter's claims. In essence, Jeanne in the second half become increasingly more remote and less immediately sympathetic a character.

It's an intriguing shift in perspective, one that's typical of a director who, at least on the basis of this and The Witnesses (2007)—the only two Téchiné films I've seen—seems genuinely interested in exploring characters and situations from various human vantage points. What he uncovers about Jeanne and her implied need for attention throughout the events of the film may, in the end, lack the deep resonance of The Witnesses—in which a quartet of characters were forced to confront not only their fraught interrelationships, but also the onset of the AIDS plague in the 1980s—but The Girl on the Train is marked by a similarly keen awareness of the complexities of human beings. Téchiné may never quite get a full handle on what drives Jeanne to act the way she does, but he is at least intelligent enough to consistently complicate our reactions toward this rather slippery creature, as well as to all of his characters in this multilayered, formally playful chamber drama.

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