Une Affaire des Femmes or: Story of Women
directed by Claude Chabrol
This movie is as deep as the Mariana Trench. I suppose it all depends on which angle you want to look at it, which filter you want to use, what part of it you find most fascinating, it doesn’t matter: there are multiple ways in. There usually are with Chabrol, someone I count as one of my favorite directors. You could talk about the crime aspect, which is always Chabrol’s fascination. He uses crime as the architecture to explore all kinds of societal issues, and culture, and criminality, and oppression. So there’s that. There’s the political aspect: the film takes place in German-occupied France in the years 1942 to 44. This is a society that has been, as one character says near the end, “unmanned”. We can take that statement literally, too: men in this world are often impotent (politically, physically, whatever). Like Vera Drake, Story of Women tells the story of a woman who gives abortions to women who need one. Most of the women have been impregnated by Germans, and their husbands have either been killed or imprisoned. Therefore, if your husband has been in a German prison camp for two years, then you being pregnant means … well, you just can’t be pregnant, that’s all. Any expectation you may have, though, that this is a serious examination of the topic of abortion, or a tragic look at what women will do if they are desperate enough, or whatever, is totally blown out of the water by Isabelle Huppert’s performance as Marie, the illegal abortionist in question. Moral questions go out the window when you spend time with this woman. What would I call her? A sociopath? Whatever she is, she is not right. Isabelle Huppert is so good at playing such characters. It doesn’t ever seem to be an “affect” with her. It seems to be an attitude that she understands, intuitively. Of course she was in Chabrol’s La Ceremonie which is one of the most frightening performances ever, due to its insouciant blankness. I had nightmares after seeing that film for the first time. Marie, in Story of Women, is a mother of two. When the film opens, she is on her own, her husband having been hospitalized from shell-shock, he’s been gone for a long time. When he returns home, she greets him with a flat-eyed affect which is both chilling and obvious. Turns out she never once wrote to him in the hospital. She refuses to sleep with him. She treats him with contempt. War and the occupation makes all kinds of things commonplace, and Marie profits from the situation by performing abortions in her kitchen and renting out her own bedroom to local prostitutes to do their business. She hides all of this from her husband, who sits in his room, making collages out of cut-out newspapers. Unlike the lead character in Vera Drake, you get the sense here that the abortions are incidental to the real story, which is that Marie is drawn to crime, Marie is drawn to money, Marie likes being naughty, it gives her a rush. Her behavior is never appropriate. I don’t particularly like that word, but here I am using it in the context that, say, a homicide detective would. It’s what makes Huppert so watch-able. Wait, what was that reaction she just gave? Does she realize how that looks to outsiders? Wait, what is she doing now?? When interrogating a witness or a crime suspect, detectives are on the lookout for appropriate/inappropriate reactions. The “tells” that people used to dealing with criminals are trained to look for. You know, Amanda Knox doing cartwheels in the Italian police station, to relax, she says, but you can see why the cops would think, “This is not a normal reaction to the murder of your roommate.” Marie, in Huppert’s hands, comes off as an immature and reckless woman, who dreams of being a singer, and it is Huppert’s genius that you can see that this is a fantasy cloud-cuckoo land. Not ONCE do you believe that this woman could ever “make it”. There’s no harm in taking singing lessons or loving singing, but it becomes incredibly creepy here, especially considering the things she subjects her children to in their own home, her greed, her absolute un-awareness of … her self. This is not a developed human being. She is stunted emotionally (the grownup son says in voiceover at the end, “My mother was arrested when I was seven years old. She was about the same age.” or words to that effect.) Huppert so understands un-developed women, women stuck in a certain prepubescent stage, women who are unable to grow and change. Stunted people, with blunt emotions. In other words, a perfect criminal. You can see it in her fantastic performance in Amour, where … she is completely unprepared to give up her selfishness in order to face the disintegration of one of her parents. I love people who are “bad” onscreen. I love people who have no sense that the “rules” have anything to do with them. I love actors who play such parts. Think of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, a perfect example. Don’t plead mercy for your characters. Don’t try to be understood so that people will be on your side. That is NOT your concern. Huppert is so unafraid of being judged that she really is a high watermark for me, in terms of acting, bravery, and psychological insight. (I place her alongside Barbara Stanwyck and Gena Rowlands, and those two stand alone in my book in this regard.) There’s a moment with a lawyer near the end of the film, who has come to explain the dire-ness of her situation to her. Because the Germans are in charge, the court will probably over-punish her, in order to appease the overlords. They will make an example of her. She may get the death penalty. She listens dully to him speak, and then says to him, with an echo of brightness in her face, “I want to become a singer.” The look on the lawyer’s face in response to this is indicative of what Chabrol is really after here, and what Huppert is after: the lawyer looks taken aback, he realizes that he is in the presence of something … slightly otherworldly, not quite “right”. He says “good day” and exits the cell. Throughout the film, we see Huppert react to things in this manner, and because it’s a war, and because the Germans are everywhere, and nothing is “normal”, she is able to “pass” for a while. The moral question of abortion never comes up. Or if it does, it is only uneasily, in the viewer’s mind. This is not an explicitly political film. It is not pro- or anti-abortion. It is an examination of an amoral mind. Huppert is chilling. It’s a tour de force performance.
directed by Martin McDonagh
I love the cast, and I have liked Martin McDonagh’s stuff before. But there was something a little bit too “meta” about the entire thing to hold my interest. I know that was the point, but it didn’t always work for me. A screenwriter, stuck for ideas, is given an idea by a friend of his, who has seen an item in the newspaper that might spark something. Screenwriter decides to write about “seven psychopaths”. We meet them all, in the course of his doing “research” for his script. Everyone is great: Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell (a favorite of mine: he’s riveting here, funny and scary), Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson … but commenting on the Hollywood tropes of gory crime films is so par for the course now that one really has to be original to pull it off. This doesn’t quite make it. However, I found much of it very funny. I particularly liked how every single character picks up on Colin Farrell’s character’s alcoholism, which then becomes a running joke. It’s dumb, but repetition makes it funny (that is not often the case, sometimes you feel like, “God, that joke isn’t funny, stop beating a dead horse.” But here, the cumulation works.) The film had a lot of potential. I wanted less cleverness. “Meta” can be too clever for its own good. Charlie Kaufman is brilliant at “meta” material. He’s the one to beat.
Battle of Algiers
directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Perhaps more famous for the way it was shot than the final product, although the final product is rightly famous as well, it’s the type of film where I sit, watching it, and find myself thinking, over and over and over again, “Jesus God almighty, how on earth did they pull this off?” Shot in Algiers, in the actual locations of the actual events in question, with a lot of non-actors, and gigantic crowd scenes (again: “How on earth did they organize these mobs?”), Battle of Algiers gives you the feeling, at times, that you are watching documentary footage. You feel like you are watching a newsreel of how the revolution went down. It’s phenomenal. But then there are scenes that are highly orchestrated and choreographed, like the Muslim women dressing up as French women, to get through the checkpoints, each holding an explosive in her purse, each one will plant the explosive in a different crowded eatery, each explosive set to go off at the same exact moment. It plays out like a thriller. The scenes of violence have a sweeping ultra-real feel, and the sense of place is indelible.It seems to me it is meant to be seen LARGE. The scenes are so gigantic. The mobs are real. The riots are real. Amazing film.
The Bling Ring
directed by Sofia Coppola
Katie Chang, as Rebecca, the real ring-leader of the “Bling Ring”, has a moment in the film which sums up why I loved it so much. The kids have broken into Lindsay Lohan’s house and are raging through the house, stealing stuff. Lindsay Lohan is the Grand Pooh-Bah of Awesome to Rebecca, and while it was fun to break into Paris Hilton’s house or Rachel Billson’s house … neither of them represent to Rebecca what Lindsay Lohan does. Rebecca is mostly full of smiles and sweetness throughout the film, which slowly takes on a chilling aspect as you realize her character (or lack thereof). In Lindsay Lohan’s house, as the others careen around trying on clothes and stuffing objects into bags, she stands by Lohan’s dresser, picks up a perfume bottle, and sprays some on her neck. Coppola slows the film down here, a subjective move, which puts us inside Rebecca in a way we never have been before. Staring at herself in the mirror, she spritzes her neck, and all the extraneous sound falls away, and she is lost in her own reflection. Slowly, as the scene continues, tears fill her eyes. It is the most mysterious and gorgeous moment in the film, not to mention terrifying. The crowd started laughing at the opening-night showing, but I didn’t find it funny at all. I found it to be a great “mad” moment in cinema (I’d add her to this list), putting her up there with Ms. Isabelle Huppert dancing around in her war-time kitchen, boiling the water for an illegal abortion, singing French songs to herself, ignoring her children. That slo-mo moment of Katie Chang is the dark heart of The Bling Ring. It is what it is all about. Coppola lost her nerve only once during the film, when Marc, being questioned by a psychologist late in the action, says something like, “Americans are obsessed with celebrities.” That one explanatory note was unnecessary, although I am sure Coppola had her reasons for including it. But when I think of the film, I think of Katie Chang staring at herself, tears in her eyes, spritzing herself with Lindsay Lohan’s perfume, and my blood runs cold. Katie Chang clicked into something extremely primal in that one scene. I loved it.
directed by Joseph Anthony
My father loved this film. Robert Duvall has said it is one of his favorite experiences as an actor. Based on a story by William Faulkner, and written into a play by frequent Duvall collaborator Horton Foote, it tells of a lonely farmer who takes in a runaway pregnant woman who has nowhere else to go. Duvall had done the play in New York and it had been a huge hit for him. He is interviewed in the special features and describes performing the play on a night when Al Pacino and Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman all came to see it, and they were all stamping their feet in excited approval when he took his bow. The film is black and white, and shot in Mississippi (I think some scenes are even shot in Tupelo, birthplace of you-know-who), and you can tell that Joseph Anthony was a bit like a kid in a candy store when it came to the movie camera. There are some weird unmotivated camera angles, which made me think, “Wait … what??” Duvall is unable to be condescending, which is one of the hallmarks of his great career. He does not condescend to the simple rural men he has sometimes played, and he wouldn’t know how to “slum” if he tried. Other actors could learn from him. His voice is unlike any other voice you have ever heard from him. His baffled kindness towards the pregnant woman (played by Olga Bellin) is heartbreaking, and yet you can’t at times point to why. You can clearly see that this was a stage play, and not much has been done to adapt the script to the needs of a film. That’s fine. The acting is the thing here. It is the capturing of one of Duvall’s New York theatre triumphs, a role that did a lot for him, a role that he clearly loves. 40 years later, he’s being interviewed for the DVD, and you can still feel his fondness for that character. The acting is the thing here. Duvall is riveting as this taciturn kindly man, and the ending rips your heart out. I needed to be mopped up off the floor as the credits began to roll. I love that Dad loved this film. It speaks volumes.