{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Claire Denis' The Intruder

It is lazy on an interpreter's part to refer a series of images that does not fit the conventions of narrative as dreams or figments of imagination, as it is uncinematic on a film director's part to convey the internal thoughts of a person using voice overs. It is important to see that both of them work sometimes, but it doesn’t make them less lazy or less uncinematic. Many of the good films mix dreams, reality, imagination, memory, subconscious, past and present in various ways, in ways that intentionally separate them and the ways that tend to mix them inseparably, as per the requirement by the story they tell. Claire Denis' The Intruder tells the story of a heart transplant based on French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy's memoir of his own heart transplant. The basic thing to understand about the film is how Denis is trying to tell the story - firstly using film as a medium, and secondly as a fictional account (although she claims that all the details come from Jean-Luc Nancy's 30 page book, she also says somewhere its 'adoption', not adaptation of the book). Since the medium is film, there cannot be any easy ways (like a Dostoevsky-ian monologues) to know the subconscious of the protagonist, and since its fiction, it can not show the "actual" operation in progress (and that will be boring too). Denis does invent a cinematic way to deal with these two problems. Every thing takes a physical shape here - the past, the old body, the old heart, the old world, the fear of death, regrets and relationships, the will to live, the new heart. They become simple replacements (I am using the word replacement because I don’t want to use "metaphor"), they no longer "represent", they "are".

To give a simple example - a man without a heart (or a ailing heart) is shown a heartless (unkind) man. There is something physical in the meaning of the common words we use. The emotion and the poetry that Denis drains from those words by giving them physical shape, she duly feeds them back by enigmatic/poetic images she attaches them too. It’s a cinematic bargain in favor of the medium she works in. Denis manages a sense of wonder and awe that can be equated to the feeling of looking in someone’s head (or rather heart). And, as somebody who has seen Beau Travail will know, how good Claire Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard are in filming human skin and bodies (other French director who knows how to film skin is Patrice Chereau), although here Denis is not interested in eroticizing toned bodies of crew cut French soldiers but here skin takes a special meaning as it is something that protects and encloses the home of heart (the ribcage), and it gets scared in operations. So, in a way, healing scars (a replacement, a metaphor for wound/recovery – emotional and physical) on the chest of our protagonist guide us to where we (and the story) are going.

One thing that I am most impressed by is the director's effort not to mess or consciously confuse. The film, in its impenetrable and fractured exposition, is in my view fairly chronological and if we try to see it in physical terms (and I think that’s what Denis intended) and get hold of one thread, it unfolds beautifully (actually it is a nice fantasy film too where dogs are the hostile environment for the new heart that has several physical motifs, one being a ticking watch [that will die one day], and doctor as a masseur cum magician fighting a beautiful and enigmatic angel of death) with spellbinding eclipses. Once we have something real and physical to hold on, other important thing like emotions and sentiments come easy and right. Of the two films I have seen by Claire Denis, the endings have surprising unleash of energy. Beau Travail ends with an exhilarating dance by Denis Lavant. Here too, the Queen of Northern Hemisphere rides high on a sledge run by dogs, with a wide winning smile on her face. Is it a victory of the bodily resistance to new or is it the intruding new heart on a plunge?

Friday, February 06, 2015


Revanche alters the noir-trappings of a failed heist plot into a meditation on love, guilt, revenge and family, elevating itself to a Greek tragedy but ultimately distills various tensions of existential struggle and relaxes them. Our hero's attempt to save his girl from a brothel owner and to gain himself a fortune goes bad. He gets the money but loses something more dear, or so he realizes later. He sets out for revenge. Director uses this simple context to beautifully examine human motivation, fate and purpose, but also to find understanding between his few acutely detailed characters, and what I may call, a tranquil redemption, not a zero-sum game. At the end, we know nothing is solved but we also know, without fanfare, that there are some nobler human traits which make this world possible.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Be Kind Rewind

If there exists some concept of two types of growths, vertical and horizontal, where in, lets assume, vertical refers to age and horizontal refers to creativity, then Michel Gondry has long back ceased to grow vertically but grows astoundingly on the horizontal bars. His vision is a vision of a hyper-creative 14 year old boy (or girl), so his dream world is handicraft factory which manufactures joy that is natural and young, sadness which is pure, personal but the one that never breaks the young virile spirit. Things can be done in his world and all people with creative passion are like kids with crayons and cardboards.

In Be Kind Rewind, Gondry uses his world view to wrap nostalgia into a community building exercise with child-like vigor and creativity. Although working in the same domain, but unlike his previous film (The Science of Sleep, which boasts of one of the most heartbreakingly romantic endings, which for me, even echoed Nicholas Ray's beloved theme, "We don’t belong here, lets find a peaceful home for us", but this time lovers run away from the world on a stuffed horse over an imaginary river during the sleep) which is, to put rudely, about the romantic escapades of a 14 year old hyper-creative boy, the dreamworld here is very firmly connected to the realworld. That connection is the movies. And thats where Gondry is making a brilliant statement about our connection to films in particular, and all creative arts in general - as an urge and freedom to go to that dreamworld (here characters re-enact that dreamworld like small community Ramleelas).

The plot is also like a story which one child will tell to another where eye balls roll, eyes brows rock with a tear or two towards the climax. A VHS store is outdated and is about to close (It does not meet the safety criteria, 'they' are planning to built a pretty building in its place, the owner has a month notice), the owner asks one of his employees to look after the store while he is away. During that time, one of employees friends (which the owner did not even want near his store) accidentally gets magnetized and erases all the tapes in the store. To mask their mistake, they try to remake those films (they call them "Sweded", as if they are from Sweden) and rent to their customers. To their surprise, the neighborhood likes them even better than the originals and they become stars in their neighborhood till the big companies come to book them under piracy and destroy all their work. The community comes together to make a biopic of the legendary Jazz Musician, Fats Waller, who was supposedly born in the same VHS store, and to raise money from the community to save the store.

The journey of making this film lets the director to explore several things. First and foremost is the very nature of collective creativity driven by like minded passion. While saying or seeing it, it does look like a mushy or sentimental idea (picture long ago when you were young and stupid, along with you friends sat together and said "let us do something", but it never happened), a place where passion for art overcomes mutual differences, but we need to understand that its Gondry's child-dream-world we are in, which may not be possible but it is not dishonest or forced. Secondly its about the change, from VHS to DVDs, from old store to new building, from old mindset to new blood, and how things change for good and for bad. I might be partial to the film because it touches one of my favorite themes, an old man looking old, down with nostalgia and without uttering a word, he is saying that people become old and body gets weak, things will change, new will come, don’t be too happy or too sad, its a rule. This is essentially an Ozu idea. Time Regained has an excellent scene too about old age where Le Baron de Charlus, now old and weak, walks in front of young Proust and his pain filters through Proust's sensitive eyes, which is very different from Ozu's stylistically, but nonetheless very elegant and says the same things. In Be Kind Rewind, there is a shot of Mr. Fletcher (the owner, played by Danny Glover) boarding a train. Lots of things go on in the same shot but excellent Danny Glover maintains a sadness of something lost (is it the VHS store, or the jazz era of his neighborhood, or a lost youth?) in his eyes all the times. Thirdly, it about the cultural unification of a community through a new found art (homegrown film) and the return to the roots of an old community legacy (music of Jazz maestro, Fats Waller). Yes, it is again little sentimental. In real adult world , as we know, you don’t get best of old and new, one crushes the other, but here too Gondry makes a honest and heartfelt case, which makes us a child for a while and let us think that it can be.