Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Alexandra's Project (2003)

The camera moves across a tranquil, dulcet suburban neighbourhood, replete with lush green lawns, amidst soothing ambient sounds, and stops in front of a house, the indoors of which  are to be the location of most of the film that follows. We are introduced to an almost happy family of four, two kids Emma and Sam, and the protagonists, the lead characters, Steve (Gary Sweet) and Alexandra (Helen Buday). Steve is a perpetually pepped up happy man, and is a successful employee with a successful company. He loves his family very much and takes utmost care of all their needs. The kids look more than happy too.

What sticks out as unusual in this happy frame is Alexandra. There is a distinct sadness in her eyes. Those forlorn glances and the short mirror monologue in which she spits and snaps "never be sorry" makes it more than clear that Alexandra has something bottled up. An eerie, suspenseful background score accompanying Alexandra’s mysterious, empty stares hints at a sense of foreboding. 

It’s Steve’s birthday, and after having a blithely chirpy time with the kids at home that morning, he is given a surprise party and a promotion at work that makes him jump with joyous excitement and he just can’t wait to go home and celebrate the double occasion with his family. Upon returning home that evening though, Steve gets the surprise of his life! The house is all deserted and dark; no Alexandra, no kids, just a gift-wrapped video tape that says "Play me". Steve, going along with this surprise, plugs in the tape that is recorded by Alexandra herself. The video initially begins as a family home film wherein the members wish Steve a very happy birthday in their respective ways. An amused Steve watches with amazement as he ponders about the unusual nature of the surprise. Soon the amazement turns into shock and disgust as the tape progresses and turns into a punishing exercise in grueling visual torture that leaves Steve aghast and humiliated! 

That is as much as one can say about what ensues, without giving away too much, for this film is all about the detail trapped in that little video tape. Throughout the film, we, the viewers, become unsuspecting spectators to a surprise in hell, and just like Steve we are forced to watch Alexandra’s twisted little project that is a literal cringe fest, especially for any married man. But what are the motivations of Alexandra behind making that tape? Where are Alexandra and the kids now?

All of these questions are gradually answered via the contents of the tape and therein lies the crux of this sordid story called "Alexandra’s Project" (2003). Writer-director Rolf De Heer unleashes a psychological assault on his audiences with his twisted imagination. He makes the atmosphere considerably unsettling with the minimal, creepy score that complements the claustrophobic, dark interiors of the house the film is shot in. The use of lighting is especially noteworthy in this regard; the contrast between light and dark giving an odd, grim beauty to each frame. There are a couple of interesting twists and turns within the narrative, enough to nail the viewer to his seat. A good amount of tension is built right up to the part the video reaches its turning point and keeps the viewer guessing about the culmination of the terrifying situation Steve might have landed himself in. The execution is spot on, and it takes a fair amount of finesse to build an engaging product out of nothing but a room and a single character watching a video tape.

Where the film disappoints is in the central premise itself. All said and done it seems a little too farfetched for a woman to resort to such a ghastly surprise, whatever the motivation. Moreover how much of it is justified, we never really know, for there are no back stories. Everything has to be taken at face value and what is summarized in Alexandra’s video. That doesn’t prevent us from choosing who to root for, though. If Alexandra had a point, one wonders if that was the only way to put it across. Whatever happened to good old heart to heart one-on-ones? Steve seems to be a pretty accommodating guy, at least from whatever is shown to us!

Also off-putting are some of the things shown on the tape. It is one thing for a film to be provocative and effective in a powerful way as to have a strong impact on the viewer. But Rolf De Heer gets a little too carried away and almost veers towards borderline pornography rendering some events in the film far too gratuitous, and existing only for the sake of delivering cheap, voyeuristic thrills. The proceedings seem all the more contrived, given Alexandra’s actual grouse that is revealed later. It makes the eventual presentation in her project seem rather unconvincing, and hence, whatever message there is, gets diluted!

Rolf De Heer’s film gains some success only as a gripping, superbly acted, well executed psychological thriller. The two leads deliver powerful performances. While Gary Sweet hits bulls-eye with his extremely convincing portrayal of an unsuspecting husband who gets the shock of life, Helen Buday is equally impressive with her brave, unabashed performance of the troubled wife. Excuse the motivations and the accompanying contrivances, and you will find yourself enjoying "Alexandra’s Project" as a sadistic psychological thriller reminiscent of a certain Michael Haneke film.

"Alexandra’s Project" is a potent, uncompromising film that’s disturbing as hell, and while it may be thematically flawed, it is the kind of film that won't be able to let go of your mind for a long while. Venture only if you must.

Score: 7/10

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979)

From the eccentrically fantastic mind of France-based Chilean writer-director Raul Ruiz comes the strangely fascinating "The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting" (1979), a film unlike any other!

An art collector (Jean Rougeul), the only real character in the film is being interviewed by an off-screen narrator who could be an art aficionado or simply a person present there to humour the collector by expressing an interest in his passionate musings. The collector is obsessed with a series of six paintings created by a 19th century painter Tonnerre. Apparently, these paintings caused a scandal of sorts some 100 years ago, forcing authorities to intervene and Tonnerre to flee from the country! A subsequent ceremony that took place, resembling the depictions in the paintings, was raided by the authorities and force-stopped, for the message contained within the paintings had to be arrested before it spread to the rest of the country! Tonnerre would later plead innocence in a letter sent from Italy that no ceremony ever existed. What the authorities raided in fact was a display of the tableaux vivants (meaning, "living pictures"; live reproductions of paintings, consisting of actors posing with makeup and costumes along with theatrical lighting to replicate the artist's vision) of those paintings! Of course, hardly anyone believed that.

What was so scandalous about the seemingly innocuous series of paintings? The collector, via his extensive knowledge of art interpretation and years of research tries to deconstruct the paintings and unravel the mystery behind the uproar. He firmly believes, that when the paintings are collectively interpreted, in a particular series, one can conclusively deduce the scandalous nature of the secret message embedded within! But there's just one slight problem. There was a seventh painting that went missing, presumably stolen by the authorities themselves. The missing link would make it impossible to recreate the whole message, thereby managing to bury the secret for good!

And so the collector starts presenting his analysis to the interviewer and to us viewers as he tries to read into the paintings. He also takes us on a fantastical voyage across his property and various rooms of his large residence, where actual tableaux vivants of Tonnerre’s paintings are set up with actors. The collector claims to have made some pretty interesting and convincing deductions, and makes us sit up and take notice with his live demonstration of the connection between the first two paintings of the series, in a rather compelling manner! This initial revelation piques our interest and we applaud the collector’s astuteness, despite the esoteric nature of his ramblings in the initial few minutes, that are certain to flummox the uninitiated! It also makes us wonder about the collector's intentions. By creating these tableaux vivants, could it be that the collector is trying to recreate the ceremony himself?

As we dig deeper, the collector’s inferences do appear to make some sense on an abstract level, but do they lend complete satisfaction? It is noteworthy how Ruiz shows the collector, on one hand to be an intelligent man who knows his art, and on the other, just a senile old delusional fruitcake obsessed with a conspiracy theory. Sometimes the collector appears confused. "The paintings allude, they don’t show!" And later retracts, scratches his head, blurts out "The paintings show, they don’t allude". Later retracts yet again and tries to explain what he means by that! 

Note how, in a subtly humourous scene, the collector gets exhausted and dozes off in the midst of explaining his theory, while the interviewer continues in whispers. Additionally, in explaining one of the paintings the collector goes way over the top and postulates that it relates it to an obscure novel he came across, making the painting a kind of storyboard for the novel! The interviewer mocks this development, but the collector keeps defending his discoveries and when it comes to the time to explain the loose ends, he blames the missing seventh painting (the existence of which the interviewer seemingly refuses to acknowledge), but claims to have a hypothesis on it!

It is very likely then, that the interviewer in Raul Ruiz's film is attacking the experience that is apophenia; i.e. finding meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Maybe the interviewer doesn't believe the collector at all and is just getting the kicks out of grilling him; perhaps trying to even expose the collector's fake smugness, burst his bubble and point out that his theories mean nothing! It wouldn't be farfetched to think that Ruiz is alluding to the elitist film critics and analysts who swear by some seemingly meaningless art-house cinema and strongly believe that these films are masterpieces and make a lot of sense (yet when the time comes, they are unable to convincingly explain what they derived out of it)! 

Whatever Ruiz's intentions, one can't disregard the magnitude of the efforts taken by art analysts such as the collector in the film to get to the bottom of something they believe in. The collector may or may not be on a wild goose chase, but his passion is applause-worthy. It is remarkable how he pays attention to the gestures of the characters in the paintings, their placements, their expressions, the lighting and most importantly the play between lighting and darkness appearing in sharp contrast, evident in the paintings.

To demonstrate these facets, and to mirror the use of lighting and shadows in the paintings, the man behind the camera, Sacha Vierny (also the cinematographer for Alan Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961); the overall atmosphere being similar in both films), employs the Chiaroscuro technique and it serves as an important device to showcase the collector's findings. The use of such lighting in the baroque set design gives every frame an eerie look. The camera then glides across the spacious house through the light and the dark, passing the mirrors, the mannequins - some fake and some real ones, almost giving off the feel that it’s a haunted mansion we are sleepwalking through, in a dream-like state! This, along with the operatic, ethereal score gives the film an almost Gothic feel and it works to render the film a somewhat meditative tone despite the sporadic, elusive comic relief.

All the intellectual art jargon and heavy duty analysis notwithstanding, Raul Ruiz’s "The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting" is a captivating work of cinema that demands the viewer's undivided attention, and repeat viewings if possible to completely grasp the collector’s hypotheses. Apart from being a surrealistic psychological drama about an art fanatic's obsession, Ruiz’s film is an intellectual lesson in art analysis. Even if the collector's theories do not satisfy you, the film certainly will. Rest assured.

Score: 10/10

P.S. Watch out for an early appearance by famous actor Jean Reno ("Leon: The Professional") as one of the models in a tableaux vivant!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970)

It would be too shallow to call Bernardo Bertolucci's magnum opus "The Conformist" (1970) a political thriller. It goes way beyond, further beneath its multiple layers and themes, as Bertolucci, in his terrific screenplay adapted from the Alberto Moravia novel weaves a meticulous, highly complex web of deceit and betrayal while presenting us a character study of a protagonist so extremely ambiguous and unpredictable, yet one we can all relate to as human beings.

At the center of this almost Shakespearean tragedy is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a seemingly ordinary man involved with the Fascist Secret Police under the regime of Benito Mussolini in the 1930s Italy. He is the textbook example of a reluctant (anti-) hero drawn into something he doesn't really believe in. Is he really fascist by nature? As one superior official says, most of them are in it either because they are afraid or because they are in it for the money! Are there really people who believe in the ideology of Fascism? Clerici has his own strange reasons to be in the group. He wants to live a normal life. He wants to conform. And for that, he is turning over a new leaf. He is getting married to his sweetheart, a cute but dimwitted socialite Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). Being in matrimony, having a family, being accepted by society and having a feeling of being belonged are the criteria for leading a normal life, they say!

Marcello is sent on a mission to perform a task for his Fascist cause, pertaining to a certain Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) a staunch anti-fascist who exiled to Paris. Only Professor Quadri happens to be Clerici's teacher from Graduate school, one who regarded Clerici very highly as a student. Does Marcello betray his professor? Is he able enough to bear the cross of the betrayal?

These questions act as devices to drive the plot forward. However, Bertolucci is more concerned about the dynamics of his characters rather than the progression and conclusion of the plot at hand. And therefore, in his extremely intelligent screenplay, he twists Moravia's story in a fashion so as to take us deeper into the psyche of Marcello and give more prominence to his character rather than concentrate on the political intrigue of his Fascist mission. 

Marcello's family life is rife with tragedy. Marcello's father is now an old lunatic who previously worked for the Fascist party. His mother is a loner who finds solace in morphine and sleeps with any guy who gets her the stuff. Bertolucci's screenplay, in its very carefully structured non-linear arrangement, presents snippets of the crucial moments in the life of Marcello; life-altering events, including a disturbing childhood trauma involving a chauffeur (Pierre Clementi), which may have shaped him as the person he has now become. It is no surprise then, that Marcello is doubly cautious when Special Agent Manganiello (the magnificent Gastone Moschin) follows him around in a car, and Bertolucci, in an ingenious filming move, tilts the camera at an angle, an oblique suggestion that something about this scene is somewhat off-kilter! 

Marcello wants to bring order in his life, but of all things he chooses the Fascist Secret Police and matrimony! But given Marcello’s confused state of mind (even pertaining to his sexuality!), indecision and lack of confidence, will he be able to pull it off? After all, it isn’t difficult to see, that despite his pseudo-fascist inclinations, the man has a conscience! In one of the film's best scenes, we see Marcello have a face-off with a priest he confesses to. Being an unbeliever, the confession is of course, just to satiate his would-be wife Guilia. Bertolucci, in a work of fantastic writing, brings out the hypocrisies of the church, and the mindset of a society in general about what constitutes a normal life.

Bertolucci also uses this opportunity to launch a scathing attack on Fascist ideologies and the shallowness of its politics. However, in a very cunning move, he refrains from taking sides and distances himself from either belief! Take for instance that almost surrealist angle of Marcello’s friend Italo (Jose Quaglio), a blind Fascist, also a part of the secret police. He and his blind comrades throw Marcello a party to wish him well for his upcoming married life. 

It may seem odd that all of them are literally blind, but perhaps they are emblematic of the sad truth of how politics is usually blindly followed and that these members of the fascist party are actually blinded by their political leaders into believing something that is extreme and absurd! The celebration is somewhat awkward with two people picking a fight and eventually Italo having a talk with Marcello. Italo mentions to him that they are two of a kind, different from others, and insists that he is never wrong. In a sharp jab at his claims, Bertolucci concludes this scene by shifting focus to Italo’s shoes, which are both of different colours, indicating they are each from different pairs! 

Marcello eventually comes face to face with his old professor. As soon as Prof. Quardi and Marcello get reacquainted, despite their differing political views, Quadri’s faith in Marcello is reignited. They discuss the allegory of Plato’s cave and in the dialog that follows, the theory that "illusions that are the shadows of reality" are akin to the current mindsets of fascist Italians is established. There are two spectacular shots in this scene, brought about by the use of well thought out lighting effects, which corroborate the theory of blinding by deception and also at the same time not entirely vindicating the other side that makes these claims! Blink and you will miss, how Marcello is demonstrating with the motion of his hands a huge wall in the discussion of Plato’s cave and how his shadow cast behind him resembles the classic pose of a particular Nazi dictator! 

Blame it on the rapid editing, but Bertolucci is in no mood to spoon-feed. Grasp it or move on! And on the flipside, it is surely not a coincidence that throughout the scene, we only see a silhouetted professor Quadri, akin to a shadow, no less! Marcello’s reluctance and deviance from a normal fascist nature is rather obvious and the professor refuses to believe Marcello is what he says he is. To further confirm his belief, he even puts him to the test in yet another fantastic piece of writing.

With professor Quadri, Marcello also comes face to face with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the beautiful young wife of the professor who he remembers from some previous encounters (could they be visions from dreams?). Anna is yet another devious character who works in her own strange ways. With what aim, isn't very particularly clear. But we can only infer what could possibly be going on in her mind when she attempts to seduce Guilia as well as Marcello who has very obviously taken an instant liking to her. A weird game of sexual politics begins, as at one point, even professor Quadri appears to be propositioning Guilia! So much for normalcy!

While the astounding cinematography, with fantastic use of lighting and rich colours, by Vittorio Storaro, greatly beautifies the film, it also serves as a symbol for the protagonist’s true state of mind; the changing colours perhaps allude to his inability to conform in any given situation, let alone his personal life. Georges Delerue’s original music is spellbinding and it is especially noteworthy how a somber score that engulfs the atmosphere every time Marcello is in the frame, and changes to a more flamboyant and fanfare-like, just as his partner in crime Manganiello appears on screen!

A remarkable theme in the narrative is also that of doubles and repetitions. Dominique Sanda who makes a prominent appearance as Anna appears at least twice in the film before in scenes you might miss in the initial viewing. And then there’s the ubiquitous chauffeur, a dreaded figure, that makes Marcello rather uncomfortable, be it the man from his childhood memories or Manganiello or his mother’s Japanese chauffeur! 

In the film’s barbaric climax and the shocking epilogue that follows, we get to witness something totally unexpected and that makes Bertolucci’s film all the more devastating in its final few minutes. It makes a powerful impact and leaves you emotionally drained, thanks to Bertolucci’s potent storytelling that is complemented by the bravura, realistic performances by all of the cast. Special mention though is reserved for Jean-Louis Trintignant in a tour-de-force acting performance that is possibly one of the greatest in film history, followed closely by Gastone Moschin as the sly, cold, mocking special agent who sometimes reminds of his famous Don Fanucci character in The Godfather Part II. 

But that’s just one of the things that remind us of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic sequel. One can’t miss the famous image of autumn leaves blowing in the wind, a strikingly similar image seen in The Godfather sequel.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Conformist" is a miraculous piece of filmmaking, albeit one that may require multiple viewings to fully grasp and appreciate its finer nuances so carefully embedded within. It carries an important message amidst all the chaos; one that urges to beware of the deception of the shadows; learn to see what’s real and what is merely an illusion. 

If you haven’t seen "The Conformist" yet, you don’t know what you are missing.

Score: 10/10