Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Jeune & Jolie (2013)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

So this time François Ozon ventures into the familiar terrain of an ordinary, bourgeois female protagonist's descent into prostitution. While the most popular film on the subject was the great Luis Bunuel's subversive, "Belle De Jour" (1967), a surreal fantasy of a married woman's foray into the business stemming from sheer curiosity and as an awakening and outlet for her repressed sexuality, Ozon's "Young & Beautiful" aka "Jeune & Jolie" (2013) is a horse of a significantly different colour.

Ozon's film chronicles the odyssey of the protagonist, a 17 year old comely, pretty young thing Isabelle (Marine Vacth), right from her deflowering to her subsequent flowering into the world of carnal pleasure and a sense of independence and power that she experiences. The story unfolds over four seasons starting with her summer holidays during which she first experiences freedom by losing her virginity to a handsome young German guy. 

Behold the scene on the beach at night when Isabelle gives herself to Felix (Lucas Prisor) but appears to be lost and distracted. She stares at a distance and finds her own self looking back at her. Perhaps it is guilt or the feeling of a loss of innocence; her own innocent self, cut away from her, looking at her with remorseful eyes. Or maybe it could mean that she has lost herself and feels like a changed person, distant from her own self! For the few seconds that she drifts away, all sound is drowned out until she snaps back to reality at the end of the act.

It is hardly in a steady progression that we witness Isabelle's transition to prostitution, as almost in the next instant after her summer vacation and a first sexual experience that leaves her cold, we see her knocking on the door of a client somewhere in the city! She doesn't need the money. She has enough. We later learn it is part of some whim; an experimentation. An experiment that could prove to be dangerous but she decides to play with fire anyway. Her adolescent mind doesn't think it to be that big a deal. In no time it becomes an addiction. She becomes a sought after internet call girl. 300 euros for a single romp with much older men becomes an easy-peasy task.

She gets all kinds of customers. Some are downright kinky and even stingy with payments. Some adventures are unabashed and rough, others are laced with moments of tender affection, particularly with one much older, wrinkled client (Johan Leysen). Almost in a blink of an eye Isabelle slips into a comfort zone. Moral values and consequences of being discovered be damned, she reaches a stage where she doesn't have any qualms about her actions and all these things don't seem to matter. 

There appears to be a shift in the very idea of virtuousness not purely from a moral standpoint; that is still secondary, but even from a pragmatic perspective considering risks involved for her as well as her family. After all, hers is a young and vulnerable mind; less reasonable and more adventurous! She is clearly unaware of the potential danger she may be putting herself and her family in, considering she doesn't have a pimp to arrange clients for her, nor does she have any idea of what kind of shady client she may be facing. A general insensitivity and lack of inhibitory factors moulds our protagonist in a manner as to not be bothered by concerns such as these.

The casual atmosphere at home doesn't help much either, with a stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) who seems slightly slow and unaffected by matters, still tries to hold things together. A younger brother (Fantin Ravat) just entering his teens, who has rather candid talks with his older sister about sexuality, even spies at her from a distance as she sunbathes topless on the beach, albeit, probably only out of curiosity. 

A mother (Géraldine Pailhas) who may have had a troubled teenage herself, but doesn't exercise much control or is perhaps just too confident and full of trust for her daughter, and oblivious to what a completely free hand can do to a fragile mind. This is a culture where no one bolts the doors of their bedrooms or bathrooms from inside, and the baffled stepfather unwittingly keeps barging in at all wrong timings, leading to some awkward moments!

After the eventual, inevitable discovery of her double life by her family, all hell threatens to break loose, but doesn't quite. In fact, after an initial outburst, things settle down as quickly as they are stirred up. The cat is let out of the bag owing to an unfortunate incident with one of Isabelle's regular clients, and her mother regrets and questions herself "Where did I go wrong?", but she could be having an affair herself! Although there are upsets, soon enough measures are taken to make amends and there are chances given at redemption. Very subtle, restrained handling makes this film one up from the rest of the crowd as Ozon saves his film from spiraling down into unwanted melodrama.

Marine Vacth delivers a performance for the ages.  Only her nuanced and ambiguous expressions sometimes border on the inert and rarely convey a clear emotion and hence her act could be easily misunderstood to be inadequate. However, the crux of Ozon's film is very much her lack of clarity surrounding the ease at which she treads into dangerous grounds. Although somewhat provocative, Ozon manages to keep things grounded with his crisp, assured storytelling and arresting images captured with tremendous beauty by Pascal Marti.

Post the incident "Jeune & Jolie" veers toward some more ambiguities albeit with larger happenings hinting at a nice, neat wrap-up. But just as we near the end, Ozon throws in a surprise with a delicious climax featuring a splendid cameo by the ever elegant Charlotte Rampling. It is stuff like this that reinforces our faith in intelligent, independent cinema.

Score: 9/10

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dementia (1955)

Note: This review pertains to the original version of the film which is sans Ed McMahon's narration, incorporated later by Jack H. Harris in his own version titled "Daughter of Horror".

Very little is known about John Parker, the creator of this fine American experimental film, "Dementia" (1955). According to IMDB this is his only feature length film, if you can even call it that, with its odd 56 minutes length. Apparently this film gained more recognition after footage from it was used in the theatre scene in the popular horror film "The Blob" in 1958.

"Dementia" is almost as off-the-wall as any avant-garde surrealist film. It begins on an unsettling note, as the camera zooms in on a hotel room with the neon sign of 'Hotel' flashing on and off. The place seems to be located in some shady part of town where vagrants and drunks roam the streets. A woman credited as The Gamin (Adrienne Barrett), is writhing in bed, possibly having a nightmare. And this first scene kicks off the fever dream that promises to engulf the audience just as the ocean waves in the dream sequence engulf The Gamin!

Mysterious things happen hence, as the woman walks the streets and experiences a series of oddities that begin with a newspaper that constantly keeps getting blown in her direction and lands at her feet despite her attempts at getting rid of it, forcing her to read the glaring headlines about an incident of murder by stabbing! There is no dialog. This is a silent film, but we do hear the sounds of laughter and sobbing. There is a sense of constant dread throughout, accentuated by a high pitched, eerie, operatic singing in the only musical score (composed by George Antheil) that dominates in the film's modest running time. The black and white visuals are excellent. However, in some bits there is a visible lack of polish in the picture of the finished product, thus giving off a B-movie aura, a la the films of Ed Wood Jr., but that is hardly a complaint.

"Dementia" is a stylized, eclectic blend that brings together elements of film noir, surreal psychological thrillers, horror/ghost stories and even expressionist cinema. What happens on screen is not completely confounding. It is a rather straightforward series of events in the context of the story which obviously incorporates dream logic and supernatural elements as well.
This woman in her strange journey encounters abusive drunks, a shady pimp, a fat wealthy man (Bruno Vesota) who lustfully eyes women and several other characters that add to the intrigue. An excellent scene in a cemetery chronicles the fates of the mother and the father of the protagonist, narrated by a person wearing a black mask. The black mask is a recurring motif. It reappears in a scene in which several people with black masks gather around a corpse. It is not clear if they are faceless onlookers in the dream universe or if they are supernatural beings (angels of death?) who are there to claim the soul of the dead.

A noteworthy aspect is the condescending air borne by the fat wealthy man. Knowing that he is an all-powerful, influential person who also seems to be immoral and wicked, perhaps an evil force, could he be representing the Devil himself? At one point of time you see him indulging in excess, gorging on food, stuffing himself like a pig (the sin of gluttony?). You can't help but cringe in disgust as well as let out a nervous chuckle during a sickening act and the event that follows owing to the rigor mortis of a corpse. It all continues in its unnerving glory and culminates into a downright spine-chilling climax in a Jazz nightclub, a truly maddening sequence that reminds us of the kind of stuff that makes for good goosebump inducing nightmares!

Adrienne Barrett's performance leaves a little to be desired though. At times she is quite convincing and drives home her possible dementedness and paranoia. But there are other times when her emoting seems forced or half-baked. And that's a pity because practically the entire film lies on her shoulders, what with a film lacking in dialog the onus of successfully conveying emotions lies on the actors' expressions.

"Dementia" may be slightly patchy but it deserves to be elevated from its depths of obscurity simply for almost matching up to the standards of genuinely thrilling grisly and hallucinatory imagery made more popular by some bigger filmmakers. Do venture into The Gamin's demented world. It is a joyride in the mouth of madness.

A word of caution: Avoid the aforementioned Jack H. Harris version, "Daughter of Horror" which has the voiceover narration that is reportedly quite cheesy and ruins the film. Stick to the original version sans the narration.

Score: 8/10

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin Cabeza) (2008)

Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, with her masterful psychological thriller "The Headless Woman" (2008), achieves with near perfection what very few filmmakers do. Via some expertly designed images and sounds and their well thought out arrangement, she recreates the deadpan haze the protagonist experiences post an incident that transports her to a state of psychosis.

It all begins on an ordinary day when Veronica (Maria Onetto), a well-to-do middle-aged dentist hits something or someone while driving on an empty road near a canal. She is paralyzed by the fear of having fatally hit someone. For about a minute, as she tries to regain her composure, the camera stays still on her petrified profile. She tries to look outside, but possibly isn’t able to muster the courage to do either that, or even step out to look at what she hit. Was it an animal? Was it a person? She is too scared to find out.

The hit number "Soley Soley" by the band ironically called "Middle of the Road" continues to play in the stereo, and now we clearly see small palm prints on the side window pane. She starts the car back, and continues to drive on. In an eerie move on the part of the filmmaker, perhaps, to play with the viewer's psyche or in an attempt to now transport us to the universe of an altered state of mind of Veronica, we see that these palm prints mysteriously change shape as the car moves on! She stops the car at a point, it starts to rain, and Martel's camera captures an ingenious shot in which Veronica's head is obscured by the frame of the car, symbolically representing her now headless state!

Throughout the remainder of the film, we only walk through a dazed state of disconcerted headlessness! Well, not in the literal sense or even in the sense of foolishness either! This is the kind of feeling that is experienced when one encounters a jolt and partially loses touch with reality. The mind drifts away and fails to focus. 

It is the kind of lost state from which you have to shake a person vigorously or snap your fingers in order to bring him or her to their senses! There is a temporary, partial memory loss too. Veronica is experiencing a very realistic form of a traumatic reaction which may or may not be a result of the physical concussion she suffers in the incident. It could very well be more psychological than physical.  

It is later clear, only through some nuanced but rather jarring sequences that she is the kind of person that seems to be quite reticent and reserved about various facets of her life. She may even have deep-seated, dark secrets that would threaten to break all hell loose in her closely knit, influential family of cousins. But that is beyond the scope of the narrative except to catch us unawares regarding the innermost dark corners of Veronica's twisted psyche.

The focal point of Martel's film then is to take us right into the mind of Veronica post the accident. And in an attempt to do so, she employs devices that literally make us experience her dislocated state. Needless to say, there is a heavy reliance on the atmospherics. 

Only these aren't the Lynchian kind, but clearly more on the dull, lazy, perhaps sedated side as well! However negative that sounds, it actually works in the film's favor; never once do you feel like taking your eyes off the screen. Sometimes there is a perpetual drone in the sound. The camera moves slowly and sometimes it halts on an ordinary frame for a long time. Images get blurry. Sometimes there are tight close-ups, almost too close for comfort. There are images that reflect an askance vision, that of a paranoid and anxious individual, suppressing with great difficulty her inner turmoil!

This is accentuated with Maria Onetto's terrific and subtle performance. Since the incident she hardly speaks. She is almost zombified, disconnected from what's happening around her and bears an uneasy look on her face throughout. Onetto's portrayal of a guilt-ridden individual suffering in silence is flawless. 

Behold the instances when she barely opens her mouth to speak when a response is expected of her, and someone else speaks for her, or those moments that amplify the visible discomfort on her face. In such a scenario of paranoia, the mind is capable of playing tricks on the individual and thus, Martel toys around with the idea of the real and  the imagined as well. There are apparently some events in the film that do not actually occur, but there is no specific line to distinguish them, neither is there any intended tone. Sometimes there are illusions of apparitions highlighted in a spectacular scene towards the end. While such a move inevitably leads to ambiguities, it also renders the proceedings wholly accurate.

Special mention must be made of how music played on a stereo equipment is used to a disquieting effect. A joyous song plays in Veronica's car at moderate volume in an eerie emptiness after the hit and before the run! In another scene, an indistinct muffled sound of music playing in the vicinity fills our ears as Veronica drives through one of the more poorer neighbourhoods. Apart from these fine aural effects, in an obvious attempt to reference the title of the film, Martel uses an interesting visual gimmick, whereby the heads of some characters are cropped off from frames or obscured by some other objects in several scenes.

"The Headless Woman" deserves more viewership. It is a far out thriller that doesn’t have any qualms about its minimalism, for it focuses on a scenario in the life of an individual that may sound too flimsy and minor, but the effects an exaggerated imagination can have on the mind of the affected could be far greater. And its maker does a mighty great job of getting that point across.

Score: 9/10

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Sometimes there is a rare, sublime beauty to be found in the simplest of things. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974) is one such example of a motion picture that is deceivingly simple. It is a film that despite its seemingly ordinary exterior makes a strong emotional connect with the viewer, almost effortlessly! It is not wrong to use the word 'effortlessly' either, in this context, for believe it or not, this extraordinary work of cinema was completed in a span of 15 days on a meager budget and it was meant to fill the time between two of the filmmaker’s bigger budget productions, Martha and Effi Briest!

A portly old cleaning woman Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and a tall, dark, handsome Moroccan immigrant auto mechanic Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), almost 20 years younger than her form an unusual and instant bond one rainy night in a bar. One thing leads to another and the two eventually get married, leaving a whole community of prejudiced German neighbours and co-workers of Emmi seething in disgust at this forbidden relationship. How the couple cope with the increasing hostility around them, is the crux of Fassbinder's simple but powerful story.

Do not be fooled by the plot summary. It may sound far too basic, perhaps even a regular, done-to-death melodramatic romance, but it is far from all that. It has the special touch of Fassbinder for one. The mise-en-scène drips quality in every frame. The storytelling is crisp and scenes are structured in a manner as to get a strong point across to the audience. The very first scene, for instance, begins on an unsettling note, as Emmi enters a bar with a majority of foreigners/Arabs. As they stand transfixed, giving Emmi a deadpan stare, Emmi who is standing at a distance, looks back in silence, as an Arab tune plays in the background. This makes for a fantastic opening sequence that practically yells out the main theme of the film; that of an inequality among humans.

Ali and Emmi belong to vastly different backgrounds but both are lonely individuals, somewhat tortured within, owing to the lives they lead. Emmi is a cleaning lady and every time she tells someone that, they look down upon her! She has children who don't see her often, all married and leading their respective lives. Ali on the other hand, seems to have come to terms with his position in society . That isn't even his real name, by the way; his actual name is El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha and Ali is a generalized name given to him, perhaps because of his dark-skinned Arab ethnicity! 

He lives in a single room with five other Arab buddies and hence the Germans refer to them as the swine and their habitats as pigsties! Some ignorant folk even doubt if they wash themselves regularly! Ali is used to this kind of treatment and is rather blunt about his status in society, as he declares in his broken German language "German master, Arab dog"! Although it is he that reminds Emmi that "Fear eats the soul", somewhere his own fear of being a foreigner is eating him up from inside as we later learn.

The racial bigotry reaches shocking proportions post the marriage of these two tormented characters as Emmi's children shamelessly express their disapproval for Ali in front of him. Co-workers refuse to include Emmi with them, neighbours start avoiding her, staff at restaurants stay aloof and reluctantly attend to them when they enter to dine, and the friendly neighbourhood grocer who has had Emmi as a regular customer, refuses to serve the couple anymore! The loneliness of these characters and the inevitable distance between them and these prejudiced individuals is portrayed through shots deliberately designed for such a purpose. 

Often there are long shots, showing either Emmi or Ali or both together, distant from the viewer as if the viewer is made to feel like one such biased individual or as a mute spectator to the sad state Emmi has landed herself into, merely for falling in love and getting married to the only man who didn't look down upon her when she revealed her profession to him and who offered her a much needed companionship. There are also some deliberate shots in which we see either Emmi or Ali from a distance through a door, again, stressing on the alienation of these characters. At times, mostly Emmi is seen from behind bars of windows or staircases, reflecting her emotional imprisonment.

The couple's tough journey to make it through their marriage that draws the ire of almost everyone around them, may seem soap-operatic and exaggerated but it makes for a soul-stirring and mature cinematic experience, confident in its approach. For one, Fassbinder keeps it from falling prey to melodramatic trappings and keeps it restrained, not in the depiction of events, but in the character reactions and handling of the extreme situations the couple are subjected to. 

Secondly, the film's themes reflect personal histories of some actors and Fassbinder himself, having grown up in an atmosphere of immigrant prejudice. Moreover, the actor playing Ali, El Hedi ben Salem was Fassbinder's gay lover at the time. The extreme behavior of discrimination and hypocrisy portrayed in the film might very well be true to reality and far from hyperbole then.

The story takes some surprising and some not so surprising turns as the tide appears to turn, both in the couple's relationship and the attitude of the society toward them. The events are entirely convincing and lead to some thought-provoking moments towards the third act. Some finer examples are how Ali misses the food native to him, and turns to the busty bartender Barbara (Barbara Valentin) for the same and how Emmi unwittingly participates in a mob behavior that actually echoes what she's undergone. 

The best moments of the film are complemented with pitch perfect performances from the two leads. While El Hedi ben Salem aptly displays the deadpan sturdiness of a Moroccan that struggles with the German language, Brigitte Mira charms with her affectionate turn as a woman aware of her old age and who only yearns for comforting companionship more than anything else. Watch out also for Fassbinder himself as the cranky son-in-law of Emmi in an explosive little cameo.

"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" with its simplicity and astonishing production history is a testament to how spontaneous a filmmaker Fassbinder was. He delivers a poignant and effective masterwork of cinema and at the same time makes his feat seem like a walk in the park!

Score: 10/10