Monday, March 31, 2014

La Cérémonie (1995)

Claude Chabrol's "La Cérémonie" (1995) is a deceptively gentle drama on the surface, but is actually quite alarmingly intense at its core. An adaptation of Ruth Rendell's "A Judgement in Stone", Chabrol's film examines the class conflict with some biting humour and frightening fierceness.

Catherine Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bisset), hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as a new domestic help in her isolated, plush manor. It is not clear at the outset but something is out of place about Sophie, only none so off-the-wall to be particularly discernible. She appears to be a little slow and meek. When she commences her duties though, everything seems to be in order. She is a good cook and she helps maintain the place well. She doesn't say much and keeps to herself, does her work earnestly. 

She is given a nice room of her own with a TV set. Her employer sees to her every need and offers to do a few things to help her out too. Catherine's husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), stepdaughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) and son Gilles (Valentin Merlet) all dwell in the luxurious abode in their rich glory. Sophie has a secret though, a limitation, one she is ashamed of, and keeps it from becoming public knowledge at every step. She somehow manages to find suitable means to keep it under wraps and save herself from humiliation and embarrassment.

Soon Sophie befriends Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a clerk at the local post office, a free spirited but hugely arrogant and ill-mannered, insolent bad apple who very obviously goes through people's mail but doesn't give a damn about it. Their bonding soon develops into a close friendship of two troubled minds that paves way for a cumulative unhealthy mindset that could threaten to disturb the peace of the Lelièvres.

Chabrol's film brings to mind Joseph Losey's solid study of the clash of the classes, "The Servant" (1963) and also that superb early Peter Jackson film "Heavenly Creatures" (1994). Chabrol through his colourful frames in the beginning showcases the glossy abundance of the rich family, yet through further exploration of the members of the family goes to show how self-centered they could be. There are conscious attempts at highlighting the complexes of the classes. 

For instance, when someone points out to Georges that it is not polite to call Sophie a maid, after some discussion, eventually it is decided that one can't call a maid anything but that! An inherent superiority complex is brought out in the manner in which they conclude upon this matter. One pivotal scene satirizes the air of fake sophistication of the family when Georges appears all dapper, dressed in a tuxedo and declares that there are only a few minutes left for a concert, which turns out to be one they would all watch together on the TV set, and not at the actual venue of the performance!

On the flipside, the utterly submissive Sophie probably feels inferior and hence remains aloof and retires to her room when her work is done. Perhaps she also doesn't quite appreciate the patronizing ways of her employers when they offer to get her some help to get her glasses done, provide her driving lessons and equip her with an exclusive TV set for her room.

Only all these feelings don't surface until Sophie meets Jeanne who either provides Sophie an outlet that she needed or inculcates in her, feelings of resentment for the bourgeois who she thinks are too full of themselves, are too proud of their wealth and don't deserve all that grandeur. Both Jeanne and Sophie have a dark past that could raise concerns about their credibility as honest, law-abiding individuals. 

In fact the friendship that develops between the two is catapulted to its closest form in a fantastic scene of friendly blackmail that ensues when the two reveal that they know something about the other and playfully tickle and make fun of each other! In a way, a mutual omerta has been cemented between the two, a foundation that would take their association to another level. Chabrol also keeps these dark histories deliberately ambiguous so as to throw the ball in the viewers' court to interpret the nature of the truth in their own way, based on how they perceive the characters. Once certain facets about these two characters are uncovered in the progression of the story, the mind goes in the rewind mode and many of the initial character interactions, that come off as off-kilter make perfect sense.

The element of blackmail is also used in very extreme ways. On one hand is the near flippant mutual blackmail that strengthens the two women's bond, and on the other there is one that happens to be very serious and directed towards the Lelièvres yet fizzles out when they take it rather casually! It speaks volumes of how the gravity of the potential consequences of such a scenario are perceived differently by different social classes.

As the women get closer, and connect owing to a common stand, their awkward physical closeness makes us suspect lesbian undercurrents that never fully reach their conclusion. One particular scene depicts the two happily watching TV clutching each others' shoulders in a tight embrace, a physical gesture that could qualify for a child-like best-friendship or a sexual attraction, again something that is left equivocal.

A sense of tension resulting from the huge economic divide between the women and the Lelièvres begins to grow as they engage in such conversations as to justify their malevolent attitude towards the rich and also the incidents that scarred them momentarily in their respective pasts. Sophie starts taking liberties like walking out during some guest visits in the house and also inviting Jeanne into the house much to the employers' chagrin. Some harmless liberties taken soon take a graver shape of a spiteful rebellion and leads the film to its climax that we don't quite see coming but still aren't overly oblivious to its ballpark.

While some unconvincing plot developments and a somewhat uncalled for appearance of a deus ex machina are a tad disappointing, "La Cérémonie" still emerges a winner. It is an exemplary work of cinema to depict a friction between classes rather than individuals, and boasts of able and strong lead performances by Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire, taut storytelling and a seemingly simple but definitely layered screenplay. 

Score: 9/10

Sunday, March 23, 2014

See the Sea (Regarde La Mer) (1997)

Maverick French director François Ozon really knows his art exceedingly well and makes storytelling via the medium of cinema seem so effortless, it makes one's jaw drop. Trust Ozon to make something out of near-nothingness and keep the audience glued to the screen for whatever run-time. So just when you think you can't get much out of a 50 odd minutes film with just two central characters, you find yourself hooked from the opening frame as Ozon's gripping story unfolds in an astonishingly fluid manner.

And what material does Ozon work with? Just two women as the central characters, a little baby of 10 months and a setting of a limited radius in and around a house near an idyllic, isolated beach location. No, as much as this description may somewhat remind you of Ingmar Bergman's psychological drama masterpiece "Persona", lay your doubts to rest. There is nothing mind-bending or abstract about it; just an overwhelming sense of tension, pure and simple! It wouldn't be wrong to say, that Ozon's film is more in the Hitchcockian thriller territory, but with a touch of classic French minimalism.

An English woman Sasha (Sasha Hails) tries to cope with a near lonely life with her 10 month old wailing daughter at her house by the beach. Ozon makes us familiar with the area of her residence, and pleases us with nice sights of a near private, clean beach, and blades of grass swaying in the pleasant breeze against a soothing score that sporadically appears amidst diegetic sounds. Sasha's husband is away to Paris on business and phone calls made to him mostly go unanswered. She seems to be bored, not surprisingly. Some other scenes indicate that she is in desperate need of sex! There are also indications that although terribly in love with her baby, Sasha is slightly hassled by the baby's constant need of attention.

The baby doesn't let Sasha read nor does she let her sleep in peace. She just barely manages to catch a wink at the beach whilst sunbathing. It is a wonder on Ozon's part how the baby's natural reactions and movements were captured at apt moments. Baby Samantha is extremely cherubic and adorable, and it is difficult to imagine the kind of effort it must have taken to make her act, not in the traditional sense, but as per the demand of the scene. 

With all this battling with baby care and boredom, a possible antidote to her loneliness knocks in the form of the deadpan backpacker Tatiana (Marina de Van) in search of a place to rig her tent up. Initially reluctant, but perhaps somewhat enticed upon hearing that Tatiana worked as a nanny, Sasha lets her use her huge yard. It is a matter of time before she lets Tatiana enter her home, dine with her and use her bathroom. 

However, it becomes all too obvious that something is amiss with this seemingly innocuous backpacker who assertively declares that she can't stick around in one place for more than four days and likes to move about. Tatiana is portrayed by Marina de Van, in a casting choice that couldn't have been more perfect. With an expressionless face, but creepy eyes, she seems anything but friendly, looks-wise! In some awesomely executed conversation scenes at the table, a lot becomes apparent about the personalities of the two women. 

The audience doesn't know just yet where the story is heading, but a spark of slight unrest certainly makes its way in the scene when Tatiana makes her presence felt. Sure enough, it takes shape in the fantastic exchange between the two at dinner. Sasha asks her about her wandering ways: "Are you never scared to travel alone?". Tatiana very coolly shakes her head and replies, "I do the scaring". 

Sasha quickly embraces Tatiana, despite her odd mannerisms and scatological tendencies, which are not initially apparent to her but us unsuspecting audiences are made privy to, in one shockingly revolting scene. Despite her not-so-friendly appearance, Tatiana seems to gel well with the baby and that makes Sasha much more comfortable. As the comfort grows, the camera placements get increasingly claustrophobic and uncomfortable. For instance, in the last third, in a particularly brazen conversation about child birth, the entire frame occupies the close-ups of the two women's faces alternately in dim lighting. Marina de Van's face looks doubly scary here, with those thick eyebrows and menacing eyes.

Little by little, Ozon makes us more acquainted with his characters. We are shown what kind of a mother and wife Sasha is, and while he paints a very disturbing picture of the kind of personality Tatiana is, it is still not apparent what could possibly shape up next. There lies the key that Ozon holds, the key to the door that won't open until the very end, yet no tangible clue is delivered about the outcome either. We lie in wait for something terrible to happen; because that much we know, what with such a malevolent individual making her way into the house, not everything is going to remain hunky dory really. Only it is difficult to predict what Tatiana is really up to. This state of unsettling suspension, the minutes of nail-biting suspense that seem like hours resulting from the impatience before the actual occurrence is what keeps us on the edge.

Sure enough, with the steady build-up, the culmination manages to create that jolt as it should, but Ozon being Ozon, mixes the storm in the end with the serene calm of a view of the waters and hardly any sense of panic. Brilliant!

Score: 9/10

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bizalom (Confidence) (1980)

War is capable of bringing out the worst in man. The sheer unpredictability and instability of the life of any human being affected by a war environment leads to a situation where decisions are strictly a product of the need for self preservation. There are times when selfishness overrides altruism, and while it is natural instinct to save one's own skin in a harrowing scenario in which a sense of security is the thing of the past and one has to always look over their shoulder, there is no escaping the fact that man will still need man. Companionship, love, bonding, trust, security, are things that every living person will always strive for, regardless of circumstance.

Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó's "Bizalom" (AKA Confidence) (1980) is a shining example that depicts a few days in the life of Kata (Ildikó Bánsági), the wife of a member of the resistance during WWII in Nazi-occupied Budapest. Kata is caught unawares, as she finds her life suddenly in turmoil when her husband is forced to go underground, and she is impelled to go into hiding herself, by having to pose as the wife of another resistance member on the run, who goes by the alias of János (Péter Andorai).

In such a scenario, both are expected to cohabit as a wedded pair in an apartment belonging to an older couple who also cannot know their true identities. The faux young couple are supposed to have a daughter who is somewhere safe! They cannot talk to anyone unless necessary, nor can they give out more information than is needed. Even fabrication is not allowed. It is imperative to keep any communication minimal and just stick to maintaining their fake identities. Any memorabilia of the past including photographs and letters should be burned and flushed down the toilet, for no risk of any kind is to be taken. Anything connecting them to their true pasts could be used against them by the Gestapo and hence is a strict no-no.

János seems to have mastered the art of such an existence and he is reduced to a non-human with some very human feelings of fear, mistrust and cynicism! He cannot trust Kata, who is quite the opposite, very fragile and completely new to this kind of chaos and finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she may not even hear from her husband or know the whereabouts of her real daughter at all in the unstable environment that is the result of war. She quickly gets very frustrated with the kind of calculated existence János orders her to lead in order to ensure their safety, but he makes it very clear that if she poses any kind of threat to his security then he would have to kill her and hence it is essential that she follows protocol!

Of course, how long can one lead a robotic and measured existence, especially when they are two lost souls desperately in need of human warmth? Not surprisingly, whilst living together, a bonding occurs between the two, love makes its presence felt and trumps the initial apprehensions. It wouldn't be wrong to say that this love stems from the fact that both are sailing in the same ship which could very well be sinking. At one point, when the Gestapo raid the neighbourhood looking for someone, both are traumatized; admitting to each other that it is only natural to be afraid, but at least they have each other to be keep company in this fearsome moment. It is a poignant and crucial scene that stresses upon the inherent need of man to have a hand to hold on to in times of distress.

But paranoia and doubt keep raising their ugly heads along with moral fits of guilt, even after tender lovemaking. It is here that Szabó's film asks a pertinent question. Is it morally wrong to be attracted to and find love with another person who may be the only one you can trust, the only one around as your support system, when your future is uncertain and you may never see your family again? After all, your existence as you know it may have to meet its sad end and you may never live to see the end of the war. The guilt is accompanied by János's constant suspicion and disbelief that it all seems too good to be true and Kata could very well be mixed up with the Gestapo.

Both, Kata and János are forced to come face to face with their beliefs and prejudices as they stand at the crossroad at which their loyalties will be put to the test. Both are experiencing what they call is true love, perhaps greater than they ever experienced with their spouses. Could it be that a dire situation makes one recognize true love? More so in case of Kata, whose husband withholds a lot of information from her, including his whereabouts, whereas János seems to be showing growing concern about her safety and well-being. A deluge of conflicting feelings is accurately portrayed by Szabó in intermittent soliloquies of the two central characters who can't seem to achieve any mental peace regarding which direction their thoughts would eventually lean towards.

This is especially true of János, who is wary of trusting even a passerby who he may have bumped into more than once! The tumultuous state of mind of Kata on the other hand is reflected through some bizarre nightmares that end with her waking up screaming and sweating all over. To add to her troubles is the added guilt of not being in a position to help an old school mate of hers who seeks her help but who Kata pretends to not recognize, owing to instructions from János! It is one powerful scene that shows the helpless Ildikó Kishonti sobbing as she accuses Kata of being a coward who won't help others, curses her and walks out.

The terrifying times of hand to mouth existence are depicted via disturbing scenes of people lining up for meager rations and water. The whole environment looks dreary, and the bleak, faded cinematography accentuates such a mood. The proceedings are tense, and never let up, despite a minimalistic setting. This includes, especially, the scenes in the dimly lit room occupied by the couple.

The uncomfortable, suffocating closeups render a claustrophobic air that is apt in a story that focuses on individuals cowering in fear and hiding away. The extraordinarily realistic performances of the two leads Ildikó Bánsági and Péter Andorai makes the predicament of the central characters all the more believable and their warm moment together amid the sounds of explosions outside, sends shivers down the spine along with invoking a feeling of immense sadness.

As the war threatens to come to an end and the feeling sets in that one of the outcomes of this could be a resumption of their old lives, the viewer empathizes with Kata as she painfully declares that she is awfully sad about the possibility of parting ways with János and although they were actually hiding out in there, she feels like a pleasant holiday is nearing its end. Sure enough, us audiences who by now feel at one with the lead pair are left with a bittersweet feeling at the prospect of a happy ending that technically would be them reuniting with their respective families!

Score: 10/10 


My personal, renewed take on the ending of "Bizalom" after a recent rewatch:


In the final few minutes of the film, we see Katalin being interviewed by some government officials. It seems that in the wake of the end of the Nazi occupation, with her old papers destroyed, Katalin is looking at securing or reclaiming her original identity, free from the baggage of her underground life.

The officials ask if they want her to make new papers for "both", which makes it ambiguous as to who they are referring to. It is safe to assume they mean her real husband because her confession starts with the sad story of what happened to her and her husband. She, however, simply replies: "Just for myself", indicating that she isn't concerned with getting papers for anyone else, neither Janos, nor her husband.

She no longer loves her husband and hence doesn't care about him or about making his papers. Also, he had disappointed her by not making her aware of his role as a resistance member. As for Janos, he suddenly announces, "They have come for me", and leaves her without any real confirmation as to when they would see each other again. "I can't come back. You will hear from me in a few days", he says. This departure, clubbed with a feeling that, Janos' love for her was never his priority, she has perhaps given up any real hopes of seeing him soon.

Despite Katalin's disregard for both men whilst making these papers, somewhere within, it is Janos she yearns for, and wishes to see him again. And so when her husband comes back for her in the end, there's a tearful expression of great disappointment and sadness instead of profound happiness. Now that the worst was over, there was no way her husband would go underground again. But Katalin's underground situation has changed her forever.

Katalin's tragedy is that despite wanting to make a fresh start, she has no evidence to reclaim her own identity, and no desire to reclaim her old life with her husband. What’s worse is, she had even refused to recognize that old classmate in an earlier scene, who she almost bumps into in the end, but is probably too ashamed to reach out to now. That, or perhaps, also an apprehension that this friend might take her revenge this time by NOT recognizing her, and further weakening her case! The husband's return perhaps means that she may be able to secure her original ID after all, at the cost of having to resume her life with him, something she no longer looks forward to.

And yet it is all very open ended, for Janos indeed does come back for Katalin, calling out her name. The placement of this scene makes it seem like this scene plays out in Katalin's head. We are given a glimpse of what she is imagining whilst tearfully hugging her husband. The hug happens, the tears roll down, and then Katalin's visage slightly changes in a way that expresses a sudden dreadful realization. Then we cut to the scene in which Janos is calling out, "Mrs. Janos Biro..where are you?"! Since her heart lies with Janos, the reunion with her husband that has marred any prospect of her getting back with Janos, makes her mind drift and anxiously think, "What if Janos is out there now, looking for me?"

Or he may indeed have returned, although it would be much of a coincidence that the husband and Janos both return at the same time, and it looks like these events don't seem to be temporally far apart. In case he has returned for real, then perhaps, he will visit the old couples' house again and find out that Katalin has reunited with her husband, and walk away. Or perhaps, he would only find the old woman there, who would tell him that she left with her "brother", in which case, he would continue to seek her out.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

***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.***

Now this one was a big surprise, a pleasant one at that, for it surpassed all expectations. Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" (2010) is a refreshingly different and original American indie. When you know you are watching a film from the 'western' genre, you would expect action and gun violence, but hell...there must be about two shots fired in this film, and only in the air if you take it from the audiences' perspective.  

It would be misleading to even call it a 'western' in fact. That probably explains the low score on popular film websites such as IMDB too. Western film freaks did not get what they bargained for. Although by definition a western is a film that has stories set in the 19th century American old west, the term has become synonymous with gunslinging cowboys making stylish moves, horses, damsels in distress, heroic badassery, lots of poetic, memorable dialog, theatrical performances and unreal action among other things.

But just because "Meek's Cutoff" has a bunch of guys with hats, guns and horses, that need not make it a 'western' in the more popular sense. It would be more fair to treat it as an American indie meditative drama.

Devoid of any flamboyant score, or cool looking cowboys making epic entries, this is a realistic film pigeonholed in a genre that mostly depicted unrealistic romanticism. There's just this small group, consisting of three humble looking couples en route to somewhere. Where they came from, what their destination is, is unknown. All we know in the first few frames is that they appear lost. 

The era is circa 1840s, and the group is following a man by the name of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who has been hired by them to lead them across a rough terrain across the Oregon trail. It is a route that mostly seems to consist of vast empty, barren desert landscapes, dirt, grime, and a dearth of water! 

Doubt is slowly sinking in, and the stronger voice of the otherwise suppressed womenfolk, Mrs. Tetherow (Michelle Williams in a splendid act) begins to get skeptical about the credibility of Meek as an able guide. But danger lurks somewhere not far away in the form of brutal Red Indians who are known to be animals, torturing their victims. It is a matter of time before Mrs. Tetherow spots a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux), who is later captured by the men. The journey as they know it would never be the same again, as dynamics shift and the helm gradually changes hands.

Reichardt's film is aesthetically brilliant with some great sights to behold, accompanied by gorgeous cinematography and an eerie score that spells death and danger every little time it fills your ears. It is a minimalist setting, with a minimal number of people trapped in the 4:3 aspect ratio frame (a deliberate choice, symbolically relevant and also a nod to the older popular westerns), sparse, vague dialog for the most part and a languid pace that is apt to showcase the excruciatingly long and seemingly endless journey undertaken by our travelers. One can actually feel the fatigue, the thirst, the hopelessness experienced by these hapless beings. In spite of the seemingly glacial pace though, the proceedings are tense as curiosity progressively mounts.

Despite the lack of a neatly developed plot or characterization, and not much of a narrative to speak of, "Meek's cutoff" is a magnificent canvas that packs in heavy thematic material and some substantial food for thought. For one, it a fantastic study of trust (or lack thereof), fear, prejudice, pessimism, optimism and doubt. When it appears that the once confident Meek is just shooting in the dark, Mrs. Tetherow is among the first to trust a local, an Indian, who has a reputation for being dangerous, and who is incapable of communicating with the gang. Yet, some inner voice tells her that only this Indian will show her the way to a better land where she will find food and water. 

And hence she makes every effort to win his favour, despite never being certain if he has even understood what they want from him. Maybe it is that general feeling; there is always an inherent curiosity of the unknown. In a deliberate move, the spoken words of the Indian in his language are not translated in subtitles. This is to make us viewers feel the language barrier and the futility of any communication with him. Yet there is hope that he will lead them to a better destination. Of course, not all of the travelers are confident about this. Some of them express strong disapproval, claim that the Indian will probably lead them to his people instead and they will all be massacred!

It wouldn't be wrong to say that the travelers' journey to an unpredictable future symbolizes man's eternal quest for utopia. That endless odyssey to a promised land led by a bearded guide, a biblical figure perhaps, who has the faith of some and mistrust of others. Emily Tetherow's trust is dwindling and she is losing her faith in this figure, while the others are blindly following him, uncertain of their future. In such a circumstance, she chooses to trust the Indian who is notorious for being a devil. Meek warns something to the effect that they have no idea what awaits them on the other side, perhaps more heathens of his kind, and hence to not trust him. One amazing visual cross fade across scenes almost shows Meek at a distance and as the scene shifts to the next, his image appears to be floating across the sky; a deliberate move, perhaps, on the director's part to stress upon the biblical connection of the character in question!

What lies beyond, no one knows. What path to take, who to trust is ultimately determined by the individual's faith and personal judgement, much like the choice of what religion to embrace, if at all!

In one scene, a small piece of gold is found and a couple of people are overjoyed. "Well, you can't drink it", says Mr. Tetherow (Will Patton). Perhaps it was the devil's temptation that they manage to overcome and keep going.

There are strong feminist undercurrents in "Meek's Cutoff". Several scenes highlight the status of women at the time, like how they are kept out of important decision making. In one key scene, the women look to their husbands and struggle to hear what they are saying, and so does the viewer, for the dialog is almost drowned out for the entire duration when the men decide upon what direction to follow. The drowning out of dialog is intentional, for the filmmaker wants the audiences to feel the frustration of the ladies at not being able to catch the plan of action as it gets made. But in a dramatic turn of events, the leader Meek eventually finds that he is indeed meek and bows down to the command of Mrs. Tetherow, who takes control and establishes that she means business! 

Emily Tetherow decides to stick with the Indian and urges the group to follow. She believes that she has won his favour by feeding him and helping him; that kindness begets kindness. As the group march toward their uncertain fate, a solitary tree with greens is spotted along the way. Could it be the tree of life? How did it stand there in the barren land without water? The tree then, symbolises hope. It means one should always follow their heart and stick to their guns. Emily turns to the Indian with a look of hope that he will take her there where there is happiness. The viewer keeps looking at the screen and hopes that the Indian really has become compassionate toward these people and will eventually save them from certain death. 

Films like "Meek's Cutoff" don't come out very often. About time we all checked this little gem out and spread the word. 

Score: 9/10