Friday, February 26, 2016

The Servant (1963)

A wealthy young British aristocrat, Tony (James Fox) hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde, fabulous as always) as his live-in servant, to cook and offer general help around his large house. Hugo is mostly a very diligent and efficient worker and especially particular about the decoration and neatness around the house.

A usually lazy and habitually spoiled Tony is quite pleased with Hugo's work and both appear to be quite happy with the established arrangement. Tony's fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig) disapproves, however, and is quite uncomfortable with his presence and a resulting invasion of privacy. She also seems to be quite distrustful of him and his motives.

The status quo begins to shift, when Hugo brings home Vera (Sarah Miles), who he introduces as his sister, to help around the house as a maid. Her presence creates ripples in the existing scheme of things, as certain social barriers are transgressed. A devious machination of Tony's psychological manipulation begins to become apparent, with Tony's existence getting increasingly dependent on Hugo, giving way to a shift of power as the master and the servant gradually appear to switch roles!

Joseph Losey's "The Servant" boasts of Harold Pinter's complex script with an intriguing premise, that makes it a powerful psychological drama addressing a multitude of issues such as power play, social class conflict, an existential ennui associated with the decadent wealthy, and an employee's desire to realize the unrealistic ambition of stepping into the employer's shoes.

But the thematic concerns don't end there. As veiled as it may seem, Pinter makes a cryptic but very tangible exploration of repressed homosexuality, a sexual preference that was a criminal offence at the time, and its depiction in film, generally forbidden.

The stage is set for an unnerving sense of tension and unease, the moment Hugo enters Tony's plush abode. The house is in a sorry, messy shape with its owner slumped on an easy chair, asleep because of too many beers at lunch! Of course, it is learnt that he just returned from Africa, which explains the state of the house. Hugo's interview with Tony begins and ends well, but the interaction itself seems somewhat awkward.

Perhaps Hugo senses some trait of Tony which seems unpleasant or unusual to him. It's a cleverly executed sequence in which the duel has already begun between the two classes. Although it is Hugo who is being interviewed, he is in turn gauging his would-be employer, and studying his body language, and perhaps at that very moment has sensed something queer about him. Noteworthy is the somewhat oblique verbal exchange here, when Hugo raises an eyebrow as Tony takes a moment's pause whilst outlining what he expects of him.

Tony's fiancée Susan belongs to the class conscious breed of the rich and is more concerned about the encroachment and invasion of privacy. She looks down upon Barrett from the beginning, and her loathing for him is cemented early on when he deliberately barges in on the couple, without knocking, in the middle of their canoodling. Most of the film's heightened dramatic tension comes from the exchange between Susan and Hugo, who realizes Susan's contempt for his kind, and Bogarde's very expressive face, conveys this most accurately.

Vera is the mysterious fourth side of this quadrangle. She is the perfect epitome of lascivious desire with her strange mix of childlike yet carnal aura. Vera's arrival makes things a bit more ambiguous, but it is not a stretch to assume that she is brought in disturb Tony's relationship with Susan, knowing that theirs wasn't a strong bond to begin with. Another motive could also be to make Tony more dependent on Hugo. An assumption based on the homosexual subtext here is, that Tony isn't straight and hence he is probably feigning his normal relationship.

The intentionally nebulous dialog is a highlight of the film, and may leave a viewer scratching his/her head at times. For instance, one wonders why Susan once in a lovingly mocking way calls Tony a "bachelor"! Then there is that brief scene in which Tony tells Hugo that sometimes he gets the feeling that they are old friends, a feeling that he last experienced only in the army. Hugo reciprocates and says he identifies with such a feeling; very off-kilter musings but they certainly hint at a confession of a past homosexual experience.

The seemingly unconnected scene in a restaurant and the sudden random focus on characters completely unrelated to the story (the great Patrick Magee included!) may seem befuddling but one must carefully observe these characters and pay attention to their conversations. There is enough to suggest the presence of homoerotic undercurrents in the unpleasant exchanges of these characters. One of these characters also mentions about some artist or comedian being in prison; perhaps arrested on charges of homosexuality or even referring to it?

Losey abundantly employs the visual device of mirror reflections and distortions to emphasize the film's themes. Characters' crooked images are often shown in the convex mirror in the main room, symbolizing that they are deviant individuals, and they are all twisted in some way! Mirror images that swap positions of the two characters in various scenes symbolize the switch or a role reversal that has irreversibly been set in motion.

The visual gimmickry doesn't end with the mirrors. The third act takes a rather sudden and bizarre turn when we see the personalities of Hugo and Tony gradually changing, as the reversal begins to occur. In that one segment, Hugo and Tony almost seem to cohabit as a gay couple, bickering as partners, over sharing responsibilities! Hugo seems more temperamental and dominating, while Tony begins to get more submissive, gradually dissipating and presumably losing his sanity under the influence of drinks and other intoxicants.

To accentuate this surreal change in the scheme of things and to heighten the impact of Tony's steady decline, Losey employs an often creepy background score and a frighteningly effective use of lights and shadows to create a maddening, hallucinatory atmosphere of doom and hopelessness.

The ideas conveyed in the film wouldn't be as effective if not for the superlative performances. James Fox is a revelation, and Dirk Bogarde shines as is expected of the fine actor. His transformation from the controlled to the controller is beyond extraordinary. Joseph Losey's "The Servant" (1963) is a forgotten masterpiece that promises a more rewarding and enriching film experience with each viewing.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

L'humanité (1999)

In a small and mostly desolate, laid back French town, where seemingly nothing ever happens, an 11-year old girl is found brutally raped and murdered. The crime is unimaginably ghastly, the kind you would look away from. French filmmaker Bruno Dumont shows us the terrifying image of the brutalized body in considerable detail and for good reason too.

"L'humanité" (1999) is not about the mystery of the crime. It is in fact, about the psychological impact of witnessing something so inhuman, examined from one man's perspective, an awkward and socially inept police superintendent, Pharaon DeWinter (Emmanuel Schotté, in a hypnotic, tour de force act). A brilliant character study, the film explores the way this tragic event is received by Pharaon, a man visibly haunted by the gruesomeness of the crime, and its effect on his relationship with others around him, especially his next door neighbor Domino (Séverine Caneele).

Despite being a part of the investigating team, it is apparent from Pharaon's visage and body language that he possesses neither the attitude nor the energy that is essential to crack a case as dangerous as this. He is a very slow, soft, and mild-mannered fellow, a man-child, a weak nincompoop, with possibly some mental issues, and is clearly not fit for his position. The investigation doesn't seem to be moving as it should either. The attitude of the cops is as lackadaisical as the town they reside in. There are no leads. Help eventually has to be brought in from bigger cities.

While he is not on his rather unproductive pursuit of the killer, all that remains for Pharaon is to idle away, and tag along as a third wheel, with Domino and her vulgar boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier) on their excursions around town. When alone, the brooding, contemplative Pharaon seems to be immersed in some sort of deep personal connect with his surroundings, soaking in nature, meditating, or just reflecting with a palpable sadness. There is certainly much more to Pharaon's personality than what meets the eye; perhaps something beyond human understanding. And yet, Pharaon seems to be the only one with any shred of humanity that stands in sharp contrast against the abundant moral corruption around him.

Dumont's languid style with its moody atmosphere and long silences, allows the viewer to comfortably settle in and fixate his/her gaze on Pharaon as the screenplay follows his every move. The camera captures the vast, bleak emptiness of the sleepy town in all its glory. Every frame, no matter how banal, seems to hint at something that Pharaon reflects upon.

Dumont commands our attention and implores us to empathize with Pharaon, as he goes on with his strange activities, some bordering on the downright weird. For instance, Dumont begs the question: why is Pharaon so intently staring at his Superior's chubby pink neck with all its sweat? Is he likening it to something else? Maybe the pig that he so lovingly caresses?

It is interesting how frequently we see a frame that seems to resemble a vaginal slit, an image from the crime that has certainly scarred Pharaon's mind. He cycles, looks back at a long slender road, flanked by bushes and trees on both sides. He looks down a building and in top view, sees two men fighting in a narrow way between two similar constructions. He rejects Domino's sexual advances. He refuses to smell her panties that her ill-humoured boyfriend Joseph passes to him. Could Pharaon be a closeted homosexual or has the image of a brutalized vagina put a dent on his ability to look straight at a woman? Could it have corrupted his vision to an extent that the sight of a woman's genitals seems ugly and sickens him?

There is a gay kiss that comes out of nowhere. If one is to think that Pharaon was in fact taking pleasure in watching Joseph and not Domino, as they make love in an earlier scene, then it would connect. That would also explain Pharaon's approval of Joseph's churlish behavior in public. As it would the twist ending, hinting at an exchange deal of sorts or as a mark of some kind of a sick triumph. But then again, perhaps it is not that easy an answer as a corruption of sexuality.

At one point of time, amid some flower plantations in a garden, Pharaon appears to levitate. Perhaps the levitation is not literal and it is just a trickery device employed by Dumont to visually manifest Pharaon's ethereal feelings of being swept away in nature's bounty.

And then again, there is a possibility that Pharaon indeed did levitate, in which case one can't help but read Dumont's material on a more metaphysical level. Pharaon is some angelic being above humanity, a kind soul, out to correct the balance between good and evil. Pharaon is probably a godsend, a Christ-like entity, albeit not strictly adhering to the popular notion of Christ. He is one who exists as the epitome of kindness; one who will even take the fall for sin of others in the interest of humanity, a supreme sacrifice.

If one were to indeed adhere to the theory that Pharaon is not normal and far beyond ordinary, beyond humanity, then it could explain his touchy-feely ways with suspects brought in for questioning too. Just what exactly does he do with all that too-close-for-comfort sniffing and touching of the suspects' faces? Startling is also the fact that they don't seem to question it or express shock in return. Could Pharaon have the supernatural ability to recognize if a person is guilty by touching and smelling them? Is that how he is, at one point of time, convinced of a certain suspect's guilt? There is nothing explicit to corroborate this, but a mild suggestion is certainly there. But then again, perhaps it means nothing, and they are just some eccentric mannerisms of a mentally unstable cop.

And that is the essence of Dumont's cinematic craft. His magic lies in suspending the truth in this manner so as to not give easy answers. The restraint exercised is remarkable and it is no mean feat that he manages to open up a number of gates for possible interpretations to this enigmatic film in just the last ten minutes of the film! Everything is handled in a very delicate, calculated fashion; be it the sprinkling of humour in the right doses throughout the somber, melancholic atmosphere or maintaining an air of mystery throughout, ensuring that this film experience remains an intoxicating one, long after the credits roll by.

Score: 9/10

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dans La Maison (In The House) (2012)

It all begins innocuously, in a Literature class, after Professor Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini) asks his students to write an essay on how they spent their weekend. Most of the essays submitted are completely worthless and lacking any kind of creativity, but one particular write-up catches Germain's eye. Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a relatively bright 16-year old, describes in a rather enticing manner, a weekend visit to his best friend Rapha's house to help him with his Math.

The description turns out to be much more sensational than mundane, as the writer expresses his somewhat unsavoury desires to explore the house further, and dig deeper into its inhabitants, the characters of his essay, especially Rapha's beautiful mother, Esther (Emanuelle Seigner) who is at the center of Claude's voyeuristic gaze.

Claude's essay ends with a suspenseful 'to be continued' remark, and raises the curiosity of not only the professor but also his art-dealer wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). Before they know it, they are hooked; like soap opera or reality show addicts!

Germain, guided by his wife's penchant for substance, prods Claude to write succeeding chapters, claiming that he has great writing talent and should cultivate it by continuing this family drama in a novel format. Of course, continuing the story would mean more visits to Rapha's house. As Claude turns in daily chapters, developing the story into a fascinating family yarn, sometimes of a scandalous nature, Germain and Jeanne take vicarious pleasure in a reality show they cannot see. Only it is soon too late, when things start to get out of control not only in Rapha's household but also in Germain's life at the cost of building a great story!

François Ozon's "Dans La Maison" or "In the House" (2012) plays out in a rather farcical fashion, like a breezy comedy for the most part, but Ozon succeeds in conveying certain pertinent themes, and raises several questions about the human consumption of sensationalism and the inherent existence of a voyeur in practically every human being despite their hypocritical denial. He makes us muse about human curiosity in general, and the undeniable fact that people do find an intrigue in the lives of others, more importantly when there are downs rather than ups in them! After all who is interested in monotony? It is only when there are ripples, that notice is taken.

Ozon examines a consumer's never ending hunger for something outlandish, by subtly blurring the line between the guide and the guided, the manipulator and the manipulated, as they appear to switch places. Whilst Germain is guiding Claude to build his narrative, he in turn becomes a slave to Claude's writing, often becoming dependent on it, and even compromising his ethics when it threatens to come to an end. Further blurred is the line between fiction and reality, for we see events only from Claude's perspective as he narrates the words in his write-ups. But how much of it is real and how much is made up, is largely unknown, partly because we do see an instance of a modified event, reshaped at the behest of Germain himself, on the pretext of pleasing the reader.

A notable parallel subplot involves Jeanne's art gallery and her desperate struggle to keep it afloat and save it from shutting down by having the best of exhibits and boosting sales. She keeps bringing new artworks and seeks Germain's opinions on them, who often comments about whether a particular art form will sell or not. An important reading to be made here is about art for the sake of art and its viability for commercialism. The credibility of an artwork is decided on its marketability and in this regard, Germain always seems to care about an art piece only if he thinks it will sell.

Germain's sentiments are more or less in the same vein when guiding Claude with his novella, except in this case, he claims he is doing it to groom a literary genius, a budding writer; something that he couldn't become, with only a failed romantic novel to his credit. And yet, it is clear as much to the viewer, that he is indeed, more driven by the voyeuristic consumer inside him, for he tastes blood in Claude's sensational story. Only when the sensationalism appears to go way out of hand, he makes a very smart remark invoking the great Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini, one which is certain to bring a smile on the faces of the fans of "Teorema" (1968).

The main theme is reflected in an important sequence by means of an offbeat artwork that Jeanne demonstrates; an audio artwork. The artist verbally describes the artwork and the listener is allowed to (re)create it with his/her interpretation or imagination of the artist's intention. It pretty much mirrors the essence of reading a novel and the very activity Germain is involved in with Claude. Claude writes, and Germain creates a mental picture of Rapha's family in his mind!

Ozon goes on to have some fun himself with the narrative device, and demonstrates the power of cinema and how the medium can be manipulated to suit viewer expectations and requirements. Just as Prof. Germain alters certain events in Claude's writings to meet reader expectations, Ozon toys around with absurdity, creating very interesting meta-moments in which he places Germain himself at the very heart of the action, in the house, which is the center of Claude's beguiling story. It is a very intricately constructed, meticulous screenplay which pays a fitting homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954), one of the earliest cinematic depictions of voyeurism.

Despite the delicious oddities, originality and intelligence that "In the House" certainly possesses, it does feel like Ozon somehow refrains from pushing the envelope. The narrative seems restrained and appears to become stagnant and just slightly monotonous after a point. Furthermore, in the process of providing an ending, much like Claude in the film, Ozon takes some abruptly clumsy turns that fail to convince.

Ozon has made better films than "In the House", but there is no doubt that this is one of the most unique and premium offerings in his filmography. 

Score: 8/10