Monday, 24 March 2014

Le Weekend

After seeing a review of Le Weekend on the television that implied that Nick, Jim Broadbent's character, gives Meg, Lindsay Duncan's character, the brush off, I went into the film determined to hate Nick and take up mental cudgels on Meg's behalf. How could such a plain man possibly think he was too good for lovely Lindsay?

As it turned out, I'd got hold of utterly the wrong end of the stick - although inadvertently I had possibly gained an inkling of what it might be like to be inside Meg's head. The film actually concerns a couple in which the wife, Lindsay Duncan, who describes herself as suffering from boredom and fury and something else I've forgotten - frustration, exasperation, something along those lines - is vain and, presumably because of her considerable beauty, (no evidence is given of the character possessing any other outstanding quality, unless you treasure intense materialism, impatience, dishonesty and a fondness for playing chasies through the streets of Paris in your sixties), thinks she has the right not only to feel disdain for her husband, Broadbent, but to biff him from time to time. On one occasion, she even knocks him to the ground. On another, she lashes out and manages to draw blood. She also calls him an idiot and tells him he has no balls.

The pair have not had sex - at least with each other - for at least five years, which makes this trip to Paris for their anniversary a pretty optimistic gesture. One of the reviewers I saw, while otherwise enthusiastic about the film, commented that they had not enjoyed the film's sex scene, but so far as I could tell there was none - although we do once see Broadbent asking whether he might be allowed to 'mount' Duncan.

Her response, for which I have to admit she really can't be blamed - sex is something that requires persuasion rather than abject requests for permission surely - is to say she is just dropping off. Broadbent accepts this and wanders off to stick pictures of Samuel Beckett and various artworks and headlines cut out of newspapers all over the hotel room walls.

The hotel room in question, by the way, is extremely grand, if you like that sort of thing, and is not the one originally booked by Broadbent. That one was in the hotel they'd enjoyed staying at decades earlier, but Duncan, on seeing it, instantly chucks a fit. 'It is beige', she declares, as if this is a mortal sin. She hails a taxi and sets off, first to roar round and round Paris, hurling euros at the driver, and then to find the most expensive suite the city can provide instead. The one she settles on carries the recommendation that it has been slept in by Tony Blair  - 'so long as they've changed the sheets since', is Broadbent's only response to this information.

Clearly, Broadbent has poor judgment - as well as deciding to marry Duncan thirty years ago and allowing her walk all over him now, he has also managed to lose his job as a lecturer at a second rate university for saying something really stupid and pretty unpleasant -  'If you put as much effort into your studies as you do into your hair you might stand a better chance of escaping your origins' - to a black female student.

He reveals this fact at the couple's first meal in Paris - (and, incidentally, I found it a bit annoying that at all meals in restaurants the couple sat next to each other, rather than facing each other; obviously this is ideal for cameramen, but most people don't do that, so it seemed a bit contrived).  Supposedly, Nick/Broadbent has been told to take early retirement, which strains credibility a bit, since he looks to me as though he's fairly ready to be put out to pasture with no early about it, (what is the retirement age in Great Britain, I wonder).

The couple meander about Paris, bickering. They go to a very pricey restaurant and run away without paying for their meal, (Meg's caper). They bicker some more. They make a complete shambles of Tony Blair's hotel room. By chance, they encounter a successful celebro-academic American, played by Jeff Goldblum, whom Broadbent knew at Cambridge.

Like Meg/Duncan, the American is vain and grasping, but he does at least have the good manners to admit as much. He is also full of a Woody Allenesque sort of neurotic energy, which I found refreshing after the dishwater dreariness of the English characters. If a climax is precipitated - and perhaps fittingly, just as in the couple's bedroom, so in their portrayal on the screen, it is unclear whether any climax is really reached - it is through the arrival of Goldblum in the film. Nick makes some kind of statement about what he believes in. Later he repudiates his son. Whether because of the former or the latter, Meg and he are reconciled. They are also broke. The New World eventually comes to the rescue. The titles roll.

Perhaps I was in a particularly Presbyterian frame of mind but I came away from the film wondering how it was possible that all these people who had been endowed with such enormous good fortune - relative wealth, the ability to travel where they liked, et cetera et cetera - could not notice that they were incredibly lucky. Their sense of entitlement was almost decadent, it seemed to me. On the other hand, I found the final scene in which the three main characters jive in some kind of homage to Jean Luc Godard rather charming.

On a positive note, the music was good and the film itself was very nice to look at throughout. The problem was, for me at least, that I could find no reason at all to care about the central characters. Meg was too flawed and Nick, by contrast, too saintly. The combination amounted to something that seemed without insight and really rather dull.  an adjective you would never attach to Weekend, Godard's film after which, presumably Le Weekend is partly named. It's years since I've seen Weekend - first year of university in fact, when Dr Colin Crisp, a really great teacher and film scholar, (I wish he would write more in the papers or appear on the ABC to talk about movies) - ran a French cinema course within the French department at ANU. I hated it then but it was at least interesting enough to make me prepared to give it a second go - I'm not sure Le Weekend will stand the same test of time.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

La Grande Bellezza

Beautiful, yes, (obviously - it's in the title). Loopy, yes. Inconsequential, possibly. Enjoyable, mainly; amusing in its satire of contemporary art, high society and senior Catholic clergy; rather touching at moments, as when the main character outlines his view of what friends do for one another; interesting linguistically, in that a) the English translation given when two males are talking about a woman they don't like is 'bitch', whereas the Italian soundtrack has the non-gender specific 'stronzo' and b) the phrase 'high society' is expressed in Italian by 'mondanita', which links more directly with what the film may be trying to examine - that is the worldly as opposed to the unknown.

La Grande Bellezza probably isn't as clever as it may wish to be - everything's a trick, life is too complex for any one individual to understand, these are not sentiments that are new or hugely profound - but it is very lovely to look at, (and the main character is the living embodiment of a natty gent - no Englishman could get away with some of his outfits, but they are wonderful [and his apartment, overlooking the Colosseum, I never even knew it was possible to live there {it probably isn't}]).

If you like Fellini, the film should appeal to you - indeed, if you've always wanted to see a sequel to La Dolce Vita, some have suggested that that is exactly what La Grande Bellezza  is.  For me it was more like Of Time and the City - inevitably, being Italian rather than Liverpudlian, completely lacking that film's solemnity, (and all the better for it).

I wouldn't have missed La Grande Bellezza, despite its faults. Sometimes the best works of arts are the most overblown, far from perfect but spectacular and never boring. La Grande Bellezza is definitely spectacular and too much fun ever to be dull. If you do go to see it, do not miss the final sequence over which the final titles roll. Shot from the perspective of a boat drifting down the Tiber, these last images establish everything that's gone before within the wider context of Rome and its past.


Thanks to Nebraska, I am no longer allowed to choose the movies we go to see. I read about the film in The Economist - the last time I ever trust their film reviewer - and persuaded others in my household that we were going to have a really great night out.

Hah. How in heaven's name did this film win the Palme d'Or at Cannes? Okay some of the rural scenes and characters were uncanny contemporary embodiments of American Gothic, but is that really such a great achievement? Especially when you set against it the fact that the acting is terrible, the script is heavy-handed - the mother's character, particularly in the scene in the graveyard, appears to be the product of a deep loathing of women - and nothing that might be spelt out is not spelt out.

There were a few laughs, it's true - I liked the sight of the two brothers racing out of a barn with a stolen compressor. On the other hand, a lot of the attempts at humour struck me as mere sneers from the creative classes at the proletariat. The sequence in which Bruce Dern drives like a ghost down the main street of his home town was rather lovely and oddly eery; I will admit that as well. But it wasn't enough.

Leaving aside the lousy acting, (maybe it was deliberate and everyone but us understood that it was some kind of mannerism, and not just embarrassingly amateur???), and the script that slammed home its points with disrespectful force, the trouble for me was twofold and oddly paradoxical. First, the film fancied itself as a critique of American capitalism - in the same subtle way that Stalinist era movies did. Second, its conclusion affirmed the universal healing powers of Ford trucks.

The Past

The Past tells the story of a few days in the life of Ahmad, an Iranian who returns from Iran to France to finalise his divorce. His wife, Marie, who works in a chemist's shop, is involved with Samir. Samir runs a drycleaner's and, it turns out, has a wife who is in a coma, having tried to commit suicide by drinking drycleaning fluid. On one level, the film is a whodunnit about how the wife came to do such a dreadful thing.

Soon after Ahmad arrives at his wife's house, the drycleaner's young son, aged about seven, deliberately knocks over a large tin of housepaint and goes on to have a tantrum. Marie, in good French parenting - and step-parenting, apparently - fashion, yells abuse at him and wrestles him into his room, locking the door behind him. Meanwhile, Marie's two daughters welcome Ahmad, who, it seems, was for seven or eight years a stand-in father for them, (their own father lives in Belgium and his new wife is, according to one of the girls, 'a bit weird;').

The older of the two has been behaving in a way that Marie is frustrated by. Towards her mother, she's been surly, difficult, moody and distant. She mentions to Ahmad that during her lifetime Marie has formed relationships with three different men and none of them have lasted. This is something she does not like. Shortly afterwards she disappears. When Ahmad finds her, all begins to be revealed.

The trouble is, the filmmakers do not manage to make any of this saga particularly engaging, (although, on a very basic level, it pleased me to see the characters living in untidy houses with nothing new or plastic in sight, full instead of battered furniture, much of which looked as if it had been reclaimed from the tip).

The actress who plays Marie is beautiful, but frustratingly irresponsible and quite unwilling to look at events in context. She dismisses the past, possibly because she does not want to contemplate the effect her actions may have on those around her, particularly her own children. Ahmad is almost ridiculously gentle, wise, reasonable and nice, (ie maddening, long term, I'd imagine - he also seems unable to sit in a car that is driven by a woman).

Samir is, thanks to Tahar Rahim, the actor who plays him, absurd - and somewhat rigid in his insistence on right and wrong when disciplining his son, (I think we are probably supposed to judge him badly for this, but I just found his behaviour confusing, since child rearing is an area where I am never certain what is for the best). There is a blurred quality to Rahim's features, a kind of softness and immovability - surely he hasn't been getting at the botox? -that gives him only one expression: the slightly sad and puzzled look of a misused teddy bear.

Nothing much is resolved by the end of the film. Ahmad retreats to Iran. It is unclear whether he would prefer not to have divorced. Marie has refused to listen to his explanation of why he left in the first place. Samir mooches around his wife's hospital bed, wondering if she is still there - a conversation with his younger son earlier quite cleverly canvasses some of the questions that keeping someone on life support raises.

Possibly Marie is for Samir a proxy for his wife. Possibly Samir is a proxy for Ahmad for Marie. Possibly everyone is making a mess of everything - and I don't even want to think about the implication I detected that women, once they have children, should not have subsequent relationships, (from a child's point of view, this may well be true - but only as true as it is that once a man has children he should not, which was not something I picked up with equal force).

If the film is supposed to be a piece of realism, Samir lets the side down by not fully fleshing out his character and the character of Ahmad fails by being more like a saint than an actual human being. If the film is a parable then what does the story of this group of characters blundering on through life, unenlightened by reflection, their actions unexamined, tell us? We may be able to piece together something from their narrative, as watchers, but neither they nor we live in an observant manner. Instead of studying our past for lessons about how to improve our existence, we hurtle into the future, never stopping to reflect. Around us, time flows on, full of the flotsam of our mistakes.