Friday, May 21, 2010

Le père de mes enfants: IFC Center, starts May 28, 2010

I hesitate to proclaim Mia Hansen-Løve's Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children) the best film of the year so far, or Hansen-Løve as the strongest French director to emerge in the last decade: not because I have doubts, but because her films creep up gradually, and might be harmed by excessive fanfare. Still, publicity first.

Like Hansen-Løve's equally good first feature, 2007's Tout est pardonné (All Is Forgiven), Le père de mes enfants devotes its entire first half to a development that only in retrospect can be perceived as prologue. French film producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis de Lancquesaing), modeled after the late Humbert Balsam, is introduced via a comic device - as he wanders the streets of Paris and drives to his provincial home, Hansen-Løve cuts between his mobile phone conversations with a myriad of professional contacts - that synopsizes his character, creates expectations of forward narrative motion, and, along with soundtrack music, sets a light-hearted tone. Charming, intelligent, reasonably sincere, and seemingly impervious to chaos, Grégoire oversees three simultaneous productions while trying to stave off a financial crisis, the dimensions of which are only gradually revealed. His wife Sylvia (Chiari Caselli) and his three daughters inevitably must make do with the leftover scraps of his time. But Hansen-Løve characteristically mixes her signals here, sometimes showing Grégoire's bond to his family in a pleasing light, other times emphasizing the strain that his consuming work life places on Sylvia.

If you haven't seen the film, stop reading, as I'm about to spoil the entire plot. (Spoiler space follows.)

The flow of the story in the first half almost suggests a relaxed American comedy marking time before its second act breaks into hijinks or plunges us into drama. When it arrives, the story break is not a plot escalation, but a startling game-changer. In retrospect, we can see that we had been amply prepared. But the foreshadowing does not feel like prophecy, due to Hansen-Løve's taste for letting contradictory information pile up without authorial comment. Because she does not like to organize information about people into thematic shapes, she subtly undercuts the fiction's predictive power.

Facing bankruptcy, Grégoire shoots and kills himself on the street, right on the splice of one of Hansen-Løve's disarmingly casual cuts. Hansen-Løve's elisions deny us access to his deliberation or hesitation. Before the act, he burned some personal papers; we will never learn what they were.

Grégoire has been in every scene thus far: where does the film go now? As it happens, the film truly begins here. Deprived of its motive force, the unbound story line expands and diversifies until the keynote of Grégoire's struggle merges into the background noise of life. Sorrow and anguish dominate at first (one of Grégoire's young daughters is especially unnerving to watch, in that her raw pain is not aestheticized to match the grade of audience reaction); but Grégoire has left behind a raft of practical matters that must be attended to in haste. Sylvia steps into the breach, with the aid of Grégoire's friend Serge (Eric Elmosnino), to assess the dire financial situation and to decide the fate of the stranded productions, which Sylvia sees as Grégoire's legacy. All the pieces cannot be put back together again; but the family's effort to process its loss produces some good results as well.

Hansen-Løve's observational skills were apparent in the film's first half, but they are on center stage in its second half. She is a brilliant director of actors, specializing, not in big emotions that drive the fiction, but in coaxing out detail and ambience across large casts, and in selecting key moments that provide convincing randomness. A single example: Sylvia mentions to Serge, in front of her two youngest children, her desire to move back to her native Italy, observing that her middle daughter is dead set against the idea, but that the youngest might want to go. Asked for confirmation by Serge, the youngest wrinkles her face and says, "No, not really," with just enough diffidence to confirm the mother's judgment.

Unsurpassed as a director of children, Hansen-Løve takes a particular, and optimistic, interest in teenage female characters. In Tout est pardonné, the burden of carrying on in the face of loss fell lightly on the shoulders of a 17-year-old, played wonderfully by the non-professional Constance Rousseau; here, the focus of the family's renewal is Grégoire's oldest daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing). Working through an understandable anger at the problems that Grégoire has left behind, Clémence begins to sneak away from her family to pick up the scent of her father's passage through the world. Discovering a half-brother from one of Grégoire's prior affairs, she visits his home, without agenda; she starts watching her father's films in Paris theaters, showing signs of budding cinephilia; and she forms a possibly fleeting relationship with a young filmmaker (Igor Hansen-Løve) whom Grégoire had wanted to produce. None of these physical and mental peregrinations affects the story: Clémence is set in motion because she is of the age to be set in motion, and to transform her pain into self-discovery. The heart of the film is the plotless scene in which Clémence, having left a note and crept away from her first night with the still-sleeping filmmaker, sits alone by a window in a café, stumbling over her coffee order, then waiting and reflecting in the light of dawn.

It's a sign of Hansen-Løve's stature as an artist that she is as intrigued by the intricacies of Grégoire's film business as by the dynamics of his family. In a quiet but superb scene near film's end, Grégoire's heroic accountant (Antoine Mathieu) recounts for Sylvia and the stakeholders of the company the details of the financial apocalypse, with a rundown of what can and cannot be salvaged. As usual, the imperatives of fiction do not seem to have any bearing on the outcome: some of the projects that Sylvia and Hansen-Løve have devoted the most time to are unceremoniously pronounced dead; a few small achievements stand out among the general wreckage. Grègoire's children, having recovering their capacity for happiness, joke with the liquidator as they pay a final visit to the doomed production office on Faubourg-Saint-Denis, before a taxi whisks them away from the city that we have seen Grégoire pace out. On the taxi radio, we hear the first famous song used in the movie: Doris Day singing "Que Sera Sera."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Barking Water: MoMA, May 12 through 17, 2010

Sterlin Harjo's films might be a tough sell to hardcore cinephiles: they tell emotionally direct stories that verge on sentimentalism, and their visuals aren't especially formally ambitious. Still, Harjo is one of the most appealing American directors to come along in recent years, and Barking Water, which premiered at Sundance 2009, is even better than his 2007 debut Four Sheets to the Wind. The personal story, of a dying Native American man (Richard Ray Whitman) who enlists his estranged lover (Casey Camp-Horinek) to help him cross Oklahoma to pay a last visit to family and friends, dovetails beautifully both with the conventions of the road movie and with Harjo's understated vision of a community scattered across space and struggling against its inevitable unraveling. Harjo has a rare knack for weaving fictional and documentary elements together so that the seams are hard to spot: presumably the cast is a mixture of professional and amateur performers, but the fine, effortless lead performances blend so perfectly into the ensemble that it's hard to be sure where acting takes over from existence. Barking Water screens at MoMA six times this week: Wednesday, May 12 at 6:30 pm; Thursday, May 13 at 4:30 pm; Friday, May 14 at 7:00 pm; Saturday, May 15 at 2:00 pm; Sunday, May 16 at 2:30 pm; and Monday, May 17 at 4:30 pm.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Norrtullsligan (The Norrtull Gang)

My big discovery of the Walter Reade's Northern Exposures series was the remarkable 1923 silent film Norrtullsligan (The Norrtull Gang), directed by Per Lindberg. In addition to the usual risk of film history losing track of excellent films, this one may have faced the disadvantage of not quite fitting in with the internationally acclaimed Swedish cinema of the time, which was nearing the end of its golden period. (1923 and 1924 were the years that Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller made their last silent films in Sweden before going to Hollywood.)

Lindberg, a shadowy figure in film history, was well known in Sweden as a theater director. He made Norrtullsligan and one other film in 1923, took a long break from the cinema, then shot seven features between 1939 and 1941, dying a few years later. Thanks to the participation of Ingrid Bergman, Lindberg's 1940 Juninatten (June Night) is by far his most widely seen film today, though there seems to be a consensus that the 1941 Det sägs på stan (Talk of the Town) is his best work. In Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Edgardo Cozarinsky made a case for Lindberg as a major director, prompting a puzzled Roud to observe that Lindberg was the most obscure filmmaker covered in the book.

Norrtullsligan was adapted by Hjalmar Bergman, Sjöström's frequent writer, from Elin Wägner's 1908 novel about the lives of four working women who room together in Stockholm and confront often harsh economic and social conditions. Wägner was a feminist and ecological activist, and synopses of the novel's plot (which was titled Men and Other Misfortunes in English) make it sound like more of a social critique than the movie, which uses ellipsis and psychology to blunt the story's pathos.

Whether Wägner's book was faithfully or freely adapted, it is incorporated into the movie in an unusual way. To see Norrtullsligan is to realize how rarely silent movie intertitles served a literary function. Certainly a portion of the artistic ambition of silent filmmakers went into title writing. Still, whether that ambition resulted in witty and informative text, or in overwrought prose (often the case with great filmmakers), titles were generally subordinated to images, providing commentary and narrative connection only. This is not so surprising, given that the moving image is the cinema's selling point, and that prevailing critical thought of the time saw titles as an impurity that would ideally be dispensed with. Not until Bazin would the idea of cinema embracing its impure status gain any traction with film thinkers. In retrospect, all that screen time devoted to titling in silent movies seems like an undefended beach vulnerable to a literary invasion.

Norrtullsligan is as close as silent films came to a hybrid of literature and cinema. This is not just a result of the quality of the writing (unfortunately, I can't find copies of the book or the intertitles to quote), though I admired the gentleness and reflective tone of the prose. It's more due to the text of the titles having a certain independence from the story. The film is narrated in the first person by Pegg (Tora Teje), and the lengthy titles convey, in addition to story, her feelings and reactions to events, and background information to help us share her opinions, so that the film takes on a diaristic quality. (In the custom of silent movies, the main actors are credited at the bottom of the title cards when their characters are introduced - but Pegg's credit reads, "Me...Tora Teje.")

The length of the intertitles does not diminish as the film progresses, and the story is told differently because of the literary context they provide. The dramatic force of plot developments is generally muted; loose ends are frequently not tied up. One of the biggest difficulties that silent film makers faced is that they had to devote so many of their stylistic resources to pantomiming a narrative. (The arrival of sound had the effect of offloading the burden of storytelling onto the soundtrack, which I consider a great liberation.) Here, Lindberg and Bergman take a distinctive approach to the problem of being expressive while performing their narrative chores. Rather than restage Wägner's meditative descriptions of the women's lives, they give these descriptions a verbal life of their own in the title cards, and then essentially create a parallel work of art with images, selecting details or moods to stage for the camera with no worries about orienting the viewer.

Despite the originality of its concept, Norrtullsligan would not be as noteworthy if Lindberg did not display such delicacy in his direction of actors and his staging. All the actors refrain from signposting their crises - and there are actually more and bigger crises in the film than we might tote up, because Lindberg's evenness of tone sacrifices incident for a slightly nostalgic tone of a remembered past. Devoid of the exterior long-shot beauty that silent Swedish cinema was known for, Norrtullsligan unfolds in a network of apartments and offices, observing the reactions of characters who are neither saintly nor detached, but who transcend their limitations via a grace and quiet humor that the filmmakers impart.

The final scene will do as well as any to convey the psychological detail of the performances. Sitting in a parlor with a group that includes her sometimes supportive, sometimes severe aunt, Pegg coyly lets show the wedding ring that she has just received. As her aunt leans forward to get a better look, Pegg folds and withdraws her hand to make the view more difficult. At the end of the charade, Pegg smiles and accepts her aunt's embrace. The scene is not unusual in itself, but it feels fresh for two reasons. First, Pegg has up until now been direct and without dissimulation, so the act registers, not as mere playfulness, but as a mild expression of anger. Second, Lindberg scales down Pegg's expression and draws out the charade with daring languor. The little game plays out with an odd sense of theater, and Pegg's embrace of her aunt at the end does not dispel our sense that an edge of antagonism motivated her gloating display.