Friday, November 21, 2008

Jean-Daniel Pollet

I have a short piece on French director Jean-Daniel Pollet, subject of a recent retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, up at the Auteurs' Notebook.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


This page will become the current site of Thanks for the Use of the Hall at the beginning of Decenber 2008. Until then, I'll continue to post at the blog's original site.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Esther Kahn: Notes on the Beloved Object

Yesterday’s screening of Esther Kahn was of the shorter cut (usually reported as 142 minutes long, though I believe it ran somewhat longer) that Desplechin created after the film’s premiere at Cannes 2000. I’d rather see the longer Cannes version (163 minutes), but the shorter one is no travesty. I don’t know of a comprehensive analysis of the differences between the versions; here are the cuts that I’ve noted.

1) Esther’s dream of a world populated by men with balloons for heads is completely excised from the short version. The dream scene is interesting, but I don’t miss it that much.
2) Philippe’s long tavern monologue about his imprisonment and subsequent mental breakdown is completely excised from the short version. Again, I can handle this loss.
3) The beautiful and mysterious scene of Esther and her father talking while crouching on the river bank is shortened. I quite regret this.
4) Esther’s negotiation with her family to work out a payment plan that will allow her to go on the stage is completely excised. I miss this scene.

I’ve written about Esther before, and so have only incremental observations to offer. What struck me most on this viewing is the streak of wild comedy that weaves through the film, and which is perhaps more obvious on repeat viewings. Esther’s quasi-autistic emotional detachment from the events of her life, though taken seriously by the filmmakers, means that her actions have a weird, willed fixity that, if you believe Henri Bergson, is intrinsically comic. And the more somber the scene, the more Esther’s automaton-like reactions are set into relief. Last night I chuckled to myself through most of the movie, and became downright mirthful at the film’s more frightening moments. To appreciate the originality of Summer Phoenix’s performance, one need only consider the scene where romantic despair makes her beat her face with her fists until it is swollen: at one unexpectedly fierce blow, her eyebrows go high in surprise, and her scientific detachment continues as she checks her jaw for major damage. A few scenes later, when Esther looks at a broken glass and does a dispassionate, silent analysis of how much damage she can inflict upon herself with it, I broke out in laughter that might reasonably have seemed inappropriate to some audience members.

It goes without saying that Desplechin’s mastery at creating ambience is a big factor in the film’s originality. But it’s interesting to think about what principles Desplechin follows – because there are all kinds of ambience, after all. In the family scenes, here and in other films, Desplechin seems to want to evoke a social paradise of intimacy and accessibility, despite (or rather because of) the film’s content pointing in a different and more uncomfortable direction. As for the evocative theater environments that dominate the last movement of the film, we experience the romance of darkened, quiet rooms (again, in counterpoint to the mounting tension of the story) and the rabbit-hutch feeling of bit players weaving in and out of dressing rooms and antechambers, all serving the purpose of the group mind that must place Esther on the stage at all costs. In Desplechin’s work, there is a backbeat – not a theme, but a vibration – of idyll, of heaven on earth, of the sum total of loved ones gathered in one place.

When one loves a film as much as I love Esther, things get confusing sometimes. My early, giddy feeling about the mystery of Phoenix’s performance - that it was impossible to tell whether she was an actress or just the right person on the right set – has passed. At a minimum, Esther has a Cockney accent, and I now know that Phoenix was raised in Florida and California. And she was compelling in the only other film I've seen her in, Henry Bean's The Believer. But it’s still exciting to watch Summer Phoenix impersonating Esther Kahn impersonating someone who might be able to do a good Hedda Gabler, and never quite to be sure which layer of the object is currently catching the light. Back in the early days of Esthermania, when Gabe Klinger said he was looking for a girlfriend like Esther Kahn, I urged him to reconsider. But I have a habit of wandering past the chic clothing boutique on Ludlow that Phoenix co-owns, hoping to catch a glimpse of her inside, even though I understand she’s in Los Angeles having babies with Casey Affleck.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Teuvo Tulio Retrospective: BAM, through November 24, 2008

On the basis of The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1938), which screened last night, I'm guessing that we should all pay close attention to the Teuvo Tulio retrospective, at BAM every Monday in November. In the film's first minutes, the Finnish director announces itself as a disciple of the Soviet school. using grand and heroic compositions, idealized lighting (the whole film seems to be shot on a beautiful sunny late afternoon), and a way of putting images together that is motivated more by poetic montage than by narrative momentum. The vague resemblance between Tulio's style and Boris Barnet's quickly gives way, though, to a distinctive directorial voice, marked by a solemn melodramatic conviction that inhabits and justifies the stylized grandeur of the imagery. And yet, though Tulio is able to invest love scenes with surprising intensity, and action scenes with a relaxed heroism, he has more on his mind than commercial excellence, and viewers may be surprised to find themselves lured into an ambitious art film that uses established conventions only to examine their ultimate implications.

I can't say I agree with J. Hoberman's position that Tulio is a "found object," not completely in command of his effects. Admittedly, there is something about the way the ellipses fall in Flower's narrative that is so unusual that we are free to wonder whether Tulio simply neglected to give us the obvious cues that his protagonist is a hopeless womanizer in need of correction. But those cues are the stuff of cliche - it's always better if a filmmaker can find a productive way to dodge them. And I think there's a lot of structural evidence in Flower that Tulio knew what he was doing when he started the movie like a love story, and then restarted it a few minutes later with a brand new and even more intense love story, and so on. I think it's fairly clear than he was orchestrating genre cues to guide us through a few surprises and confustions to an ultimately more complex destination. But the rest of the series may shed more light on the extent to which Tulio's art is conscious.

At the same time as the Tulio retro, there's a series of historic Finnish films screening over the next few weeks at Scandinavia House. For better or worse, the Scandinavia House series seems to reflect conventional wisdom about the highlights of Finland's cinema, and so at a minimum should provide a baseline with which to measure Tulio's audacity.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Assorted Screenings in NYC, November 2008

I haven't seen all the films I'm about to mention - this is just a general heads-up for the NYC film buff community about upcoming screenings.
  • In conjunction with its theatrical premiere of Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), the IFC Center will feature a retrospective of Arnaud Desplechin's earlier work on November 5-13. The big attraction is the 2007 documentary L'Aimée, which hasn't played NYC yet: it screens on November 5 and 6 with Desplechin's wonderful and underacclaimed short feature La Vie des morts. Esther Kahn, which screens on November 12, should basically be seen every time it shows up in a theater. Here's a piece I wrote about Esther a while back; and here's an old blog entry on Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle), which screens on November 8 and 9.
  • Seems as if there are three to five underpublicized national film series playing NYC at any given moment. But the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council (MIAAC) Film Festival, mostly at the Tribeca Cinemas and Museum of Arts and Design on November 5-9, looks a bit more daring than some. What jumps out at me are recent films by established directors Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, as well as an intriguing-looking Bengali art film called Shadows Formless, which premiered at Locarno last year.
  • BAM's increasingly essential New French Films series on November 12-16 contains a few can't-miss titles, including the latest film by Jacques Doillon, Le Premier venu (Just Anybody), on November 14. For me, Doillon ranks with Pialat, Breillat and Eustache among the great post-nouvelle vague French filmmakers, and I'm hopeful that he'll start to attract more attention soon, as many of his most acclaimed films have gone unscreened in the US. Also in this series is Mia Hansen-Løve's excellent Tout est pardonné (All is Forgiven), which I blogged about briefly a while ago.
  • Probably most of you know that Anthony Mann's Men in War is one of the best movies ever made, in which case I won't have to tell you that it's at MOMA on November 9 at 5 pm. It was interesting to read André Bazin's negative review of the film, reprinted in the current Cahiers du Cinema.