Monday, December 15, 2008

Je veux voir

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's 2008 film Je veux voir (I Want to See), which had a one-off NYC screening as part of MOMA's "The Contenders" series, didn't get nearly as much critical attention as it deserves when it premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. Some unkind reviewers took it for a sort of UNICEF documentary on post-war Lebanon, with Catherine Deneuve lending her prestige to a worthy cause. This wouldn't be a completely inaccurate appraisal if it were stripped of its negative connotations, and if the film's extraordinary formal intelligence were acknowledged.

At Toronto 2005, I made note of Hadjithomas and Joreige's A Perfect Day, writing the following in my Senses of Cinema Toronto wrap-up:

"The Lebanese film A Perfect Day (2005) (which won the FIPRESCI prize at Locarno) is an interesting combination of lucid, intelligent direction and evanescent material. The film follows a recessive young man (Ziad Saad) over the course of a single day in Beirut, during which he attempts to have his missing father declared dead, is diagnosed with apnea, dodges the phone calls of his needy mother (Julia Kassar), and pursues a beautiful girlfriend (Alexandra Kahwagi) who has decided to end their relationship. Far from action-packed, the film dawdles over random sensory input and everyday social detail, and the various plot threads seem either too dramatic or too inconclusive, depending on which direction one wants to push the film in. Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige seem quite confident about their strategy: they have a strong sense of location and sound, and their subjective rendering of the protagonist's perceptions is so precise and abstract that they sometimes seem to be making a conceptual movie about the nature of experience. Can Hadjithomas and Joreige apply their considerable skills to a more classical story structure? Or will their future films reveal that such drifting, attenuated material is a necessary condition for their art?"

Perhaps it was my prejudice that led me to contemplate Hadjithomas and Joreige's potential as old-fashioned narrative filmmakers in my little thought experiment. In any case, Je veux voir finds them in a more postmodernist stance, and they wear it well.

Je veux voir blatantly, wittily asks us to imagine its origins as a production. One supposes that Deneuve offered her services to the Lebanese couple, who then had to come up with a project that could contain her. And so, in the film's first scene, the directors and unseen production staff argue in an office about whether or not to take Deneuve on an improvised day-long shoot to the south of Lebanon, though she has come to the country only to attend a gala in Beirut that night. A bemused Deneuve stares out the window as the staff worry that they cannot ensure her safety. Finally she interjects, "I want to see" – the film's title. The directors, playing themselves, load Deneuve into the shotgun seat of a car driven by Lebanese actor Rabih Mroue, whose IMDb credits consist entirely of films by Hadjithomas/Joreige and by Ghassan Salhab (Terra Incognita), the other major figure of today's Lebanese cinema. The filmmakers and their cinematographer train their camera on the stars from another car, and the convoy is off, with the actors left alone to transmit the initial stages of their acquaintance over radio microphones.

The simple plot concept sets up a confusion that the filmmakers use productively. The outer movie, which we are watching in a theater, and the inner movie, shot while the cars traverse broken roads on their way to the Lebanon-Israel border, share the same stars and crew. They also share the same subject, and very often the same compositions and soundtrack. The effects of this confusion can flow in both directions. Events in the inner movie are written large by our awareness that they also pertain to the outer movie and its mythological star. Every glitch in the filmmaking process or awkwardness among the cast members bounces back and forth in our minds between fiction and reality. Conversely, the practical difficulties that disrupt the inner movie register as wild narrative discontinuities in the outer movie. For instance, an unseen official who physically harasses the cinematographer when the car makes an unplanned stop is simply one more obstacle for the guerrilla inner movie, but he punches a sudden and unexpected hole into the story line. Hadjithomas and Joreige play with these levels, finding new ways to lull us into forgetting the inner movie, then to refocus us. It's their way of driving home the age-old question – is there room for art in the face of real-world crisis? – with wit and flair, and yet to preserve a tentative justification for the stubborn persistence of fiction during hard times.

But what really gives emotional solidity to this postmodernist concept is the precision and beauty of the filmmakers' visual-aural plan. Hadjithomas and Joreige give the impression of having premeditated every shot, and their particular interest is in point-of-view decoupage: the separation between a character who watches and the world that is being watched. Deneuve looking through the car windows at the passing beauty and wreckage of Lebanon is filmed with such Hitchcockian intentionality that the film becomes about looking: not just a celebrity looking at an experience she has been shielded from (the inner movie), but beyond that, the gap between direct sensory experience and the state of mind that it engenders (the outer movie). Often the filmmakers cut to a reverse shot in such a way that it barely seems to belong to the same space as what came before – and this anti-Bazinian system is exactly what is called for in a movie about the distance between the protagonists (and us) and the physical/political/phenomenological world. On occasion Hadjithomas and Joreige relax into a more spatially unified mode of shooting – as in the scene where Mroue gets lost amid the ruins of his own childhood village, and Deneuve in turn is separated from him. Whenever this spatial unification of viewer and viewed, mind and matter, occurs, we can be sure that the filmmakers will use it to render us vulnerable to another dislocation. In this case, the visual and emotional bond forged between Deneuve and Mroue is extended into an intimate conversation, in which the younger actor reveals that he can quote Deneuve's dialogue from Belle de jour. As distracted by this overture as we are, Mroue drives the car off the approved route into an area that has not been checked for landmines….

My only reservation about Je veux voir is with the endpoint of the journey through Lebanon: feeling the need for an emotional event that will cap the expedition and turn the car around, Hadjithomas and Joreige resort to a verbal and visual lyricism that feels to me more conventional than the formal play that took us south. But the film recovers with a superb ending, as Deneuve makes it back in time for her gala, where she searches for the disconnected reverse shot that will preserve the experience of the film in her mind. Je veux voir is not only a major-filmmaker alert, but also the last bit of evidence needed to proclaim Lebanon as a hot spot in today's increasingly decentralized cinematic culture.

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