Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cheri, and the Curious Case of Stephen Frears

Following Stephen Frears' career has not been much fun for me for the last twenty years or so, but I feel as if I owe that much to the director of One Fine Day (1979), Bloody Kids (1979), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Song of Experience (1986). For a few years back then, I considered Frears one of the world's greatest filmmakers.

If there was a shift in Frears' sensibility after the success of Laundrette and his graduation from British TV to international theatrical releases, it's not that easy to detect. He always considered himself an interpretive artist, subordinate to the writer's vision. Around the time of Afternoon Off (1979) or One Fine Day, he began to enjoy master shots, started moving his camera more deliberately, and seemed struck by a new awareness of the space around people. Technique is merely the handmaiden of artistic sensibility, of course, and the fact that Frears' films no longer look the same is not an indictment. But, in his best films, Frears' technique took him to an interesting, contemplative place. He intuitively grasped that his camera style lent itself to a demonstration of the psychological inaccessibility of characters, and found angles on his scripts that allowed him to emphasize the unknowable aspects of people.

This directorial attitude pretty much evaporated upon contact with the world of theatrical distribution and international acclaim. In retrospect, I suppose that Frears never wanted to brandish such an attitude, and remained true to his conception of the director's role. But there's a practical problem with a director subordinating himself or herself to the writer. A script is a solid thing that can be passed around, an object that every producer and investor can and does scrutinize and try to modify. By committing himself to an interpretive role in an industrial context, Frears risks becoming the servant of a larger, more commercial agenda. And that's exactly what the trajectory of Frears' career suggests to me. It's not as if his recent films lack judgment or taste, but he's no longer negotiating a settlement between what a comfort-loving audience wants and what the filmmakers choose to give. The inscrutability and visual recessiveness that gave such power to his late-television period would not necessarily poison the commercial prospects of the films that Frears now supervises. But someone would need to make the decision not to take the safest possible route.

Cheri, Frears' new movie of Christopher Hampton's adaptation of two Colette stories, offers the audience a number of genre pleasures: lavish décor and costumes, the pleasure of bitchiness as a recreational sport, a self-confident grande-dame protagonist who strikes poses and gets a lot of conspicuously witty dialogue. While I was watching the film, I mostly registered Frears' cooperative attitude toward these tropes. The project certainly has points of interest, most notably the elusive character of Cheri, quite well played by Rupert Friend: unaware of what he wants or even feels, and yet possessing an assertion and vigor that is wholly ineffective in the absence of self-knowledge. In fact, Cheri is exactly the kind of randomly bouncing pachinko ball that Frears might have enjoyed setting free in the shifting visual field of his earlier style. If Cheri feels relatively shallow, it's because the filmmakers want the audience to receive familiar genre pleasures, not because the material doesn't contain depths. The raptures of love are dilated upon with large acting and music cues; likewise the self-aggrandizing sorrow of renunciation. The ambiguity of response and the irresolution that lies between these poles, the only emotional terrain in the film that might really repay exploration, could only be probed at the risk of throwing the audience off its comfort.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Assorted Screenings in NYC: June-July 2009

Less and less sure that anyone is reading this blog, I think I'll recommend a few films I haven't even seen.

  • The Hola Mexico Film Festival, at the Quad through Sunday, June 28, isn't exactly suffering from media overexposure. On top of that, the festival buried its most remarkable screening in the fine print of its Special Events pages: Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's first feature, 1972's La verdadera vocación de Magdalena (The True Calling of Magdalena), on Friday, June 26 at 5 pm. Hermosillo, probably best known in the US for 1985's Doña Herlinda y su hijo (Dona Herlinda and Her Son), has gone through a lot of changes in his long career, and I can't say that I've been wild about his recent work, which tends toward camp-tinged fairy tale. But in the 70s he took melodrama and genre more seriously, creating tension between the extremism of his stories and the blank solemnity of the camera's stare. I've never seen Magdalena, but at least two of Hermosillo's 70s films - 1976's La pasión según Berenice (The Passion According to Berenice) and 1977's Matinée - are among my all-time favorites.
  • Japan Society's annual Japan Cuts series, rather uncomfortably affiliated with the earthier New York Asian Film Festival, contains a few titles I've been waiting for. Ryosuke Hashiguchi's 2008 Gururi no koto (All Around Us), screening at Japan Society on Thursday, July 2 at 8:45 pm and Sunday, July 5 at 2:45 pm, is getting more attention than the director is accustomed to, taking the #2 slot in the Kinema Jumpo awards and performing well at the Japanese box office. Hashiguchi received a little international attention in the 90s, but has made only two films in the last 14 years. After seeing his intelligent 2001 comedy Hush!, I'm eager to track down the rest of his work. In addition, the late Jun Ichikawa's last movie, the short feature Sûtsu wo kau (Buy a Suit), screens in Japan Cuts on Sunday, July 12 at noon. Ichikawa made an impression on me with 2004's atmospheric, visually stylized Tony Takatani. Before that, he kept a low international profile; but he'd been making features since 1987, and some devotees of Japanese film (Michael Kerpan, for instance) regard his work highly.
  • Moving on to a few films I've actually seen: Marie Losier continues her wonderful programming at French Institute/Alliance Française with the currently running Michel Piccoli retrospective, the highlight of which is Michel Deville's 1973 La femme en bleu (The Woman in Blue), screening at Florence Gould Hall on Tuesday, July 21 at 12:30, 4 and 7:30 pm. The first film that Deville made after the end of his long collaboration with Nina Companéez, La femme en bleu allayed the reasonable fear that Companéez would take the “Deville touch" with her: the film is breezy yet full of cruelty, experimental without effort, light about dark things. Unlike many Deville films, La femme was available in the US on a subtitled DVD, from Pathfinder, that unfortunately compressed the image horizontally - I'm looking forward to a projection in the proper ratio.
  • Anthology Film Archives has scheduled a week run for Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's latest provocation, 2007's Import/Export, on July 31-August 6, and will precede it with a retrospective of Seidl's earlier work on July 24-30. Seidl is just the sort of filmmaker from whom I usually recoil, with a harsh vision of humanity that is right next door to condescension. And yet I generally end by admiring the directness of Seidl's gaze, and taking it as a needed challenge to the barriers that we erect between ourselves and others for our own comfort. (Import/Export seemed to me rather too energized by the cruelty that it depicts…but I owe it another chance.) My favorite of Seidl's films is the 2003 documentary Jesus, Du weisst (Jesus, You Know) (Saturday, July 25 at 9:15 pm; Monday, July 27 at 7:15 pm; Thursday, July 30 at 9:15 pm), an experiment in tonal juxtaposition that starts out like Jerry Springer and ends up like Carl Dreyer. But I'm also impressed by 2001's Hundstage (Dog Days) (Friday, July 24 at 6:45 pm; Sunday, July 26 at 8:30 pm; Tuesday, July 28 at 6:45 pm) - a fiction film, but the difference between fiction and documentary isn't so significant in Seidl's universe - and 1992's Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen (Loss Is to Be Expected) (Saturday, July 25 at 4:15 pm; Tuesday, July 28 at 9:15 pm).