Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Drawing the Line - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Well I thought I had seen my most hated film of 2011 already, which was Martha Marcy May Marlene. Then I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This film is nothing but a despicable, desensitized meditation on degrading things like rape, torture, and grisly death with no substance behind it. I usually draw the line with rape, though. It is rare that a director is able to negotiate the minefield of such a topic and actually come through with a scene that doesn’t feel cheap and obscene. Those that were able to retain an ounce of respect for the moment and the viewer were perhaps Bergman (The Virgin Spring (1960)), DeSica (Two Women (1960)) or Bresson (Mouchette (1967)). But like I said, most rape scenes have little to no added value and in fact are offensive to me in the worst possible way. Perhaps the most egregious scene is in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). The scene in The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo did not need to be filmed with the specific body movements, camera angles, noises, and other details involved. I thought the scene was completely over-the-top and unnecessarily offensive to women, and in turn, to me as a viewer. Rape is too often used as a cinematic device for effect. There are ways of conveying the devastation of rape without actually having to show all the details. David Fincher should be ashamed of himself for having filmed this scene in this way.

Furthermore, Fincher’s use of grisly murder photos, torture and other violent imagery also seemed to cross a line for me, as there was nothing behind it, like I mentioned. I think maybe it’s different if it’s filmed from a perspective of shock and horror, but here it’s presented so blankly. I didn’t find that these sequences added value to the story, nor to a proposed appreciation for the characters involved. It was just needless cinematic excess. Zodiac (2007) was a fine film, but I felt that the murder scenes were unnecessarily celebrative of the acts, as if the display of the sequences stood outside of the rest of the film. Did I really need to see the gory details? And who is the gore being displayed for? I didn’t go to see a slasher flick. What was the point there?

I know there is a debate about whether “Torture Porn” such as the Saw films, or The Human Centipede stuff, can be art. I’m usually fairly lenient regarding a definition of art, but I can safely tell you that this would be art I do not wish to see. I would argue though, that those films are made for a very specific audience wanting a very certain thing from them. Those viewers want the shock and spectacle of it perhaps? What irks me about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and also about Martha Marcy May Marlene, is that they present themselves as Cinema, as Art House, as real filmmaking if you will. For me, if you’re going to throw in cheap cinematic devices, like rape and other degrading flourishes for shock effect, you better have a point and I just didn’t find it in these films at all. It’s one thing if you’re Pasolini, who may have made the must repugnant film of all time, Salo (1975). But he had a point and went in whole hog, right? Fincher is just cheaply using moments like the rape scene without seemingly any tact or respect or larger point for having filmed it that way. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is empty and meaningless and ugly. I’m sorry I watched it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) - Directed by Max Ophuls

There have been several films that I can think of that seem to follow an inanimate object (or animal) as it is transferred ownership to different people, with the meaning or importance of said object changing depending on the situation and the person involved. Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) follows a Winchester rifle across several owners. Tales of Manhattan (1942) is a fascinating film involving several stories following a formal tailcoat. There’s also The Red Violin (1998). Even Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and War Horse (2011) do something similar. Max Ophuls’ magnificent melodrama The Earrings of Madame de… seems to follow a similar pattern on the surface, as a pair of expensive earrings transfer owner several times. Ophuls’ film, though, seems to somehow transcend this plot device.  It’s not really about following the earrings. In fact it is more about the motivations behind the giving and receiving of them. Considering the monetary value of the earrings, no single person seems to give them a second thought until the earrings come full circle back to the original owner, as they are finally received as a gift of true love, becoming a glimmering example of both a failed marriage and an adulterous affair.

Max Ophuls wrote his screenplay along with Marcel Archard and Annette Wademant, based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin. Their story concerns Louise (Danielle Darrieux) whom we meet at the beginning of the film as she is pawning her expensive earrings that her husband Andre (Charles Boyer) had bought for her, so she has money to pay off some debts. She feigns having lost the earrings, causing her husband to search for them. When a reward for the earrings appears in the newspaper, the pawnshop owner comes to the husband offering them back to him. He in turn, realizing how little his wife cared for them, gives them to his mistress Lola, who goes on a trip to Constantinople where she sells them.  These earrings will return later to Louise after she begins a passionate affair with Baron Fabrizio Donati (played magnificently by Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica) but the meaning placed upon the earrings changes significantly for Louise as she receives them as a gift for the second time in her life.

This film as a whole is a rather odd nut to crack. I found that the film really gets better as it goes along and you need to stick with it and really pay attention in order to follow it. While the opulence of the d├ęcor, the costumes, the cinematography, and the ripe, affair-ridden plot is rather overt, the film refrains from becoming soggy and actually flies by at rapid speed, never lingering too long but maintaining a mysterious and odd propulsion brought on through the dense scenes packed with images and movement often taking center stage over the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue almost eludes me at times as the performances are superbly underplayed, especially from the gorgeous Darrieux with a magnificent set of reserved emotions, Charles Boyer as her aloof husband and from De Sica as her ennobled lover. Furthermore, even the very words said in the film are reserved to the point of being almost anti-romantic or anti-conflict. Louise and Andre have an important marital discussion, but they engage each other from separate rooms in separate beds. And in the film’s most passionate moments Louise coos to her lover Fabrizio, “I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I don’t love you”.

I actually feel that the passion of Louise and Fabrizio’s affair is more reflected in the famously fluid and kinetic tracking shots employed throughout the film that are neither superfluous nor grandiloquent, particularly as we swirl around the ballroom during their dances where in fact the tracking shots serve to connect us to Louise and Fabrizio through the smooth swaying and undulations. In another Ophuls touch, the set decoration often requires the camera to gaze through curtains, windows or mirrors in order to view faces, as if the fragile nature of these characters’ lives must be protected from too much exposure. This was a film that really grew on me while I was watching it, and in the film’s final moments I found myself extraordinarily moved by the tragic climax and rather surprised at the spell the film had cast upon me. Ophuls’ careful balance of opulence and subtlety created his signature masterpiece and one of the most perfect melodramatic love stories ever made. This is one of the all-time greats.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

La Ronde (1950) - Directed by Max Ophuls

Oh what a glorious confection this film is! La Ronde is Ophuls at his most slyly comedic and sarcastic, and it’s one of his greatest cinematic successes. Following his somewhat unpopular foray into Hollywood filmmaking (though he made some absolute gems during that period like Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), and The Reckless Moment (1949)), he returned to Europe to make a succession of films in the 1950’s prior to his death in 1957. La Ronde was his first film released in France in the 1950's and it’s a clever examination of sexual mores and the fickleness of love. It’s also a film that seems to find parallels later in Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and also the works of Woody Allen.

Ophuls’s film is a revolving carousel, literally, of love connections. We first meet a soldier who has sex with a prostitute. This soldier is also in a relationship with a young woman, and this woman is having an affair with a teacher, and this teacher is having an affair with a married woman, whose husband is cheating on her etc. etc. and round we go all the way back to the beginning of the circle when someone else sleeps with the same prostitute who started off the lovemaking. This circular nature to the story is amplified by the recurring image of a carousel, but also to the fact that it’s emblematic of the turning of the globe and to the notion that it’s love that makes the world go round.

As the godlike figure hovering over the proceedings, Anton Walbrook plays a ringmaster of sorts, overseeing the love trysts and guiding us, the audience, from one couple to the next in this story. His presence also amplifies a concerted effort to display the presence of the director, standing in for Ophuls. Not only do we see a camera crane and a boom mike, but there is one hilarious instance where the story cuts to Walbrook holding some 35 mm film and a scissors. These little flourishes add a self-aware tone to the trifles on display. Ophuls knows he’s showing us some rather tawdry sex, and lots of it, and wants us to know he’s in on it. To this end, the film is remarkably light and maintains a beautifully witty and graceful tone, far lighter than the films to come from him, especially The Earrings of Madame de… that is stern in comparison. Ophuls is well known for his camera work and dolly shots. But this film, to these eyes, is not nearly as ornate and camera-centric as his later films, particularly The Earrings of Madame de…. (1953) and Lola Montes (1955). Here the camera movements are a bit more subtle, allowing the acting to come even further to the foreground.

And what an acting ensemble here, almost a who’s who of French stars, especially the actresses who really shine. Of particular note are Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, and the ravishing Danielle Darrieux as the bored housewife cheating on her husband. My my my……Ophuls’ camera surely loves Darrieux’s face. Observe the scene where she is lying in bed with her lover and her face is framed on top and bottom by gauzy curtains. Simply a stunning moment. Darrieux would go on to star in Ophuls’ next two films and it’s easy to see why he stayed with her. Remarkably, Darrieux at the age of 94 is still involved in fairly regular roles in film and TV. She has an 8 decade run as an actress and is one of France’s great acting treasures. La Ronde is a remarkable entertainment. Sly, sexy, and full of intelligence, it’s a great film from a great filmmaker.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Last Laugh (1924) - Directed by F.W. Murnau

Murnau’s jaw-dropping masterpiece The Last Laugh is a testament to visual ingenuity, to storytelling, and to pure film mastery. If there is anyone out there who doesn’t believe that silent film contained masterful visual techniques then I would probably show them this one. Although Murnau left the world early at the age of 42, the body of work he put together in the silent film era is as formidable as any other silent film director. He arguably made the greatest silent film of all-time, Sunrise (1927). It’s not that I disagree with that statement, it’s just that I’m not even sure that Sunrise is Murnau’s best film! My vote just might go to The Last Laugh.

There is something so purely magical about this film. Emil Jannings plays an aging doorman at a hotel who near the beginning of the film, is demoted from his position and is forced to take the job of washroom attendant. It’s clear his boss thinks he is too old to keep the position of doorman at the hotel. Most of Murnau’s film follows Jannings as his outlook and demeanor deteriorates. It’s clear that the doorman saw his position as not just his job, but as his life-defining aspect. When his job is taken away from him, it’s as if he can barely muster the energy to continue to live. There’s a scene early in the film where a happy Jannings is walking down the street in his doorman uniform, coming across a small child and sincerely gives the child a box of licorice. This is the “before”. The “after” is Jannings stumbling home after the demotion, with the weight of the world on his hunched shoulders, wind whistling through his beard, fearful eyes turned back over his shoulder as the world is collapsing on top of him. I adore the way this film examines age and job position and how careers can dominate how we view ourselves. When a job is taken away, it has devastating effects.

Murnau’s film is completely told without dialogue intertitles. The impact of this film thus relies completely upon the actors and the visual storytelling techniques. Murnau’s sets are created to allow us to see the action and see the interaction. Foremost is the massive swinging doorway of the hotel that looks nearly 30 feet tall not only welcoming but also intimidating all who pass through. Murnau’s tracking shots, point of view sequences and overlaid montages are simply astounding here. Jannings’ drunken hallucination sequence is garish, magical, hypnotic and inspiring all at the same time. My favorite shot in the film is the overlaid image of Jannings’ head with the massive swinging door lit up through his head. Presaging Inception (2010) by nearly 90 years, the shot of the building careening over itself is an impressively striking sequence as Jannings’ mind deteriorates. This film is a near barrage of visual brilliance.

So let’s discuss Jannings, who here gives my favorite of his great performances, perhaps challenged by his work in The Last Command (1928). I prefer his work in The Last Laugh only because we get to watch him during so much more of the running time. He is tragic, comedic, sincere, loving, and utterly compelling for the entire film, carrying the weight of the film and making us feel the heavy burden he is under. I am so impressed with his work and by the fact that we don’t need to know what he’s saying. We just watch his eyes and his body and we know everything we need to. The Last Laugh is one of the absolute pinnacles of silent cinema and one of the all-time greatest examples of visual storytelling.