Monday, October 02, 2017

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA): An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

t is imperative that when a director adapts a novel into a film that one ought to compare how that effort changes or enhances the entertainment of the viewer/reader. That exercise is further compounded if an interesting earlier film had been made—making it useful to compare the three creative products—the novel, the original movie and the remake.

The Union Corporal (Colin Farrell) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) 

Sofia Coppola’s film The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel and a remake of a 1971 film of considerable importance. Ms Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2017 from a jury that did not use that perspective but merely evaluated its strengths compared to the 20 odd films in competition at that edition of the Festival. 

The tale is set during the American civil war. An injured Union soldier is given refuge in a seminary/boarding school in a southern Confederate state inhabited by religious women/girls of varying ages. A series of unfortunate incidents lead to his death. 

Sofia Coppola is the director and screenplay writer of 2017 version of The Beguiled. Her approach to the film's subject is simple, obvious, and measured —while retaining the basic story of the novel, she would tweak it to serve us a female perspective of the novel. (Note that even the color of the film's title on poster is pink!) The original novel was written by a male author Thomas Cullinan. The original screenplay was written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kemp for the original film The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel. Ms Coppola uses that screenplay of Maltz and Kemp as the basis of her own adapted screenplay, while changing crucial elements of the preceding works. 

The not-so-frail Ms Martha (Nicole Kidman) in candle light

The crucial differences of the remake with the original film are the following:

  1.  The total deletion of the sympathetic black slave girl Mattie of the novel renamed Hallie in the original film by Don Siegel. In the original film. Hallie in a crucial scene during the second leg operation, courageously remarks “There is frailty in you” as Ms Martha (played by Geraldine Page) avoids looking at the face of the soldier. In Ms Coppola’s version, there is very little frailty in Ms Martha (played by Nicole Kidman). Further, both the original version and the remake of The Beguiled portray the character of Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman in the original, and Kirsten Dunst in the remake) as a white lady, while the character in the novel is of a mixed race.
  2.  The soldier’s character and his views are reduced to the minimal in Ms Coppola’s version allowing very little sympathy to develop in the viewer's mind  for the soldier. 
  3. The sexual encounter sequence is minimized in screen time in Ms Coppola’s version to the credit of the director, when compared to the original version. In any case, that sequence is not important. 
  4. The cinematography in the night sequences is captured in candle light in Ms Coppola’s version (as it ought to be) unlike Mr Siegels’ version. It reminds one of the cinematography and lighting in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975). 
  5. The trees and the woods in Ms Coppola’s version are spectacular compared to Mr Siegel’s version. Even the fallen dried leaves in the veranda add to the intelligent details adopted in Ms Coppola’s version. 
  6. In Ms Coppola’s version, the soldier’s body is left unattended outside the gate in a covered body bag, which is odd indeed. In Mr Siegel’s version the ladies carry the covered body far away from their mansion. One can assume the ladies were not capable of digging a grave in both film versions leading to this action. 
Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) replaces the Edwina of mixed race of the novel

Religion and reality of the beguiled

The following is the intelligent and measured text of a statement issued by Ms Coppola to counter some criticism of her omissions in her version: 

 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor.” 

 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 

“The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate—and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed. From “Mothers of Invention” by Drew Gilpin Faust: “War and emancipation revealed that many white women felt themselves entirely ignorant about how to perform basic functions of everyday life…A war that had at the outset made so many women feel useless and irrelevant soon demanded significant labor and sacrifice from even the most privileged southern females…” 

 “Throughout the film, we see students and teachers trying to hold on to their crumbling way of life. Eventually, they even lock themselves up and sever all ties to the outside world in order to perpetuate a reality that has only become a fantasy. My intentions in choosing to make a film in this world were not to celebrate a way of life whose time was over, but rather to explore the high cost of denial and repression.” 

 “There have been some questions regarding my approach to my new film, The Beguiled. More specifically, there have been objections to my decision not to include the slave character, Mattie, in Thomas Cullinan’s book on which my film is based. I would like to clarify this.” 

 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor." 

"Isolation of women, repression and desire" captured
by Sofia Coppola

 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 

“In his 1966 novel, Thomas Cullinan made the choice to include a slave, Mattie, as a side-character. He wrote in his idea of Mattie’s voice, and she is the only one who doesn’t speak proper English—her voice is not even grammatically transcribed.” 

“I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.” 

“There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and “given a voice” by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie in the film comes from respect.” 

 “Some have said that it is not responsible to make a film set during the Civil War and not deal directly with slavery and feature slave characters. I did not think so in preparing this film, but have been thinking about this and will continue to do so. But it has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterized as insensitive when my intention was the opposite”. 

“I sincerely hope this discussion brings attention to the industry for the need for more films from the voices of filmmakers of color and to include more points of views and histories.” 

Exterior cinematography under natural light
with dried leaves on the floor

Both the film versions have their strengths and weaknesses. Both films and the novel compare the importance given to religion and the contrarian actions of the persons who profess to practice it. Both films and the novel discuss how good individuals change with circumstances that affect their ego or their possessions. Even a child can change if it's pet is deliberately hurt! Don Siegel’s 1971 version captures a larger canvas of male characters (soldiers of the Confederate army interacting with the ladies)---several brief yet important sequences. Ms Coppola’s version avoids those distractions as she is more interested in focussing on the ladies. Both versions have their strengths. Don Siegel’s 1971 version gave importance to acting, while Ms Coppola’s somewhat notable version is essentially a director’s, the art director's and cinematographer’s film--little else. Despite directorial maturity of the remake, the original is the winner with a notable Clint Eastwood performance to boot.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

210. The late Chilean maestro Raoul Ruiz’ European film “Klimt” (2006) (Austria/France/Germany/UK): Outstanding cinematic exploration of the complex mind of an artistic genius, dying from syphilis

“Who art thou? “asked the guardian of the night. 
” From crystal purity I come,” was my reply.” And great my thirst, Persephone. Yet heeding thy decree I take to flight and turn, and turn again. Forever right I spurn the pallid cypress tree. Seek no refreshment at its sylvan spring but hasten on toward the rustling river of Mnemosyne wherein I drink to sweet satiety. And there, dipping my palms between the knots and loopings of its mazy stream I see again, as in a drowning swimmers dream--all the strange sights I ever saw. And even stranger sights no man has ever seen.” 
---End lines spoken by Klimt (played by John Malkovich) in Raoul Ruiz’ film Klimt.
Klimt has been dismissed by most critics and viewers as difficult and silly. Klimt is difficult but not silly. Klimt, the film, is a heady cocktail of two brilliant minds: Gustav Klimt the painter, and Ruiz the filmmaker. It is a delicious cocktail to be enjoyed by intelligent and patient viewers.

Take the enigmatic end lines—the flowery words would have little impact beyond the oratory of Malkovich, if the viewer had no idea of who Persephone and Mnemosyne are. They are two important figures of the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries associated with agriculture (in particular, Persephone) and afterlife in Hades. It is likely that these lines were written/chosen by Ruiz (as he is the original screenplay writer of the film) rather than attribute it to unlikely historical words spoken by Klimt the artist in real life. Mnemosyne, according to the Eleusinian mysteries, conceived nine Muses after sleeping with Zeus. Mnemosyne presided over a pool (or the river of memory) from which dead souls drank from. Memory is crucial for both Klimt the artist and Ruiz the filmmaker, during their respective creative lives.

Klimt (Malkovich) experimenting with glass and syrup, to visualize
his future paintings such as "The Kiss"

Klimt views flying golden paper in his studio--a crucial element
that would eventually be a stamp of his famous paintings

The artist Klimt is fascinated by flowers (many of his paintings are in fact flower related) and by mirrors. The Klimt on screen is a creative individual whose memories constantly flirt with mirrors. And why is Ruiz emphasizing mirrors? Because Ruiz himself is constantly battling his own memories of Chile, the homeland he fled, a recurring facet in all his films made after he left Chile.

Like Terrence Malick, Ruiz is a very well-read filmmaker and all his films bear testimony to this. Ruiz in Klimt is thus able to connect Klimt’s licentious life that led to his syphilis with the world of Mnemosyne and her Muses. On the fictional death-bed scene (early in the film) that Ruiz lovingly presents—Klimt utters the words “Flowers” as enigmatically as Citizen (Charles Foster) Kane utters “Rosebud” in Welles’ film. Ruiz’ film does not give much importance to Klimt’s paintings of flowers as much as he does to his nudes. When Egon Schiele (played by Nikolai Kinski, son of actor Klaus Kinski) hears the words “Flowers” spoken by Klimt, he rushes to the mirror facing the dying Klimt in the hospital room. Schiele knew the connection—which is why Ruiz’ film is emphasizing the role of mirrors at several levels in the film—see-through mirrors, broken mirrors, anamorphic mirror images et al. (One wonders if Sukurov’s film Faust (2011) was influenced by the ideas of Ruiz utilized in Klimt.)

An important factor while viewing the movie Klimt is to separate the genius of the artist Klimt from the brilliance of Ruiz the director. Take for instance the sequence that precedes the scene where an angry Klimt smears the face of an irritating individual in a restaurant with a cake. As the gentleman speaks the camera seems to spin. Pay more attention: the camera and the table on which Klimt is sitting both revolve while the outer periphery, where the speaker is standing, is static! It is the director’s clever method to get viewer inside Klimt’s mind at that time and what action follows can be anticipated by the viewer. Most other directors would have chosen the easier option of a mere spinning/revolving camera. Klimt’s actions fascinate you, but the filming is perhaps even more fascinating.

The two Leas (Saffron Burrows) and the enigmatic/metaphoric/psychological
"mirror" confront the creative Klimt (Malkovich)

hen there is the script of Ruiz. Here’s is an example of an unforgettable line: “The real one is not as real as the false one.” This, of course, is reference at the more obvious level of Klimt’s muse Lea de Castro and imagined/false Lea. With actress Saffron Burrows playing both Leas, Ruiz presents the diseased mind of a syphilitic Klimt who imbibes mercury, the only known partial cure before the advent of penicillin. Can Ruiz make film without a swipe at military rulers of Chile? In Klimt, a character pontificates: “They say that you have to stand outside of history. This history is a nightmare. And that there's absolutely nothing else to be said about it. They sound like philosophers. Except they say philosophy is rubbish.” The parallels will not be lost on those viewers who know Chile’s history and Ruiz’ relationship with Chile.

A dream sequence when Klimt confronts his young daughter,
with two crucial ladies--Midi and Lea-- in his life
standing in separate doorways. Note
the lighting is only on the father and daughter,
in an otherwise darkened dream sequence

Ruiz’s cinema has several layers that can be missed by a casual viewer. Lea and the false Lea are just one example. The two doorways in the dream (“take the left and then the left” Klimt is advised, the recurrence of coins in the film (tossed and then a coin rubbed against the bed linen), the Austrian government coin to honour Klimt, and the cats are there in the film with a purpose. Klimt painted cats as much as he painted flowers. But if the viewer is not aware of this fact, the presence of cats in reality and in the dream sequence would seem odd.

Klimt tries to touch Lea's projected image,
created by Georges Melies

Ruiz doffs his cap at the silent movie director and inventor Georges Melies in the film Klimt. It is debatable whether Klimt and Melies actually met but in the film Melies states that he admires Klimt, when he meets him. In the film, Melies projects a film of Klimt and Lea, during the projection of which Klimt attempts to touch Lea’s projected image. Thus, the film goes beyond Klimt with Ruiz’ script—it is an attempt to honour film history as well.

There are overhead shots in Klimt that Ruiz would continue to dazzle us with in his later film, Mysteries of Lisbon. The collaboration of Ruiz with Argentinian cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich is magical. Aronovich (who had worked earlier with Malle, Truffaut and Costa-Gavras) must have been a major party to the startling anamorphic images in the film Klimt.

"The Kiss" the painting that is never
shown in the film but the process of creation
of which is suggested throughout the film

The famous Klimt painting “The Kiss” is never shown in the film but the seeds of the imagery of the famous painting being sown in the mind of the painter are cleverly shown over two separate sequences in the film. First, you see Klimt viewing nudes through a glass sheet over which he has thrown a translucent syrupy liquid which merely reveals the face of the model. Klimt is shown to be happy with that perspective. Much later in the film, Klimt works with gold coloured paper cut up into small rectangles that are thrown up by either by accident or purpose. Klimt looks up at the floating gold coloured paper. For those familiar with the famous painting, the sequences fall into place. The problem with Ruiz (as in the case of Malick) is that he made films for an audience that he assumed was equally well-informed as he was. Ruiz is certainly not a director who spoon feeds the lazy viewer. In this very sequence, the mysterious junior diplomatic secretary arrives at the door of Klimt's studio unannounced petting Klimt’s cat. In the film Klimt, Ruiz is not showing the viewers the cat paintings or the flower paintings or even “The Kiss.” He is showing us the mind of the painter at work.

Now there are at least two versions of the film Klimt. There is a 97 minute producer’s version and a 131 minute director’s version. It is the latter version that matters. The former version is the one that was widely released and seen. The latter version would be a delight for viewers familiar with the paintings of Klimt and the filmmaking style of Ruiz. For those viewers, this Ruiz film ought to rank among his very best.

Klimt (Malkovich) and Midi (Veronica Ferres),
an intimate lady friend who promoted his paintings
and knew his mind

Another fact that would delight the viewers is the choice of actors that Ruiz consciously and carefully made. John Malkovich does resemble Klimt if we compare Klimt’s photographs that survive. Similarly, Nikolai Kinski does have unmistakable resemblance to Egon Schiele. The choice of the four lead actresses by Ruiz is another remarkable one—Saffron Burrows as the two Leas who serve as his Eleusinian Muse, Veronica Ferres and Sandra Ceccarelli as his well-meaning promoters of his paintings and finally Aglaia Szyszkowitz as his Jewish lover who gave birth to his daughter.

Ruiz’ Klimt will remain one of the best films on a painter and how the mind of the painter worked, even when the painter was battling syphilis and genetic madness (his mother and sister were mad, as indicated directly and indirectly in the film). Kudos to Ruiz for his well-designed original screenplay that squeezed in all these details!

P.S. This critic has reviewed Ruiz’s films That Day (2003) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) earlier on this blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the name of the films).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

209. French director Maurice Pialat’s French film “Sous le soleil de Satan” (Under the Sun of Satan) (1987) (France): Interacting with Satan when one is perplexed by the silence of God

Any review of the film Under the Sun of Satan ought to state the following factoid upfront.  When the movie was announced as the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (with the jury declaring that it was a unanimous vote), the audience whistled when the director Maurice Pialat made his way to the stage to receive the award. Pialat's response to this was to raise his fist, replying: "I won’t be untrue to my reputation. I am, above all, happy this evening for all the shouts and whistles you’ve directed at me; and, if you don’t like me, I can tell you that I don’t like you either." That stated, this critic would have voted as the honourable jurors did, if he was hypothetically serving on that jury. It is an extraordinary film by a very important filmmaker—pugnacious and unsentimental. Pialat only made 11 feature films. Under the Sun of Satan would easily be among his best two films—the other being A Mouth Agape (1974). Pialat was critical of the French New Wave. He made his first film at age 43, and died at 77. He went on to influence filmmakers such as Leos Carax, Chantal Akerman and Catherine Briellat.  This critic, too, finds the work of Pialat superior and more satisfying compared to the films of Godard and Truffaut.

Under the Sun of Satan is admittedly not a film that can be appreciated by an average viewer.  It is a film that has commonalities with at least two masterpieces of world cinema: Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and the French director Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1951).  Two important common factors between Under the Sun of Satan and The Seventh Seal are the live spoken and physical interactions of good Christian human beings with Satan and the perplexing silence of God. Two important common factors between Under the Sun of Satan and The Diary of a Country Priest are that both films are based on books written by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) and both deal with idealistic and intensely spiritual Roman Catholic priests serving parishes in rural France frequently interacting with their senior colleagues. Much of the three films are both theological and dense for an average viewer to appreciate, all the more if the viewer is not familiar with Christian literature, especially Thomas à Kempis’ 15th Century book Imitation of Christ. Bernanos, in his book The Diary of a Country Priest, states that a mediocre priest is always sentimental and mediocrities are a trap set by Satan. In Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan, the troubled younger priest Donissan (Gerard Depardieu) is shown making notes of certain parts of Imitation of Christ, as he studies certain passages of the book.

All the above details would assume that Pialat’s film Under the Sun of Satan is a film where Satan is defeated. It is more a film where the filmmaker acknowledges the presence of Satan around the best of us and God appears to be a silent spectator. While the end of the film suggests the increasing public reverence of Donissan’s powers to bring the dead to life—the key question Pialat and Bernanos seem to be asking of the viewer (and the reader of the book) is whether the latter day powers of Donissan  to do miracles comes from God or from Satan. It is a film and book that describes a situation where Satan can influence the most well meaning and pious of Christian priests. Pialat’s film is more about Donissan being aware of the immediacy of the Devil than of God in life.

Satan (right)  meets Donissan (Depardieu) the priest

Satan's conversation with Donnisan

Pialat’s film goes not merely to the extent of depicting Satan as a fellow traveller following a tired and troubled priest on a long journey on foot in the night but ends the long peripatetic discourse between the two with a scene where the Devil even sexually harasses the priest when he lying on the ground to rest his tired legs. The Devil kisses the priest, but Pialat shows the Devil wiping his own mouth after that action, indicating perhaps the priest is still too holy for him to corrupt.
Richard Brody writing about the film in New Yorker (issue of 7 May 2013) assesses the film succinctly when he wrote “Pialat has made a nonbeliever’s film about the psychological, social, and metaphorical power of religion. He shows that if religion is anything at all, it’s tough stuff that gains its moral authority not by easing the fears of believers or reconciling them to evil but, rather, by imbuing them with the terrifying yet awe-inspiring sense that immense and cosmic powers are here at hand, to submit to or to wrestle with.

Donnisan (Depardieu) meets Mouchette (Bonnaire): devoid of carnal attraction

How did Pialat make monumental film of the first novel of Bernanos? First, he chose the actor Depardieu to play the tormented young priest. Depardieu is a giant of a man physically and Pialat gets him to essay a man burdened by an invisible cross, tiring himself by walking long distances day and night, scourging himself in self mortification, not seeing in 16-year-old Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) any carnal desire but concern of the evil that has overpowered her life and ways to absolve her sins. Pialat transforms Depardieu from a ladies’ man to a brooding monk who remarks “I am a zero, only useful when next to other numbers,” to his senior priest Menou-Segrais (Pialat himself). Pialat’s decision to play the senior priest to Depardieu’s junior priest is that of a Svengali of sorts, even though he too has his own problems with faith, drawing ironic parallels in film of a director and his actor, with both Donnisan exhibiting a constant love-hate relationship. The body language of Depardieu is amazing to note in this film, especially with the large-sized actor downsized to an ant-like figure in long shots of the countryside captured by cinematographer Willy Kurant.

The imposing physical stature of Depardieu metaphorically reduced in size  
by Pialat and his cinematographer Willy Kurant set against 
the natural grandeur of rural France 

The side-bar events of Mouchette’s young life exploited by evil men and Mouchette killing of one of her lovers are not important to the film compared to the priest’s unusual ability to see Mouchette’s amoral actions from afar and even talk to her after she has committed a murder. Another side-bar event of Donnisan reviving a dead child is more Pialat’s/Bernanos’ commentary on Satan allowing Donnisan to believe that he can achieve miracles by manipulating his spiritual pride.

Pialat's and Kurant's touches: Light and shadows;
reflecting Bernanos play of words on sun and Satan

Bernanos’ title “sun of Satan” is a clue. Can Satan provide light?  When Satan appears to Donnisan it is in the night. Pialat and Kurant show Donnisan towards the end of the film covered in shadows rather than in light.  

Director Maurice Pialat plays Menou-Segrais, the senior colleague
of Donnisan (Depardieu)

This is a film where Donnisan equates morality with "hygiene of the senses." It is a film which talks of inner life being a battle of instincts. It is no ordinary film, it is quite complex. Yet it is not a film that most viewers will comprehend and easily appreciate.  But then that is true of most works of director Pialat.

The enigmatic ending in the confession box:
"I didn't know evil--I learned it from the mouth of sinners."

P.S. This critic has reviewed the Pialat’s 1974 film The Mouth Agape earlier on this blog. (You can access the review by clicking on the name of the film). 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

208. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film “Le gamin au vélo” (The Kid with a Bike) (2011) (Belgium) based on the directors’ original screenplay: Painful yet uplifting film that forces you to re-evaluate human behaviour and your own actions

"We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible—a dimension we want to follow and which would be otherwise less present in the film… Perhaps by filming the gesture as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen.” —Luc Dardenne, “Taking the Measure of Human Relationships”, Cineaste (Summer 2003)

We don’t believe that music should come from the movie. Music is above the film actually. It will descend into the film thanks to Samantha (the character). For us, music represents everything that is missing to Cyril (the character): love, tenderness, and consolation. It’s hovering, waiting, and the audience would like to see it enter the film. We’re not against music. It’s not present in our other movies only because we didn’t see the necessity for it.” (On using music for the first time in their movies.) --Luc Dardenne’s response to interviewer Ariston Anderson in Filmmaker Magazine.
The Belgian film The Kid with a Bike (2011) is outstanding for several reasons.
The Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are able to elicit an exceptional performance from young actor Thomas Doret, who plays the 12-year-old boy Cyril, abandoned by his biological parents in an orphanage of sorts. Doret brings on screen the life of Cyril, who loves and misses his father in the orphanage like facility and craves his father’s company. He brings on screen his violent and disobedient side of his character. The viewer does not like him but the director script a tale for the viewer to gradually empathize with Cyril until you begin to love the kid anew. The Dardenne brothers are adept at getting amazing performances of their lead actors: one would recall the amazing performance of Marion Cotillard in their recent work Two Days, One Night (2014). The difference is that Ms Cotillard is an adult and an experienced actress, but young Thomas Doret was an early teen making his first film appearance in The Kid with a Bike.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) with his bike, riding a bus

The second important facet is that the tale is an original script written by the directors. It is not an adaptation of an existing written work or even a true event. The script is so well crafted that you almost believe you are watching a documentary.
Thirdly, the Dardenne brothers mirror the social problems of contemporary Europe in The Kid with a Bike—the toll on the children of broken marriages the parent refuse to acknowledge, the importance a single parent gives to economic survival over parental responsibility, the knee-jerk reaction of another parent to protect a son who might have killed another, the inability to accept an apology.. The list goes on. What is amazing is that this directorial duo is able to make films that reflect contemporary problems with original scripts—film after film.
Finally, the duo makes films where the visual detail is paramount while the soundtrack records diagetic sound almost all the time. In The Kid with a Bike, for the first time, the directors use the music of Beethoven briefly.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the film won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Screenplay honor at the European Film Awards.
Cyril meets up with his father who tells him
 that he should not try to meet him again

Many critics have connected the film to two famous film classics: De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Truffaut’s 400 Blows. These are misplaced comparisons save for certain common factors. The Italian film is about a father searching for a stolen bike in the company of his son. The Kid with a Bike, on the other hand, is the son searching for a bike originally gifted by his father, then eventually sold by him, then a similar bike is purchased by a foster parent figure only to be stolen again for a while. The Italian film has an unbroken bond between father and son, which is not the case in the Belgian film. The French film likewise has a kid with a mother and a non-biological father faced with a troubled childhood as a result of the parents’ behaviour towards him.
The Kid with a Bike is thus different and unique.  Most of all it has an angelic beautician named Samantha (Cecile De France) who becomes Cyril’s foster mother—the first significant female figure in Cyril’s life. Samantha buys Cyril’s bike from her own savings. She tries to protect Cyril and even chooses a life with Cyril over a life with her existing boyfriend.
Cyril with Samantha (Cecile De France), the foster mother,
who gives up her boyfriend for bringing up Cyril

For the Dardenne brothers, the women figures seem to be important. The men are interested in their survival, but women are often shown as the caring and relatively balanced figures.
Cyril rides a bike--the symbolic connection with his father, only to realize
his father had sold it off without his knowledge.
Cinematographer Marcoen at work.

Films of the Dardenne brothers might be on troubled subjects but their effect on the viewer is generally uplifting. Like the British director Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers primarily deal with the working class. There is no sentimentality, with minor details captured visually. There is a third important member of the Dardenne team contributing to their notable films--cinematographer Alain Marcoen, often relying on hand-held cameras--a contributor few have noticed and rarely lauded. And he is good. A fourth regular on their team is editor Marie-Helene Dozo. It is is interesting to note how the best directors today (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Andrei Konchalovsky, Ken Loach, etc.) work with a close-knit team, film after film, and their products are all award-winning films that make you think. The lovely scripts of the Dardenne brothers include hard-hitting spoken words. Very few filmmakers today make films like they do while eliciting immaculate performances, film after film, from their actors to boot. 

P.S. This critic has reviewed the Dardenne brothers 2014 film Two Days, One Night earlier on this blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the name of the film). The Dardenne brothers are among the top 15 favourite active filmmakers of the author. (The full list can be accessed at

Sunday, June 25, 2017

207. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s film “Sharasoju” (Shara)(2003) (Japan) based on the director’s original screenplay: A philosophical look at life and death and one’s relationship with nature, a source of spiritual sustenance

Naomi Kawase is one of the most interesting female film directors alive and actively making films. Her films are slow moving, contemplative works that discuss the close relationship of families, of religion, of tradition, and of nature. An overarching common factor for most of her films is the inevitable cycles of life and death.

A twin brother running after other twin for no apparent reason, early in the film
(Note: Shun is touching the wall, as he would touch parked cars later
in the run as his brother does)

Shara is an intimate portrait of two contemporary nuclear Japanese families living in the old Japanese town of Nara with narrow streets, barely more than the width of a large car and yet one sees cars of many sizes parked off the narrow streets. There is tradition and there is modernity—a conflict that is often tangentially discussed in Kawase’s films.

The two families have similarities. Both have had a male member suddenly leave/disappear. (In one case, the viewer is told, a young boy was found dead—without additional explanations, while in the other family a married man disappears after a child is born to his sick wife).  In both families, the disappearance of the male member affects another member of the family deeply. A sister wears the slippers/clogs of her missing male brother; the other young boy paints the portrait of his missing dead brother from memory. The daughter of one family is drawn to the son of the other—and both are students.

The run in reverse, the surviving twin, Shun, with childhood friend Yu

Students and young love are recurring themes for director Nawase [e.g., Still the Water (2014), An/Sweet Bean (2015)]. So is death of loved ones {e.g., Mourning Forest (2007), Still the Water, An/Sweet Bean] and the dead set of lovers in Hanezu (2011) compared and contrasted with a living pair. There is birth and pregnancy in Kawase’s films as well (Shara has a lovely childbirth sequence and pregnancy is pivotal in Hanezu).

Kawase is also of one of the few directors today who consistently discuss positive interactions between the young and the old in most of her films. And finally, there are the constant references to nature (the forest in Mourning Forest, the sea in Still the Water, the cherry trees in An/Sweet Bean, the vegetable and flower garden in Shara and the mountains, spiders and other arachnids in Hanezu. In Shara, growing green eggplants in the kitchen garden with tender loving care becomes a metaphor for the love within the family, a feeling that well-meaning neighbours can appreciate.

This critic has often described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan and one is not sure if Ms Kawase would consider that to be a compliment as she lost out to Malick at a Cannes competition. The common factors between Malick and Kawase are too many to ignore. Malicks’ The Tree of Life and Nawase’s Shara deal with death of a young boy in the family and consequent extended bereavement.  Both films deal with childbirth. Malick’s Knight of Cups and Kawase’s Shara both deal with closeness of siblings. All the works of Malick and Kawase, deal with metaphors of nature mirroring life. Both discuss their respective religions and their importance in living and moving on despite traumatic loss of loved ones.  Both directors have a penchant for underscoring memories of precious events in individuals’ lives. Both directors prefer to film their own written original screenplays though both have adapted others' works in rare instances.

Blooming of Yu as a woman she leads the dancers of the Shara festival

Unlike Malick’s films that depend on voice-overs, much of Kawase’s films can be associated with a lack of spoken words. Wind, rain, waves, shadows and light are more important for Kawase than spoken lines. Traditional religious songs and chants take up long sequences in Shara, Still the Water and Hanezu.

Buddhist chants as a rope is revolved around by hands of devotees
young and old to the sound of chants

bviously for Kawase young people riding bicycles are important. The similarity of such shots in several Kawase’s films is too obvious for a viewer to miss. Now Nara has a lot of automobiles parked in front of their houses. Yet never during the entire length of Shara, shot entirely in Nara, was a car, bus or truck shown moving on screen. There is one shot of a two-wheeled moped in action. That was the single sign of automation in the entire film.

Shara has two important sequences where young people are running. Early in the film we are shown two brothers (twins?) running through empty streets touching parked cars. Towards the end of the film two youngsters –a girl and a boy run on similar empty streets.  Though the runs are visually striking and important sequences, the lack of people and vehicles on the route make the runs almost dreamlike and unreal.  One wonders if that was Kawase’s intention as the entire camera movements of the film Shara appears as though it were  a perspective of an individual who recollects the past events.
Traditional amulets from Yu to Shun (In Kawase's films it is the women
who initiates, not men)

Shara is important for Kawase watchers as this is a rare film in which she acts in a major role, directs, provides the original script, and serves as one of the three co-editors. In this film, viewers see Kawase first as a slim young mother of twin boys, and later, for most of the film, as an older  housewife in an advanced stage of pregnancy who delivers a child capturing the entire event.

Shara is equally important because it does not spoon-feed the viewer. A diligent viewer of the film will note the perspective provided by the camera movements as the film opens and later in the closing stages when the camera behaves like an intelligent being that seems to quietly intrude and inspect the activities just as Aleksandr Sokurov’s camera in his famous Russian Ark (2002), a film made just a year before Shara.  It also indicates why Shun’s (the main boy) brother Kei’s strange unexplained death is never shown on screen but evidently is well accepted by the families.

For the perceptive viewer: Yu (Shun's girlfriend) walks by the same wall
Shun touched 17 years ago, on the initial run,  when he lost his twin brother

Kawase’s writing accomplishes two things. One is to provide scope for the camera to “talk” and move as a human interloper and the second is to ensure participation of an entire town in an energetic, ritualistic song and dance on the street. The latter exercise provides an avenue for traditions to be continued by younger people and for young Yu (the girl) to bloom as a lady both in the eyes of her foster mother Shouko (a strikingly beautiful and elegant Japanese actress, Kanako Higuchi). That sequence provides action and energy in a film bereft of action except for the two running sequences.

What does the title Shara mean, one could ask? My friend Michael Kerpan was kind enough to inform me that the original Japanese title of the film Sharasoju could mean sandalwood/sandalwood incense or even a sal tree. One wonders why the film is called Shara when its meaning is not clear to non-Japanese audiences.

For the lazy viewer, Shara will indeed appear to be dreary, pointless film. Kawase merges spirituality and nature in a unique way, film after film. For the attentive viewer, Shara will prove to be a clever and delightful film where the viewer is encouraged to ponder over minute details and savour them. Every work of Kawase is amazing and Shara is no exception.

P.S. This critic has reviewed Kawase’s Mourning Forest (2007), Hanezu (2011) Still the Water (2014) and An/Sweet Bean (2015) on the blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the names of the films). So are reviews of the Malick films The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, mentioned in the above review. Mourning Forest is included on the author’s top 15 films of the 21st Century. Ms Kawase is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers (see list at

Thursday, April 20, 2017

206. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s film “Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Triyapitsyna ” (The Postman’s White Nights)(2014) (Russia): An amazing, profound elegy reconciling one to the fact that good and evil coexist in Russia, then and now

Where does this music come from? From the heavens or from the ground? Now it’s stopped.
--- A quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, used as the end quote for The Postman’s White Nights

Any serious Konchalovsky film viewer will recall that the end-quotes of his films, when used, are very important to put the tale one just viewed in its intended perspective.  He did use it with aplomb in Runaway Train (a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Shy People (a quote from Revelations in the Bible). What is the music he is referring to? It would be too simplistic to consider it to be the music of the film’s composer Eduard Artemev, the talented composer of Tarkovsky’s three monumental works—Solaris, Stalker and Mirror, and the important Russian sci-fi film Dr Ivan’s Silence. The music is most likely to be a metaphor for the waves of good and evil forces that an average Russian encounters in life and learns to live with over time.

The real postman Aleksey Triyapitsyn "acts" as himself--his army clothes
indicate his status of a paid government employee

Now, Andrei Konchalovsky’s career can easily be divided into three distinct phases: pre-Hollywood work in former USSR, some with classmate Andrei Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublyev) and some alone; his Hollywood phase (which included Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers and Shy People); and the recent post Hollywood phase in Russia working with the obviously unusually talented co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. The Postman’s White Nights marks the beginning of this exciting new phase in Konchalovsky’s career when he begins his collaboration with co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. His second film with Kiseleva was Paradise (2016). He is currently working on a third film with Kiseleva, tentatively titled Il peccato. This critic could see parallels in this fascinating collaboration with that of the late Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, towards the evening of his respective career that resulted in his masterpieces Dekalog, The Three Colours trilogy, and The Double Life of Veronique.

The Postman’s White Nights is one of the finest works in recent years from Russia that can rub shoulders with the cinematic gems of Andrei Zvyagintsev. The depth of the film can be lost on a casual viewer while it can offer profound commentary on Russia for the mature viewer.

The rural Russian folk smoke endlessly, drink tea and vodka, and die often alone

What did Konchalovsky and Kiseleva do in The Postman’s White Nights that will stun the viewer? They scripted a tale set in a rural setting where the village school is in ruins; men are turning alcoholics and survive on pensions; newspapers, bread, medicines, are brought from the nearest town by a postman, an alcoholic in the past, currently a bachelor; with one other regular government employee posted in this village an unpopular lady mayor, living alone with a young son, because she fines folk caught trawling fish in the nearby water bodies to win brownie points with her unseen superiors.

Everybody smokes, but the postman has kicked his drinking habit
after it ruined his family life 

As in both the Konchalovsky and Kiseleva films, the scriptwriters build-up details that do not seem to add up midway but punches you at the end of the film. And if you blink you might miss that brilliant visual that says more than all the spoken words in the entire film. (There is a third partner in the Konchalovsky-Kiseleva films: cinematographer Aleksandr  Simonov). The Russian government obviously seems to have ignored the well being or the development of this rural township.  Not only is the school in ruins (possibly because there are not enough kids to attend school) but the folks there have only the TV sets as sources of entertainment. There are no tractors to till the land, only animal driven ploughs. From all evidence there is only one plough for the entire community. It is no wonder that people in that locality are driven to steal outboard motors of boats or trawl the water bodies for fish—an illegal act for all except the powerful generals who infrequently visit the area. But not very far away, Russia rocket/space power is quietly advancing ignoring the plight of the rural poor.

The good and the bad coexist in the rural world with the committed postman being the prominent do-gooder. The townsfolk do not go out of the way to help the postman when he faces a professional crisis with his motorboat’s engine stolen and thus not being able to discharge his duties for the rural folk.  In the world of email communication and mobile telecommunication, the postman fills a multitasking role. And he loves to do it. He has to file a theft report and wait for a replacement to be supplied.  The elders in the rural areas wistfully recall better days during the socialist regime and some even recall being in Vietnam during the war there.

The postman and the mayor's son

What most viewers are likely to miss out is an important decision taken by director Konchalovsky—all characters in the film’s rural setting are played by authentic villagers. The only professional actors are the two individuals who play the roles of the lady mayor and her delightful young son, Timur, who addresses the postman as “uncle.” Now that is incredible considering how the onscreen presence of the real postman engages the viewer.  One would mistake him for a professional actor able to convey so many complex emotions and body languages.  The Russian title of the film would read as the white nights of Aleksey Tryapitsyn, the name of man who plays the postman in the film. He is playing himself. Thus the entire script revolves around real people playing themselves.  But the script belongs to brilliance of Konchalovsky and Kiseleva.

Look at how they built the script. The entire background of the life of the postman is provided by Aleksey Tryapitsyn’s monologue as he sifts through old photographs of himself with the movie’s camera placed behind his head and shoulders.  Who is he talking to? The viewer. Such a monologue is never repeated until the end sequence where all or most of the village folk sit shoulder to shoulder on a ferry, their differences forgotten, without a word spoken, looking at the camera. Who are they looking at? The viewer.

The postman shares his childhood fears and tales with the
mayor's son.

The next striking visual is the repeated morning waking shot of the postman looking down at his boots on the carpet that he need to get into. He is living alone. There is no tap water; he has to fetch water in pails. The mayor and the postman wear camouflage army clothes—possibly because they are the only paid government employees.  His life is spartan.

The filmmaking trio emphasize rumination and natural beauty—the characters are constantly reflecting, outdoors and indoors.  Those sequences are with the music of Artemev as in the early Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky films.  And that leads on to the dark grey cat (“there are no cats in the village” the viewer is informed, and ergo the cat is a metaphor of a silent imaginary friend of the lonely postman—a cinephile will recall Tarkovsky used totemic images of a dog in Stalker).  The silent cat comes through the window, follows Aleksey Tryapitsyn during his imaginary visit to the school ruins, and finally sits on the stomach of the reclining postman. Does the cat have a common link with a cat’s images on the postman’s tablecloth?

Simonov's cinematography and Artemev's music can be stunning 

...and who wouldn't ruminate on contemplating the natural beauty of Russia
captured by cinematographer Simonov?

Apart from the good actions and the bad actions of the characters in The Postman’s White Nights, the overarching philosophy of the film is to accept this truth and reconcile what is left of one’s life with this attitude. The postman runs away but decides to return to the same community where, not surprisingly, he is still welcome. Konchalovsky “ran away” from USSR to work in Hollywood on to return to Russia with all its continuing faults and greatness. The film might be a great anti-smoking film with almost all the elders addicted to tobacco and evidently not healthy but the young boy also learns to smoke following the actions of the elders. But in the end segment, Konchalovsky, Kiseleva and Simonov are pointing out with their tongues firmly in their cheeks that Russia is launching spacecrafts and rockets not very far from the world of rural folk who can’t fish in the water bodies without asking for trouble or have any entertainment beyond state TV. And guess what, these Russians on the fringes of Russian society addicted to tobacco and vodka are still happy and content as long as they get their pensions.

Where does the strange sustenance of the Russians come from? From the ground, or from the rockets? A Shakespearean conundrum indeed!

It is a meaningful film for the serious film viewer, and richly deserving of the Venice film festival honour.

P.S. The Postman’s White Nights won the Best Director Award (Silver Lion) for Andrei Konchalovsky.  Detailed reviews by the author of Konchalovsky’s earlier films Runaway Train (1985) and Paradise (2016) were posted earlier on this blog. A link to the Konchalovsky written paper/lecture on the "Russian Soul" is provided on this blog and the contents are closely linked to the basic mood of the film. A critical line from that lecture reflects the essence of the film's ending "Why Russians can build a rocket and send it off into space, but not make a decent car?Mr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.