Monday, May 16, 2016

My Life to Live (Godard. 1962)

"The more one talks, the less the words mean..."

Jean-Luc Godard's My Life to Live is a funny, doleful, voyeur-esque look into the life of a Parisian woman in her early twenties. In the classically Godard opening moments, we hear the yet unnamed character of Nana leaving her husband and baby to pursue her vague dreams of being in the movies. The scene is shot completely from behind the speaking characters - their hairstyles glimmer from the effect of back lighting. Nana's hair is short and bobbed - perhaps an allusion to another independent vixen of European decent, Lulu from 1929's Pandora's Box. Besides her desire to be in the movies, her goals are ill-explained, shallow, maybe even selfish. Does she not care about her child? Husband? Anything?

Godard was in the midst of the most radical era of his career, both politically and in his filmmaking. A devout reader of Marxist philosophy, Godard believed (and may still believe) that Paris had become a city imprisoned by her own "freedom". Everything had been commercialized and nothing was any longer sacred. This tepid philosophy spilled over, as it often did, in Godard's writing of the Nana character - she smokes, drinks, eats, and entertains herself in order to constantly hide her real emotions.

In one of Godard's best scenes, Nana sits in the cinema with tears swelling in her eyes while watching the groundbreaking performance of Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Both Dreyer in Passion and Godard in My Life to Live use extreme closeup to convey emotions, and both films are primarily about the judgement of a female in a male-dominated world. It has always been easy to see why the great director was obsessed with Anna Karina (his wife at the time of filming) - she is able to bring to life a woman so detached even in her tears that her intentions are never clear to anybody - but herself?

While Karina's performance is astounding, it is once again the revolutionary style of Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard that makes My Life to Live something special. Godard famously said that the film was "made by sort of a second presence", the camera moves swiftly from side to side in a way reminiscent to the cinema verite documentary style of Robert Flaherty. The camera makes itself known early on as a tool that observes the action rather than capture it. Scenes are inspected - as if the camera has a set of eyes, itself interested in the atmosphere of a record store, cafe, or small apartment. My Life to Live is filmed as if it is being watched with anticipation by the powers behind the camera .

And it kinda was. Godard shot this film - in sequence - in a series of 12 individual scenes. He used as many of the first takes as he possibly could, and considered any second take to be less desirable. This created the seemingly curious nature of the camera. This is most obvious during a short scene in which Nana dances, showing only a glimpse of her genuine emotional depth, in a cafe. As she dances, the camera glides around her. She could not remain the focal point, because the crew did not know exactly what Karina would be doing. It all plays so naturally.

Digressing back to the plot, Nana is unable to break into the movies and eventually sells herself to the first pimp that she meets on the street. From here the feeling of the film switches to something more akin to a crime drama. Her slow decent into "the life" as prostitution is called in France, has defeated the once freedom-obsessed Nana. This dread has been bubbling under the surface since her very first encounter with a gentlemen caller when she refused to kiss him on the mouth. There is shame underneath Nana's porcelain exterior.

My Life to Live is a deliberate picture that brings to life the exemplary style of Jean-Luc Godard, showcases the ability and natural beauty of Anna Karina, and never reduces itself to melodrama. My favorite Godard that I have seen since Breathless - the freshness of the film astounds me - while the outcome of the film is appropriately macabre. The phrase "making plans is the fastest way to make God laugh" comes to mind....

My Life to Live: A


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Simon of the Desert (Buñuel. 1965)

"I'm beginning to realize I don't realize what I'm saying..."

It was obvious before watching Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert that the greatest director of the surrealist movement loathed the Catholic church. I have yet to see a film by Buñuel that does not use iconoclastic visuals and unorthodox dialogue against the church. In that respect, Simon is no different. What is particularly interesting about this 45 minute masterpiece is the sharp contrast between the followers of religion and the religion itself - almost as if  Buñuel was using this work as a type of pamphlet on what he viewed as dangerous in religion.

Simon is played stoically by Claudio Brook and is very loosely based on the Syrian 5th-century saint Simeon Stylites. He has stood for an astounding 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days atop a giant pillar in an attempt to show his loyalty to the Lord. This is the type of self-punishment that Buñuel believed belittled the loving message of Christ.

In an early scene - the ascetic Simon finally descends from his pillar - only to climb his ladder to the top of a higher pillar that has been gifted to him by local priests. Is Simon now standing closer to the heavens? Looking down on those less committed to the Lord? Or is this extreme isolation from the people on the ground an allusion to how Christians view the love message in comparison to the suffering of Jesus? 

Buñuel was not necessarily anti-God, but rather anti-hypocrite. He detested the masses of people who identified as Christians, yet focused on all of the wrong aspects of the Message. Today - we call them social conservatives. These are people who have inflated the suffering of Christ to an almost masturbatory level of importance. They follow Christ by not only stifling themselves, but also by stifling the rest of the world. Would Jesus want His followers to painstakingly estrange themselves from society to prove their loyalty, or would He rather His people fill the world with love?

Simon performs a miracle in which he reattaches hands to a man who had had them severed for stealing. Inherently, this is an act of forgiveness and mercy over cruel justice. Almost immediately, the begging man uses his reattached hands to slap his child. This is a perfect example of Buñuel's wry sense of humor. Followers have become complacent in the message of Christ, while still doing what they can to reap the benefits of their religious fraternity. They have become detached from Christ's teachings while simultaneously perpetuating His pain.

But the followers are not the only ones who have lost the Message. Simon himself begins to doubt his own loyalties when the Devil (played by Buñuel-regular Silvia Pinal) comes to tempt him to the ground. She first appears as an innocent, perhaps unknowingly libidinous young girl, and is denied by Simon. In what might be the most surreal scene in the film, her second visit has her disguised as Jesus. The final visit sees the Devil gliding through the desert in a coffin - wearing nothing but a toga - with her naked left-breast cupped in hand.

Each of these visits from the Devil evoke a sense that the church has always been obsessed with the female body. In modern times this has not changed. The church longs to own the female form; they want to control it to endorse their message. It is very easy to keep holy men from having sex when their teachings imply that the female body is sin. Buñuel knows about this fixation, and playfully uses it as a way to tempt the titular character.

I will not spoil how it all ends, but I will say it is not the ending you might expect. Though the film is technically the third of an anti-religious trilogy - Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel - that was sparked after Buñuel's second exile from Spain to Mexico - Simon of the Desert is just as good when watched individually.

Simon of the Desert: A

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Vanishing/Spoorloos (Sluizer. 1988)

"The best plans can be wiped out at any moment by what we call fate. I confess, that saddens me."

Some films only work as thrillers because they keep the viewer on the edge of their seat until the very end. Some thrillers use dramatic music and tunnel the camera through spiraling hallways or crowded spaces to create a feeling of discomfort. While George Sluizer's The Vanishing is guilty of these tropes, it uses them with a surprisingly [still] fresh style. This reconstruction of the thriller (which as a genre dates all the way back to the silent film era) is what makes this film so special. Oh, that and the ending.*

The Vanishing is based on a novel called "The Golden Egg" that was written by the same man who crafted the screenplay for the film, Tim Krabbe. It tells the story of two Dutch lovers who are in the midst of a cycling holiday in France. The couple (played by Gene Bervoets and Johanna Ter Steege) stop at a perfectly innocent gas station to stretch their legs, play Frisbee, and wax romantic. The wife goes into the station to buy some drinks for the duo....and is never seen again.

The husband waits for an amount of time, comforted by the image of his wife's red hair in the background of an otherwise bootless photo that he took while waiting for her to return. She must be coming back, right? She was just here....

A few years later, this disappearance has become an obsession for the husband. He has given up the hope of finding her alive, but he also cannot shake the guilt, fear, and feeling of responsibility that came with the tragedy. He is not going to let this go - even after taking a girlfriend who does her best to sympathize with his unique situation. He simply must know what happened. Wouldn't you?

The audience has an idea of what happened throughout the entire film. I write that with an intense desire to not spoil anything - which that detail does not do in any way. The antagonist is met early in the film. He is a man that struggles with the idea of free will. So much so that as a child he once forced himself to jump from a high balcony, severely injuring himself in the process, just to prove to himself that he could do it. It is known by the audience that this man did something with the wife. But what?*

The ending of the film unfolds in a chilling and inescapable fashion. Sluizer's direction assists the plot by properly building fear and suspicion in the audience. While the ending is bottomless and unsettling on its own*, the tension that builds throughout The Vanishing is the real highlight. The audience, much like the husband, want answers. Both get what they want*.

The Vanishing: A