She Is Mentally Very Strong. Monday Movies Might Not Be Equal to It.
What a good week! I am besieged by goddesses. Liv Ullmann, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Dunham. (One of these things is not like the others, and all the more power to her for it.)
Persona – Liv Ullmann plays Elisabeth, an actress who refuses to speak. Bibi Andersson is Alma, the nurse who attends her. In the hospital, Bibi gets a preview of what’s to come; in the bare room, in her demure nurse’s uniform, she comprehends her smallness compared to the demon of emotion and expression in her care. “I might not be equal to it.”
But removed to an oceanside retreat, in her hip girl clothes with her chopped hair untucked from her short cap, she abandons caution and forms a bond as intense as any fan ever did with any idol, at lethal proximity. The telling of a confidence (just rainy-day dialogue, but the most erotic scene I have seen in recent memory), is violated in a letter. The intimate scenes of care turn into intimate scenes of battle. And the actress remains silent, never entirely innocent that her silence is great power over her caretaker. The same power that, in the institutional setting, Alma humbly noted and rightly feared.
Bergman calls attention to his artifice through expressive montages. One hostile act — a shard of glass left by the nurse in the path of the actress — seem to have consequences off screen; then the film burns up, and when it restored the act seems never to have happened. We all know stories that turn out to have been dreamed by a central character. By the end of Persona, we seem to be in only one place, but we have seen the dream that each of these women have dreamed of each other.
Tiny Furniture — Lena Dunham, a recent Oberlin grad, directs herself as Aura, a recent Oberlin grad. Aura lives in her small Manhattan apartment with her artist mother and her gifted little sister. She has a couple of videos on Youtube, including one in particular where she sheds her clothes and maneuvers her roundish body into a school fountain. (Dunham borrows this for Aura from her own work.) Aura knows she’s an artist, and she’s not entirely sure how to continue being one.
Dunham’s doing something slightly different from the handheld faux-naiveté of the mumblecore boys, the New York wry of Noah Baumbach (whose romantic burlesque of post-college malaise Kicking and Screaming filled up hours of my post-college life) or the fussy post-ironic theatrics of Wes Anderson. Her most impressive accomplishment is to completely cleave her performance as an actress from her actions as a director. The actress is naked and vulnerable. The director is cold, though not cruel. The effect is tremendous. Aura is pathetic, insecure, bad at love, tormented by her baby sister. Dunham works in still medium shots with the action at the center of the frame — Anderson does this too, probably via Scorcese. It also shows up in the Coen brothers’ work. It signifies a coldness of perspective, an unsympathetic universe.
I missed Before Sunrise in theaters, but rented it in order to see Before Sunset. I was the exact right age to see the latter movie, and it took my breath away. The former struck me as something I would have enjoyed when I was the same age as the characters. In her ability to be at once studied and exposed, Dunham makes an incredibly specific movie that translates to a much wider audience than its subject. She’s currently developing a series for HBO called Girls. I’m excited to see it.
I wrote “handheld faux-naiveté” up there, but I meant it, so Imma let it stay in.
A Christmas Tale–Parents Abel and Junon lost their oldest son at a young age to a rare disease, which the bone marrow of none of their other children could cure. As adults, their family has become a closed system of circulating toxins. Elizabeth, the oldest, has a teenage son Paul whose mental breakdown recalls a similar episode by his uncle Ivan, the youngest. The middle child, Henri, is a drunk and a rat, who has been frozen out of the family at Elizabeth’s initiative after she had to pay off his business debts. Now Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has developed her own blood disease, and Elizabeth’s ban on Henri has been overruled so that the family can gather at Christmas to reveal whether the results of their blood tests will mean they can help out their mother, and continue their campaigns against one another.
Filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin shovels whole chapters of exposition with a light touch, setting the night before Christmas Eve on a whole Jenga tower of teetering backstory. Action is not change, catastrophe is not catharsis: the Vuillard family are unchangeable. Elizabeth will always be a proud warrior. Henri will always have a fit of self-pity at the ready. A betrayal years in the making will not crack Ivan’s optimism. And Junon’s icy forbearance will never do more than hint at her affection for her brood. For Desplechin, problems can be solved, but family cannot.
Certified Copy–This was a universal favorite on critics’ 2011 year-end lists, leaving me a little embarrassed that it left me so far out at sea. In Tuscany, an English writer (William Shimell) gives a talk about his book of art criticism, Certified Copy, a brief to elevate the copy to the status of the original. A French woman (Juliette Binoche) sees him speak, buys several copies of the Italian translation for friends, and arranges to spend a day with him. “You want to make him fall in love with you,” says her son. The woman is combative, brittle, from the start. As they tour the countryside, her emotions bubble up with more and more heat and speed. A cafe owner takes him to be her husband. Is it possible that they’ve met before? Could he even be the father of her son? By the end of their day together, it seems impossible that he’s not–but the beginning of their journey makes it look impossible that he could be. Perhaps the relationship that has been posited between them is a copy (a translation? they fall in and out of English, Italian, French) without an original.
The title may have been too strong a clue to me. I comb through all my references to mechanical reproduction, simulacra. They do not seem to fit here. The visual style with which Binoche and Shimell are moved through the Tuscan prettiness does not suggest either a strong self-referential hand like Bergman’s or a playful one like Desplechins, nor any kind of attitude towards the digital copying of 21st-century cinema. Director Kiarostami is a universally hailed master. I think there’s a deeper game here, more about the creation of relationships and stories. Binoche’s emotions are ahead of the story throughout, as if the relationship has to create itself to keep up with her. Maybe that is a hint.
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