Critic's Guide - 08 Jan 2008
Highlights of 2007
A film director and writer based in Paris. From 1991–1996 he was editor in chief of Cahiers du Cinéma. He has published numerous books on film, including recent monographs on David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai, and, together with Thierry Paquot, the anthology La Ville au Cinéma (Cahiers du Cinéma, 2005).
I may as well be honest: I wasn’t expecting much from David Fincher’s Zodiac (unless otherwise mentioned, all films 2007). How surprised I was, then, to discover a great film about disappointment and a mental labyrinth at odds with the myth of American efficiency. A variation on two omnipresent motifs in the cinema of the past 15 years – the 1970s and the figure of the serial killer – Zodiac breaks with the habits and customs of its time to produce a deep reflection on the evaporation of truth. As time passes, the investigation surrounding the elusive killer metamorphoses into a private quest. Assisted by Harris Savides, formerly Gus van Sant’s director of photography, Fincher combines visual beauty and narrative virtuosity to arrive at melancholy drift that has no equivalent in the American cinema of the last 20 years.
The most enigmatic film of 2007 was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006, but released in 2007). It’s impossible to sum up this strange artefact, which slips from one historical period to another, from one hospital to another, with a disconcerting smoothness. Overcoming the antinomy between storytelling and experimentation, Syndromes and a Century accumulates the symptoms of an insidious pathology. The film’s apparent casualness masks a mastery of structure that tends towards the undecidable: the real resists, meaning conceals itself, and that’s just fine. After the incredible Blissfully Yours (2002) and the virtuoso Tropical Malady (2004) Syndromes and a Century again demonstrates the immense talent of the Thai director as one of this decade’s key filmmakers.
While his Nouvelle Vague fellow travellers – Jacques Rivette with Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t Touch the Axe) and Eric Rohmer with Les amours d’Astrée et Céladon (The Romance of Astrée and Céladon) – escape into history and literature, Claude Chabrol comes in from the cold with La fille coupée en deux (The Girl Cut in Two), a film that mixes implacable rigour in construction with excursions into the grotesque. As in many of Chabrol’s films, behind a veil of provincial trivia lurks a world where men and women, victims of a head-on collision between their uncontrollable urges and the social order, unflinchingly follow the road to ruin. The film works like a trap that grips the characters right up to the astonishingly magical denouement, where the title metaphor suddenly makes the girl cut in two pass from alienation to liberty. A tragicomedy, the film is free of moralizing. Chabrol may be the only French filmmaker who would be capable of dealing on screen with the Nicholas Sarkozy divorce.
Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park marked a unique departure in the filmmaker’s work. An intimate poem coiled at the heart of adolescence, it plunges us into the mind of a character pierced by horror but seemingly dumbstruck. Astonishingly gentle, riddled with dazzling sounds and musical elements unprecedented in Van Sant’s work (notably the brilliantly dislocated use of the score originally composed by Nino Rota for Federico Fellini’s 1965 movie Juliette of the Spirits), Paranoid Park offers the viewer every opportunity to dream, to project and to peruse, as though the director was gliding like a skater over meanings and emotions. Though perhaps less impressive than Van Sant’s preceding films Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) this latest part of a possible tetralogy stays with the viewer for a long time: what the film loses in terms of theoretical clout is gained in terms of depth.
Seldom has a biopic been as non-linear as Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. Bob Dylan here is the object less of a biographical exploration than of a dizzying schizophrenic fantasy. Through six possible incarnations of the god Dylan, Haynes, an expert on the power of falsehood, undertakes an astonishing meditation on a key figure in American culture. Complex, elusive, slippery, inconsistent – Haynes smartly explores Dylan’s character as a fragmented anti-portrait: the focus constantly shifts. Dylan’s several lives have, like all lives, overlapped and tangled. The net result of these legends, dreams and follies captures an aspect of America that is dealt with comprehensively in a film that is composed and decomposed in equal measure. With this insanely ambitious work Haynes has created a definitive mix of pop culture and avant-garde, fashion and travesty, music and poetry.
The manager of film programming and the film archive at the Goethe-Institut in New York.
War and sickness suffused the cinema of 2007, from multiplex fodder to art-house fare. The most resonant of these films sought historical perspective on the fractured, divided, threatened individual at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. In 1974 Miguel Enríquez, leader of Chile’s revolutionary leftist movement, was killed by General Augusto Pinochet’s troops in an ambush. His partner, Carmen Castillo, survived the attack. Castillo opens her exquisitely crafted cinematic memoir Calle Santa Fe with the short, official, black and white television coverage of the traumatic event, then expands into the story not told by the media: her story – a story of resistance, loss, exile and return. With a deeply investigative, insightful and personal voice-over Castillo’s film becomes a colourful, unsentimental tapestry in which her life’s experiences and her country’s difficult history become inseparable.
A discerning illustration of fascism’s psychological mechanisms set in 1983, Shane Meadows’ This Is England, the director’s most autobiographical film, chronicles a fatherless boy’s shockingly swift transformation from child into extremist skinhead (and back again). The film’s frame of reference is the Falklands War, whose imperialistic rationale is convincingly reflected in the characters’ small-town racism and violence against whomever they don’t consider part of ‘their’ England. Cristian Mungiu’s haunting 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, set during the waning days of Nicolae Ceauçescu’s repressive regime later in the same decade, follows two young Romanian friends, as they face harrowing choices related to the illegal abortion one of them plans to undergo. Featuring extraordinary performances by the two female leads, Mungiu’s second feature demonstrates with a merciless clockwork precision what it means to have no choice at all.
Cut to a Russian army base in present-day Chechnya, the backdrop for Alexandra, one of Aleksandr Sokurov’s most painterly and yet most political films – one that could, however, take place in any war zone. Unlike most war films in 2007 (and, surprisingly, there were many), Alexandra avoids the pitfalls of ‘realistic’ depiction of ambushes, pitched battles and killings; to much greater effect Sokurov examines war’s debilitating effects on soldiers and civilians alike through the unlikely perspective of a soldier visiting an intrepid grandmother, who investigates life in and outside the base.
Marjane Satrapi also challenges the traditions of how war and violence are represented in the autobiographically inspired Persepolis, her brilliant feature début, co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud. A deeply original and striking animated film of mostly black and white drawings, based on Satrapi’s graphic novel about coming of age in Tehran during the Iran–Iraq War, Persepolis focuses on the options involved in keeping one’s integrity and humanity when confronted with a totalitarian regime.
Also portraying a personal fight against debilitating odds is Julian Schnabel’s third feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir chronicling his imprisonment in his own body following a massive stroke. Schnabel’s film is most remarkable for its first half, which provides astonishing insight into the sensory perception and thought processes of another human being, one rarely achieved in the realm of narrative filmmaking. This is made possible by depicting the limited world of Bauby’s hospital room from the main character’s point of view, a technique with a none-too-successful track record. Objects and people in the room drift in and out of focus, the light changes slowly, the door opens. Remarkably, we begin to understand the despair of immobility and the desire amidst all of this still to communicate.
The protagonist of Ming-liang Tsai’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is also confined to a hospital bed. But somehow this same man (at least, it seems to be the same man) is also a homeless Chinese immigrant in Kuala Lumpur, who is beaten up and then lovingly nurtured back to health by a Bangladeshi migrant worker. Tsai’s film is notable for its dreamlike structure and silent protagonists, but it nevertheless speaks clearly of physical vulnerability and the urgent need to take care of each other in a world increasingly determined by the economic pressures of globalization and environmental dangers.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cryptic Syndromes and a Century is a memoir of another sort. The film, loosely based on Weerasethakul’s parents’ work as doctors, features a vertiginous narrative construction and is one of this year’s biggest cinematic interpretative challenges and rewarding experiences.
Last year also saw the much-anticipated release of two restored masterpieces of cinema history: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), the seminal but rarely seen milestone of the African-American New Wave, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Set on the gutted streets of post-riot Watts, and in Weimar-era Berlin, both are portraits of protagonists struggling through a landscape of moral ambiguity and mortal peril, themes that are very much of the moment.
First published in Issue 112