cinematographique

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Archive for March 2009

L’Humanité

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HumaniteToo much can be made of Bruno Dumont as philosopher, but along with film-maker, it seems to be the most suitable label. If he is anything, he is not a cinephile, and so the man claims himself. And it therefore seems the moderate (verging upon medicinal) pace of L’Humanité is more likely down to his own genuflections to ontology than any purported influence from Tarkovsky, et cetera. The combination of astounding realist performances from non-actors, commensurate to the oddity of Dumont’s characters, written half-formed and surreal, has the somnambulistic effect of bringing us closer to their reflection on horror and its relation to care (and being in relation to one another), than to their factual predicament. The plot is sparse and quite realist, while the technique is formalist and quite fine. L’Humanité is probably a film better enjoyed in the cinema for this reason. Pharaon’s bicycle ride is breathtaking. The film demands a meditative stance from the viewer, and it needs to wash over you, rather than be interrogated hermeneutically. It demands patience and an openness to experience. It probably helps to have, or to have known someone who has, witnessed death, particularly of such graphic horror, in order to understand how effectively the film does capture humanity. Dumont does not make films to entertain, but to provoke. This is a suitable goal, because I don’t think he has it in him to entertain. The man spent ten years filming charts and graphs, CEO speeches, production lines, factory machines. He has a great formal skill, and has exercised his ontological muscles enough to find the emotion in the experience of seeing a mechanical operation. Good art? Yes: a provocative, if slightly puzzling experience. Not fun though.

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Written by James P. Campbell

19/03/2009 at 12:10

Watchmen ***

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Critics have had little patience for Watchmen (indeed, un film de Zack Snyder). Roger Ebert, with his context-specific assessment criteria, gives it a fair shout. Watchmen must be understood in the context of its source – the filmed graphic novel versus the filmed comic book, the ambivalent priorities of writer, director, editor and studio, political and ideological remit. It could use harsher editing. It is too reverent to the text, and fails on a structural basis. But on the whole, I found it quite satisfactory work. The trick is to go in expecting little.

WatchmenBased on the graphic novels by Alan Moore (who refused to have his name attached, as with V for Vendetta) and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen follows a group of retired costume-clad vigilantes in the comic book alternate-reality 1980s. The existence of superheroes has radically contorted twentieth-century history, ending the Vietnam conflict in overwhelming favour of the US, and facilitating a three-term run for Richard Nixon. But the Watchmen have since been outlawed, and tensions have irreparably escalated with the Soviet Union – the comically metaphorical Doomsday Clock is pushed perilously close to midnight. I’m sure all of these conceits are more incisively and chillingly executed in the novels. A conspiracy unfolds to subvert nuclear war, implicating more than one of the heroes. 

Lane at the New Yorker has claimed that Watchmen “is so insanely aroused…by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon”: unfair, if understandable. The symptoms are there, the diagnosis incorrect. Power embodied, Dr. Manhattan, is allegedly increasingly inhuman, divorced from men (women) and the world. He blasts stereotypical Vietcong to smithereens (when we surprisingly cannot tell whether he is aroused); he lets the Comedian kill an innocent woman; he loses his girlfriend. The only thing that can offset the banal evil of his indifference is discovering (glibly) the value of life. The ideologue, Rorschach, has a face whose symbolic associations cast him as reflective, as a monad. He incorporates the two infamous faces of contemporary ideology, in the extremist’s righteous outbursts of violence, and the liberal democratic willingness to torture for utilitarian and private ends. He cuts up paedophiles and bashes midgets. Ozymandias uses power to effect ideology in its truer, pure form. Manipulating Manhattan and employing Realpolitik, he puts in place the Master-Signifier, the great lie which sustains the “new, better” status quo at the film’s conclusion. And minces around, failing to convince us of his speed or intellect. This villain of the piece is the liberal communist who with one hand offers harmony, with the other takes millions of lives to instigate and sustain symbolic and objective systematic violence. He gets away with it. The overt, political ideology of Rorschach is annihilated and, in the Hegelian coincidence of opposites, Ozymandias’s new world manifests his ideology in its unevaluated norms. The only way out? For a journalist to unstitch the Master-Signifier, destroy peace and harmony.

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Written by James P. Campbell

06/03/2009 at 12:10

Un conte de Noël ****½

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ContedeNoelAfter listening to a delightful interview on Radio 4 with director, the charming Arnauld Desplechin, I decided to see Un conte de Noël. It is a film full of beauty and wit, in which formalist and naturalist tendencies meld to almost somnambulistic effect. The subtlety of Desplechin’s direction (and writing) verges upon poetic – he’s tapping a vast well of meaning in the subtle cracks that run through family relationships. The Vuillard clan share a terribly checkered past, but must reunite at the family pile to celebrate Christmas and orchestrate a life-saving bone-marrow transplant for Catherine Deneuve’s magisterial matriarch, Junon (bringing home the banished, insufferable drunk, Henri).

The performances are phenomenal. It’s hard to pick out any one that stands above the rest, but if I must, Mathieu Amalric as Henri. A mind-blowing performance, though the obvious choice. Anne Consigny is the ideal counterpoint as the Tartuffian banisher Elizabeth, with a captivating screen presence. Of course, there is the fuzzy patriarch by Roussillon, who delivers the one charming character, whose marital patter is unforgettable. You don’t want to leave this family behind. You want to take them with you and continue watching, however unlovable they are. Forget about running time; Desplechin wasn’t lying when he claimed he uses ten ideas whenever he could have used one. This density has the marvelous effect of emulating life, indistinguishably. Empathy? There is someone to empathize with in every scene. Who you choose is down to your character. In this sense, Un Conte de Noël achieves a strange combination of passionate and yet dispassionate portraiture, both involved and balancing at an Archimedean point.

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Written by James P. Campbell

04/03/2009 at 12:10