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An Education | The Road | Departures | The New World

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An Education (d. Lone Scherfig, 2009)

Nick Hornby’s script follows a pretty conventional arc, but it satisfies and performs as a story. There’s nothing showy in the photography – everything is just in its right place. Some of the design is, admittedly, not quite – consider the Bristol – slightly wrong era.

What makes it, I feel, is Lone Scherfig’s direction (of the performers). The film can almost scan as a series of vignettes – particular experiences that come to mark transitions into adulthood, and moments that eventually define all sorts of relationships. This is the case because of the carefully, almost unnoticeably deft evocation of naturalistic body language, figures of speech, snatches of words (as both precedes and answers the leading couple’s first kiss), alongside an emotionally charged, expressive use of sound and light (the crumpled half-lit face of Sarsgaard bottoming out in cowardice), and a romantic deployment of classical figures (the fingers extended on Mulligan’s hand as she holds it over her heart, waiting for him to come inside). These moments feel universal and timeless, because they are, and because they are articulated as such with grace. It becomes moving.

There are symbols and patterns of images (and words) at work – Mulligan stands listening to her father’s consolation outside her bedroom door, framed for us in double profile by her mirrors – completely vulnerable or defeated. The language about things “growing on trees”, and the punctuating appearances of Emma Thompson, etc.

I also particularly like its message. Our heroine doesn’t regret her experience, nor does she forget it – the way in which she lives is manifested in her means of healing, revealed in her closing remarks. When asked to return to Paris by another boy, she enthuses and agrees as though she had never been there before. It is as if she has forgotten that she went, but the fact she did is manifest in her enthusiasm – she lives with the experience and has grown through it. She applied herself to study both to repair the damage and to ease the business of forgetting and rebuilding through faith. There are two montages in the film, and one of them shows this process of toil. The first montage, mirroring it, shows her discovery of the world of fun, and the initiations of experience with David. It is interesting Scherfig chooses to counterpoint these two. What a lovely film.


The Road (d. John Hillcoat, 2009)

Of course, no one is going to be entertained by The Road. It’s The Road, for god’s sake. What matters is that it is profoundly moving, faithful in adaptation, is approved by McCarthy, achieves a tragic beauty, and is very honest about the apocalypse.

The Road imagines a world without culture. With no society and no systems of meaning, doing the right thing becomes a chaotic process. McCarthy has a pessimistic view of life, of life per se, and the human as reified above a fundamental survival drive. In this world without society, of complete structural and familial disintegration, people are locking each other in basements and gradually consuming them. It is a virulent, hellish vision, but one whose purpose is clear and vital – to place the father and son together, in opposition to it all.

All that matters to the success of the film is its evocation of place, its strength of performance, and in particular, of the relationship between father and son. Is there any greater figure to capture the cinematic father than Viggo Mortensen? Is this because I idolise him as a bear-like, bearded figure of genuine originality and authenticity? Perhaps. Kodi Smit-McPhee is tolerable, workmanlike, though the American child invariably has an insufferable, whining lilt. When he succeeds most he is at his most feral, squealing like a wounded mammal at the psychological trauma he is exposed to, as his father washes a murderer’s brains out of his hair.

There is an essential strain of hope in the film, as in the book. Not for our future – McCarthy appears to think very lowly of the future of the human race. But hope for the meaning of life – because as he goes about, nihilistically stripping away the artificial meanings in the world, he cannot crack the core value that matters to us, even as organisms – the bonds of love, those selected and fought for with our partners, and those irrevocable and eternal, with our children. This is what matters in the world, and it matters much more even than our being alive.

Hillcoat does a wonderful job of bringing this horror to life, and this beauty and fundamental value to the fore. He also effectively suggests the hallucinations of the boy, carefully side-stepping the commercial suicide of an ending at which everybody dies by presenting a happy conclusion, all in his imagination – a comforting dream, a sign of the end.


Departures (d. Yôjirô Takita, 2008)

The healing power of ritual. This film’s subject is like an inversion of Oshima’s Ceremonies, but with significantly less complexity. Its story is told, typically, with a contemporary blend of melodrama with levity and seriousness without gravity, recalling perhaps the tone of Kikujiro. Daigo discovers himself through his new work as a dresser of the dead – preparing the bodies of the departed for interment. This novel ceremony, to precede the funeral, presents many of the aesthetic priorities in Japanese culture, and the film places emphasis on the phenomenal aspects of these experiences – though perhaps too little. It starts to creep out too in the sounds, sights and words spoken about food. If some more of its lengthy running time was devoted to the senses, this would be a masterpiece.

As it is, Departures is more palatable for a wide audience and awards judges, and a moving story about family, ageing, death and touch. There is something interesting going on here, too, with regard to our viewing actors playing corpses. We watch the bereaved playing their part in the ritual until their emotions get the better of them and they begin to fight over the fate of the deceased as though they were still alive, or mourn them by addressing them, and so on. To the families, the ceremony is about coming to terms with life having left the body, and the loved one only now existing in memory, not in the material realm. Before this can happen they necessarily see a dead body as alive – and so does the audience, since we know these are actors, and marvel at their stillness. We don’t feel disconnected from the players in the knowledge that no one is dead – we feel a similar ambiguity in the phenomena. Wonderful.


The New World (d. Terrence Malick, 2006)

Never has Terrence Malick so clinically and overtly sketched a vision of worldhood from Heidegger. This is essentially a second run through the subject of The Thin Red Line, employing many of the same devices – the natural world, the built environment, conflict, loss, being together – but introducing many more central pillars – inhabiting, co-habiting, systems of objects and relative understandings of them, networks of meaning, our nature and its relation to culture, violence (in a Nietzschean nature), faith and the rebirth of love (a nature from Kierkegaard). The whole story arises from the phenomena – the sensual experience of grasses, trees and skin, or of steel, timber beams and pike-handles; sounds of language in European and aboriginal modes; the warring, subversive influences of the heroes’ monologues and European romantic music.

As a piece of philosophy, it is a fascinating existential inquiry. The story of the colony, of empire, of the obliteration of native civilisation, the experience of the colonised, the conqueror – all of these are in there, and all connect on one level or another to individual experience, in war or in love, loss, and recovery. As an historical experiment, an attempt to bore to the lived experience, it is terribly exciting. And as a film, its execution, in all richness and depth, its pared-down simplicity in script and structure, its meandering length, make it a remarkable achievement. One could argue The New World is a little baggy, and that its story arc won’t appeal to everyone, but it is quite extraordinary that such work can make it out of Hollywood alive, let alone in such fine shape.

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Written by James P. Campbell

31/01/2010 at 21:16

2 Responses

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  1. Hello, nice writing, have just discovered your blog! Departures was one of my better film experiences last year. It was indeed quite audience-friendly.

    Monsieur D.

    31/01/2010 at 21:53

  2. I enjoyed reading your brief take on Terrence Malick. Thank you.

    doctor documentary

    25/03/2010 at 17:46

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