Welcome to the moral unknown: a video essay

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I am not a moralist, and my film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon.” So said Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Cannes press conference for his seminal 1960 work L’avventura.

In this statement, which also contains his famous  ”Eros is sick” remark, Antonioni expresses a clear exasperation with what he deems to be a schism between western society’s relative intellectual progressiveness and its archaic moral hang-ups (presumably the abiding influence of Catholicism in the case of post-war Italy). In Antonioni’s eyes, this fundamental and unhealthy inconsistency in the societal fabric insidiously finds a mode of expression in the realm of sexuality, in the broader context of emotional expression of course.

Considering the explosive blossoming of frank sexuality in western media during the late fifties and early sixties which, fifty years on, has yet to hit a nadir, it’s not surprising that Antonioni sensed something other than a society letting loose after an eternity of repression; that there was (and is) something slightly pathological about the near obsessive omnipresence of sexuality, representing – perhaps – an itching desire for connection, validation, escape, and who knows what else.

Yet, it’s this very wariness that threatens to paint Antonioni, his views and – by extension – his films post-L’avventura, in a decidedly conservative light. Impassioned and eloquent as his words are (so much so that I marvel at the very idea of him uttering them unrehearsed and off the cuff), there is something simplistic and needlessly binary about Antonioni’s comparison of ‘scientific man’ and ‘moral man.’ Moreover, his assertion that he is not a moralist is almost at odds with the supreme self-awareness of his cinematic approach.

So is L’avventura at heart a conservative, moralist work? Watching the film, Antonioni’s somewhat aloof visual and narrative style is anything but polemical or brow-beating, though there is a simmering undercurrent of despair and disaffectedness which renders much of the hanky panky devoid of joy or pleasure. This ends up being, in itself, an unfavourable comment on the sexuality of the characters. Perhaps it is a moralist film in amoral clothing.

On a more gossipy note, Antonioni and the film’s lead actress, Monica Vitti, were in a relationship out of wedlock; lovers. And while this might not mean much, it does suggest that at least two of the film’s key creators weren’t necessarily stalwarts of traditional Catholic/Christian values.

Having previously written about this film, which has become – over the years – less of a personal favourite while remaining a game-changing revelation, I find myself returning once more to L’avventura‘s final scene, in which Claudia’s apparent gesture of forgiveness and comfort towards Sandro the lecher could be perceived otherwise, specifically, as acknowledgement of the fact that he has finally become self aware. Following on from the idea that the film is about several characters happening upon a painful realisation at various stages in the narrative,  and using Antonini’s Cannes statement as a guide, this is a brief examination of L’avventura as a film preoccupied with morality if not overtly moralist in itself.


Dredged up: “A Woman is a Woman isn’t so bad” (another piece written circa 2011)

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

As soon as I hit play on this 1961 Godard picture, a wave of dread came over me. This was followed swiftly by shame. I was supposed to be excited and energised. I’m meant to like Godard, aren’t I? Well, I do. Well, I appreciate him, his prodigious influence, his eschewing of rules and dogmas, his sometimes irritating passion for the form. His pure balls. I think “Breathless” is to cinema what the monolith was to Stanley Kubrick’s ape-men. Not the best analogy perhaps, but the best I could come up with. 1964’s “Vivre Sa Vie” was interesting, meaning my sister hated it but I thought it was kind of awesome. I retract my earlier statement. I was pumped for this movie.

“Une Femme est une Femme” features Godard favourite (read: lover and muse) Anna Karina as Angela, a burlesque dancer whose cyclist partner, Emile, scoffs at her deep desire to become a mother. Completing a love triangle of sorts is Alfred, a professed admirer of Angela’s who courts her incessantly and would possibly  go to great lengths to win her affections, perhaps as far as agreeing to knock her up. New-wave silliness ensues.

 Funnily, everything I feared this movie would throw in my face turned out to be the very reasons I was utterly charmed by it. An erratic almost cheeky soundtrack, twee use of colour, fourth-wall breaches, Hollywood rom-com stylings, offbeat visual gags…”Une Femme est une Femme” is the work of a toddler of an artist cavorting in a cinematic playpen with his buddies, and I had a ball watching them. Where “Breathless” was a newborn sprinting on Day 1, this film is baby Godard content having a whole lot of fun in the sand. The first thing you notice is the colours, vibrant, lush almost. Not quite as punk as I’d anticipated. Later on, I’m to be reminded of P.T. Anderson and Bob Elswit’s use of colour in “Punch-Drunk Love” — Emily Watson’s orangey blouse and Adam Sandler’s cobalt-blue suit, both of which evoke outfits worn by this film’s two leads. That movie was also modelled around the classic Hollywood musical, but I am not suggesting any lineage of influence here.

 You’re then hit with the music. Either it makes you cock your head and wonder a little, or it pisses you off from the get go. It’s almost like a component of dialogue, a mish-mash of pop tunes and orchestral flourishes that don’t simply underscore happenings but are part of their very architecture. Personally, I cocked my head, perhaps getting a little miffed, but then I was promptly swept away. There are even moments that teeter on the edge of dance while others openly allude to Technicolor umbrella numbers of the 50s (I assume). One of the final scenes in Angela and Emile’s apartment has a very choreographed feel with its gliding cameras and swelling strings, and at one point earlier in the film, Angela actually mentions Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse while holding dance poses. Which brings me to the next and most obvious observation. That Godard tops Tarantino when it comes to referencing both himself and pop culture. This movie is awash with references. Half of them did not ring a bell, but I was certainly aware of their presence. But unlike, say, his later, more political/philosophical films, these references are the loving touches of a chain-smoking geek, not the indignant jabs of a pseudo-intellectual (which, of course, there is nothing wrong with being, at least not always).

“A Woman Is a Woman” is incredibly playful and that’s the best way to approach it. That being said, Anna Karina, I think, makes an incredibly assured turn as Angela. She seems so damn comfortable in front of the camera, so at ease you might think she was born in front of one, a statement which would automatically make a fifth of the world’s population natural-born actors. But honestly, Karina carries this film, an achievement which was recognised at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival in some capacity. All the performances are good, but there is not a forced moment in hers. To perhaps preface everything I’ve said, I wouldn’t be surprised if every spoken word was improvised.  There is a care-free yet heightened naturalism in the characters’ interactions. Regarding Angela and Emile, there is an almost childish quality to their relationship. It’s clear from their bickering and non-verbal name-calling (you’ll see) that they’re crazy about each other, but that this might equally be the reason for their coupling being a tenuous one. To me, Alfred doesn’t stand a chance, never did. But like lichen on a tree or one of those birds on the ass of a rhino, good on him for trying, for sticking with it.

As to what this film actually says or suggests about femininity and love, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. When I watch films I tend to focus on style on first viewing, taking more interest in the actual story and content on subsequent sit-throughs. But if anything, my off-the-cuff impression is that Angela is nostalgic for a fading feminine ideal, that of the woman with strong nesting and maternal yearnings, a sexuality that commands the male gaze, and a sense of unerring devotion to the one she has chosen to love. Perhaps in an age when women will soon burn their bras and stick it to their ovarian cycles with The Pill, Angela feels that despite all these modernisations, a woman is a woman. Or maybe it’s simply Godard who thinks this.

Brief impression: “Abuse of Weakness”

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

If there are a handful of cinematic devices used by filmmakers in the hopes of appealing to the arthouse establishment, a top five list of these would probably include: elliptical storytelling, long/extended takes, banal dialogue, narrative and thematic repetition, and hyper-naturalistic performances; of course, there are probably a handful more that are equally overused. Catherine Breillat has already established herself as one of the key voices of current French cinema, whether as undisputed queen of the so-called New French Extremity or otherwise, so it is hard to argue that her most recent film is an attempt to be ‘arthouse’ by way of somewhat rote application of the above devices, hyper-naturalistic performances aside. Why then does this (or did this initially) seem to be the case, at least in this individual’s eyes?

‘Abuse of Weakness’ is Breillat’s adaptation of her own autobiographical 2009 book of the same name, one which documents her relationship with international conman Cristophe “phony Rockefeller” Rocancourt following a debilitating stroke she suffered in 2004. Initially attracted to his dangerous charisma which she intended on translating to an on-screen performance by casting him in a film project based around the man himself, Breillat – renamed Maud Schoenberg in this film and embodied by the always dependable Isabelle Huppert – found herself writing Rocancourt a string of cheques amounting to nearly €700 000. Breillat blamed her irresponsible cheque-writing and her susceptibility to Rocancourt’s scamming skills on impaired mentation following her stroke, which – to be fair – is not the most implausible claim, an approach which successfully flew in court and subsequently landed the conman in prison.

Now, there isn’t much point in wondering why Breillat decided to convert her book into a film seeing as she was a novelist before she was a filmmaker and has up to this point based four of her films on her own literary works, including her cinematic debut. This being said, is the film intended to be a means by which the subtle or not-so-subtle gender dynamics and perhaps sexuality which may have underpinned and driven Breillat and Raconcourt’s relationship is teased apart and analysed? Because, if so, ‘Abuse of Weakness’ may not be particularly successful. In fact, the film’s achievement may be to further validate Breillat’s assertions of mental incapacity by providing barely any perceptible reasons why Breillat/Schoenberg is putty in the slimy hands of her conman muse. While the film’s version of Raconcourt, named Vilko Piran and played with some level of gusto by Kool Shen, may possess an appreciable brutish allure, this is undercut by the placement of frankly dull, almost embarrassing dialogue in his mouth. The frequent jibes and lame insults Piran lays on Schoenberg, to which the half-crippled filmmaker responds with Huppert’s signature smug smirk, seem to portray the conman as being a lot less extraordinary than €700 000 in swindled loans would suggest. As the film progresses, it would not be surprising if a viewer were almost squinting, trying to see in Piran what it is that Schoenberg sees in him, and in failing to do so, turning the squint on Schoenberg in hope of glimpsing the obvious deficiencies in her that Piran is exploiting. Unfortunately, Scheonberg – as played by Huppert – come across as being more brash, carefree and stubborn than gullible and temporarily dim, and as the film reaches its conclusion in a scene which is a lot more emotionally commanding than it perhaps has any right to be, the possibility that Breillat is still unable to truly explain exactly what was going on in her head during this fateful period in her life becomes less of a possibility and more of a tentative certainty. Was it a crush or was it love? Was it fear? The French auteur, it seems, has little to say about why exactly she fell victim to “phony Rockefeller’s” tricks (apart from the post-stroke-deficit angle). I’d say she has even less to say about Rocancourt and the effect he must have had on his other victims, probably because the key question is not about the exploitation itself but that which was exploited.

Given a handful of weeks to stew over this film, its effectiveness has risen in my estimation, almost improbably. Breillat’s use of the banal, the elliptical and repetitive now appears to be less of a cheap attempt at satisfying the arthouse mode. They truly do seem to highlight the often elusive nature of weakness, the kind that one person has for another.

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