Movie Reviews - 2012 postsSunday June 02, 2013
Movie Review: Kapringen (A Hijacking) (2012)
Tobias Lindholm’s “Kapringen” (“A Hijacking”) is such a straightforward, tense, felt rendition of the contemporary hijacking of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean that afterwards you feel as if you’ve been held hostage, too. In a way you have. For two hours. Which makes you wonder whether or not you actually liked the movie. Is it as good as you think? Or is your reaction some cinematic version of the Stockholm Syndrome?
Named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards, “Kapringen” opens with the three-beep sound of a ship-to-shore phone, as Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), the cook of the MV Rozen, talks to his wife. He’s got some bad news. Instead of being home on the 15th he won’t arrive until the 17th. She’s upset until he sweet-talks her, charms her. Then he charms us by talking with his daughter. Afterwards we see Mikkel making food for, and joking around with, the men. He’s gregarious but has his solitary moments, too. There’s a nice scene of him on deck, watching the ocean during magic hour with coffee and cigarette.
Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, we see the CEO of the company, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), do his thing. A subordinate, Lars Vestergaard (Dar Salim), is having trouble negotiating with the Japanese. They won’t bring down their price. Stuck at $19 million, Ludvigsen wants them under $15, and when he begins negotiations he offers $10. They look shocked, laugh. They reiterate 19. He thanks them and stands to leave. At the door, they say 17. Progress. He turns around. In the end, he gets what he wants.
Both men, by the end, will irrevocably changed.
Mikkel and Peter
We never see the Somalis board the ship. They’re just there, making demands, sticking their semi-automatics in the faces of the men. The captain goes down quickly with a sickness (ulcer), so it’s up to Mikkel—who, as cook, still has to work—to negotiate with the pirates for, say, bathroom privileges. Three of the seven men are holed up in a small cabin. They are forced to pee on the floor. They talk of the stink. We smell it. It’s that kind of movie. Eventually they get a bucket. After weeks, they are allowed bathroom privileges.
The chief negotiator for the pirates is a man named Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who claims not to be a pirate, who takes umbrage at the suggestion. He’s a businessman, same as Peter. The pirates wants $15 million, Peter initially offers $250K, and the rest of the movie, and the hostage crisis, revolves around which side will move, and who will live and who will die.
It would be easy to make Peter the villain in all this. He’s a businessman, a CEO, a negotiator with little apparent emotion in his face. Malling’s eyes are so wide-spread he almost looks reptilian. Plus he never gives in. He keeps negotiating. One could say it’s not in his nature. But he too is held hostage. Throughout the movie, throughout the various negotiations, we never see him leave his temperature-controlled gray offices of Copenhagen. He’s stuck.
An Irish expert in hostage situations, Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), gives him advice, including hiring an actual negotiator to deal with the pirates. But Peter says it’s his company; he will negotiate. Connor is wary of this—emotions don’t help—but he allows it. And the days pass. Day 7, Day 25, Day 39. Each number seems impossibly large. How long could it go on? Where’s Ted Koppel? Where’s the Danish government? Where’s Interpol? We’re also waiting for Peter to either rise to the situation or for his hubris to get the better of him.
To be fair, the situation gets the better of him. Months in, Omar allows Mikkel what he’s always wanted—to talk to his wife—then betrays and uses him. The barrel of a gun is put to his head and his head is forced onto the table and he’s ordered to say the following: “You call the company and tell them to pay or they are going to kill us all!” She does this. She talks to Peter. At which point Peter stops taking Connor’s advice. He gets emotional. He raises his offer even though the Somalis haven’t countered yet. He gets angry and shouts. Omar shouts back. Then gunshots are heard. Then nothing.
In the shock afterwards, director Lindholm does a very smart thing: he keeps us in the room with Peter. He keeps us in the building with Peter. Everything’s silent. Peter’s thinking, brooding, wearing the heaviness of the situation on his face and in his posture. Has he caused the death of a man? He stays in his office through the night, and in the morning his wife arrives, buoyant, with coffee, and pastry, and a smile. He lashes out at her. The truly brilliant thing is we want to do the same. Her buoyancy in that moment is repugnant. She’s from another world. Her presence in the midst of this excruciating, slow-drip horror is an insult. We know what he does is wrong but it’s our impulse, too.
On the cargo ship, a few of the men get closer to a few of the pirates. It’s an unequal relationship, of course. One side is always this close to being humiliated, or this close to being killed. They run out of food, catch a fish, sing “Happy Birthday.” The one song everyone knows. But as the days grind on things get bad. Mikkel isn’t shot but he is psychologically abused. A skinny pirate follows him around, keeps placing the barrel of a gun on his neck, keeps pulling the trigger. Click. Remember the “Mao mao” guy from “The Deer Hunter”? Like that. We want to kill the guy. Mikkel goes the other way. He breaks. Pilou Asbæk gives a stunning performance. In the beginning, in his gregarious stage, he reminded me of a scruffy, bearded Joshua Jackson. By the end, with his thousand-yard stare, I kept thinking of Michael Shannon. Either nobody’s home or the person that’s home is curled up in a corner in the basement. And be careful about ringing the doorbell.
Celebrating a robbery
It ends well and not. There’s a payment ($3.3 million) and a death. The deal is only struck because Lars, the subordinate, offers the solution that Peter, the CEO, can’t think of. The student has become the master. But at least Peter is not responsible for a death. In a way, Mikkel is.
When the cheers go up that the deal is made, I thought, “They just paid $.3.3 million to not have men killed.” That’s part of the point, I’m sure. By the end, we’re celebrating a robbery. We don’t even need that final death to make it awful. It’s already awful.
You can’t help but compare the movie to the Hollywood version. Since Mikkel is a cook, I thought of “Under Siege,” the wish-fulfillment fantasy in which terrorists take control of a US Navy battleship, but the cook (Steven Seagal), a former SEAL, takes it back. I also thought of “Captain Phillips,” the true-life, Tom Hanks Somali-pirate movie, which will be released this October. Directed by Paul Greengrass, it looks to have some verisimilitude—it’s not superhero stuff—but it’s still wish fulfillment. It still has its happy ending.
From “A Hijacking”’s IMDb message board, American version:
Hard to believe the Dane's [sic] didn't prep/train for pirates. They were Vikings, at one time. The take away [sic] seems to be, hope for best, prep for worst, keep a Seal Team on retainer.
All Americans are cowboys in their heads but the world is brutal in ways we can’t imagine. It’s also poignant in ways we don’t portray. The faces of Hollywood heroes hide everything but amidst the inhumanity of “Kapringen” there is great humanity.
Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), near the end.
Movie Review: The Last Sentence (2012)
In 1996, Swedish director Jan Troell (“The Emigrants”; “Everlasting Moments”) made “Hamsun,” a biopic of the latter years of famed Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), who infamously sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s a tragedy.
Last year, Troell made “The Last Sentence” (“Dom over dod man”), a biopic of the latter years of famed Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT), who was one of the strongest, most strident, and earliest voices against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. It, too, is a tragedy.
The lesson? Apparently it’s tough to have a happy ending in Nazi-occupied Europe. Also being on the right side of history doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.
Two opposing ideas
When I first saw Segerstedt watching newsreel footage of Hitler, I thought, “That’s our hero?” He has a shock of white hair, prominent cheekbones, and something severe and uncompromising in his face. He looks like a drag. He is. Shortly afterwards, we see him at a dinner party giving an overlong toast about “the truth.” He does this while also conducting a public affair with the publisher of GHT, Maja Forssman (Pernilla August, Anakin Skywalker’s mom, y’all). “The sleeper does not sin,” he tells his wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog, in a great performance), before the party. “As you should know,” she replies. “You hardly sleep.”
For the first third of the film, in fact, Troell mostly ignores Hitler and history and focuses on Segerstedt’s infidelity. The cuckold, Segerstedt’s friend Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), handles it all with equanimity and a kind of sad Swedish acceptance, but Puste is less forgiving. She’s full of self-pity but receives little from others:
Puste: What does she have that I don’t?
Ingrid Segerstedt: A newspaper, mother.
And from us? We certainly feel sorry for her. How awful to take a back seat in your husband’s affairs—to not even be able to sit next to him at parties—to be usurped and forgotten in this manner. But any pity we have for her is laced with something else. There’s a quiet moment when Puste sits at Segerstedt’s desk. It’s her way of getting close to him. She doesn’t have him but she has his things. It’s a bit creepy but mostly sad. Then it just becomes creepy. She opens the desk drawer and finds a picture of a girl—“Maja, age 16,” it says on the back—and her face hardens and she tears it up. When she next visits Segerdtedt in his den, stepping over his dogs to bring him tea, and he’s brusque and distracted, she pours scalding water on the dogs.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function.” Troell manages this with his characters. Our thoughts, our feelings, are forever conflicted about them. Sure, Torgny should pay more attention to his wife … but she’s such a pain. Yes, he ignores her … but wouldn’t you?
Writing in sand
What’s amazing abut Segerstedt, why a biopic was made in the first place, is not just that he saw the dangers of Nazi Germany; it’s how early.
After the opening newsreel, he writes a screed-like editorial that ends with the line, “Herr Hitler is an insult.” Shortly thereafter, GHT receives an admonishing telegram from Hermann Göring himself, which they celebrate receiving, and which leads to another editorial. About 10 minutes of screentime later, we get news of a fire at the Reichstag building.
Me in the audience: Wait, Segerstedt wrote editorials against Hitler before Reichstag? Wow.
The second half of the movie, after Puste’s death, is more historically relevant but less emotionally resonant. The world closes in: Anschluss, annexation, appeasement, invasion of Poland, yadda yadda. At one point Segerstedt receives a phone call from a Swedish fascist who threatens his life. Segerstedt invites him over for tea. “After that, you can kill me,” he says. His maid, Pirjo (Maria Heiskanen), worries he’s being too flippant but he dismisses the threat. He feels anyone who threatens a man over the phone is a coward and won’t show his face. He’s right. But then one of his dogs is found dead on the grounds from strychine poisoning.
As both Denmark and Norway are invaded, Segerstedt’s voice against Hitler remains strident, and he’s cautioned by the authorities—including, eventually, the King—to tone it down. “You do danger to Sweden,” he’s told. “You are blinded by your hatred of the Germans.” “I don’t hate the Germans,” he responds calmly. “I hate the Nazis.” In a less calm moment, he slaps the face of the foreign minister.
There’s a kind of bitter joke here. Segerstedt warns early and often about Hitler but Sweden is one of the few countries that’s never engaged in World War II. It’s never invaded; it remains neutral. Instead, or maybe as a result, Segerstedt’s battles become internecine. The Swedish police raid the GHT offices and Segerstedt’s voice is muted. An odd banquet is held for him by leftists, in which he’s hailed as a truth-telling knight, and made to ride a horse and carry a lance, but he comes off more buffoon than hero. Finally, his battles become internal. Puste dies, but he hangs on. Maja dies, but he hangs on. He’s haunted by the women in his life: we see them black-veiled and vaguely amused, like Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” Then he’s haunted by the purposelessness of his life. He wrote thousands of articles—to what end? “How quickly it passed,” he says. “I have written in sand,” he says.
In the end, he simply wants to outlive Hitler but doesn’t get to do this, either. Sick, bedridden, stubbornly hanging on, the great truth teller is lied to. “Hitler? Is he dead?” he asks. “Yes, he is gone,” he’s told. But it’s March 1945. Hitler has another month to go. Segerstedt does not.
The test of a first-rate movie is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still function. “The Last Sentence” does the former but it doesn’t quite function. Moments resonate (“I have written in sand”) but the whole just sits there. In the end, it’s a movie better in the reviewing than the viewing.
Movie Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)
When I was a kid in Minnesota in the 1970s, Thor was god. Thor Heyerdahl.
I read “The Ra Expeditions” when it was published in the early 1970s, and I might have seen the documentary, “Ra,” at the local movie theater. Both book and doc focused on Heyerdahl’s attempt to captain a boat made of papyrus from Morocco to the west to prove that ancient peoples could have done the same. The first boat, Ra (named after the Egyptian sun god), didn’t make it, but the second, “Ra II,” did, all the way to Barbados.
But eventually I got bored with it. The adventures were only so adventurous and the ethnography went over my head. I also didn’t get how it proved anything. If you showed that something could be done, how did it prove that it was done? Plus the notion of groups of people shifting continents thousands of years ago freaked me out. It made me feel small and meaningless, which I was, I just didn’t want to know it.
I knew about “Kon-Tiki,” of course, Heyerdahl’s attempt, in the late 1940s, to prove that Polynesia was populated not from the west, as was the prevailing theory, but from the east, specifically Peru. So I was excited when I heard last year that Norway, Heyerdahl’s country, where he’s still a god, had made a movie about this adventure. I was less excited to hear that they made two versions—in Norwegian for Norway, and in English for the rest of the world—but I was excited again when it was nominated for best foreign-language feature at the 2012-13 Academy Awards. It had to be good then, right?
It’s OK. It looks beautiful but it’s a fairly cookie-cutter biopic. We get the following:
- The childhood scene indicating the man he’ll become: He takes risks on an ice floe, falls in icy waters, is saved by a friend, and refuses to tell his parents he’ll never take such risks again.
- The early adventure that leads to the quest: In the 1930s, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) lives in Polynesia with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and comes to realize that the prevailing theories about how Polynesia was populated are wrong.
- The Powers-that-Be getting in the way of the quest: Publishers won’t publish his book, the National Geographic Society won’t hear him out, he barely gets into the Explorers Club in New York, all of which indicate our hero’s underdog status.
- The wife objecting to the quest: Surely the most tedious aspect of any of these stories. Someone please apologize to Ms. Kittelsen for the thankless role.
- The quest itself: The bulk of the movie: sailing a raft, with the wind and the tides, 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia, with five other men.
- A happy ending: Bien sur.
At some point, mid-ocean, I leaned over to Patricia and said, “It would be nice if they made one of these things about someone who was wrong.”
Patricia actually liked the movie less than I did. That doesn’t happen often. And this one is mostly handsome, blonde men, half-naked on a raft, surrounded by beautiful blue water and various fish and mammals. Yet it wasn’t enough for her.
“Couldn’t they have had better conversations on the raft?” she asked as we walked away from the theater. “I know it’s supposed to be tedious, but good god.”
Admittedly, there were few conversations that stand out. Here’s one that does. At one point Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) falls into shark-infested waters and is being left behind by the Kon-Tiki, which can’t turn around, which is subject only to the wind and the tides, and one of the men (apologies: they’re not very distinguishable) jumps in with a rope to save him. The others throw chum in the water to move the sharks away and both men are saved in thrilling fashion: flailing legs leaving the water just as the sharks arrive. Afterwards, this man talks about how many he killed during World War II and how it weighs on his conscience. Then he thanks Herman. “You saved my life,” Herman reminds him. “I know,” says the man. “Thank you.” That’s a nice moment. Good dialogue. But overall Patricia is right.
“And did they all have to be so stupid?” Patricia asked. “Heyerdahl can’t swim, the one guy puts tomato soup in the water thinking it’s shark repellent, the other guy [Herman] harpoons the whale. I mean, c’mon.”
This bothered me less. The idea that Heyerdahl embarked on this journey, 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a glorified raft, even though he couldn’t swim, indicates his mania to prove his theory. The other stuff is there to create tension, conflict. Or, as with the tomato soup, it’s comic relief. Of a kind.
“Plus they telegraphed everything,” Patricia said. “You knew exactly what was going to happen.”
One scene they don’t telegraph occurs right before Herman goes in the water. Throughout the journey, they’ve had a parrot named Lorita on board; but here she suddenly flies off and lands in the water and a shark gets her. (There was a parrot on the Kon-Tiki, by the way, but storms got her, not sharks.) The camera then focuses on Lorita’s caretaker as he moves with determination around the raft. I assumed he was becoming aware that they were surrounded by sharks, a sea of sharks, and the camera would pull back and reveal them churning in the water. Instead, at a key point, he reaches down and hooks the shark that ate Lorita and brings it on board, where it flails helplessly and is then killed. It’s a revenge scene of a kind I’ve never witnessed before.
But overall Patricia’s right. They did telegraph too much. I should have let her write this review.
The right stuff
The movie also overstates Heyerdahl’s role in bringing back the notion of “adventure” in the post-war world, crediting him with inspiring the test pilots that led to the space program. But these pilots were already doing what they were doing in the California desert long before Heyerdahl put together his raft.
Even so, I liked the movie well enough. Yes, there’s not enough complexity, and yes the men aren’t distinguishable enough. But it’s beautiful to look at, the adventure is a great adventure, and Heyerdahl is still a bit of a god to me. Plus the scene with the whale is just majestic. Its immensity. The way it dwarfs us.
I’m curious, though, what backlash, if any, awaited Heyerdahl when he finished the 5,000-mile journey and wrote his book. Did any other ethnographers and anthropologists react the way I reacted when I was young? Just because you showed something could be done doesn’t prove that it was done. Or did all the other evidence (pineapples, stone idols) seal the deal?
As for being nominated for best foreign language film at the 2012-13 Academy Awards? I would’ve gone with “The Deep” from Iceland.
Movie Review: The Deep (2012)
I kept trying to place Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the star of “The Deep,” the 2012 movie that was nominated for 16 Edda Awards, Iceland’s Oscars, and won 11 of them, including best picture, director, and actor. It was the second best actor in a row for Ólafsson, even though he’s hardly leading man material. He’s overweight, frumpy, and in Hollywood would be typecast as a villain or the best friend; but in Iceland he’s Tom Hanks. Except he was reminding me of someone else.
At first I thought of Clancy Brown, who played the sadistic guard in “The Shawshank Redemption. I sorted through other options, including Chuck McCann, whom I knew best from the Saturday morning live-action show, “Far Out Space Nuts, ” before it hit me: Vincent D’Onofrio. Both men are charismatic when they want, intense when they want, and both of these factors are important in playing Gulli, a national hero in Iceland, an ordinary man who, one horrible evening, defies the sea, human nature, and, ultimately, science.
Gulli is a fisherman on Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), an archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland best-known for a 1973 volcano eruption that forced a month-long evacuation of the entire island. Gulli was a teenager at the time—we see him in flashback—but now it’s 1984 and Gulli’s a young, aimless man. He’s part of a crew of six on a fishing boat, the Breki, but seems to lack the passion or focus of the others. One is a family man, with a wife and two boys, another has an extensive LP collection and a dog, a third loses himself in drink, a fourth in women. Gulli? He’s just there. At the local bar on a dark frigid evening, he teases the new cook, then comes to his aid when a fight breaks out. His temper, we see, is fierce, but he’s a decent sort. There’s a girl, too, pretty, and a suggestion of a history, but Gulli doesn’t act on it. He still lives with his parents. He still drinks milk from the carton.
He also seems fairly impervious to cold. On a frigid December morning, when the crew of the Breki is going out despite a recent winter storm, and everything from cars to ropes creak with frost and cold, Gulli is hanging out hatless and gloveless, wearing an unzipped jacket with an open flannel shirt underneath. He’s just hanging.
Going in, we know the boat will capsize but we don’t know why. Is it the weather? Palli (Jóhann G. Jóhannsson), the family man, places a damp drawing his son made for him on a heater. Will that start a fire? We get bits from the crew: the alcoholic throwing up in the engine room; the cook unable to make a good cup of coffee for the captain; the watching of “Jaws” on Betamax and a discussion about thow they need to switch over to VHS.
Early in the day, the fishing nets get caught on something on the bottom of the ocean and the boat tilts precariously before extricating itself. So it’s not that. But it happens again in the evening, and the captain, not wanting to lose the nets, which are new, doesn’t order them cut loose. The boat tilts, and tilts, and finally goes over. The men go in. Most die quickly. Three cling to wreckage: Gulli, Palli, and the Captain. But the wreckage keeps getting swamped. The air temperature, we’re told, is 27 degrees, the water temperature 41, and they’re three miles out. “I’m so cold,” Palli says. “We can’t just die here!” the Captain says, panicking, “we have to start swimming.” He does, leaving the other two, but he doesn’t go far. Gulli spots a nearby boat, shouts and waves, but isn’t heard, and in that moment Palli dies, too. “If you make it … ” he begins to tell Gulli. Then nothing. Then his hand goes limp. Gulli, alone, begins to swim. At which point the camera pulls back and we see a lone man bobbing up against a vast, cold blackness.
On his painful journey, he talks to seagulls, tries to tell jokes (but can’t remember the punchlines), remembers the past, makes promises for the future. He gets angry. He prays. He promises that if he’s given just one more day this is what he’ll do. He won’t drink milk from a carton but from a glass—to please his mother. He’ll visit Palli’s wife and kids and tell them how he died—nobly, and thinking of them. He’ll visit his friend’s dog. He’ll pay off his motorcycle so he’ll have no debts. Then he’ll visit the girl from the bar, the one with whom he has a history. This time he won’t just walk past her house. This time he’ll go in. If he’s given just one more day.
And here his troubles began
One of the most horrifically ironic subtitles I’ve come across is from Art Spiegelman’s “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale,” which, after the first volume of various Nazi horrors culminating in husband and wife taken to Auschwitz, is subtitled, “And Here My Troubles Began.”
I thought of this when Gulli makes it to shore. It’s still night, it’s still dark, and he’s been through hell. But shore, when he reaches it, is a horror of pounding waves and sharp rocks that lead to a cliff face that can’t be scaled. So he has to go back. He has to go out into the surf again. When he finally finds a cliff face he can scale, and reaches its top, he sees nothing but desolation. The ground is cooled lava and cuts his bare feet. He has to fashion socks out of the arms of his shirt. He keeps throwing up all the salt water he’s swallowed. When he reaches a town, a kid thinks he’s a drunk. When he’s finally taken to a hospital, his body temperature is below 93 degrees. He has no heartbeat. Yet he lives.
There’s confusion at first. He said the boat went down where? And he swam how long? That’s impossible. But they find the wreckage where he said it was. A Reykjavik scientist hears of the tale and is intrigued, since what’s being talked about is scientifically impossible. A man can’t survive that long in temperatures that cold. Studies are done. When they prove inconclusive, Gulli is taken to London where more studies are done. With monitors all over his body, he’s placed in a tub filled with ice with three chiseled members of the Special Forces. Their best lasts 19 minutes. He lasts hours. It’s survival of the unfittest. His body fat is like seal fat, we’re told, but even that doesn’t explain it. He still shouldn’t have lived.
In a way he’s not. His survival is not triumphant at all. He suffers survivor’s guilt, and seems halfway between the living and the dead. And the day he promised if God let him live? Where’s that?
Bring warm clothes
“The Deep,” written by Jón Atli Jónasson and Baltasar Kormákur, and directed by Kormákur, is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s as unpretentious as the people it portrays, and much recommended. It’s spare. No real answers are given for what happens, but at some point Gulli has had enough of the tests and he returns to Vestmannaeyjar; and he has that day he promised God. He visits his friend with the LPs and the old dog, who doesn’t respond to him until he puts on the music. Then the dog is his. He visits Palli’s widow and her kids and gives them a kind of closure. But he doesn’t find his. He still doesn’t visit the girl. That’s the part he can’t do. Instead he returns to fishing. He goes out to sea again with another crew. Does he go like Superman? Like someone the sea can’t kill? No. He goes like Gulli.
Did I want more from the end? Yes. But it works. “The Deep” is a movie about blunt facts: what the sea does to you; what the cold does to you. At the end you’ll feel chilled to the bone. Bring warm clothes.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the Tom Hanks of Iceland, before the plunge.
Movie Review: Renoir (2012)
Leave it to a great painter like Pierre-Auguste Renoir to make my father look good. Whatever ways my father embarrassed me when I was growing up, he never described my girlfriend’s tits in exquisite, loving detail the way that Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) does to his son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), two-thirds of the way into Gilles Bourdos’ slow, painterly film, “Renoir.”
“Titian would have worshipped her,” Pierre-Auguste says. “Flesh! That’s all that matters! In art and in life!” And, weary in his old age, and suffering from decades of rheumatoid arthritis: “I’d give my right arm for her tits.”
The tits in question belong to Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), model and muse to Auguste in art, and instigator and muse to Jean in his film career. Muse and instigator for writer-director Bourdos as well.
“I made the film for Andree Heuschling,” Bourdos told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “She is someone who was the link—the junction between the world of painting and the world of cinema, and between the world of Renoir the father and Renoir the son. I think by using her as a focal point, it enabled me to enter the world of these men.”
That’s a great idea, and the movie is beautiful to look at, and there are moments that resonate. But the movie itself doesn’t resonate.
It opens in 1915 along the Cote d’Azur. It’s peaceful but, as Andrée bikes along a country road, there are signs of less-peaceful events taking place elsewhere. Up in the trees Andrée spots a Hun hung in effigy. As the movie progresses the war gets closer. We see injured soldiers by the side of the road. The Renoir estate will be turned into a boarding house for officers. And one soldier will return home.
Andrée, on this day, is simply biking to the Renoir estate to ask after a job as model to the famous painter. She claims Renoir’s wife sent her but a disgruntled angry boy, in a sleeveless shirt and carrying a stick as a weapon, informs her Renoir’s wife is dead. He calls her a liar and runs away. This is Coco (Thomas Doret, “The Kid with a Bike”), Renoir’s third and last son, who will remain angry and disgruntled throughout the movie; but the source of his anger is never fully explained, nor, for that matter, much noticed by others. Is it too much, being the son of Renoir? (At one points, he tosses dark blue pigment over André’s naked body while she dozes on a chaise lounge.) Is it too much, as an adolescent boy, hanging around all of these beautiful naked women? (“Show me your tits,” he says, at another point, to Andrée. Is he still angry over the death of his mother, or the dismissal of his father’s previous muse/model, Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer)? Coco is intriguing but a secondary character.
Despite the lies about Renoir’s wife, if they are lies, Andrée gets the job but seems remarkably unimpressed by her surroundings. She’s upset Renoir is painting apples rather than her. She wants more money. Renoir is amused, enchanted. That night, sleeping, dreaming, he thanks his dead wife for sending him Andrée. “Her skin drinks in the light,” he says.
Andrée first approached the Renoir estate filmed from behind, as does Jean, on crutches, returning from the war. His return is cause for celebration, for both father and help, and for us, too, to further along the story, but the story doesn’t get much further. Renoir continues to paint, his son continues to help, Jean and Andrée eventually fall in love, or into mutually convenient lust, during which Andrée pushes the young man, who had considered a career painting ceramics, toward film, the medium with which he will become an artist himself (“La grand illusion,” “La règle du jeu,” “La bete humaine”).
But we only get suggestions of this later life. Here? Jean heals, and, against the wishes of both his father and Andrée, returns to war, this time in the Air Force. His father, wheelchair bound, stands to hug him goodbye. The movie, like Pierre-Auguste, doesn’t make it into the 1920s. The rest is afterword.
Moments stand out.
There’s a great shot of the artist dipping his brush in water while the paint swirls slowly down in an orange cloud. I also liked a picnic along the river, during which we see what Renoir is painting, in close-up, and then the camera pans left to what he is painting. It’s all blurry and shadows. The portrait of the artist as an old man with feeble eyesight. “All my life,” he tells Jean, “I got caught up in the complications. Today, I simplify matters.” When Jean suggests rest rather than more painting, his father objects. “I have progress to make!” When his doctor asks what he’ll do when he can no longer hold the paintbrush he responds, “I’ll paint with my dick.”
The old man is driven, as is the young woman, who talks of seizing every chance life offers. But is she too modern? Her body type is right for the period, and for Renoir (veering, as much as modern movies allow, toward the zaftig), but her sauciness, and her look, feel closer to this era. Bourdos may have made the movie for her but he also made her a pain. When Jean, in the beginning of their relationship, finds her flirting with another soldier, he sends her to the kitchen to remind her of her status, and there she struggles uselessly. She demands food, berates the staff, throws Renoir-etched dishes on the floor. When in the middle of their relationship, Jean informs her he’s re-enlisted, she abandons the estate and returns to prostitution. It’s up to Jean to retrieve her.
Would we have been better served seeing how the young Renoir entered the film industry with Andrée, his actress-wife, whom he wanted to make a star and didn’t? Why did he only become a true artist after his separation from her in 1931? Maybe she was his last connection to his father, and he needed to kill his father completely before becoming truly, artistically, himself?
Is that Andrée’s tragedy: serving only as muse to great men? Or is that enough? Most of us have done much, much less.
There’s a great story in here somewhere but it’s not here.
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