Movies - Foreign postsTuesday August 05, 2008
Le Pays de Cons
I‘ve been hip-deep in idiocy lately. And not just my own.
Sunday evening Patricia and I watched Le Diner de Cons, a 1998 French comedy from Francis Veber (La Cage Aux Folles, Le Placard), whom I met last spring at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis for an Alliance Francaise-backed showing of his fun, lightweight, La Doublure (The Valet). Very tan man. Le Diner de Cons, The Dinner Game, literally “The Dinner of Idiots,” is a better film. Most of the action takes place in one room, so it feels like it could be a play. Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a well-off intellectual who participates in a weekly Wednesday night dinner game with friends. The goal is the intellectuals’ version of Dogfight: Who can bring the biggest idiot?
So Wednesday’s approaching and poor Pierre is without a good idiot to bring...until, on the TGV, his friend sits next to Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a well-meaning bore who regales him with pictures of his matchstick-built landmarks (Eiffel Tower, etc.). Unfortunately, the day of the dinner, Pierre wrenches his back playing golf and can’t make it...but Francois still shows up at his house. It will be a while before he leaves.
What’s great about the film is that we’re initially horrified by this dinner, by such bastards who would make fun of dim sweethearts like Francois Pignon, and any Hollywood version would surely lapse into the sentimentality of lessons learned — Francois demonstrating smarts, Pierre his heart — and there are intimations of this in Le Diner de Cons. But ultimately Veber is made of sturdier, funnier stuff. In the end, as horrified as we initially were by the game, we have to admit that it’s Francois Pignon’s very idiocy that allows some karmic balance into the universe.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Rick Shenkman’s book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, in which he argues that the problem with our political system is less the politicians and their marketers, who dumb down the message, or the media, who sensationalize the contest, than us, the mythical, Capra-esque people, i.e., “The People,” for whom the message is dumbed down and the contest sensationalized. It’s not a bad argument at not a bad time. The sad part? Unlike the ending of Le Diner de Cons, our idiocy isn’t exactly bringing any kind of balance, karmic or otherwise, into the universe.
Om Shanti Om — Addendum
Don't know if there's anything to this but I found it interesting that Om Prakash was only able to achieve his goal of reaching a new level of society, a new class, through reincarnation. He had to be reborn into the upper strata. Hollywood films usually allow class-jumping to occur in a single lifetime. The original moguls of Hollywood, with their lower-class, eastern European origins, certainly understood this dynamic.
Also, when the villain, Mukesh Mehra, recognized the reincarnated Om as the original Om, and laughed because he knew Om's evidence, based upon his reincarnation, would never stand in a court of law, Om should've laughed back and said, “Don't you get it? I'm reincarnated. That means you're going to be reincarnated, too. And, given the way you've lived your life, what will you be reincarnated into? I don't care about the courts here but you should certainly care about the courts there.” Might've turned the movie into more than a reincarnation-revenge flick.
Om Shanti Om
The biggest distributor of Indian films, Eros International, recently announced a distribution deal with Lions Gate, in which Lions Gate will handle many of Eros’ films in the states. May they do as well. Last year Eros distributed 13 Indian films here, and, though 12 of the 13 never played on more than 100 screens at a time, seven still made over $1 million. Salaam-E-Ishq, which played for three weeks last January and February, still made more money ($1.7 million) than many U.S. films that played in six times as many theaters.
But their biggest success, in both the U.S. and abroad, not to mention back home in India, was Om Shanti Om. It played for five weeks in November and December and still made more money ($3.5 million) than Sony Classic’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Paramount’s Things We Lost in the Fire and Picturehouse’s Gracie, despite playing in a fracture of their total theaters (570 theaters vs. 2,674, 2,615 and 2,524 respectively). It nearly made as much money as Warner Bros.’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a good, atmospheric western with a huge international star (Brad Pitt) and a great supporting performance (Casey Affleck), which is just another of the many recent and shameful mishandlings by that studio. Remember Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?
Anyway, curious, I watched Om Shanti Om last night. It’s only my second Bollywood film and it made me wish I’d seen more. Not because the film was great, although it was fun, but because — besides being a reincarnation-revenge flick, a romance and a musical all rolled into one — the movie is, one suspects, an homage to the Bollywood of both the 1970s and today, and I had no point of reference. Jokes, both visual and verbal, flew by and I had no clue. Interesting situation to be in.
The plot? Get ready. Om Prakash (Shahrukh Khan), a “junior artiste” (extra?) in Bollywood in the 1970s, who wishes to be a “hero” (star?), falls in love with a true star, Shanti Priya (newcomer Deepika Padukone). After he rescues her from burning fields, they become friends; then he discovers she’s already married, secretly, to the producer Mukesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal), who, when he finds out she’s pregnant, leaves her in a burning building to die. (Somehow, public knowledge of the marriage/pregnancy will ruin both their careers.) Om tries to save her, dies, and is reincarnated. Thirty years later he’s what he always wanted to be — a movie star — but slowly he begins to realize who he was and how he died.
Shahrukh Khan, particularly in his first, more comedic self, reminds me a little of Jackie Chan, while Deepika Padukone is deeply deeply gorgeous. The film is silly, melodramatic and lavish in the way of Cinemascope films of the 1950s. Some of the songs I can't get out of my head, particularly “Dhoom Taana,” which you can see here, and which shows off nicely: 1) her beauty, 2) his comedic talents and 3) the whole Bollywood homage.
El Orfanato and the power of women
I keep going back to that Manohla Dargis article from last Sunday’s NY Times. Sure, she conflates two issues — “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the women in movies so unrepresentative?” — but her complaints raise a good question. The unrepresentative man, the fantasy man, in popcorn movies is the superstrong man — Iron Man, Batman, the Hulk — because power for men manifests itself in physical strength. But what’s power for women? How does that manifest itself?
You could argue sex appeal. It’s why women in those aspirational comedies Ms. Dargis dislikes (Legally Blonde, Pretty Woman) get their hair and nails done: they’re strapping up for battle. But there’s another, more obvious answer, and I didn’t think of it until I watched El Orfanato (The Orphanage) the other night.
The Orphanage, directed by first-time director Juan Antonio Boyano, is a beautiful Spanish horror film that’s super-spooky in the way of The Others and The Changeling: not a lot of gore, just a lot of creep. Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) are raising their adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep), in the orphanage where Laura grew up, and where she plans to open a school for children with special needs. On the very day they’re opening the school, Laura fights with her son, slaps him (she’s horrified with herself before the slap is even through), and he runs away. Or disappears. Or... It’s a horror film. Anything’s possible.
Earlier, he and his mother had a conversation about Peter Pan, which references his imaginary friends. (Exactly: Beware any imaginary friends in a horror story.) It’s a great conversation in that it feels like a real mother-son conversation — both for what she says and what she avoids saying — while it encompasses most of the themes of the movie. In fact, it prefigures the rest of the movie. And it creeps you out:
Simon: Wendy grows old and dies?
Laura: Wendy grows old but Peter Pan takes her daughter to Neverland every year.
Simon: Why doesn’t Wendy go, too?
Simon: If Peter Pan came to get me, would you come, too?
Laura: No, I’m too old to go to Neverland, darling.
Simon: How old are you?
Simon: When will you die?
Laura: What kind of question is that? Not for a long time, until you’re very old.
Simon: I won’t grow old. I’m not going to grow up.
Laura: Will you be like Peter Pan?
Simon (smiles): Like my new friends.
Laura: There’s more than one?
Laura: They won’t grow up either?
Simon: They can’t.
Months after Simon’s disappearance the police are clueless, the husband is helpless (he’s got the thankless Joseph role — not even contributing his seed) and Laura is more desperate than ever. Eventually she consults a kind of seer, Aurora, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who tells her, among other things, “My dear, you are a good mother. Your pain gives you strength. It will guide you. But only you know how far you are willing to go to find your son.”
That’s when I began to think of the Dargis article again. What is a woman’s power? Her strength?
It’s not very 21st century to say this, but... What’s the most fierce animal in the animal kingdom? Isn’t it a momma bear whose cubs are threatened? And who is the most successful action heroine in movie history? Isn’t it Lt. Ripley in Aliens, with a big gun in one arm and a little girl in the other? One matriarch battling another matriarch. You could say The Orphanage is also a battle between two matriarchs.
A man gets super powers and does what? Protects society. These guys are usually single and childless and protect society against all the baddies. Attempts to slip women into this formula have been critical and box-office disasters. Nice girls like Supergirl and vixens like Elektra and Catwoman just come off as dopey. Maybe, deep down, we just don’t think it’s the job of women to protect society.
But a mother whose children are threatened? She doesn’t even need super powers. As in The Orphanage, her pain is her strength.
It’s just a happy coincidence, by the way, that this is being posted on Mother’s Day. Have a good one.
Movie Review: Sansho Dayu (1954)
Early in Sansho the Bailiff, which is filmed so beautifully and hauntingly that it feels like a ghost, Zushio, the 14-year-old son of an exiled governor in the late Heian period of Japan (794-1192), walks and plays through the forests, leading his mother, sister and servant as the four head to Tsukushi to join their father after many years apart. The father was exiled to Tsukushi because he refused a superior’s demands for greater taxes on the peasants, and for more peasants to fight his wars. The father was a benevolent governor, and as his son, Zushio, walks through the woods, he recalls his father’s wisdom: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” Some combination of the boy’s youth, solemnity, and the woods made me think: Mercy, by its nature, is a quality of the privileged — the powerless cannot grant it, only the powerful — and Zushio, a boy leading women through woods, is not powerful. He thinks he can grant what is no longer his to grant.
Indeed. The four, en route, are betrayed, separated and sold into slavery — the mother as a courtesan on the island of Sado, the children to Sansho the Bailiff, a domineering lord and the richest man in Tango. The world, a beast, is without mercy. Even the sympathetic son of Sansho, Taro, who cannot bear to brand with a hot iron the foreheads of runaway slaves, can do little to help the two children.
Ten years pass. Zushio grows to be not brutal but pragmatic. He forgets his father’s lessons — which caused the family nothing but harm — and is able, without much concern, to brand the runaway slaves for Sansho. His sister, Anju, is appalled by what he’s become. Without mercy he is a beast — in that he acts without thought. But a momentary reminder of happier times re-awakens him and he escapes to a temple, where he encounters Taro, now a monk, who shields him from slavehunters. Zushio plans to go to Kyoto to attempt to right the wrongs done to his family. Taro attempted the same on his behalf years earlier and warns him: “I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don’t directly concern them.”
At first Zushio’s supplicating petitition doesn’t go well — the chief advisor to the emperor doesn’t even listen to him — and he’s tossed in jail. A keepsake of his father’s, which he kept all those years as a slave, is taken from him, and here I thought, “The world will take everything, piece by piece, until he has nothing.” But the opposite occurs: The keepsake is recognized, and he is recognized as the son of a former governor and reinstated to his rightful position in the world. He becomes governor. Now the big question. Would he remember his father’s lessons? Or would he guard his position, knowing how tenuous it is, at all costs? Would he become merciful, pragmatic or cruel?
At one point Taro says to Zushio that “Unless [ruthless] hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot be true,” and an argument can be made that this film, by breaking our hearts, is an attempt to change our hearts. But it’s also more ambiguous. Early on, an uncle chastises the father for his benevolence, and the two have the following exchange:
Uncle: You’ve caused pain for your family.
Father: The peasants are in pain, too.
Uncle: Nonsense! You can’t compare us to peasants!
The father’s quality of mercy is profound, Christ-like, evolved, but, given what happens, you wonder how evolved a man can be in our world. How can anyone be for all mankind? Mustn’t your loyalties lie with a smaller group? Father and uncle, above, are simply arguing over the size of the group, and most of us, even in this more benevolent age, would side with the uncle. Hell, most of us are loyal to an even smaller group: a group of one.
The text at the beginning of the film tells us that this tale is from a time “when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and we can argue forever on how, or if, we have awakened as human beings, but at least there’s this. The first words we hear are probably more relevant today. A mother’s voice to her child: “Zushio, be careful.”