Movies - Foreign postsWednesday May 07, 2008
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.”
Nuit et Brouillard (1955)
A few years ago somebody urged Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) on me and I finally got around to it. Now I’m urging it on you.
It’s a 31-minute, 1955 French documentary on the Holocaust — one of the first — and it intersperses black-and-white footage of the Nazi era with color footage of the then-present day. We see, for example, those familiar shots of Jewish citizens being loaded into cattle cars for the camps; then we cut to those same railroad tracks in 1955. They look unused, grass grows in patches, and Michel Bouquet, the narrator, intones (in French), “The sun shines. We go slowly along them. Looking for what?” Footage of Himmler and the crematoriums leads to the empty camps of 1955. “A crematorium from the outside can look like a picture postcard,” Bouquet says. “Today tourists have their snapshots taken in front of them.”
The 1955 color footage is still bleak. The sky is overcast and autumnal, the grass sparse, the people… You quickly realize there are no people. Not one person is shown in the present day. All empty.
The narration, beautifully understated and matter-of-fact, was written by poet Jean Cayrol, a resistance fighter who was betrayed, arrested and sent to Gusen concentration camp in 1943, where he nearly died:
A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or hotel is built, with businessmen, estimates, competitive bids, and no doubt a bribe or two... Architects calmly designed the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Berger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are finished. All that’s missing is them.
How many books have I read now, movies and documentaries and mini-series seen, about the Holocaust? I should be inured. Yet it still has the power to horrify. Lessons are still imparted. Art Spiegelman’s Maus made me realize I never would have survived it, while Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz taught me that the system was set up for you not to survive it — i.e., follow the rules, do the work they tell you, eat what they give you, and you die. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist reinforced the sudden, by-the-way violence and degradation of it all without even getting into the camps.
And Nuit et Brouillard? In some ways the world recoiled from the Holocaust because they saw their own anti-Semitism taken to its logical extreme. Each of the Allies had its fascist, anti-Semitic wing. The Nazis just kept going.
But in Night and Fog I felt something else being taken to its logical extreme — and, unlike anti-Semitism, it’s something generally viewed positively. It’s heard in the above narration about competitive bids. It’s in Himmler’s line in 1942 when he told the camp commanders, “We must destroy, but productively.” You see it in the piles of eyeglasses and combs, of shaving brushes and shoes, and in that infamous, impossible pile of human hair. The hair becomes cloth, we are told, and the camera focuses on a rolled-up version of same, with stray threads resembling stray hairs. The animate has become inanimate.
“From the bones, fertilizer,” Bouquet tells us. “From the bodies, they make soap. As for the skin…?” Cut to: sheets of paper.
It’s the production line. It’s human resources taken to its final solution. After we strip you of your identity, your individuality, your personality, after we work what’s left until it can hardly work, what else? How much can we take from you? The answer is everything.
I already knew the assembly-line aspect of the Holocaust — truly, it’s what distinguishes this particular horror from the many horrors of human history — but Nuit et Brouillard made me feel it on a deeper level.
Something else you take away from this documentary: a sense of the arbitrariness of borders. Out there you can be a person, but in here, no. The 1955 footage accentuates this disconnect because the arbitrary borders of the Nazis have disappeared with the Nazis. Now we can film along the tracks that once transported us. Now we can film outside the camps that once held us. There’s been no horror like the Holocaust, but other horrors continue; and other borders, just as arbitrary, dehumanize the people within.
Movie Review: Avenue Montaigne (2006)
AVENUE MONTAIGNE did pretty well in American theaters last year — a little over $2 million — which doesn’t surprise since it feels a little like an American film.
A smalltown girl, Jessica (Cecilie De France), gets a job as a waitress at Bar des Theatres in Paris, which caters to the rich and theatrical crowd along Avenue Montaigne, and she gets involved, rather quickly, in several of their storylines: a soap actress, Catherine Verson (Valerie Lemercie), who hopes to get into movies, specifically a new (Hollywood?) biopic of Simone de Beauvior directed by Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack); a concert pianist, Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel), who is tired of playing concerts; and an art collector, Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), who is selling his art collection. An early encounter between Grumberg and Lefourt is indicative of what makes the film worthwhile.
Lefort has stepped outside for air — he’s suffocating in the concert world, at one point even telling a visiting Japanese journalist, “I believe in God but I think religion keeps us from God, just as classical concerts keep us from music” — and, on the street, he’s recognized by Grumberg, who is supervising the unloading of his artwork. Lefort looks slightly panicked at the recognition but Grumberg is at ease as his approaches and shakes Lefort’s hand:
Grumberg: You don’t know recognize me?
Lefort: I do.
Grumberg: No, you don’t.
Lefort (laughs, sheepish): No.
Turns out Lefort dined at Grumberg’s apartment after a concert. A beat later, Lefort remembers: “The fabulous blue Braque!” Turns out Grumberg is selling it, along with everything else in his collection. Lefort is now curious, and, seemingly, envious. Why sell everything? Grumberg says, “A collection is like life. When its heart stops beating, it’s over.” He looks around. “I began as a cabbie. I don’t want to end as a museum guard.”
It’s a great line that bears repeating, but when Grumberg does, to his son, the son completes it because he’s heard it too many times. These two are estranged, and, in French fashion, sharing the same mistress. Or, rather, the son’s mistress is the father’s girlfriend.
The son starts out as unlikeable, gets less so. But, oddly, the least likeable character in the film is Jessica, who is supposedly wide-eyed and talkative and honest in a world in which many artists and art collectors are suffering crises of mid- or old-life. It should be them, with their complaints amid comfort, who annoy. Instead it’s her. I’m not sure why, or if I should blame the character or the director or the actress (I didn’t like De France in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, either), but Jessica, just arrived in Paris and working all day without a place to stay, exudes a sense of privilege at odds with the precariousness of her situation. She doesn’t seem serious enough about her job, which she was lucky enough to get, but loiters, lingers, and tells these artists her not-brilliant thoughts. Maybe it’s because she presumes too much. Maybe it’s because she acts like the center-of-attention when the world shouldn’t care who she is. The movie, you can tell, loves her for it, which makes her all the more annoying. Me, I dug her boss, who’s seen as a bit of martinet, because he takes his work, such as it is, seriously. I like people who take their work, such as it is, seriously. It’s easy for artists to take their work seriously; but people in service occupations? Who have to be nice? To people? All the time? Now that’s admirable. Let’s face it: In a world of Jessicas, the Bar des Theatres disappears.
I also loved Verson, and the messiness of her eating and talking and living (she presumes nothing), but mostly I loved Grumberg and his old-age wisdom and shrug. He’s who I want to become — young mistress aside. OK, with the mistress.
The main conflicts in the film — will Grumberg sell, will Lefort quit, will Verson get the role? — resolve themselves as you think they will. And cleanly. It’s a very clean film that feels like it’s pushing (one might even say pimping) Paris on us. Romance everywhere, etc. In the end the two least likeable characters get together for a smooch over a small cafe table. I don’t know if that’s romance or its opposite but it still feels like too much of a Hollywood ending for such a French film.
“J'ai l'oeil americain”
Interesting sidenote on LE CORBEAU. At one point we see the good doctor reading one of the poision-pen letters and it's translated as “I see all and I tell all,” but if you look at the text it reads “J'ai l'oeil americain et je dirai tout,” which means, literally, “I have the American eye and I tell all.” So, one wonders, how did “the American eye” ever mean “seeing all”?
Some quick internet research. For a bottomless pit of information, there's not much out there and most of it's in French. From what I gather, though, the phrase related to the popularity, in France, of the early 19th-century novels of James Fenimore Cooper and his American Indian characters, who were far-seeing and eagle-eyed. Hawk-eyed. Madame Bovary even uses the phrase: “J'ai vu ça, moi, du premier coup, en entrant. J'ai l'oeil americain,” which my beginning French translates as “I have seen this, myself, the first blow is incoming. I have the American eye.”
I wonder if the phrase is still in use? Doubtful. America has come to mean something besides Indians in forests. More to the point, that American eye, in recent years, has become awfully myopic. It hasn't seen shit.
LE CORBEAU (1943) et HORS DE PRIX (2006)
Saw two French films this week.
Monday, at the Uptown in Queen Anne, I checked out HORS DE PRIX (Priceless), a 2006 comedy about a gold-digger, Irene (Audrey Tautou), who, in a late-morning luxury hotel bar, mistakes the bartender, Jean (Gad Elmaleh), for a wealthy patron and sleeps with him. A year later she returns, and, despite getting engaged that day to her wealthy patron, sleeps with Jean again, only to get caught, and quickly disengaged, by her fiance. When she returns to Jean's “room,” Jean is subsequently caught by the hotel staff, fired, and left in the lurch by the now-wiser Irene. The steps Jean goes through to win her back among the obscenely wealthy along the Cote d'Azur are both sweet and degrading — immoral, some Americans might say — but the tone of the movie is adult and amoral (what is, is), even as the film eventually steers us from how they live to how we do, or would like to. For a comedy, its humor is dry and rarely laugh-out-loud, but it does end the way most such comedies end. Which, for me, is the wrong ending. It's ending just as it's getting interesting.
The other film, watched last night on DVD, is a classic I'd never seen before, LE CORBEAU (The Raven), made during WWII by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to direct QUAI DES ORFEVRES, LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR (The Wages of Fear) and LES DIABLOLIQUES. A doctor, Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), becomes the target, or the first target anyway, of posion-pen letters signed by “Le Corbeau,” in which secrets are revealed and falsehoods spread. As more people get these letters, as more unwanted information (true and false) winds up in the public sphere, distrust and anxiety mounts, and the village leaders will do anything to flush out Le Corbeau. It's both mystery and character study, with sharp dialogue, beautiful black-and-white photography, and a gloriously ambiguous ending that, in a sense, makes us members of the village. Seen as an indictment of the Gestapo in Vichy, France, it's more, and worth the quick 90-minute trip. Netflix it.