Thursday, June 15, 2006

Short Notes on a Few European Films Seen Last Week

I have been watching a hell lot of movies in the last few weeks. The film society has gotten really active and there is a European (mostly French though) film festival going on too. I have been to back-to-back screenings before but this time I am just feeling too tired. Perhaps it was because of this that I found most of the movies disappointing (even the "difficult", "arty" types which I automatically would have called a masterpiece!). Here are some of the more prominent ones which disappointed me.

1. Ulysses' Gaze by Theo Angelopoulos: I had seen Eternity and a Day by Angelopoulos earlier which was so bad in its perceived self-importance that it was literally embarassing to watch. It shamelessly traded in those typical art-house cliches -- those Tarkovskian long takes, fog, melancholy people reciting bad poetry etc. (Jim Hoberman cuts it down to size in the village voice really well. worth reading.) Ulysses' Gaze is not so bad. It still looks like a derivative of Tarkovsky, specially The Mirror. The movie puports to tell the entire twentieth century history of Greece and the entire middle Europe. Just like Tarkovsky Angelopoulos adopts a "poetic" style over a more realistic documentary approach. It was perhaps just my ignorance of history which got me disinterested soon with the events being portrayed on the screen. After that it was just an endless wait for the end credits to roll, a wait which lasted almost three hours. I think the film does make some serious point about things like history, collective memory and the role of artist in turbulent times but it never convinced me to put an extra effort to decipher all the different strands and images, so pompous was its tone. The main thing which irritated me, and which differentiates him from Tarkovsky, is that Angelopoulos latches on the elements of emotional drama in the overall narrative. His style is more suited for a sustained mood throughout rather than for providing emotional jolts to the reader. For example, no one ever cries in a Tarkovsky film whereas there are many scenes where characters break down in this film, all embarassing to watch. Erland Joesephson who starred in some of Tarkovsky's later films is present here too. I had no clue why Harvey Keitel was cast though. The role was so against the type. Link to Rotten Tomatoes reviews.

2. Songs from the Second Floor: Songs from the Second Floor is a surrealist Swedish film which won the grand jury prize at the 2001 Cannes film festival. Like all surrealist films it doesn't have a plot or a conventional narrative. There are just fragmented and independent set pieces and sight gags which ultimately do cohere into a whole in a thematic sort of way. And at the end of it all, the film does make a few powerful points about the collapse of the capitalist society, which in the film's vision means collapsing stock market, endless traffic jams and business executives taking a self-flagellating procession on the street. A couple of episodes do stand out. After a businees of selling crucifixes fails (and we see a big dump of christ paraphernalia in the junkyard), another character tells the businessman, "how could any one have made money from that crucified loser?". That was I thought very funny. Also a comment on how religion has been turned into a commodity being sold and bought in the spiritual marketplace. There are also many other such funny scenes. An erstwhile poet who is now in a mental asylum, his dad who has burned his own furniture company, a ghost wandering since the second world war, another ghost who had some financial troubles. Overall I admired the film but at the end of it all it left me significantly underwhelmed. Perhaps I wasn't paying the attention that it deserved. Link to Reviews here.

3. The Barbarian Invasions by Denys Arcand: Okay, this isn't from Europe but from Quebec Canada, but it is in French. It also won the academy award for best foreign film in 2003. I am a big fan of the dying-with-regret-and-disappointment genre of films (like Bergman's Wild Strawberries) and I loved this one too. It is about how the people from the sexual liberation generation, brought up on politics of radicalism, end up with disappointment and regret at the end of it all. It is brillianty written and acted piece of drama and the grim humour was fantastic too. There were a few sentimental and manipulative scenes and Arcand's politics of defeatist conservatism, his philistine anti-intellectualism and a naive sense of history softened my enthusisasm a little bit. But otherwise an excellent entertainment. Link to reviews here.

4. Lemming: A beautiful and smart french couple are living a happy and contented life, that is, until the husband's boss and his strange wife come to dinner to their place. The dinner soon turns into a scene of bizarre confrontation. In the meanwhile the wife finds a live lemming in her kitchen sink and soon irrationality takes over and the film moves into a David Lynch territory. I found the symbolism a bit heavy-handed, if not obvious and they didn't reveal much about the themes or character much either. I know, sexual desire and insecurity can work in mysterious and powerful ways and it is often strong enough to alter one's perspective and sense of reality. The idea was good, the actors were great too but overall it doesn't work out very well. Link to more reviews.

There were a few more movies. But this post has already become too long. Later, or never.


Zero said...

I could not watch all the films. But, of what I saw, I just loved L'Enfant (sheer delight!) and Barbarian Invasions.

Alok said...

Ohh!! you were there :)

btw, are you a member of the collective chaos film society? They are showing three films by robert bresson next week. I will miss it but then I have already postponed my vacation plans once hahaha...

L'enfant was somekind of a homage to pickpocket. Pickpocket is far more abstract. You may not like it (I am not a big fan myself) but it is a masterpiece nevertheless.

Link to the film society schedule and reading stuff.

Really worth being a member. these guys make sure that I don't miss chicago every weekend :))

Zero said...

Yes, I am a member of Collective Chaos and am all set to catch some Bresson's films finally, after having heard/read about/pondered over so much about them.
They are doing a pretty good job in CC, actually.

Cheshire Cat said...

You know, you shouldn't be afraid to leave a screening halfway. I started pretty late, with "Children of Paradise", but now I'm quite shameless about it. Life is too precious to waste on Theo Angelopoulos and his ilk.

anurag said...

good going bangalore.

I have seen 'Songs from the Second Floor' and really liked it. Alok, if you want to have a second, more attentive viewing, I can send across the DVD.

Today I will see 'Hiroshima mon amour'. Need to catch up lots of movies this year.

Alok said...

Zero: ohh okay! hope you like those...

Cat: Haha! very true. But you know, it takes only a few hours (at most three) to complete a movie. I generally sit through everything. That is if I at all I go to a screening.

Anurag: Thanks for the offer. I will have to come down to your place soon... :)