Friday, June 12, 2009
"Ma saison preferee" (My Favorite Season, Andre Techine, 1993), "Van Gogh" (Maurice PIalat, 1991)
Fire and ice (the French Film Festival, part 2)
I haven't seen enough of critic-turned-filmmaker Andre Techine's films as I would like, but Ma saison preferee (My Favorite Season, 1993) is easily my favorite. The novelistic, episodic texture of his films, the deceptively simple camerawork, the prominent place of nature or the outdoors (for a sensibility so dark and melancholic, there's a surprising amount of sunshine in his films), all are present in this feature, in a nicely balanced dynamic.
Fact is, what probably makes Techine so difficult a sell to Americans and to a wider audience is what makes him so special to those who can appreciate what his films can offer--the subtlety, the self-effacement, the seeming aimlessness that disguises a wider appreciation for the knotty complexities of life. One can say Ma saison preferee is all about a brother and sister (Daniel Auteuil as Antoine, Catherine Deneuve as Emilie) attempting to fit the care for their ailing mother (Marthe Villalonga as Berthe) in their busy lives, but it's so much more than that--it's about sibling intimacy (more difficult to render interestingly on the big screen than sibling rivalry); about parent-child disconnect casually accepted; about retaining or failing to retain one's childhood sense of wonder (and what is lost and gained as a consequence); about love long unrequited, or at least unconsummated.
The focus is on Antoine and Emilie, who have had a longstanding fondness for each other. The attachment is suggested early on--Emilie visits Antoine in the hospital, and lies about this to her husband afterwards--but remarkably no one actually remarks on this, or even mentions it in passing. Emilie's husband and children and Berthe seem to pointedly ignore the elephant sitting in the room with them, though judging from the looks they throw at Emilie and Antoine, they're hardly unaware.
It's not incest; that would be the obvious, easy answer, I think. No, incest would actually be a relief to these two--something clearly and physically wrong that they could take to the nearest therapist to deal with, hopefully exorcise. This relationship seems to have formed a major part of their early life, their subsequent reaction to which forms the major part of their present life: Emilie flees into the arms of her husband Bruno (Jean-Pierre Bouvier), while Antoine finds himself pining away in lonely anti-social bachelorhood (he doesn't even have a girlfriend, nor does he show any interest in acquiring one). Berthe's forced move to Emilie and Bruno's household (she's been suffering from dizzy spells) brings Antoine back into Emilie's life, precipitating major changes, some of them catastrophic.
What I've written might suggest something dark and dramatic; far from it. Perhaps Techine's supreme achievement is his ability to tell his story with a startling effortlessness, to show Emilie and Antoine's emotional interdependency, their alienation from Berthe, Emilie's increasing distance from Bruno and her children--all these as natural, almost inevitable, developments.
Techine's visual effects are equally unforced, elusive almost, acting like quicksilver fish in the way they flash and glimmer and vanish--the opening image, for example, of Berthe shutting out the breathtaking French countryside as she bangs close the windows of her house; or the old woman who suddenly breaks out in song, then is led away in slow motion; or Antoine's sudden vision of an empty bed, an open window, and the horror he knows waits for him on the street below.
It's also painfully, deadpan funny, with repeated images of Antoine sitting on a toilet bowl, trying to school himself on exactly what he's going to say and exactly what he's going to do (which often as not doesn't turn out how he planned). Auteuil fights the temptation to turn Antoine into a monster; the man keeps our sympathies no matter what outrageousness he commits. He makes us understand that Antoine is in direct touch with his feelings and says exactly what he thinks and feels (hence his lavatory sessions rehearsing one hypocritical platitude after another, in an attempt to get along). Of the two siblings he understands Berthe best, which is why she talks most openly to him and not to her caring, attentive daughter.
Deneuve is and always will be a great beauty (she's almost unbearably radiant in Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy, 1964)), but I've rarely if ever seen her display this much depth of emotion and character before (or since, for that matter). Hers is the more difficult role, of course; Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of the film points out that her name is a direct reference to one of the Bronte sisters, to whom Techine devotes his fourth feature. Possibly the kind of unbidden, faintly unholy love Catherine and Heathcliff had for each other (remember they lived together as brother and sister for years) is what Techine had in mind; Deneuve has to struggle under the weight of all that symbolic and emotional baggage, and still move with the lightness and grace the director demands. Wonderful film, an absolute masterpiece.
Maurice Pialat started out wanting to be a painter; I suppose the film Van Gogh (1991) was only inevitable. Done in Pialat's flat, unsentimental style with nary an emotional soundtrack, with camerawork consisting almost exclusively of medium shots, and acting reminiscent of Robert Bresson's disaffected "models," it's not so much a tribute to the famous artist as it is Pialat's statement on what artists are, to society, to friends and family, to themselves.
His isn’t the straining anguished manic-depressive Kirk Douglas played in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956); this Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) is a massively brooding, self-absorbed depressive, more likely than not to sit in one corner and either smile wanly at a friendly face, or lash out at sincere attempts at human contact.
Pialat seems less interested in creating a conventional biopic than he is in conveying some sense of Van Gogh's personality at its most fully formed--presumably to be found during the last few months of his life in Auvers. Women are drawn to him, presumably because his helplessness aroused their maternal instincts; at the same time there's an emotional honesty to him that appeals to their need for quick, direct, even cruel judgment (either he likes you or he doesn't; either he's interested in what you have to say or he isn't) His greatest benefactor, his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), understands the attraction and why wouldn't he? He's fatally drawn to the man himself.
I called Pialat's storytelling "flat;" that hardly seems like a fair description. He records events matter-of-factly, earning him the label of being a "realist" or a "documentarylike" filmmaker. I say he's neither, that he's actually an anti-sentimentalist. His camera unflinchingly observes life in all its details, from a woman being bathed by her husband to a young girl trying to ignore a prostitute nuzzling her neck to Van Gogh eating a bowl of onion soup as a group of women look on (Van Gogh bends over said bowl defensively, almost as if he were afraid they would take it from him). The director evokes the lighting and colors not just of the artist, but of various contemporaries--I spotted bits of Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others--but doesn't do so slavishly more than anyone the artist the film most successfully emulates is Pialat. The man is inimitably and indomitably himself in his films, just as this is inimitably and indomitably his Van Gogh.
First published in Businessworld 6.12.09