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Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) July 7, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films.
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Written and directed by Robert Bresson
Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pelegri

“The film is not a thriller,” a note at the beginning of Pickpocket tells. “Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him.” The filmmaker is Robert Bresson and the young man is Michel, both of whom have experienced life in prison, Bresson for 18 months at a German camp and Michel by the end of the movie. The dynamics between the two—the creator and the creation—speaks volumes about the perfectionist nature of Bresson and his style that is anything but ostentatious. His approach defines a kind of severity that is easier explained than done: the economy of shots, the carefully-timed fadeouts, and the voiceover that provides a sturdier description of the characters than the short dialogues themselves. Like a professional butcher, Bresson gets rid of the fat and serves only the finest, laying Michel’s story, a pickpocket with a dying mother and questionable principles, as simple as possible on the surface, illustrating his detachment not only from the people around him but also from the corrupt and blasé society that he willingly submits himself to. Michel is aware of the consequences of his actions, but his motivation is no longer grounded in material needs but in adventure, something that rationalizes his lack of meaningful relationships, and his dependence on thrill and danger.

Bresson’s language can alienate the unacquainted but it bears gifts to those who are patient. There are breathtaking moments of tension, those that happen vaguely in the movie but mostly in the viewer’s mind, and they are accomplished with such ease that one wonders if the French are really that oblivious to their surroundings. That sequence at the train station more than halfway through the film displays Bresson’s ability to stun with the simplest of weapons. Michel and his two partners take turns in sliding hands into passengers’ suits and pockets, taking cash out of purses and bags, grabbing arms and filching prized watches, and Bresson shows fingers and faces, nonchalant looks and quick strides, person after person, trick after trick, all dry and terse, everything going smooth for the three thieves. It’s an organized crime in a public place, and Bresson wastes no time in shooting the scenes in a calculated manner—not in slow motion but in slow, larger-than-life contact—being able to situate Michel in the backdrop of the life he chooses to have, knowing that sooner or later the authorities are going to catch up on him and bare their handcuffs. “You’re not in the real world. You share no interests with others,” Jeanne, the kind neighbor who takes care of his ill mother, says. Later on Michel realizes the truth of this observation. She fancies him and visits him in prison. Like the doors that he always leaves open, she waits until he comes back because he always does, guided by guilt and comprehension, struggling from solitude. Bresson offers sympathy and Michel does not refuse.

The Elixir in Julian Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) October 23, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, Biopic, Cinemanila, European Films, Literature.
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French Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Max Von Sydow
Based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir

The closest thing to being buried alive is running the shortest distance between heaven and earth, the case when you believe both ends of human life, heaven as a euphemism for Lucifer’s den and earth as where all sleeping dogs lie, short enough for the line to blur, as if existing in two far-fetched worlds at the same time can equip you with a stroke of partial omniscience. Schnabel, in his attempt to paint the remaining years of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life during his “locked-in” state, not only delivers a moving fragment of fate’s indomitable power to tangle disconnected lines but also creates a heartrending document of the endless virtues of human imagination, the purest vision of all, because in this concentric circle where we all walk, there is never enough time to compensate for all the things we have lost – – never really enough time – – because time lies and time kills us all, one second after another.

Schnabel’s interest in filming biographies proves how personal his art can be. He filmed Basquiat because perhaps he was once Basquiat himself; he filmed Reinaldo Arenas because perhaps the writer’s style has influenced him a lot; he filmed Bauby because, well, perhaps the man’s unbelievable hold in the final days of his life inspired him to share it with the world – – quizas, quizas, quizas. Personal expression moves beyond his world, his art, and it becomes a need, a life, an afterlife, like every artist considers his craft is. Basquiat remains to be seen but Before Night Falls fails to win me over; it feels like a ponderous burden from start to finish, even Javier Bardem can’t save it. But there is that unmistakable eye for unconventionality, that disregard for immature ideas, that lapse between beauty and madness, that magnificent anomaly that is difficult to resist, telling you that he will make up for everything in his next work. And yeah, what a promise. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only his third film, everything becomes a culmination of his sweeping power to recall life through death, a breathing record of magnificence – – a paradox that speaks more on who we are not than who we are.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke while driving with his son for a trip. In a coma for twenty days, he woke up with his entire body paralyzed, except for his left eye. His locked-in state deprived him of any movement aside from rolling his eye and blinking his eyelid, looking at the farthest horizon that his eye could ever reach: vegetative, maimed, barely alive. He was still mentally capable – – he could answer yes or no with a blink of an eye, he could form words and sentences through dictation, blinking through letters that his therapist spoke, a feat of immense difficulty, the only way for him to speak his mind. Accomplished as he was, he had few visitors. He had a wife and kids, as well as a girlfriend who failed to visit him. Through letter-by-letter dictation with his interlocutor, Bauby had written his memoir – – Le Schapandre et Le Papillon - – published in 1997, a runaway bestseller which Bauby had only enjoyed for ten days after a fatal pneumonia.

Irony has never been more resounding than this: I felt even more alive after seeing the film. The use of Bauby’s point of view – – his eye, his view of the world, his only window to physical universe – – provides a groundbreaking feat of emotional hinge, it’s as if every wink of his eye is equivalent to a life born, a soul cleansed, a purpose revivified, and an existence justified. That opening sequence is prolonged enough to put the film in its proper pace, we feel what he feels, we see the people through his eyes, we feel his heart cringe, his hopes crash, his dreams fade – – all the visual pain given to us is rewarding; Schnabel’s brush knows exactly what to paint, where to put emphasis, when to furnish the garnish, how to mix the colors of life and death in perfect tone, and the result is a striking portrait of sublimity; it is paralyzingly beautiful. Under such spell I am powerless.

Understandably, controversies arise regarding how faithful it is to Bauby’s life – – can a film ever be faithful to life? – – which part is fact and which part is fiction, how his relationship with his wife and girlfriend is distorted to create a more cinematic scenario, how he managed to have three kids instead of two, how Bauby never really wanted to die in the beginning, even the legalities of adapting Bauby’s memoir based on the ownership of the “droit moral” which basically is “an intellectual right of an artist to protect his work” thus asserted by Bauby’s wife – – all these elaborately written in Beth Arnold’s The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

But the truth is no one really knows what’s going through his head during those two years in vegetative state. No one can claim the exact truth; even Schnabel cannot. But what Schnabel did was take a piece of his life, plant it in his head for years, wait for it to grow, then after some time it flourished, it bore fruits and became one of the most moving works in recent years. Who says nothing can sum up a man’s life in two hours? Schnabel just did. Mathieu Amalric and Max Von Sydow deliver electrifying moments brisk enough to melt you in your seats. And in that magical flashback when Bauby returns home, drives around Paris, and meets his family, in possibly the greatest hommage ever made to 400 Blows, that music of bliss reassures you how comforting it is to live by looking at other people’s failures destroyed by faith, because imprisonment only becomes a choice when you stop fighting against it.

The Pascal Void in Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) June 7, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, Cine Europa, European Films.
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French Title: Ma Nuit Chez Maud
Written and directed by Éric Rohmer
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez

As much as I would want to laugh it off and call it a draw, the nonsense intellectual whoring between the two Anonymous in Oggs Cruz’s post on Now Showing presents an interesting case study. Not reading the entire throat-slashing, gut-ripping statements will definitely save you from a lot of trouble – – I’m sure by the time you reach halfway, you can already feel your temples throbbing – – because the gist of it is fairly easy to grasp. It meanders from simple comments to efficacious banters that eventually leads to self-serving warfare between nameless offenders who relentlessly exercise their said freedom of expression. Sadly, the nature of the worldwide web encourages profane behavior from anonymous users – – closeted, self-righteous individuals who find comfort in throwing nasty words to filmmakers whom they consider unworthy of recognition. It could have been an intelligent and sensible discourse if the majority of its participants have tried to look up in the dictionary the meaning of the words respect and civil; but it turns out that their heads are filled up with so much air that these two words are huge enough to find entry. Therefore the hope for a civil discussion remains a hope, because in a country where starting a discourse is as difficult as putting up with it, it really defies comprehension.

That’s the devil’s advocate marking his words. In defense of those who took part in the discussion, however, it shows that we, Filipinos, have a lot to say about issues. We have millions of ideas; we have a galaxy to say about the world. We could even build an idea bank, earn from it, and subsequently become a First World country. We have thousands of inventors that remain unrecognized. We glorify overseas workers yet we neglect the few, heroic nurses who choose to stay in the country despite the alms they receive from their employers. The Philippines stands as one of the wonders of the world – – because through the years, it makes you wonder why, despite continued efforts to facilitate national development, we still plunge in social decay and cultural anonymity. We are thinkers; but we are not doers. We lack that act when the hand puts the important things into place. We yearn for change but we are busy doing something else unrelated to it. Yet we still survive – – and that’s the most impressive thing – – amidst the hopeless case of a disappearing archipelago.

Which brings me to Eric Rohmer’s effusive My Night at Maud’s, the third installment in his series of Six Moral Tales, and the film that catapulted his name into international fame. All things considered, if there is one film that rightfully characterizes the French logic and their argumentative nature, this must be it. The Christian mass in the opening scene is preparatory – – the foundation of religion, no matter how trite it is as a topic, proves to be the most enduring subject of conversation among people; thus, the endless exchange of words between the characters in the film is inevitable – – the Scriptures tells us so. Heavy with philosophical points and lengthy arguments which delve mostly on Pascal’s Wager, this is Rohmer delivering his views on relationships between men and women. Unlike his contemporaries, Rohmer is laid-back and assertive; his tempered direction makes Godard and Truffaut look like the bad students in the honor roll (to quote from the Now Showing discussion), and him the teacher’s pet because his films are the type that professors love to indulge themselves into – – the moral and metaphysical plight of man and his existence in this world full of spiritual ideas.

The French are good at this – – two people talking, exchanging thoughts about their lives, mundane topics, then later on an interesting idea pops up, someone quotes a line from a book he read, the conversation goes on forever, then the other guy remembers a line from the film he just saw, and when their coffees arrive, they continue their colloquies as if they will never see each other again, and talk about anything under the sun, yada, yada, yada, and they part ways; in fact, Louis Malle did something like that and filmed two characters over dinner for two hours and came up with My Dinner with Andre. Words run in their blood – – these French people – – and it seems to work as their vitamins, fueling them with ideas no matter how absurd still qualify as highbrow, because cosmopolitan hegemony tells us that when you talk about existentialism, for example, in a subtle way, you can talk almost about anything, and that you are superior over things that matter less to this absurdly intellectual world. This could possibly account for brainwashing but the French are the masters of this style – – the shameless philosophizing and intellectual whoring – – and it reflects their sensibilities. It’s a misunderstanding to say that My Night at Maud’s fails just because it talks a lot, it’s boring, and it lacks action. It is a writer’s film; therefore, it gains its vigor from the lines that its characters deliver and the turn-out of events in its narrative, in such a way that other aspects of the films do not sacrifice, which in this case, as My Night at Maud’s proves, is possible. There are phases in our life that we lean more on the serious, and seeing this film with those eyes can prove to be entertaining, if not digestible.

Taken out of context, this statement from Raya Martin honestly hits the mark: “. . . that the problem with cultivating film culture in the Philippines is a problem with Filipino culture itself.” The great thing with problems, they are relative, and they make you realize that being the paragon of cultural distinction does not exempt one from criticism – – a damaged culture is still functional, and it will exist until no one remembers it anymore. * * * *

Bittersweet annihilation in Sam Karmann’s Nickel and Dime (2002) September 18, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films, French Spring.
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Original Title: A la petite semaine
Director: Sam Karmann
Cast: Gérard Lanvin, Jacques Gamblin, Clovis Cornillac

Among contemporary works, it is rare to find a film taking its time, having its own pace but not entirely its own world because we can still relate to it, especially if its script is beautifully-written, so poignant I thought I am seeing it for the first time but I am not, and though its trio of characters is underdeveloped and understated, it works really well because Nickel and Dime aims not to show-off but to let us feel the paranoia of living in a corrupt world and enjoying little things in life at the same time (the anomaly of life), and after a while it reminds me that I am in the Philippines, crime pays tremendously, nothing compared to French bureaucracy — like parallel lines, the difference between First World crimes and Third World crimes never meet (a pretentious guy I shook hands with a few weeks ago calls it, “Filipino films are as bad as Tribu, don’t even mention it if we’re talking about City of God“) — I cannot help but admire this film, the same way I admire Ozu’s oeuvre, for simple films are the hardest ones to make, and don’t forget its cunning reference to A Streetcar Named Desire: nostalgia is indeed fatal. * * * *

This is not a review of Otar Ioselliani’s Monday Morning (2002) September 10, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films.
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Original Title: Lundi Matin
Directed by Otar Ioselliani
Cast: Jacques Bidou, Arrigo Mozzo, Anne Kravz-Tarnavsky, Narda Blanchet

Monday Morning reminds me of myself almost 12 years ago: flipping through pages of books in our small, elementary library, looking for that story about a girl who sells matches in a wintry night and dies eventually, then, the bell rang, “Damn luck, I can’t find it!” but I decided to spend one more hour and skip my Journalism class. I finished the news article for the day, anyway. Silently, I managed to skim through books in almost every shelf that I could reach. In a sudden spur of the moment, something happened. I discovered something that defined a turning point. Glued and hypnotized, I thought my world ceased to rotate and revolve. It read clearly: Anthology of Poems by e e cummings. Its first poem, I was stunned. At such a young age, I realized how falling in love feels like:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of the tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind,can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

In my eyes, those were beautiful lines of love, but comprehension was beyond my capabilities then. For I have felt it I knew I understood what ee cummings wants to say, and for words weren’t enough to express emotions, I opted to keep my silence.

Monday Morning is not a love story, but rather a film about love’s non-existence or its fleeting nature. Minutes in a life of an ordinary man named Vincent, who spends his day like it is the most boring day of his life. Its languid pacing — an atmosphere reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s comedies — is filled with life’s dullest and purest moments. Leaving the theater, it did not come as a surprise that Ioselliani is one of Tarkovsky’s favorite filmmakers.

A realization.

When a film ceases to be a film, it becomes a poem. * * * *

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