Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Female European Directors: Je, tu, il, elle


Je, Tu, Il Elle (1974, Chantal Akerman)
4/5

‘I, You, He, She’

Filmed in crisp black and white, Je, tu, il, elle is much like other works by writer director Chantal Akerman in that before ever arriving at the conclusion that the film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or that I ‘was entertained’ or, at the very least, I ‘enjoyed it’, it struck me as a curiosity. I don’t use that term in any derogatory way mind you. Rather, the film struck me as intriguing and worthy of a viewer’s attention and critical eye before serving any sort of entertainment purposes. Actually, I don’t think Je, tu, il, elle is the least bit entertaining, but I do like it quite a bit, which isn’t something I admit to very often.

Shot in sharp black in white, Akerman’s outing begins with a woman sitting on her bed, staring into the camera. The viewer is privy to her inner thoughts (which sound like bland diary entries) as she plainly explains precisely what she did on which day. And so begins an intimate exercise, a reflection of character, an exploration of a state of being, both within oneself and within the greater society at large.



‘Je’, unless something terribly obvious flew over my head during both of my viewings, is the main character, the woman who lives alone in her boring apartment. The film makes no attempts at developing a typical narrative. Instead, Chantal Akerman’s work opts to share the thoughts and mundane activities of ‘Je’ as she spends what seems like weeks alone at home (the film gives no hint that she ever leaves the apartment until we actually see her do so). ‘Je’ proceeds to release herself from any personal or social constraints that could pull her down or confine her. She simply ceases to be a regular, what most of us would consider to be a ‘normal’ person. No more responsibilities, no more work, no more pressure, however how slight, that can be exercised by the outside world. What she does is of her own choosing, plain and simple, regardless of how liberating or damning it may appear in the eyes of beholders. On face value, the actions and behaviour of ‘Je’ do not amount to very much. She doesn’t ‘do’ anything that would be of interest in most other films. However this isn’t like most other films. The movie reveals some fascinating and at times strange ideas.

As I’ve described above, the film opens with ‘Je’ dressed and sitting on her bed. As the scenes, and by extension the days themselves, change, ‘Je’ adopts a peculiar routine, staring first of all by tossing aside her furniture, thus liberating space in her apartment. To the viewer, there only remains a mattress to sleep on. But things don’t end there, no sir. She takes things a few steps further by stripping naked, writing an extended letter to an unnamed character (although it’s safe to assume she is addressing the letter to ‘Tu’) and eating a bag of sugar. To change from scene of naked ‘Je’ to other scenes of naked ‘Je’, Akerman utilizes one of my all time favourite techniques: the fade to black and back again. The technique works very well here as it lends a sense that the days are very similar. It is as if the viewer is blinking or resting their eyes for a few moments, only to discover that ‘Je’ hasn’t changed her habits very much from when we last saw her.

Every once in a while ‘Je’ will share what happens next and sometimes what happened a few moments ago. It feels reminiscent of some Robert Bresson films featuring characters who write letters or diaries, with small tidbits shared with the viewer just before the character in question executes that very same action. I haven’t quite figured own my own answer as to why this happens, although it offered some slightly visceral to the viewing experience. Hearing ‘Je’ say what is probably about to happen made me anticipate the moment, and when she retold what has just occurred, it emphasized the impact of that event. Then again, it may have simply been to pay homage to the great French director, although I’m pretty certain Akerman is smarter than that. It’s a narrative technique that is used to great effect in the Bresson films as it is here.

Pay close attention to ‘Je’s’ attitude and actions and one will notice how her habits get more sloppy as time goes by. Consider the bag of sugar she has been eating since the beginning. At first the sugar was in a neat little bag and she ate it with a spoon. Later on, the bag breaks with the sugar pouring all over her letters and clothing, but she hardly demonstrates any worry or alarm whatsoever. She calmly cleans up her mess, and even then she doesn’t really pick everything up. She finishes the last of the sugar with her hands, wipes them on her clothing. She doesn’t use a blanket to sleep, opting instead to use her clothing. Until the moment she chooses to leave her home to visit a lover, and apart from the letter she’s writing, ‘Je’ has completely shut herself off from the world, not just physically, but also in regards to societal norms of adulthood. It’s like she’s becoming an infant again (no clothes, no worries, sloppily eating sugar, etc). Just before she ventures off into the world again, she has retracted herself into a shell of personal rest and aimless pleasure. Writing her never ending letter arguably serves as her method of self reflexivity, an opportunity for ‘Je’ to pour it all out, whether the ‘it’ be anger, doubt or even happiness.



Once ‘Je’ leaves her apartment, the film takes on a slightly different mood, never quite shifts into any sort of high gear. Possessing no mode of transportation of her own, she succeeds in hitching a ride with a trucker, ‘Il’. This middle section of the film sees ‘Je’ begin to enter the real world again, during which time the film becomes far more sexual than it was in the opening chapter, notwithstanding ‘Je’s’ nakedness during that part. The most telling moments are when, after sharing a dinner and some drinks, she gives ‘Il’ a hand job (off screen) and he tells her of his sexual exploits, his family, when he gets some wood while on the road, etc. He even makes a bizarre joke about how his 11 year old daughter excites him. Well, at least I hope that was a joke. ‘Je’ does not speak one word during this entire time, but her purpose is served mainly as an object for ‘Il’. ‘Je’ sits quietly while they eat, while they drink and while he talks about sex and relationships like a manly man. If the first part of the film was ‘Je’ being recluse, this part is her experiencing the prevailing sexuality of the outside world. She doesn’t question him at all when he makes her give him a hand job and she admires him when he shaves in a bathroom. There’s a convergence of these two parts in a sense, in that ‘Il’, through his monologue about his life, reveals that he also has a negative view of responsibility and norms at times (family responsibilities in his case), while ‘Je’ is opening up to her sexuality. It is through ‘Il’ that ‘Je’ begins to rekindle with her sexual inhibitions and, consequently, find a certain freedom. There is indeed a very care free sense that permeates throughout this middle chapter, where the characters can either sit quietly at a table or give one another hand jobs all the while feeling perfectly fine and comfortable.

Finally, the third and final part of the film is the pinnacle of these two facets of ‘Je’ when she visits ‘Elle’. She has ‘Elle’ make her sandwiches, serve wine, and makes her give ‘Je’ more food still. This attitude works in conjunction with what the viewer has seen during the first part. Once again, ‘Je’ is behaving in a very lazy, almost infantile manner. While ‘Elle’ does acquiesce to the demands of ‘Je’ out of friendship and love, I still think believe this behaviour is very much in sync with what has come before. The tone in which she asks for the food hints at a care free attitude, in that she knows what she wants and all she has to do is ask. It will be served without any effort on behalf of ‘Je’ or with the the need to think about any consequences whatsoever, much like with children. She is perfectly comfortable with herself and her actions. For a brief it seems like ‘Elle’ is mothering ‘Je’, but the role of mother transforms into the role of lover when ‘Je’ slowly unbuttons ‘Elle’s’ blouse to reveal cleavage. They then proceed to make sweet, passionate love before ‘Je’ leaves in the morning. The sexuality found during the second part of the movie was but a precursor to the complete embracing of it in this concluding chapter.



‘Je’, for most part, gets her way throughout the film. I’m not going to argue whether the things she does or asks for are worthwhile or just. I’m just saying that she gets and does what she wants with little to no opposition. The whole journey functions like a quest of liberation for her character. We don’t know what she did before the movie began, but we can fill in the blanks with whatever we like. I think this is easiest if one is familiar, even if only minimally, with some of Akerman’s other work. She gives her female characters very powerful and liberating story arcs. Perhaps ‘Je’ was fed up with the status quo, whatever that may have meant to her, you or myself, and therefore had a radical change of heart. Je, tu, il, elle, in a sense, is an exploration of how one woman is choosing to be what she wants to be, societal norms be damned. Looking at the director’s filmmogrpahy, I learned that Jeanne Dielman (reviewed here) was her next project. While some may refute this argument, I see Je, tu, il, elle as a kind of JD, just in its earlier stages, as though Akerman already had the idea of creating a movie that dealt with a woman’s liberation, took a crack at it with this movie, but then created her masterpiece with JD the next time. Despite its seemingly sterile nature, I think there’s actually a lot of passion burning underneath the surface in this film. It’s slow, deliberately so in fact and doesn’t offer any kind of safe or relatable characters in the traditional sense of the term, but ‘Je’ represents something greater than that. I don’t think the film is supposed to be taken as a simply story. It is an example of art used to express an ideal, a dream and to drive home a point.

To read some more about Chantal Akerman's work, head over to Processed Grass for a review of Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The next marathon

The results are in for the theme of the next marathon once we finish up with French films from female European directors. Claiming top spot, and rather easily at that, was 'Queer in Film'. This is a genre I know nothing about, so this should be intriguing... By the way, I hesitated to call that option 'queer in film'. I thought that maybe we would be beyond the stage where that is still considered a genre of its own, and instead simply recognize that some movies have gay leading characters and actors. But, stereotypes got the better of me. You know where to send the hate mail!

Coming in second place was my darling 'Maggie Cheung'. She put up a good fight, but it just wasn't enough.

In third place was 'comic book' films, which has gotten crushed both times it was an option in polls, so don't expect to see it again any time soon. A shame, I would have loved the opportunity to go to bat for the much maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine

In fourth place was 'Steven Spielberg'. A great, great director, but I guess there are enough blogs that already discuss his work, so this ranking wasn't a huge suprise.

Coming last, well, some bloke still wanted more reviews of 2009 releases. Don't know who you are, but sorry buddy. Maybe in December.

Female European Directors: La Captive



La Captive (1974, Chantal Akerman)
4/5

Breaking up is rarely easy, but sometimes there is a feeling that the relationship at hand is simply not going to last for very much longer. It can start as a small nagging feeling, a bitter taste that something is amiss and that things aren’t what they used to be. In Akerman’s pensive look into a relationship on the rocks, La Captive, is as tragic and truthful as it is a slap in the face to all of us who think we, should know everything about our partner and that a healthy relationship hinges on it.

Simon (Stanislas Merhrar) is a well off young gun who keeps a particularly close tab on his lover Arianne (Sylvia Testud). This habit is not limited to seemingly honest questions of ‘what have you been doing today hun?’, although Simon does indulge in pressing Arianne with such queries. No, Simon goes to considerable lengths to keep a watchful and careful eye on his belle. A close friend, Andrée (Olivia Bonamy), is entrusted by Simon with the task of accompanying Arianne on her many outings around town, such as during her singing lessons. But when outside help is unavailable, Simon can take matters into his own hands, most notably by following his beloved around the city, which he does more than once in the film. That’s not the only thing that seems unique about this setup however. There’s the fact that they live in a large condo with Simon’s ill grandmother. There’s the fact that Simon and Arianne do not sleep in the same room and when the two are in the mood for some intimacy, Simon ‘calls’ for Arianne to his room. Finally, there is Arianne herself. Judging from what the viewer sees of her, she is obviously sweet, friendly and happy go lucky. However, it should also be clear that there is something peculiar about her as well, something a bit off. Saying that she is mentally challenged would, arguably, be too rash, but she has some offbeat ticks. She frequently claims to have forgotten important things she told Simon only days earlier, changes ideas and thoughts on a consistent basis, and…I honestly cannot quite put my finger on it, but there is a childlike quality to her behaviour at times. Attention deficit disorder of some kind? She’s simply doesn’t behave like a regular adult would. Her perkiness and whimsical attitude makes her a character who almost seems to belong in another film altogether. Coupled with Simon’s disposition towards keeping a tab on things, this would explain his control freak attitude towards Arianne.



With such a conviction that everything about his lover must be controlled, imagine Simon’s stress level when he begins having doubts regarding Arianne faithfulness. Now, be wary, because I am not implying that Arianne is having an affair with another man, which, according to what we know, she is not. Rather, the source of Simon’s doubts can be found in his fear that Arianne may be tempted by women. No, that’s not a joke.



This was the third Chantal Akerman film I have watched (Jeanne Dielman and Je, Tu, Il Elle being the other two) and none have been anything close to mainstream. In fact, one could potentially argue that of those three movies, La Captive is her most mainstream (it has a much more straightforward plot than the other two), and yet there are a ton of things about it that do not make it mainstream at all. Films with offbeat characters, deliberately slow, scattered and pensive storytelling just means she’s in her comfort zone. La Captive explores a famous theme, infidelity and the breakdown of relationships, but does so through very unique lenses. What’s so interesting about the film and the journey of its characters is how little 100% certain information Akerman gives us. There is enough hinted at to make Simon’s fears of Arianne seem founded enough. Perhaps his beloved is in fact in the process of discovering that she’s attracted to the same sex. Akerman’s camera captures little glances, little smiles and little ticks from Arianne and other female characters in the movie that would make such a ‘fear’ on Simon’s behalf plausible. The fact remains however that we the viewers, and consequently Simon, from whose perspective the story is told, are never privy to quite enough information to make that conclusion definitive. We and Simon could very well be wrong. Arianne herself, in the final third of the film, refutes that any major problems exist between the two. According to her, she never lies (or almost never), and finds Simon a fascinating partner precisely because there are things about him that remain a mystery. That latter element is a crucial one, because it is the same thing that, for Simon, spells the destruction of their love. He tries so hard to know everything about her, from where she is to what she is thinking about at specific times, and yet there is one truth trapped in a nutshell he cannot crack. How could she have changed for the other team? In one of the film’s most intriguing, comical and truthful scenes, Simon pays a visit to two lesbian lovers he knows shortly after arriving at the conclusion that Arianne has become a homosexual. He presses them with queries about the lesbian lifestyle, how does one become a homosexual, when can it happen, etc. They answer his cries for information as best they can, but ultimately he leaves their home with very little consolation except the notion that, for all intents and purposes, you are who you are and that’s that. A bitter pill to swallow for a man like Simon given the apparent circumstances.

The decision to have the story told from Simon’s perspective, in the sense that he is the character we see most and all we can know is what he knows, is a fascinating one. There can be something undeniably unsettling for a young, healthy, good looking man who does genuinely have affection for his lover to learn that he is no longer a suitably catch. If a guy (guys will be guys after all, so let’s stick with that idea) learns that his partner, with whom he has shared intimate moments and great passion, has suddenly discovered that she is in fact a homosexual, it can be particularly difficult to digest. It isn’t as if the reason for her departure has to do with a personality trait or a habit on his behalf that is sickening the lady and that requires effort to rearrange. No, this is something he can do nothing about. Nothing. For a lot of guys, that’s not an acceptable proposition and for a while it will eat them inside. In truth it has nothing to do with the guy, it really doesn’t. It literally has everything to do with girls, but that probably won’t compute at first for the male, and this is exemplified in Simon’s grim and defeatist attitude. It makes the scene in which he interrogates his homosexual female friends all the more compelling. He wants to understand it, but the way his mind is programmed is making that difficult. His fragility takes over in the latter stages of the film.



There is another clever factor added to the film by having Simon as the main character. Akerman’s past work, the work that I have seen at least, focussed on women and either their social condition at the time, as in Jeanne Dielman, or their emancipation through sexuality, as in Je, Tu, Il, Elle. Here is a film that has a woman’s issue at stake, but it is told from a male perspective, and a conservative male perspective at that. He wants to control her movements as much as possible, and the prospect of Arianne being a lesbian forces him into an uncomfortable position, to the point where he tries to understand it in a way that isn’t productive. It’s almost as if Akerman was turning her own style on its head, although the conclusion of the story, and the effect it has on Simon, dramatically debunks that possibility.

Furthermore, Akerman gives the viewer a female character that is difficult to decipher at times. As I outlined above, there is little doubt that she’s peculiar, although in a more subtle way than one might expect. We also don’t get to see her enough to make an informed decision about her sexuality, yet are provided with subtle but certainly noticeable hints that may or may not point towards Arianne being a closet homosexual. The scenes that involve her and their friend Andrée, including the home video which opens the film, tease the audience with that possibility. All these support Simon’s paranoia, but not his conclusion.



On a more technical level, Akerman certainly crafts a fine, fine film. The acting from everyone involved is stellar, and especially from Berhar, who carries much of the film on his shoulders. His character isn’t given any favours when one considers his personality traits and the situation he finds himself in. The fear that he may lose his lover for reasons beyond his control, a power he typically wields like a master strategist, is too much to bear. The films is also equipped with a passionate symphonic score, which at times supports the scenes with subtlety and other times points towards the obvious emotional hurricane stirring within Simon. I was under the impression that, with the intense emotions running amuck and the thrilling music accompanying the story, La Captive could make for a great opera. The camera work, while never vying for shots that scream ‘Hey, I’m a technically spectacular!’ is smooth and confident. There are, in reality, plenty of ‘screen cap’ worthy moments that remind us, once again, that Akerman knows how to frame her scenes.

While not soaring to the heights of some of her previous works, Akerman nonetheless delivers a compelling feature which dives into emotionally murky territory. La Captive aptly demonstrates that Akerman is never one to take the easy route when telling a story. It’s not her most challenging effort, but still makes for a satisfying experience.

New Marathon!

After a brief break (which may have been unmerited in the first place), here we go for another marathon. French language films from Female European directors, which basically means French and Belgian female directors. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Updates, shoutouts, the works....

Hello readers (all 6 of you probably). If you really think Between the Seats is awesome, then make sure to follow 'us' on Twitter at twitter.com/Betweentheseats. Any updates or changes that occur on the blog will be posted at Twitter. We are so 2009 now!

If I may take this moment to offer some internet buddies with praise, I'd like to redirect your attention to thereelists.com, an entertaining, well written and intelligent website hosted by some of the mates from the Filmspotting message boards. Yours truly isn't part of the site, but trust me, it's worth checking out. Just make sure you come back here afterwards.

Also, the 'French* female directors' marathon will start in the couple of days. Expect some thoughts on Chantal Akerman's La Captive soon!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Marathon conclusion

Hey readers! I hope you enjoyed the David Cronenberg marathon. I certainly enjoyed finally taking the time (often a lot of time) in putting my thoughts and feelings about the director's work into words. After 8 films and 8 rather heavy and lengthy reviews, I feel it's time to move on.

As you may recall, French female directors (which will basically be 'European female directors who make movies in French' won the previous poll question. Theoretically, that marathon should have begun about a week ago already, so I figured I should get on that topic soon.

I know that more Cronenberg films were promised, but anymore more than I've already done and it would end up being a 2 month marathon as opposed to a single month marathon. Crash and Spider were two films I particularly wanted to write about. In a glaringly cheap move, here's a link to a review for The Brood I wrote back in May of this year in case you want more Croneberg talk and missed it. As for Crash, here's a review written by fellow film lover Bill Thompson over at his Movie Emporium. It's not my work, I know, but he gave the film a glowing review and has an intriguing take about how the film is about emotion and the various, sometimes violent, acts that produce varying degrees of emotion. I didn't get that at all when I watched the film, but it's a good read.

Eastern Promises (2007)




Eastern Promises (2007)
4/5

Following closely on the heals of A History of Violence, David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen teamed up again to make a mobster thriller. Yeah, I know labelling Cronenberg films like that is an utterly pointless exercise, but that’s what the film was being marketed as, so there. This made Viggo Mortensen one of the few actors to star in a Cronenberg film twice, joining the great Jeremy Irons in that exclusive category. Does the dream team strike gold twice?

In actuality, the setup is far more complex than merely a ‘Cronenberg/Mortensen’ joint. There is a very large cast for this film and most of the characters are provided with interesting and critical plotlines. Early in the film, which is set in London (quite a different setting of all a sudden for a Cronenbeg film), a young teenage and very pregnant girl enters a pharmacy and starts haemorrhaging. She’s quickly sent to the hospital, where Anna (Naomi Watts) and her team perform an emergency birth. Sadly, the girl dies giving birth, but remarkably the baby survives. To deepen the intrigue of the situation, Anna discovers a personal journal in the girl’s purse. The mother was obviously Russian, and while Anna herself does not read the language, her uncle, with whom she is currently living, does. Her uncle is reluctant to tell Anna what has been written in the diary, but Anna’s desire to solve the mystery of the child gets the better of her, and when she finds a small business card for a Russian restaurant inside the pages of the book, the first thing she does is pay them a visit. Her meeting with the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is but the beginning of a dangerous venture into the London-based Russian mafia. The true secret behind how the child came to be is quite sick, but through it all there is an emotional light that we don’t often see in a Cronenberg film.



One of the crazier members of this section of the Russian mafia is Semyon’s son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), a spoiled brat of a man who takes most woman for whores (primarily because that is the kind of women he meets). Vulgar, a drunkard and enjoying the privilege of power, he is not a man to tease around with. There is another character of note in the film however, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). While he isn’t a member of the family, he works closely with the Semyons and becomes particularly close to Kirill by the end of the movie.

I’ll not give away anymore details about the plot, and I hope I haven’t given away too much already. Eastern Promises is a film that relies heavily on plot, probably more so than any other Cronenberg film. There are many details to all the main and side characters (of which there are several), and it was in fact only during my second viewing of the film that I had fully wrapped my head around it all. Giving away more of the story and I’d be spoiling the fun of discovering the twists and turns the story takes. Trust me, they’re worth it. Much like with A History of Violence, I felt that the ideas and themes of the movie were movie were mostly found in the actions, thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as their place in the story as opposed to the overall plot of the film meaning something. Consider the situation Anna finds herself in. Shortly after the tragic opening sequence, it is revealed, through a dinner conversation with her family, that Anna lost her baby in childbirth. This nightmare led to the destruction of her relationship with her now ex-partner. Essentially, she is staying with family until things start looking up again in her life. Oddly enough, another woman’s tragedy, the death of the girl at the beginning, may offer a ray of hope for Anna, a chance to become what she has wanted to become for some time already: a mother. One mother loses her child, another child loses her mother. Naomi Watts is one of the best English-language actresses working in film today. She always gives solid performances in emotionally heavy films. Her characters often experience difficult and troubling emotional challenges, and she seems to excel when presented with the challenge of acting out those emotions and stories. Needless to say, she doesn’t disappoint here. Her place in the film is arguably the most interesting (not that I’m taking anything away from Kirill’s and Nikolai’s stories). The plot itself has some very, very dark undertones, especially when the secret about the baby is shared, but Anna is the bright spot through it all. Her back story is nothing but tragic, as are the circumstances of her current one, but we know that the payoff, if she can obtain it at all, would be blissful. I was desperately rooting for her to succeed and get that baby to become a mother, not because that’s ‘what a woman’s place is’, but because that’s what she wants, deserves, and is fighting off all the danger of the Russian mafia for.



Nikolai, as Kiril’s right hand man, is another character of great interest. He also carries a great secret with him, although it has nothing to do with the baby. When his truth is discovered, it makes his place in the film all the more curious. What was his relationship with Kiril when he entered their clan and what does it mean at the end of the film when Kirill becomes the chief? Is he still really himself, functioning for the very purpose he arrive in the mafia for, or is he slowly losing himself in the organization? Kiril himself, as the overtly brash and even brutish son waiting for power to be bestowed upon him, carries some emotional resonance. His early scenes only hint at a malice, an evil glee about the character. It becomes more and more obvious, as the plot moves forward, that it is Semyon who may be the true evil person of the bunch, even though the latter’s soft spoken exterior would belie that fact. Of the two, Kirill and Semyon, it is Kirill who would be the first to feel genuinely guilty of any wrong doings that may have been committed, not Semyon. All three actors, Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl, give solid performances. Mueller-Stahl has such a kind way about him as an actor, that is really is a bit of a shock when the viewer learns that he may be the cruellest man of the bunch.

Whenever actors adopt a considerably different accent from their natural one to play a part, there are always complaints flying left and right about how terrible they sound. I may be tone deaf or something, but I rarely get annoyed with actors adopting accents, unless it is blatant. Neither Mortensen nor Cassel are Russian, nor did they speak Russian when hired to play their parts. However, I never felt this hindered their performances. My own circumstances have led to me meet many Russians and hear them talk in English with a Russian accent as well as simply hear them talk in Russian. Both Mortensen and Cassel sound great to me. Even Mortensen’s Russian is rather authentic. I guess some people just enjoy complaining about that.

It wouldn’t really be a Cronenberg film without some good old blood and gore, and while Eastern Promises doesn’t deliver bucket loads of either, it is quite explicit when it serves up at least some. There are a couple of throat slitting murders that were enough to have me hold my neck in fear and, of course, there is the now famous bathhouse brawl in which Mortensen’s Nikolai much fight off two huge Russian thugs that have been sent to eliminate him late in the story. Much has already been written regarding that scene, and I therefore do not have much to add. Suffice to say that few action film heroes experience fist and knife battles that even close to the grittiness and violence of the one featured here. When the characters are been cut open by the knives, it really is difficult not to cringe. What’s more, the sequence is well choreographed and shot, something I always demand when experiencing an action scene. Those of you who have read some of my earlier reviews of films involving spectacle and fights know that already.



This last review in the marathon may seem a tad shorter than usual, and it is. Eastern Promises is the most recent of all the films I’ve analyzed so I decided not to spoil so much, unlike in most of the other reviews I’ve written. I also think it is the most character-driven of the director’s movies, so I would simply feel cheap by giving away everyone’s stories. I think I’ve even hinted at a couple things already to get readers guessing. There are a couple of things I do want to mention before I conclude this review. First is that I find the tone of the movie to be quite different from the rest of Cronenberg’s material. I completely stand by my view that the story, no matter how dark its tale, holds a thin string of hope, a thin ray of light throughout. That shinning light is Anna’s presence and determination to uncover the truth and save the motherless child she met at the beginning. It’s a tremendously noble and brave act on her behalf and I think that adds genuine emotion to the proceedings. It’s not that none of Cronenberg’s previous film ever had emotion (The Fly is an excellent example of a film that really did have a lot), but that hasn’t happened terribly often in the man’s filmography. I think for that reason, Anna is one of my favourite characters of all those featured in Cronenberg films, which is interesting given how she is one of the very few true leading female characters he has ever used.

The second is that Eastern Promises is a very respectable venture into the mobster/gangster genre for the director. So often he made films that very much fit into their own categories. Granted, this being a Cronenberg film, one shouldn’t expect it to be solely about the mob and gang rivalries, and it isn’t. However, of all the movies the director has made, this is certainly one that can, theoretically, be fit into a well established and mainstream genre. He doesn’t turn the genre on its head, but nonetheless succeeds in telling a compelling story with worthwhile characters within it. We can’t expect Cronenberg to strike gold every single time, but Eastern Promises, while perhaps lacking a bit of originality, does what it sets out to do very well.

*I did have a spoiler filled review planned, so if anyone wants me to post that one, just leave a comment!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Existenz (1999)


Existenz (1999)
4/5

This is a trippy little film. I know we, as Cronenberg fans, gush over the writer director’s intelligence and the complex themes he explores in his cinema. It’s layered, it’s often profound and even ahead of its time on occasion. Sometimes however, it’s simply best to take a concept, in this case massive online multiplayer games, and have a blast with it. Such is the case with Existenz.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra, a cutting edge video game designer who one evening offers a very privileged and exclusive group of video gamers an opportunity to try out her latest project. Once seated in the anonymous looking room, the gamers are thrilled to see their idol Allegra in the flesh as she explains Existenz, a new, more immersive kind of multiplayer game in which players physically act out their respective characters in a virtual world, like actors would on a movie set. Players are simply required to connect themselves to their gaming consoles through a small device which has been implanted into the lower part of their spines (standard procedure to partake in online games in the film’s universe). Allegra has developed a new gaming console specifically for Existenz however, one that cannot go public just yet. Before the test can commence, the event is high jacked by a spy who makes an attempt on Allegra’s life with an odd organic pistol comprised of human bones and flesh and equipped with teeth for bullets!

Allegra flees the scene with one of her employees, Ted Pikkul (Jude Law), who de facto becomes her bodyguard of sorts for the remainder of their misadventure. Ted is rather ill equipped to fill the role of bodyguard however, being somewhat of a cowardly shrimp. Given the circumstances, they now have to save themselves as well as protect Existenz from the forces who wish to destroy it. Allegra has in her possession the one Existenz gaming console which holds a full version of the game, albeit with some loose screws that still require work. When the console sustains damage after being tampered with by a slightly eerie gas station manager Gas (Willem Dafoe), Allegra must save her work at all costs by testing it with Ted, the latter whom has never experienced an online game, but he’ll discover just how immersive they can be.



Existenz is David Cronenberg’s Total Recall (a film he was originally scheduled to direct, ironically enough). It contains some very smart elements which fans of the director crave for, but is complimented with a sense of fun and mystery. The films was released in 1999, a time when online multiplayer games were not as massive as they are today. Starcraft, Warcraft and other such games offered players popular online experiences, but both pale in comparison to what gamers can choose from today in 2009. Online games which offer customizable and extraordinarily vast and complex virtual worlds to explore are a hallmark of the gaming industry, which wasn’t the case a decade ago. The film Gamer starring Gerard Butler has a storyline in which characters actively participate in a massive online death match, but Existenz got there first…10 years earlier. In a sense, one could argue that Existenz was a bit of a novelty upon its release. Well, there is that one death scene in that Nightmare on Elm Street film in which a dude gets killed in a video game, but Existenz concentrated on a very specific type of game, one that is time consuming and as well as energy consuming… A critic (a role I very much enjoy acting out) who reviews the film for the first time today has the benefit of hindsight regarding the development of the online gaming industry. Existenz does effectively tap into some of the principal strengths and cons of these kinds of games. They are impressively detailed and invite players to participate in sophisticated co-op gameplay, often any way they see fit given the highly customizable options. Conversely, they can be tremendously demanding on the player involved as has been stated already. People can invest a lot of effort into accomplishing whatever goals the game challenges them with. Coming back to the real world can feel less appealing the more time is spent in the virtual world. There are moments when Allegra and Ted think they have exited Existenz, but are unsure as to whether this is in fact the case, which is an interesting twist on the fact that some real life gamers do indeed have trouble separating their online lives from their real world ones. Or maybe Cronenberg is merely trying to twist the knobs of the plot in an attempt to confuse the viewer. He can be funny like that at times. There are some neat touches that should have gamers smiling however. Early in their online adventure, Allegra notices how some of the game characters come off as a bit stiff and have stale dialogue. Anyone who has played a game which featured poor dialogue or voice acting can relate, of that I’m sure. Another scene has Allegra and Ted guessing the correct line of dialogue to deliver in order for their virtual counterpart to reciprocate by providing information that would advance the storyline, similar to how many puzzles players can encounter in a multitude of role playing games.



The film handles another element in a very interesting way, although the manner in which it is dealt with should come as no surprise to fans of the director involved. I’m referring to the procedure by which players can enter Existenz. First, they are required to have to small plug in device implanted at the bottom of their spine, after which the gaming console can be connected. The gaming console itself even has a far more organic, natural look to it than a manufactured, plastic look. The character of Ted expresses strong reservations before receiving his implant. He squirms at the very thought of a piece of technology, or a piece o anything for that matter, entering his body. It’s a legitimate fear, not only because it sounds weird, but because of the many implications involved. How far are we, as humans, willing to go with technology enhancing our lives, particularly when there is a risk of losing ourselves to the very technology we created? Technology and humanity coming closer and closer together until…who knows what. The field of medicine has been an incredibly fertile area for researchers and developers to engage in the evolution of technology for humans. Artificial limbs, hearts, bones, and so much more. Implanted identification chips are an idea that sounds as if it belongs in a science fiction movie, but it gets tossed around every now and then. There are countless examples, real and fictional, of technology literally becoming a part of our bodies. There are pros and cons of course, but where should be limits be drawn? At what point have we gone too far in tampering with the human body (read: what makes us who we are and how do we preserve it)? Ted is the incarnation of the person who hesitates before such possibilities, who even resists them. Allegra embraces them and even plays a significant role in advancing that process. Interestingly, it is Allegra who appears as the more interesting character. She shows a confidence, a cockiness suggesting that it may be alright to give ourselves into this bold new world, at least in the universe of the film. Ted is a bit of a paranoid, always appearing as frightful and uncomfortable. He’s a bit pathetic, which makes his side of the argument rather unappealing. In any other film, Ted would be the intelligent sceptic who saves the day or the protagonist who learns through their adventure some sort of terrible truth about the technology being used. No, in Existenz Ted is an annoying scardy cat. Allegra, while displaying some more encouraging characteristics, is not very lively or energetic during the film, which can be a cause for concern. Is her blazé tone a sign that she has begun to lose herself in her games and extension in technology? Both characters represent important sides of an argument, but both are flawed in their own ways.

The world of the game features fascinating production design from Carol Spier, a long time member of the Cronenberg team. Each location feels very different and unique in teir own way, but always belonging to one single world, the world of Existenz. There are a host of bizarre little moments and visual cues that can only belong in a film from this particular director, such as the organic gaming console, and the pistol made of bone and flesh. The only disappointing visual in the film is a small computer generated creature Allegra and Ted encounter outside of a gas station. Its presence may be a clue that both are in fact already in the game since nothing had hinted at that possibility up until then, but the little bug doesn’t look very convincing. Regardless, Existenz remains one of the director’s more visually stimulating works.

Even if we look at Existenz merely as a piece of entertainment, it’s trippy fun. The characters are offbeat on occasion, the twists and turns between ‘reality’ and the world of Existenz get entangled with one another and it’s all pretty easy to sit back and enjoy if ‘thinking’ about the movie isn’t your cup of tea. I like the fact that the film works on both levels like that. Cronenberg may have produced better, more provocative and more memorable material, but I think Existenz is unfairly overlooked in the director’s cannon.