Monday, October 19, 2009

Female European Directors: Trouble Every Day (2001)

Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis)

With Trouble Every Day Claire Denis tried her hand in the horror genre. In truth, like the best of horror films, hers has much more going for it than pure scares or gore. Looking back, there weren’t many scares save for a few tense moments, but word of advice: what gore that does appear is rather unsettling. The characters at the center of the plot carry a lot of emotional weight, lending the story a gravitas all too difficult to find in horror films by and large. The main characters here come in two pairs. More specifically, they come in two married couples. One is American, made up of newly weds Shane and June (Vinent Gallo and Tricia Vessey) traveling to Paris for their honeymoon. We first meet them on the plane before they land in the city of lights in a scene which perfectly sets up two things. First, the love each other dearly and second, that Shane may not be 100 percent healthy. Something is ailing him, although the film does not explicitly say what at this point (a few interspersed scenes show Shane visiting a high-tech medical clinic specialized in research on the libido). The other couple introduced early on is that of Léo and Coré, a French couple living in Paris. The film also does an admirable job at showing how their marriage is anything but healthy. In absolutely brutal fashion, we discover that Coré is terribly ill, mentally that is, and that she has a thirst for inhumane mayhem, as in mutilating the bodies of men after having seduced them into having sex with her. Rather than give up on her, Léo, a doctor performing research on human libido (of the same kind we witness in some of the Shane scenes), works tirelessly to hide her from the authorities, and to protect the outside world from her. He attempts to wash away whatever evidence at the scene of the crimes may lead to her identity and subsequently stores her away in a locked room in their home. Much to Léo’s dismay, Coré is a shadow of her former self. Afflicted with such a grave illness, Coré is an evil witch. The stories of these two couples are told mostly separately, but eventually converge with the discovery that there is in fact a link between Shane and Coré.

Trouble Every Day
is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a hidden gem of modern French cinéma and particularly of the horror genre. With films such as Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir, Claire Denis showed that she has an intuitive understanding of character, motivation, and the emotions that propel people forward (or backward, whatever the case may be). Demonstrating that same kind of finesse with material such as this, which can easily be viewed as off-putting to say the least, is an accomplishment that deserves respect. Both thematically and in relation to its plot, Trouble Every Day is very murky and a challenge to take in. My first reaction to the film, despite being overall fairly positive, was still a bit reserved. Many of the ideas, some of which became clearer (somewhat) to me later, were overshadowed by a rather cold, detached and dark mood which hid them. It was only upon further reflection that my appreciation of the film blossomed. Of the two parallel storylines taking place, I took a great liking to that which involved Léo and Coré. On the one hand, it is horrifying to the utmost degree. This woman, whom we are expected to believe was at some in the past ‘normal’ since Léo is married to her after all, is a human demon. Her mental illness has corrupted all regular behaviour that could be expected from a person. Her former self has withered away entirely and in its place is a sexually charged man ripping machine. On the other hand however, I find this tale deeply saddening. The source of this emotive response rests in the acceptance that Coré was indeed another person in the past, that is, a loving wife. This is reinforced by Léo’s presence and his determination in not only protecting her, but also in trying find any kind of cure to what ails her. He is the backbone of this storyline despite Alex Descas’ limited screen time. His reasons for locking his wife in a bedroom are justified given the peculiar circumstances. She is a terrible danger to society and even to Léo himself when she can’t control her animalistic impulses, which is most of the time. Ask anybody around and they will cry foul. Coré is a menace and requires intensive medical care…possibly locked up in a mental institute. Léo will have none of that business. His wife is indeed ‘locked up’, but in his home. Whatever frustrations and depression Léo is suffering through, it must be out of love.

Thematically, Trouble Every Day is as complex as some of the murder scenes are intense. At this point in her career, Denis had clearly demonstrated that she was far more clever a director than one who would put to screen a schlock horror film, no matter how slick or gritty. This is where one can get into trouble, no pun intended. This isn’t an easy movie to assess due to its very austere qualities, its dark tone and its cerebral yet ambiguous themes. By the end, when Shane and Coré have had their fateful encounter, what is it exactly that we have watched? Violence and sex rolled into one… didn’t we just complete a marathon about that stuff? Denis’ film does call for comparisons to some of David Cronenberg’s work, such as Rabid, in which sex is provided a particularly evil face. In real life, sex can be violent and dangerous physically, emotionally and psychologically, when the wrong emotions are involved. Trouble Every Day takes that to another level entirely. The two characters who suffer from this bizarre illness, Shane and Coré, have lost control, giving way for their violent impulses to overcome whatever logic or conscious that, under any other circumstances, would dictate them to hold back.

The act of sex is special in how it stimulates our bodies and our senses like few other activities can. The pleasure attained through sex simply cannot be compared to anything else. How curious is it then that the movie has sex so closely associated with pain and ultimately death. Pleasure and pain are stimulations that we have discussed on previous occasions during the Cronenberg marathon. The sick people in this film are taking away from their victims the luxury of pleasure through brutal murder just they said victims are in fact experiencing that special pleasure. It makes for a horribly cruel twist of fate for the sorry saps who are suckered into having intercourse with either Shane or Coré, both villains despite themselves. Coré and Shane are sexual predators. Granted, it isn’t as if they have any kind of choice (‘choice’ in the sense that is widely accepted). The film isn’t any of kind of symbolic apology for that kind of criminal, but I find it unique that these two antagonists are as far removed from the stereotypical views we have of sexual predators. Sex and violence are prominent facets in popular culture around the world, especially in Western culture (which has been successfully exported to many other cultures around the globe). Denis literally combines these two facets into one. With Coré and Shane, there can be no sex without violence and death. It’s an extreme vision to be sure, but a decent challenge presented to the viewers. As some readers may begin to tell, I’m still wrestling with this movie. Maybe it’s a commentary on sexual promiscuity (which crossed my mind at one point). Then again, maybe it has something to say about how we, civilians living in the West, have an obsession with our bodies and more specifically our physical appearance to others and the subsequent anxieties which stem from such preoccupations. Denis, in her own existensial way, is saying how we need to ‘destroy’ the perfect body (our aspirations to earn the ‘perfect’ body as well) and relieve ourselves from sexual stereotypes which only add pressure on so many. I’m rambling obviously, but that’s how I find the movie simultaneously fascinating and confusing.

Vincent Gallo is one of those actors people love or hate. His voice, demeanour and acting style are very unique, and while I cannot say that he is an actor who gets me excited to see movies, he fills the role of the deeply troubled Shane very well. Because his character doesn’t appear as damaged as Coré (who comes off as a complete nut job), there is often a hint of emotion and vulnerability in the actor’s performance. But when we’ve seen him be normal for a few moments, the viewer then discovers a look in his eyes that immediately hints that something very wrong and strange is brewing in that mind. I very much enjoyed Gallo’s effort overall. Alex Descas, who has worked with director Claire Denis on more than on occasion, doesn’t get as much screen time as I would like, but he always has a presence about him that brings some class and gravitas to whatever scene he is featured in. He is another actor who can do a lot with his eyes (is it not said that much of acting is about what an actor can do with their eyes?). Béatrice Dalle as Coré is…sufficiently insane. The odd one out for me is Tricia Vessey who plays Gallo’s wife in the film. It’s a fine performance, but of the four leads, her performance wasn’t the one I was thinking about when the movie was over.

So there’s a little bit of a Halloween special for you. I figured I couldn’t go through the month of October without any sort of acknowledgment of the day, but I didn’t want to cheat the spirit of the marathon either. Coré and Shane are a bit like vampires, only they prefer leaving their victims in pools of blood with bits of flesh instead two perfect little holes.

Merry Halloween and Happy Fall!

Monday, October 12, 2009


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Female European directors: Vendredi Soir (2002)

Vendredi Soir (2002, Claire Denis)

On a Friday night in Paris, dear Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is packing her things. Very soon she’ll be moving into a new apartment with her current partner. Moving is rarely a fun activity. You are exiting a place where you may have been comfortable for a while into a new domain that may or may not be as welcoming as you hope it shall. We’ve been there before. To put her mind to rest once her packing chores are over and done with, Laure heads out for a meeting with friends at a restaurant. Her forgetfulness plays a ruse on her since the reality of the public transportation strike affecting Paris on this Friday has slipped her mind. Stuck in traffic like a bug stuck in dried cement, Laure passes the time with the radio and by observing what activity is stirring outside her car. Not getting anywhere fast, talk shows, honking from other drivers, yes… a great Friday evening by any stretch of the definition.

After an undetermined amount of time elapses, fate has Laure meet Jean (Vincent London), a man hoping to catch a ride and flee the rain. Laure, being the decent person that she is, agrees to have him tag alone for the slow, slow ride. But what began as an honest gesture of friendliness transforms both of their evenings into an unforgettable and unique evening of discovery and uninhibited emotions. They slowly get to know each other, and before you can say ‘De la sauce bolognaise s’il vous plaît’ Laure and Jean become lovers for one night.

To convey this discovery of emotions, a very specific aesthetic is by Denis and her crew. In the case of Vendredi Soir, there is a host of very close camera shots which invite viewers into this aesthetically unique world Denis has created. The frame is often dominated by either a hand, lips, a shoulder, a touch (whether delicate or more passionate), feet, etc. It’s a very intimate camera that places itself right in the action to capture many of the special, little moments when two lovers are together. For several reasons, it’s an interesting stylistic choice in that it emphasizes the physical contact experienced by the two characters, which in of itself is an extension of the emotional connection they have found with one another. Two figures, both solitary on this night, one caught in traffic with the stress of moving into a different location on her mind, the other to find refuge from the rain and kindness in the heart of a stranger. When these strangers meet, there’s a connection that immediately builds. It does so slowly at first, beginning with small talk (as all new encounters do), but as the hours pass, it develops into a remarkably passionate affair, one that only a privileged few would be willing to dive in to. This is all despite the fact they haven’t really gotten to know each other very well by the time the sun begins to rise the next morning. It is a theme worthy of exploration within the medium of cinema and certainly within a film of this kind, which is small and has a intimate feel to it. On appelle ça le ‘cinéma d’auteur’. The notion that two people who are strangers to one another can find a connection so perfect under the circumstances is brilliant and, as real life can testify, sometimes true. It happens every day around the world. Perhaps not the love making sessions with the person you’ve just met (although some can testify to that part as well), but many of us have spent a remarkable brief period with someone we had only just met. Remarkable for how it always reminds us of our need for those connections, to have at least someone close to us, to how compatible we are with one another when the stars are aligned. The timing, our moods, what happened earlier that day, all these will influence what connections we make when least expect it. Maybe that’s called fate, or just life. It’s a special occasion that speaks to our need to socialize and to feel one another, whether physically or purely on an emotional level. At its core, Vendredi Soir is a nod to our shared humanity, and that’s a beautiful thing.

And now I’ll proceed to rip all that apart.

No I won’t, I was merely pulling your legs. No, there is nothing wrong with what Denis’ film attempts to accomplish. In truth, it is more the fashion in which it makes those attempts that, while certainly not bad per say, had me longing for something different after a while. I got into a discussion with someone over at the famous Filmspotting message boards about the cinematography and editing of the film, the close up shots I wrote about above. In fact, the part I wrote about how this aesthetic reinforces the idea of the physicality of Laure and Jean’s relationship…that was my fellow message board member’s argument. And to be fair, he is correct in that assessment. The logic supporting the decision to make such a stylistic choice is quite sound. Having said that, and movies being the special kind of beasts they are, I reserve the right to not appreciate the visual merits of said technique, all the while accepting the thematic reasons for its usage. Film, above all else, is a visual medium after all. After a while, the splendour of the close up shots waned somewhat. As you may be able to tell, my feelings towards the style are ambiguous. I’m accepting of the thematic value, but I just really don’t like the way it looks. A bit odd, I’ll concede that, but this is my review, so deal. I can take the shaky cam when it’s handled aptly, as I can close quarter cinematography, but only to a certain degree, especially regarding the latter. There’s something oddly claustrophobic about it that gets under my skin. It’s a very specific issue that I’m wrestling with, one that in no way destroyed my viewing experience, let me be clear about that issue. I discussed with a couple of other people who have an appreciation for the film and they also agree with my Filmspotting acquaintance that the visual effectiveness of the technique is solid. Good for them. I simply don’t find it aesthetically pleasing. A couple of shots maybe, but it doesn’t take long for me to grow tired of it.

Having said that (you know where to send hate mail), I should point out that there are some very pleasant visual cues to found here. There are a couple of wide shots of Paris, one in the day time and another in the early evening, which caught my eye. Some of the early scenes when Laure is sitting in her car looking outside feature great lighting, especially when beautiful neon lights are reflected off her driver side window, are gorgeous. Director Denis does an admirable job of brining a certain romanticism into this effort, which is in sharp contrast to some of her other work, such as Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day. The fact that the story takes place over the course of one evening and throughout the night adds a lot as well. We dream at night, we are obsessed with the notion that love blooms at night (most dates still take place after the sun sets, don’t they?), the wise lighting choices that highlight some scenes, there is in fact a romantic, dreamlike quality to this movie that I liked a fair bit. And despite my reservations about some of the cinematography, there are nonetheless some scenes that still find ways to work well, my favourite being the diner sequence, which occurs shortly after Laure and Jean have expressed their passion for each other. There are so many fine details to their brief relationship that are elaborated on during those few minutes, as well as great food on the table, that that particular scene continues to stick out in my mind. Both Valérie Lemercier and Vincent London should be applauded for their mature performances. In a strange sense, I found both actors fairly reserved in their respective roles, this despite the fact that there’s this rush of special emotions rushing through them. I think that all the while this story is playing out, both Laure and Jean realize how ‘silly’ they are behaving. This is a fine balance about their performances that struck me.

By the time their affair arrives to its mostly logical conclusion, Denis opts to avoid unnecessary melodrama. Of course, this is a European director’s marathon, so anyone expecting unnecessary melodrama is bound to be disappointed. Go catch a Paul Haggis film. As daylight greets the streets of Paris, Laure decides to flee the hotel room she and Jean rented for the night in which they shared their passion. Jean is still fast sleeping soundly while she makes her getaway. The final moments of the film have Laure galloping in the streets, almost like a school girl giddy about her first boyfriend crush. In a way she still is a giddy girl, if only temporarily. She has given in to something inside of her that under other circumstances she never would have. And you what else? It probably felt darn good too. I like the ending a lot because of its uninhibited satisfaction. The main character went with her heart instead of her mind and got away with it. In some ways, I think maybe Claire Denis did as well. Après tout, il faut vivre avec le coeur des fois!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Female European directors: Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)

Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962, Agnès Varda)

A good director can take material that should theoretically work with a specific tone in mind, but turn that notion on its head and effectively use a completely different tone while still preserving the nature of the film’s premise. After watching a couple Varda films that dealt with relationships teetering on the verge of extinction (La Pointe Courte and Le Bonheur), my third viewing from the Belgian born writer director was a very different beast. In Cléo de 5 à 7, the main character, Florence, a talented recording artist nicknamed Cléo (played by Corinne Marchand) awaits highly critical medical results which will indicate whether or not she has a terminal illness. Not a pleasant premise at all, I agree, but Varda doesn’t infuse her film with any permanent sense of malaise. Rather, there is a playfulness and whimsical quality to the mood and the characters for the most part. That’s not so say there are no moments during which a darker tone sets in, only that Cléo de 5 à 7 comes off much lighter than it could have in the hands of another director.

It should be pointed out that the film works, in a sense, as a ‘high concept’ film. The structure of the movie is hinted in the title itself. The timeline in the story is set between 5 and 7 pm from the moment lovely Cléo leaves the home of a taro card reader. A wha?!? A taro card reader. Incapable of waiting until the evening for her test results, Cléo visits this mysterious character in an attempt to predict the outcome of said results. The story is told in chapters, each one lasting perhaps 5 to 7 minutes and has Cléo interact with her assistant, members of her band, a close friend, and an inquisitive stranger in the park. Each little episode holds special value for the principal character given the high emotions she is running on. Those emotions aren’t simply the result of her nervous anticipation of the medical test results to be revealed later that evening, but also because of her trip to the taro card reader at the beginning. The mysterious old woman, after an initial failed attempt at reading Cléo’s future, which in of itself is a strange start to the movie (shouldn’t something like that come easily to someone of her profession? Why would she need a second try at reading cards?), she old lady concludes that Cléo’s near future isn’t bright. Cléo, knowing that her health and possibly her own life will be at stake later that day, fears the worst. This is but one of the few occasions in the film that demonstrates how Cléo, and her assistant as we learn later, is prone to superstition. An interesting trait, and an unhealthy one if her physical well being is already in danger, but it fits with all part of the whimsy sparkled throughout the film. The colour pattern of the opening sequence is also peculiar, for whenever the camera stares at the cars on the table with an overhead shot, the picture is in colour, whereas when we see the face of the card reader and that of Cléo, the picture turns to black and white. This is perhaps the juxtaposition between the exciting potential revelations hidden in the cards with Cléo’s black and white view of her current health situation It’s one of the many very personal touches given to the characters by the director to keep pumping the emotion. Rather than feeling forced, the emotions always feel like they fit the situations.

Fearful and saddened by her visit to the taro card reader, she runs out to meet up with her assistant at a café to share the story of her visit and pour out some raw emotion. The film kind of pulls a quick one on the viewer when Cléo’s mood lightens up when they leave the café to go shopping. It’s the little details such as that one that offer such quality to Varda’s work here. Her interactions with all those she meets between 5 and 7 pm are varied and encourage a splurge of diverging emotions to spring outward from Cléo. Her time with her band members when they pay her a visit is a perfect example of that. Both are lively jokesters, and succeed in delighting their singer for a while, but when they all rehearse a new song one of them has just written, Cléo breaks down and storms off immediately after the end of the tune. Her mind and heart are spinning everywhere. Everything and everyone she sees and speaks to blows the wind of emotions in different directions all the time. In that sense, Cléo de 5 à 7 is a bit of a challenge to digest at first. My immediate reaction to all of this was that there was an incongruity to the many scenes that went by, but I came around after some thought. Her glamorous persona as an artist is suddenly challenged, battered and bruised. She needs to keep up her act to the outside world all the while battling her inner turmoil. The pressures established by the nature of her profession may or may not end up breaking her.

Ultimately, the emotional roller coaster ride fits well within this unique film universe created by Varda. She is using the medium of film to full capacity to convey the thoughts and emotions pressing down on Cléo on this most challenging of days. There are some clever camera movements and lighting choices (for the inside shots) that struck me immediately for their aesthetic qualities. Shortly after returning home after shopping, Cléo’s lover comes to visit her briefly. He is unaware of her illness and Cléo has been warned by her assistant not to reveal this awful truth (men can’t take that kind of talk from a woman). Just before her man sets foot in the room, the camera rests on Cléo’s face as she puckers up to look glamorous and desirable, just as any respectable recording artist should after all. There’s even this one perfect shot in which she gives one of her many kittens an adorable peck on the nose. For a brief moment, even despite her fears for what may come, she can slip into her ‘artist’s persona’ like a hand in a glove. The duality of her character is exemplified extrememly well in this scene as well as others. The final chapter of the film has Cléo encounter a friendly stranger in the park with whom she forms a bond. In another film, under the same circumstances, I don’t think this trajectory would work very well, but if one can accept and embrace this specific cinematic world, then it becomes part of this fantastic emotional ride. The same can be said for a brief scene when Cléo, has has been walking around town, comes to a small crowd that is watching a man swallow and spit out live frogs. It's a bit silly in the grander scheme of things, but then I thought about how the man is, in a way, is demonstrating his power to take and give back a chance at life. As he spits out the small animals, Cléo turns away, seemingly out of disgust, but I beg to differ. She believes her time has come, contrary to the frogs who have been provided a second chance to survive. That's what disgusts her.

Little of this would work if it weren’t for the sublime performance by actress Corinne Marchand, who exquisitely inhabits this troubled and delicate character. First things first, we should get the obvious masculine comment out of the way and mention that this actress is stunning to watch as she strolls on the streets. As an actress is this challenging role she delivers a great performance. I had never heard of her prior to seeing this film, but I know that I'll take notice the next time I see Corinne Marchand's name in the credits on the back of a DVD box.

In the end, it's pretty clear that Agnès Varda is a director with a unique voice who finds great inspiration in stories about terribly troubled people and communities, as can be seen from the three films we've analyzed at this blog (La Pointe Courte and Le Bonheur being the other two). It's a bit of a shame that we aren't doing a Agnès Varda marathon specifically, which I think would have been fascinating to say the least, specifically regarding the evolution of her filmmaking styles and the themes she has explored throughout her illustrious career . There's always nest time...