8th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Lifelong (Hayatboyu, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Asli Özge

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of my pet peeves with modern cinema is when a film begins with a sex scene—to me, it seems that the filmmaker lacks the confidence to draw an audience in by less sensational means. After being initially put off by this ploy in the Turkish/Dutch/German coproduction Lifelong, I came to see that it was an important key to the entire movie. Lifelong’s sex scene is short and vigorous, but its aftermath is the point—no embrace or conversation, just a panting woman left alone in bed while her husband showers. This is a marriage on the brink of dissolution.

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Reminiscent of the alienated couples in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ela (Defne Halman) and Can (Hakan Çimenser), an installation artist and architect, respectively, live a very luxurious life in a modernist, multistory home in Istanbul centered around a spiral, metal staircase that sounds a hollow ring every time someone moves on it. Ela’s studio is on the ground floor, and she sleeps on the couch there most nights. Despite their mutual unhappiness, Ela is concerned when she suspects Can of cheating on her. She snoops into his cellphone to see who he has called and has a hook-up on the house phone installed so that she can listen in on phone calls without being detected. When she discovers her suspicions are correct, she tells Can she wants to move out.

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Lifelong is a film of mood, simmering emotion, and somewhat surprisingly, work. Ela’s approach to art is highly conceptual and noncommercial—she searches a quarry for a boulder “big enough to crush a man,” and then hangs it above the glass roof of an art gallery. Can’s work presumably is reflected in the home they share, and we see him go to a region of Turkey where a 7.2 earthquake has flattened 72,000 buildings, perhaps to assess the causes of the damage and make plans for rebuilding, though the trip is never really explained.

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The earthquake figures in Ela and Can’s story as well, as they sleep through what has roused their entire neighborhood. This is a rather obvious metaphor for their repression of the fatal fracture of their marriage, and it frightens them into embracing each other in passionate need. Soon, however, Can slowly, delicately extricates himself from Ela’s embrace, seeing their actions as panic-motivated and not a true revival of feeling.

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It might be tempting to look at this film as just another exercise in self-pity among the financial and social elites, but I was haunted by the performances of Çimenser and especially Halman. Can is brusque and often unsympathetic, but his pain is evident and his concern for Ela real, even if he no longer loves or wants to live with her. On their way to visiting their daughter Nil (Gizem Akman) and her live-in beau Tan (Onur Dikmen), Ela is shown cooling her burning-hot feet in the snow, a stunning image; on arrival, her body temperature and blood pressure rise to a dangerous level, and she flies back to Istanbul to be hospitalized. Can, driving alone to meet her there, stops at a viaduct she wanted to photograph but that he made her skip, and in a warm gesture, shoots some pictures with his phone to present to her.

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Halman, however, is the real center of this film. Özge’s camera catches her in every mood—mostly drawn and serious, but also happy and animated in the presence of her daughter. A woman who appears to be in her 50s, she is still attractive and in shape, but director Özge knows the insecurities that befall women at all ages, but especially when they are past their peak of attractiveness. She films Halman strip naked and stare at herself in a full-length mirror, perhaps wondering if she would have rejected that body, too, if she were Can. Of course, there is a brittleness to the couple’s conversations, with Ela condescending to Can, and Can sulking defensively. When Ela calls the number on Can’s cellphone, we hear nothing—indeed, we see and learn absolutely nothing about the woman he is seeing—but understand what has happened by the minute changes on Halman’s face. We watch Ela scrutinize Nil and Tan’s relationship. In a cleverly shot scene, Nil, Tan, Ela, and Can are each framed in a separate window of a coffee shop as Ela asks why Nil is giving up industrial design for Tan’s field of archaeology. Visually, it would appear that Nil is planning to replicate her parents’ marriage.

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It is only after the doctor has ruled out anything organic, diagnosing her condition as psychological, that Ela determines her stress level is too high to live with; she confronts Can with his infidelity and takes the first step to end the marriage. But couples who have been together a long time uncouple slowly. Can allows her to sleep in the bedroom when Nil and Tan come to Istanbul to attend the gallery opening, and he enters an installation she has at the show, a room of shifting colored light masked with mist from a fog machine, and emerges full of praise and admiration for her work. It is strange to watch them shop for apartments together, but when we see which one she chooses, we understand that cohabitation may end, but the marriage will be what the film’s title suggests—lifelong.

Lifelong screens Saturday October 12, 8:30 p.m., Monday, October 14, 6:00 p.m., and Thursday, October 17, 1:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


5th 04 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Intimacy (2001)

Director: Patrice Chéreau

By Roderick Heath

Considering that we’re supposed to be living in an age in which cinema is freely littered with the perpetually conjoined twins of sex and violence, it’s interesting that whilst mainstream media offers copious amounts of the latter, the former is really quite underrepresented. You don’t see the makers of crappy action films trying to squeeze unsimulated sex scenes into their movies, and with good reason: they’d be far more cruelly penalised if they did. At the end of the ’90s and early new century, a handful of controversial art house pics did ruffle feathers with boundary-pushing portrayals of sexuality, like Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999); Virginie Despente and Coralie’s Baise-Moi (2000), still banned in Australia; and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004). Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy likewise caused about 10 minutes’ worth of controversy for featuring real screwing by middle-aged actors Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance photographed, unlike just about every other sex scene in history, with the same cool simplicity a cameraman would otherwise turn on them drinking a cup of coffee or walking on the street.

But what’s truly striking and disorientating about Chéreau’s film is the utterly unflinching, merciless way he photographs Rylance’s pasty arse and grizzled face and Fox’s far from supermodel flesh, and, most importantly, the anxiety, anger, and terror that pool in their eyes. The nakedness of their bodies, as the cliché goes, is nothing compared to the nakedness of their souls, but it’s certainly true that in order to wrench the most profound communication of desperation and stripped-bare humanity in his actors, Chéreau had to remove every safeguard of actorly affectation. Not that he had to go too far with Rylance, predominantly a stage figure who, nonetheless, on the basis of his performance in this and in the underregarded Angels and Insects (1995), would count as one of the most interesting actors alive, or with Fox, beloved of movie fans since her starring role in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1989).

Intimacy was adapted by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic from stories by the laureate of British grunge writing, Hanif Kureishi, whose screenplay for the 1985 hit My Beautiful Laundrette helped revitalise British cinema. With exceptions—the toothless Peter O’Toole vehicle Venus (2006), for example—Kureishi’s name being attached to a movie promises fearless material. Chéreau, for his part, was a former wunderkind stage director. His two films of the new century, Intimacy and 2005’s splendidly mordant Conrad adaptation Gabrielle, evince a tense and incisive talent more at home with these gamey, literate, intimate psychodynamics. Intimacy, like most movies in this demi-genre, reflects the long shadow cast by Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, commencing with a similar conceit of a willfully anonymous, intermittent, rudely carnal hook-up between Rylance’s Jay and Fox’s Claire.

Claire shows up every Wednesday afternoon at the house Jay’s renting from his friend Victor (Alastair Galbraith), initiating protracted sessions of transcendental rutting, before disappearing again. The back story slowly resolves: this has been their habit for several weeks since meeting at a bar, and they know virtually nothing about each other. Jay is the head barman at a flashy London club, maintaining a tight, authoritative, nitpicking control over his small realm even though he really has nothing but contempt for his job. He protests to the managers about their hiring of the inexperienced but good-looking gay Frenchman, Ian (Philippe Calvario), doubting his ability to do the job. But Ian quickly proves adept, and he and Jay soon become good enough friends so that Jay invites him to move into an empty room in Victor’s house, who, like Jay, is on the run from marriage and fraying more obviously than his more composed, unreadable friend.

The circumstances in which Jay left his wife (Susannah Harker) and two sons (Greg Sheffield and Vinnie Hunter) come out in fragments of dialogue and then flashback: suffering mysterious, gnawing pangs of mid-life crisis and hinted sexual frustration, Jay simply walked out one night after heavy drinking and nearly being caught masturbating in the toilet by one of his sons. His taciturn shell, so frustrating to his family and friends like Victor, begins to unravel when it becomes apparent that he’s hooked on his weekly liaisons with Claire, panicking when Victor doesn’t clear off as usual on a Wednesday and waiting pensively, cracking the bubbles in plastic wrap. When Jay’s inspired to follow Claire across town to learn something about her, he discovers to his shock that she’s an actress currently appearing in an amateur production of The Glass Menagerie, married to cab driver Andy (Timothy Spall), and has a son Luke (Joe Prospero) of her own.

Although Jay’s viewpoint remains dominant, the structure of the film does a partial reversal with these revelations about Claire. It encompasses her travails, her frustrated efforts to make a career as an actress. Like Jay, she pours much of her energy and forceful, dissatisfied feelings into their couplings, and again like Jay, she’s also in a business she’s respected in but secretly hates—the acting classes she runs for people like talkative, grating dilettante Betty (Marianne Faithfull). Her husband generally doesn’t watch all of her performances, preferring to play pool, but he maintains a genial, interested tone and plays the theatre buff for her sake. When Jay, appalled, fascinated, and strangely fixated, keeps coming to Claire’s performances, he strikes up an acquaintance with Andy and Luke. Jay isn’t able to keep himself from describing to Andy in contemptuous terms his anonymous girlfriend whose screwing him behind her husband’s back. How much Andy knows, suspects, or is in denial about becomes a taunting question for everyone, especially once Claire discovers that Jay knows now who she is and where he can find her.

A great deal of the power of Intimacy comes from the careful interweaving of Rylance’s performance and the hungry, roving, defence-stripping filmmaking that owes so much to Chéreau’s excellent eye and the efforts of DP Eric Gautier and editor François Gédigier. The urgency of the camera and cutting escalates and subsides in deep accord with the fluctuations of emotion on screen as Jay loses control, possessed with equal parts desperation, intrigue, need, and horror at both himself and the world he sees losing interest in him. It has a quality of expressionist intent that greatly expands the film’s power beyond its kitchen-sink realist roots. This is particularly evident in a brilliant sequence in which Jay catches sight of Claire on a street and begins trying to catch up to her, only to lose track and revolve in frantic distraction before giving up and heading for the pub where her theatre group performs unaware that she’s spotted and begun following him in smiling intrigue until he arrives at the pub, and her smile gives way to glazed shock as she realises he knows that much about her.

Fox’s excellence is not to be understated. She radiates unease even as she plays the fierce taskmaster for her class, her style of dress saying a little too much about her artsy pretensions, tearing strips off Betty and another classmate (Fraser Ayres) and earning praise for it because, as Betty says, it’s what they think they need. Inevitably, when she and Andy finally lay their cards on the table, the eruption of festering resentment is concussive and humiliating, Andy channeling his anger not into the idea of having an affair but in living with her affectations (“You know what hurts the most? You’ll never be an actress!”). Infusing this intricate emotional drama are small, piquant, but very telling details, like the subtle importance of Jay’s wearing a condom during his and Claire’s couplings or Andy’s protest at Jay’s assumption of his low libido because of his portliness (and the assumptions for Claire’s straying): “Why do you think I don’t enjoy a good fuck?”

Jay’s relationship with Victor is appositional: the two men are bound together in old friendship and resentment, both experiencing as they are the same problems but not sharing them. Unlike Jay, Victor’s going off the rails, and Jay has to come fetch him one night from a fight at squat full of feral youths Ian knows. Jay calms him down, and the two men lurch through the squat looking like bleary, bedraggled survivors of some self-consuming emotional war. Jay’s steely demeanor attracts one female denizen, Pam (Rebecca Palmer), and they spend a spell happily rutting, but Jay’s distracted, preoccupied manner as he moves to leave causes her to mock him as old fart. The indignity of aging is evoked without sentiment throughout the film, but it takes care to confirm that the characters’ yearnings are based in deeper things than mere anxiety about waning opportunities for fulfilling desire, where Jay, Claire, and Victor’s varieties of panic would be written off as gender-varied menopause, but perceiving them all as beset by gnawing disaffection, having succeeded in standard forms of coupling and social roles, yet finding themselves utterly alienated and unfulfilled within that success. Jay’s rage at Claire, however, seems to be sourced in the fact that where he couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of acting out such a role, even at the cost of annihilating his sense of self and responsibility.

Intimacy doesn’t tell a dramatically neat story, and perhaps, finally, it fails to live up to all its potential with an equivocating, but admittedly realistic, conclusion. And yet, its ferocity and honesty are often as compelling as anything that can be found in new millennium cinema, particularly in the final scenes in which Jay forlornly begs Claire to stay with him rather than return to Andy, revealing just how deep the roots their carnal union planted have now grown. It’s worth noting finally that Intimacy is an interesting cross-cultural oddity, a French film in most respects, but one made in London and infused with a very post-’70s London sensibility—a revealing and fortunate confluence of energies. l


21st 09 - 2007 | 2 comments »

The Passenger (Professione: Reporter, 1975)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s not often that I think the English translation of a title is better than the original, but in the case of Antonioni’s haunting search for identity and meaning, The Passenger is clearly the better title. If this film were really only about the objectivity of a reporter, it would not have grown larger in my memory instead of receding like most films tend to do. In fact, this film largely eschews objectivity and reporting, allowing the audience unusual freedom to create an experience from the raw materials and choices made by Antonioni, his actors, and the rest of the crew.

passenger%20opening.bmpWho is the passenger? He is David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a British reporter raised in America who is working in an unnamed African nation. We learn from flashbacks and viewing interview footage later in the film that he has already spoken with the dictator of the country. But when we first meet Locke at the beginning of the film, he is moving from one contact to another, exchanging cigarettes for information on where he can find the leaders of a rebellion against the current government. This daisy chain of contacts is the first ride on which Locke will be taken, one that results in another—the proverbial “being taken for a ride.” After a long trek through desert sands, his guide hides him from the group of soldiers, riding by on camels, he specifically came to see. Angered, Locke walks back to his Land Rover and promptly drives it into a sand drift. His frustration bubbles over, and Locke bashes the sides of his vehicle with a shovel he started to use to dig himself out. In the next scene, it is apparent that Locke has walked back to the village and motel at which he is staying.

Asking for water and informing a hotel employee that there is no soap for his shower, Locke wanders to the room of another guest, Robertson (Charles Mulvehille). He finds Robertson sprawled on his bed, which makes Locke chuckle at his langorousness. Then he notices that Robertson is not moving. He’s dead. Locke flashes back to the conversation they had during a bored evening at the motel. Locke reveals his profession and why he is in the country. Robertson says only that he is a businessman, one without family or friends. “What business could you possibly do out here?” asks an incredulous Locke. “I provide people with things they need. They understand this perfectly.” Robertson comments on how beautiful the landscape at dusk looks. Locke dismisses the observation: “I prefer men to landscapes.”

passenger3.jpgWe soon find out that the memories of Robertson are induced by a tape recording of the conversation Locke made surreptitiously. This action is the first hint of an enigma at the center of Locke’s being, since he obviously had no reason to assume that anything Robertson said would be salient to his reporting. Locke’s professional training in reflexive suspiciousness and mediated encounters seem to filter into even personal encounters. In another flashback scene later in the film, we will hear Locke’s now ex-wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) accuse him of talking but not really engaging. This assessment probably was true up until the moment Locke hatches a plot. He decides to steal Robertson’s identity and pass the dead man off as himself. Although Nicholson and Mulvehille bear some resemblance to each other, I grinned thinking that the old saying “they all look alike” certainly would apply for the Africans in this film charged with contacting the authorities about the dead man.

The recording gives Locke valuable information about Robertson’s life and outlook. His passport, clothes, plane ticket to Munich, and appointment book give Locke a new direction. At first, the aimlessness and freedom this action brings seems exhilarating. As Robertson, Locke rents a car from Avis and can’t tell the agent where he plans to go or for how long. He chooses Yugoslavia purely at random. He looks in Robertson’s appointment book and sees a locker number and a location. He goes there and opens the locker, from which he retrieves an soft attaché case that contains some papers that have images of guns on them. He drives away and stops impulsively at a small church where a wedding is underway. There he remembers some details of his own fraught marriage. He hides while the wedding party exits the church in a flurry of flower petals. The petals grind under his feet rather poignantly as he moves toward the altar.

Two men, one black African and one German, have followed him to the church. We saw them before at the terminal where Locke retrieved the papers. They ask him if something went wrong, why he hadn’t approached them. Improvising, he says there was a problem. He understands they want to see the papers. The African remarks with approval that he has nearly everything they asked for, save for anti-aircraft weapons. Locke, now unequivocally aware that Robertson was a gun runner, apologizes and hopes the lack of the anti-aircraft fire power is not too much of an inconvenience. The pair gives Locke a large sum of money as down-payment for the weapons. “I’ve heard about you, Mr. Robertson,” says the African. “You’re not like the others. You believe in our cause.” Locke looks more than nonplussed by this statement of feeling. He agrees to meet them again in Barcelona to finalize the transaction.

Robertson had mentioned that he wanted to go back to England, that he hadn’t been there in three years. A mix perhaps of Robertson’s and Locke’s wishes push Locke to head to London and let himself into the house he used to share with Rachel. He goes to their bedroom, reads a note on the door jamb, and moves through the room. A POV shot of him coming toward the bedroom door and exiting allows Antonioni to fix his camera on the contents of the note, a message of love from a new man in Rachel’s life.

passenger-074.jpgAntonioni chooses to reveal more about Locke through Rachel. Learning of David’s death, she goes to the television studio where he used to work and views videotaped interviews he conducted, some, like the interview with the African dictator, for which she traveled with him. Her memories of this particular interview are not pleasant—she castigates him for asking questions of people he knows will lie to him. “It’s part of the game,” he answers in a weary acceptance of his role in the propaganda machine. Rachel, caring more for David now that he is dead, wants to find the man who discovered the body—Robertson. David’s producer Martin (Ian Hendry) agrees to help her find him.

This fascinating set-up creates a psychologically interesting dilemma—Locke as Robertson is running away from himself into a fantasy identity. One part of the conversation between Robertson and Locke comes significantly to mind. Locke says, “We translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes. We just condition ourselves,” to which Robertson retorts predictably, but truthfully, “We are creatures of habit.” In fact, however, Locke is truly starting to transform into Robertson.

By this time, David has gone to Barcelona, following Robertson’s appointments for lack of something else to do. Inside one of Antonio Gaudi’s magnificent buildings, he encounters The Girl (Maria Schneider), an architecture student from France. She will remain with him for the rest of the film, urging him to meet Robertson’s appointments because Robertson believed in something. Her dogged loyalty leads Locke to say more than once, “Why the fuck are you with me?” She never gives him an answer. She doesn’t have a name. He saw her in Munich before he actually met her in Barcelona. She appears to be symbolic or an agent of his destiny, his better self.

passenger.jpgWhen David learns that Rachel and Martin are on his trail, not knowing initially that they are really looking for Robertson (who, paradoxically, David is becoming), he goes on the run with The Girl. In a scene that somewhat parallels his sand-bound truck scene, the oil pan of their car springs a leak far from a repair shop. David gives The Girl some money to catch a bus and ferry out of Spain. He says he will meet her after he finishes Robertson’s final appointment. Naturally, The Girl shows up at the hotel where Robertson/Locke finally become one. Only The Girl, not Rachel, will recognize David at the end of the film.

Antonioni’s film has a timeless quality, with dusty, open streets, desert landscapes, the landscape-inspired buildings of Gaudi, and ancient villages providing an archetypal setting for Locke’s encounter with his Other. The passive destruction of the objective reporter who plays the game has its counterpoint in the active destruction of the gun runner who believes in a cause. Without this belief, of course, there would have been no need for Locke to trade in his identity; there would have been no escape from his ennui, only a new way to express it.

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Antonioni’s long takes similarly slow down the observer. Locke is taken into the desert by a young African, who sees a camel far in the distance and bolts from Locke’s side. Like Locke, the audience is forced to watch the slow, steady approach of the camel and its passenger, wondering if this is what he has been waiting for, wondering if the encounter will be peaceful or violent. In fact, we only wonder these things because of the actions of the young African, who seems to invest the scene with a meaning we never discover.

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The remarkable long take through the barred window of the room in which Robertson/Locke rests near the end of the film is the textbook example of the possibilities of the long take. Capturing the ordinary rhythms and scenes of life in the village brings the audience inside the frame to perform an action Robertson/Locke repeatedly asks of The Girl: “What do you see?” But Antonioni does more. Rather than put the audience in the reporter’s seat, he uses The Girl to inject meaning into the scene. Asked to leave by Robertson/Locke, The Girl wanders around the square. A couple of vehicles move in and out of the frame; then a vehicle carrying some men who have been looking for Robertson moves into view. What happens throughout this scene is completely conveyed, but only through knowing the meaning of what we are seeing. Ultimately, this is the lesson for which Locke—and we—have taken this ride.


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