29th 06 - 2012 | 1 comment »

Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse, 2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Mia Hansen-Løve 

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Anyone who has loved for the very first time—and especially, lost that first love—will be marked for life. The intensity and purity of the feeling, the all-encompassing preoccupation with the beloved, the almost miraculous unreality of being swept up in a new and irresistible feeling has no match in human experience. As Camille (Lola Créton), the protagonist in Mia Hansen-Løve’s documentary-like film Goodbye First Love, says of her new love when her first love Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) walks back into her life after walking out a decade earlier, “I love him as much as I loved you, but in a different way.” That she can recognize real love that isn’t exactly like her first love is a measure of how far she has grown.

Beginning in 1999 Paris, the film opens, as many modern movies do these days, with a sex scene. I absolutely hate this too-common film opener, yet this sex scene isn’t the act itself or even focused on the act itself. Instead, Sullivan pulls a naked Camille in front of a mirror and says “Look how pretty you are.” This is a very telling moment, suggesting that Sullivan is teaching Camille about more than love and sex. More on that later.

Unfortunately for the besotted Camille, Sullivan isn’t as content being in relationship as she is. He is a young man who wants to find himself before he settles down. He decides to drop out of college and arranges to leave on a 10-month trip traveling around South America. Camille, a high school student who can’t imagine a future, let alone one without Sullivan, helplessly flails at his decision, her recriminations nearly spoiling a quiet idyll in the country the pair takes on the eve of his departure.

After Sullivan leaves, Camille tacks up a map of South America and charts with push pins his travels as announced by the weekly letters she receives from him, cellphones not having entered the marketplace yet. After Sullivan has reached Chile, the letters stop. Eventually, Camille takes down the map and pins. She also tries to commit suicide. While in the hospital, we see a book on her nightstand about the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Camille’s brother makes a snide comment about this “light reading.” Camille says nothing, but she starts on her journey to become an architect. She will eventually fall in love with one of her teachers, Lorenz (Magne Håvard Brekke), move in with him, and start work at his firm.

Goodbye First Love must cover 10 years in under two hours, so the film has an episodic quality to it. Nonetheless, Hansen-Løve, whose own career slightly mirrors Camille’s as first an actress for Olivier Assayas and then his wife, pays attention to details that flesh out her characters. We see Sullivan at home with his parents in the suburbs, his dog and kid brother running through a scene or two just because. Sullivan’s habit of coming to see Camille by climbing through her bedroom window provides a romantic echo to Romeo and Juliet, but as the film progresses, we’ll see that the true reference is to Peter Pan and Wendy.

I have been studying Jung’s concepts of the animus and anima lately, and it seems clear to me that Sullivan is a projection of Camille’s animus, or masculine spirit. Camille, in turn, seems to be a projection of Sullivan’s anima, or feminine aspect. Jung says that we can suffer from an animus or anima possesssion, that is, we do not integrate our gender-opposite characteristics into our own psyche, but rather remain captive to the person who acts as our gender mirror. If we fail to integrate these opposite characteristics, we cannot progress properly in our psychic development.

Camille’s life with Sullivan is one wholly given over to the natural, a Garden of Eden so to speak. We see them meeting to have sex, swimming in a pond, lying in a field. When Sullivan returns to Paris later in the film, we learn that he is making a subsistence living taking pictures for a local paper in Marseilles—not the art photographer he planned to be—and doing carpentry for a two-man business he has formed with a friend. He hates the very urban Paris, preferring the rougher port city in which he has settled. He truly is a nature boy, apparently still stuck in his anima possession as he falls into an affair with Camille and runs out on her again, afraid of her influence over him, telling her before he leaves that he thinks of her constantly and sees her when he is having sex with other women. Fortunately for Camille, she assimilated some positives of her time with Sullivan, who helped her recognize her own attractiveness, something women struggle with when their inner animus voice tells them they do not measure up to an ideal projected by male-dominated societies.

Camille has faced the demise of her animus possession, nearly losing her life in the process and demonstrating how tricky and potentially dangerous a process this psychic integration can be and why many people avoid it. We watch her in her classes create structures—houses are symbols of the Self—and receive critiques on her designs. Interestingly, one critique is that she has spent too much time on the creation of an artificial pond—water is a symbol for the unconscious—and not enough on the needs of the people who will be using the buildings she designs and builds. Her class goes on field trips to the architectural centers of Berlin, Bauhaus, and Copenhagen, grounding her growing identity in the real world and putting some flesh on the film with location shooting. When she meets Lorenz, he asks her why she decided to become an architect. Her answer is that she likes to make sense of her surroundings, that is, she wants to differentiate herself from the undifferentiated morass of nature. Later, Sullivan will exclaim that he never pictured her doing anything with her life, an interesting commentary on what happens to us when we are in thrall to our animus or anima.

That she finds herself drawn to Sullivan again is no surprise, as the pull of our unconscious is very strong, and Camille is a long way from completing her life task. Yet she is not the same person she was at 15. She has embarked on an adult life, and while the lure of a return to the Garden of Eden is very real, she also is able to see Sullivan as a real person, one with whom she has little in common. In a very interesting plot point, Camille stops in front of a sidewalk vendor and contemplates some watercolors for sale. We see a scene very like the tall grass she and Sullivan laid in, as well as one of a faceless parent tending to a child. She presents Sullivan with a watercolor as a gift before one of their trysts. When he leaves, he does not take the watercolor. I assumed she bought the tall-grass painting as a memory of their first love, but instead, she bought the parent and child, inviting him to join her in the future.

Urzendowsky plays a man-child beautifully, his faux maturity in breaking with Camille at the start of the film utterly realistic, and his despair in the later stages heartfelt. I liked the way Hansen-Løve developed the relationship between Lorenz and Camille, with only a handful of meaningful smiles that signal a growing attraction, not the quicksilver clinch that seems a prerequisite these days to enduring love. Créton’s performance is perfect in the teenage years, and she chooses a very contained Camille to signal the deep grief over her lost love, a grief that spans years. In some ways, this emotionally reserved attitude took some energy out of the film, but the choice was honest and appropriate, so this is a mere quibble. Less of a quibble is the short wig Créton wore during her schooling phase; it is an appropriate symbol of sorrow-induced celibacy and turning to the psychologically masculine realm of achievement, but it wouldn’t have taken much to buy a wig that looked more natural.

Goodbye First Love worked for me on two levels, the real and the symbolic. If you choose only one view of this film, you will still find great rewards within from a skilled director with a strong handle on the meaning of images and her fine cast.

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28th 06 - 2010 | 7 comments »

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director: Luis Buñuel

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If ever a great director ended their career on a high, prototypical note, it was Luis Buñuel. I’ve always said that everything Buñuel was about as a filmmaker is in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Among his many dreamscapes—from his early, surrealistic L’Âge d’Or to his mysterious, blasphemous Viridiana and kinky sex farce Belle de JourThat Obscure Object of Desire must be seen as Buñuel’s ultimate dream, the final, clear telling of the story of his inner life. It recycles his trademark obsessions almost as jokes on himself and his fans and foretells that this will be the last time he and his anima will spar on camera.

We are barely into the film before Buñuel dispenses a couple of his trademark flourishes. Opening shots of Seville segue to a large home as its master, Mateo Fabert (Fernando Rey, Buñuel’s marvelously pompous alter ego in a number of films), walks through a red, upholstered door into an ornate bedroom and instructs his valet (Andre Weber) to burn a blood-stained pillow he is picking off the floor. “Burn it all!” he says in disgust, as the valet picks up and shows Buñuel’s favorite fetish objects—a pair of high-heeled shoes and a pair of lace panties.

Mateo has decided to leave for Paris, and climbs in his large American car to be driven to the train station. We see another man get into a chauffeur-driven car and a close-up of the car ignition. With one turn of the key, the car explodes in a ball of fire. “They’re even here,” Mateo says, in a “there goes the neighborhood” manner, of the terrorists who will plague the film. As he boards the first-class train carriage, it fills with people he knows—a neighbor (Milena Vukotic) traveling with her young daughter and a judge (Julien Bertheau) who is a friend of his cousin’s. Last into his car is a dwarf—a psychologist whom the judge knows from the courthouse, where he gives expert testimony. As Mateo looks out the window, he sees a woman (Carole Bouquet), black-eyed and forehead bandaged, striding along the platform looking into each carriage. We see him hand some money to a reluctant train porter, who goes into the toilet and emerges with a bucket. When the woman reaches Mateo, the object of her search, he dumps the full bucket of water on her head. She brushes at the water with disgust, throws her suitcase to the ground, and boards the nearest carriage. This act provokes the curiosity of Mateo’s carriagemates, and they listen with relish as he relates the story of “the worst woman on the earth.”

Mateo met Conchita when she was engaged to serve as his maid. She knew nothing about being a maid and had hands too delicate to have done serious housework. Smitten, Mateo made plans to seduce her that very night, but was politely rebuffed by Conchita (now played by Angela Molina). Upon arising the next day, he learns that the object of his desire has quit and left for parts unknown. He loses her and runs into her by chance a couple of times, first in a nightclub, where she is working as a coat checker, and later, in Lausanne, when he is robbed of exactly 800 francs by a couple of young men, and finds out Conchita was behind the robbery to get them only what they needed to buy train tickets back to Paris. He tells her to keep the money she tries to return and extracts her address in Paris, a humble flat on an ancient block of buildings that she shares with her religious, widowed mother, Encarnación (Maria Asquerino) who is too bourgeois and useless to work.

Mateo becomes their benefactor, and eventually the coy Conchita agrees to be his mistress in his rarely used home on the outskirts of Paris. Their encounter at his estate is a teasing comedy in which Conchita is disturbed by the photo of Mateo’s late wife in the bedroom they are to occupy and insists on another room. Once there, Conchita tantalizes Mateo by exposing her breasts, only to reveal that she is wearing a garment that amounts to a chastity belt. They take up residence in the villa, but Mateo catches her sneaking one of the young men with whom she was traveling into her bedroom. For the rest of the movie, Conchita will toy with Mateo, dancing naked for some tourists in a cabaret where she is employed, and wheedling the deed to a lavish home in Seville, only to lock him out, curse his very existence, and make love to a young man in the courtyard while Mateo watches briefly in fascinated horror.

And perhaps predictably, even after relating the entire story to his captive audience, he and Conchita disembark the train and go off together on a shopping spree. After viewing yet another Buñuel trademark, a seamstress sewing a rend in a lace garment Conchita has left with her (reminiscent of Arturo de Córdova’s character’s plan to sew his wife’s vagina closed to prevent her from straying in El), the pair walks off, only to be obscured by the smoke and debris of the explosion that ends the movie.

In his wonderful autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes at length about his lifelong fascination with dreams and imagination. That Obscure Object of Desire is, I believe, his most completely realized dream. Despite the resemblance to reality that is Mateo’s train journey, Buñuel has populated it with the ultimate dream cliché—a dwarf, who, humorously, is a psychiatrist trying to analyze Mateo’s experiences with Conchita—as well as people he knows in some way, as we all do in our dreams.

Buñuel, born in Spain, adopted France as his home and returned to work there in his last years after many years in Mexico, during which he became a Mexican citizen. The director actually has two mistresses—France and Spain—to which he feels affinity, if not fidelity, creating an unstable situation. But it seems to me that what he is really trying to do is to join harmoniously his male aspect and his female anima; this explains why he can’t just break with Conchita with resolute finality, for which of us can truly escape ourselves.

He doesn’t understand his female aspect. She is constantly changing, signified not only by the two actresses who share one role, but also by their different levels of refinement. Carole Bouquet, the face of the most chic couture house in the world, Chanel, is effortlessly beautiful, sophisticated, and importantly, French. Angela Molina is earthy, more brazenly sensual, and Spanish. The language Buñuel chooses for the film is French, but he dubs both actresses with a third one, confusing the issue even further. Buñuel dubs Rey with Michel Piccoli to bring perfection to Mateo, who is called Mathieu in many reviews and subtitling, though we can clearly hear Conchita call him Mateo. The duality of Buñuel’s expatriate status, therefore, also is acknowledged.

For once, Buñuel gives his antipathy toward the Catholic Church a bit of a rest, even though he ascribes most of the terrorist attacks to the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Again, this seems like an in-joke, a way to get one of his trademark themes out of the way so he can focus his attention on his main project of reconciling the duality in himself.

His anima entices him with words of love, pursues him when he rejects her, deceives and berates him, and tells him she doesn’t need his money and can’t be bought. When he calls her the worst woman on the earth, he is actually chiding himself, seeing the native intelligence, integrity, and mischief in himself in terms of his feminine aspect. Does he want to dominate her? Would he if she yielded to him? That, Buñuel seems to suggest, could never happen. The final scene—the closing of the symbolic vagina—leads to an explosion we can assume causes Conchita’s and Mateo’s annihilation. Perhaps this is Buñuel closing the book on his career and life, feeling that a final reconciliation of the anima and animus can come only in death—or at least, he won’t be making any more movies trying to work on the problem.

Otto Rank is one of the many psychologists whose theories come up frequently when looking at Buñuel (much to the director’s amusement, claiming his imagination was not a subject for psychoanalytic study). In looking at this Wikipedia passage about Rank, however, you don’t have to be Fellini, so to speak, to figure out Buñuel:

On a microcosmic level, however, the life-long oscillation between the two “poles of fear” can be made more bearable, according to Rank, in a relationship with another person who accepts one’s uniqueness and difference, and allows for the emergence of the creative impulse—without too much guilt or anxiety for separating from the other. Living fully requires “seeking at once isolation and union” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 86), finding the courage to accept both simultaneously, without succumbing to the Angst that leads a person to be whipsawed from one pole to the other. Creative solutions for living emerge out of the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, “originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life” (1932/1989, p. xxii).

That Obscure Object of Desire moves in a dreamlike way, its flashback structure encouraging the mixture of reality and imagination (as Buñuel said “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories”) that becomes a dream truth. The switching between Molina and Bouquet is confusing, disorienting, further plunging the viewer into the undersea world of the unconscious. That’s when the great director is most effective in weaving his magic, a truthful untruth we are seduced into following to its illogically logical conclusion.


6th 10 - 2007 | 3 comments »

Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest (Atagoal wa neko no mori, 2005)

Director: Mizuho Nishikubo

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

atagoal001.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Those film fans familiar with Japanese anime know that these full-length “cartoons” very often are anything but kids’ stuff; the bulk of anime that buffs view are very adult tales on serious subjects such as nuclear war. Fortunately, the Japanese anime world has plenty of room for all ages. It’s great to see the CIFF program the very family-friendly Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest, based on a popular manga, and show it at a time suitable for children. At the screening I attended, a mom and dad brought their two young children to enjoy the story of a fun-loving cat and his adopted son, and how they saved the world.

The film opens with an entire village of cats and a few humans attending a rock concert starring Hideyoshi (Kôichi Yamadera) and his Full-Belly Band. Hideyoshi is a fat cat who likes nothing better than to eat (especially tuna) and play. At the end of a rousing, colorful production number, Hideyoshi snatches a couple of tunafish and uses his giant zeppelin, shaped to look like him, both to elude the villagers who are chasing after him and basically smash up the immediate area. He seems to be able to fly without assistance as well and dives into a nearby body of water.

Atagoal%202%20edit.JPG

His human friends Princess Tsukimi (Aya Hirayama) and Tempura (Asahi Uchida) go off to find him, muttering understandingly that Hideyoshi thinks he’s livening up this yearly celebration with his destructive ways. They find him at the water’s edge with a sealed chest sitting next to him. He’s sure it has food in it and wants to get into it as soon as possible. Just then, Gilbars (Seiichi Tanabe), a heroic-looking cat with great powers, comes by and senses evil. He tells Hideyoshi that he must never open the chest. “If you tell me not to do something, I simply must” says Hideyoshi, who succeeds in prying open the chest. Out comes a pink cloud that slowly forms into the beautiful Pileah, Queen of the Plants (Mari Natsuki). Hideyoshi demands tuna as his reward for freeing her, but she says she has a reward for everyone. She sings a beautiful song, and all the villagers start floating and dancing, feeling a sense of perfect peace.

Hideyoshi’s search for food separates him from the rest of Atagoal. He comes upon an object that looks like a prickly pear. It suddenly grows arms, legs, and a head with a crown of sprouts on top of it. The object tells Hideyoshi that he is not food but rather a creature with a long name Hideyoshi cannot pronounce. Hideyoshi renames him Hideko (Etsuko Kozakura). Hideko chooses Hideyoshi to be his father, even though the fat cat doesn’t know what a father is.

What Hideyoshi doesn’t realize is that he has unleashed a force that will destroy Atagoal and the rest of world. Pileah seeks perfect order and harmony, and to accomplish this, she spreads her seed all over the world, creating copies of herself and turning all the other creatures into flowers. Once they become flowers, she eats their life force, thereby renewing herself. Hideyoshi also doesn’t realize that his new “son” is actually the King of the Plants, the only being that can stop Pileah.

I found it interesting that the usually ecologically solid Japanese animes would look at plants as possible destroyers of the world. But indeed, the plant kingdom does contain its tough guys, such as the Venus flytraps in which Pileah intends to execute Hideyoshi and his friends.

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Hideko is a completely delightful creation, tiny bodied and tiny voiced. Watching him pit himself against the gigantic Pileah was very funny. His love for his chosen father, Hideyoshi, was unshakable, and Hideyoshi’s devotion to him was sweet. I got a little tired of Hideyoshi always grubbing for food, and the story was fairly disjointed. But visually, this anime is stunning, and the music was nice and singable for the kids.

I can’t say that this film is first-rate anime by adult standards, but it has a lot going for it. Families looking for something a little different should definitely check out the cool cats of Atagoal. l

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