11th 01 - 2018 | no comment »

All the Money in the World (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Where Ridley Scott last left off, he was sending his biologically engineered übermenschen off into deep space to operatic fanfares of crypt-black irony. All the Money in the World, although set in the recent, very earthbound past, nonetheless takes up where that movie left off as young John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) reports in sad and bewildered voiceover his family’s elevation from the lot of common mortals to alien beings, existing in the world but scarcely belonging to it anymore. The idea that the rich might as well be a different species certainly feels rooted in the deepest recesses of Scott’s imagination, but so, too, is a probing, contradictory humanism that wants to understand even in condemning. Out for a walk one night in Rome in the balmy climes of 1973, Paul hears his name called out by the driver of a Volkswagen bus. When he approaches the vehicle, he’s bundled inside by masked, gun-wielding criminals, and spirited away to be imprisoned in an old cellar somewhere out in the Calabrian campagna. His captors are a scruffy bunch of low-rent criminals who see the chance for quick and easy riches. In himself, Paul is actually worth very little. But he happens to be the grandson of John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the world’s richest man not simply of the moment but in the history of histories.

Paul lives in Rome with his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has recently divorced old Getty’s dissolute son John Paul Jnr (Andrew Buchan). Young Paul’s strange situation as golden boy with the potential for vast fortune and yet, for the present, simply a good-looking young chancer kicking about Rome is sourced in the manifold ironies of his upbringing, raised in fairly normal circumstances as his boozy but good-hearted father was scarcely acquainted with his own tycoon sire. Scott offers a lengthy flashback to a time when the family was broke, but reasonably happy in San Francisco. In an attempt to deal with their money worries, Gail coached her husband in writing a letter to his father, stating his understanding that their long alienation was the result of Getty’s desire to see his boy prove himself on his own. To their excitement, this gained a telegram response offering John Paul Jnr a job, which proved to be director of Getty’s European operations: “Sink or the swim,” was patriarch’s advice. Getty seemed to take a particular shine to Paul, giving him a statuette of the Minotaur, one he held to be worth millions of dollars, and utilising him as helpmate in his correspondence seeing off the legions writing to him begging for money.

John Paul Jnr, far from being remade by new prosperity, soon started living the bohemian high life, and sank into a drug induced stupor in Morocco. Gail divorced him, taking full custody of the children and refusing any compromises with the Getty dynasty by taking their money. Sadly, the result of this theoretically clean break leaves Gail totally at sea in dealing with the crisis that soon befalls her, and she’s obliged to ask Getty for the cash when the kidnappers demand $17 million for the safe release of her son. Getty, however, soon declares he has no intention of paying, nominally because he doesn’t want to encourage further such actions against his family and to hold a stern bulwark against the encroaching torpor and craziness of the age. Getty instead recalls a trusted negotiator and security chief, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), from the Middle East and assigns him to look into the kidnapping and advise Gail. One of the kidnappers is shot by his fellows after accidentally allowing Paul to see his face, his incinerated body is found on the roadside, allowing the carabinieri to track down his known accomplices and gun down several of them.But they’re too late to retrieve Paul, who’s been sold to the Calabrian mob, the ‘Ndràngheta. Paul forms a mutually tolerant bond with one of them, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), a cumulatively empathic personality who has committed himself with growing unease to a criminal enterprise, especially as he’s essentially sold onto the new masters along with his charge.

All the Money in the World, written by David Scarpa and drawn from John Pearson’s book about the true events that befell the Getty clan but making few bones about being a dramatic embellishment rather than exacting factual account, was given an unexpected boost in notoriety and intrigue even before it came out when Kevin Spacey, who had initially played old Getty, fell from grace thanks to sexual assault allegations. Scott made the decision, rather than see his film shelved and forgotten, to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Plummer, who was closer to the right age for the character anyway, and still make the release date. All the Money in the World therefore provokes a level of admiration simply for existing at all in a coherent form, although perhaps not that much surprise. Scott, although long ensconced in Hollywood’s ponderous productions, has roots in the tight deadlines, low budgets, and pitiless pace of British TV work in the 1960s, and I get the feeling this was precisely the kind of challenge to skill and discipline Scott relishes. It’s also an achievement that echoes in a peculiar subtextual manner with the matter of the film itself, and the sympathy it offers old Getty as someone who feels obligated by pride, business instinct, and pure predatory gall to turn every exchange into a test of professional strength. Scott understands that side of Getty, the man absolutely dedicated to his work.

The wrath of the outsider, the struggles of the frustrated would-be titan, the duels of individuals, communes, and classes, have long been fuel of Ridley Scott’s films as far back as the title characters of The Duellists (1977) and the working stiffs served up as lunchmeat and breeding husks by corporate paymasters in Alien (1979). Most of his films ably chart fault lines of self-perception and social identity, and All the Money in the World is perfect Scott material in recounting the tale of this benighted youth who finds himself defined and revised – psychologically and, eventually, physically – by inherited facts of identity like a uniquely cruel, inverted version of the sorts of lessons dealt out to Dickens’ waifs, whom Paul somewhat resembles as a wandering child who finds himself the object of both great good fortune and nefarious designs. Scott has also long displayed a fascination for characters nominally on the wrong side of such wars, a rarefied ardour for beings twisted into ignoble Calibans by their travails or separated from the common run of humanity by dint of their peculiar abilities or tastes, sometimes existing on either side of the patrician-plebeian divide or sometimes commingled in single bodies. Most of the characters in Blade Runner (1982) could count as both, but the image of the banished Replicants and ensconced magnate Tyrell in that film remains a blueprint for the essential struggle. All the Money in the World could offer a ready analogy between its vision of old Getty and the Satan figure in Legend (1985), the ultimate mythical reduction of the theme, except that even in that film Scott gave sympathy to his devil as the bewildered exile of a disinterested father clasping at anything precious that came his way.

Getty is Ozymandian colossus, gazing down balefully on high upon anyone fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to fall into his orbit, a Midas whose touch turns relations not to gold, but to ashes. Getty gives his grandson tours of Roman imperial palaces, explaining his conviction he’s the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian, an echo of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, where Henry Ford and JP Morgan were depicted with a similar conviction. Later, Chase is privy to Getty’s designs to rebuild Hadrian’s palace “with flush toilets.” But his everyday life is a parade of skinflint habits, like washing his own clothes and installing a payphone in his English country estate, that are wryly amusing until suddenly they’re not. Chase is first glimpsed in his capacity as a negotiator for Getty, trying to strike a deal with Saudi princes and sheikhs whose fortune Getty made by taking the risk of drilling on their land, but not as much as he made his own. Now the Arab leaders are simultaneously bemoaning their own sons’ profligate carelessness but also hoping to snatch the reins of power from Getty now that his leases are ending and the advent of OPEC is shifting the orbits of the fiscal universe. Ironically, the tools of OPEC in choking off oil supply and sparking energy crises threaten to make Getty even richer. And yet as Gail and Chase press him to consider paying the ransom, Getty states he’s in too precarious a position financially, and responds to Chase’s question about how much he’d need to feel more secure with a simple “More.” This response carries instant and obvious film noir associations, as it comes straight out of John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), as the answer Edward G. Robinson’s gangster gave to the same question.

At his least Scott has sometimes been a purveyor of pretty pictures merely encrusting studio labours rather than enriching them. But at his best he’s a fashioner of little universes replete with suggestions of transitory states of being and feeling. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Counselor (2013), are works that capture in visual textures the gratitude of their protagonists for the islets of beauty and comfort that gave restful ease from a buffeting universe. The opening of All the Money in the World is a dreamy little etude that captures the feeling of being young, reasonably free and able, at large in a city that offers all experience as a bounty, Scott’s camera gliding with Paul as he soaks in the night’s textures, including the erotic promises of the prostitutes who both mock and covet his youth. This sequence is quietly rhymed later to an interlude, earlier in the timeline of events recounted, when Paul is seen wandering the Moroccan abode his father has taken over, a hushed, shadowy abode, ripe stage for decadent adventures, lithe-limbed odalisques on the prowl, and Paul a bewildered youth adrift amongst the tides of greedy pleasures. It’s startling how much texture and self-referential verve Scott packs into this little scene, calling back to the retro-futurist stately abodes of Blade Runner and the historical exoticism of Kingdom of Heaven, capturing the psychic horizon in either direction that lurks for the weak-willed plutocrat, the bastions of dissolute collapse. Scott’s casting of Ghassan Massoud, who played Saladin in the latter film, as one of the Sheikhs arguing with Chase over oil rights brings that story up to date, the course of history also a metronome of shifting economic and political contest.

The ethical schema of All the Money in the World seems so obvious that it’s tempting to rebel against it, and although Scott and Scarpa don’t go easy on Getty for his monstrous clumsiness and abnegation, they do chart with surprising intensity and depth the specific walls of self-protection and carefully nurtured systems of removal and estrangement. Here are the habits of an aged and cynical man who infers emotions through the seismograph of economic appeals and expectations, and for whom truth long ago melted into a perverse geography, the gravitational force of his fortune working like a black hole to distort all relationships. Getty sits uneasily on a relentless source of horror, buried under layers of hard-bitten disdain for lesser mortals, at the pits money can open. He explains to Chase why he entitled a book he wrote not “How to Get Rich” but “How to Be Rich,” a guide to the habits that must be necessarily cultivated and practised with ruthless discipline in order to not merely accrue a fortune and then expend it and one’s self with it, such as instantly befalls his son the moment the taps of addiction-indulgence are opened. Such a theme echoes one of the best lines in a film by one of Scott’s cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick, in Barry Lyndon (1975), which proposed that too often the aspects of a character that drive one to make a fortune all too often ruin them after gaining it. He sees traps in plenty and the call of boundless possibility.

And to be fair, Getty has a point, when any quick survey of his immediate family offers plenty of support to his thesis. After all, Chase has found that Paul’s proposals to stage his kidnapping were in league with nominal revolutionaries, who Chase confronted only to be left rolling eyes at their threats to put him trial for crimes against the proletariat. The trouble is, Getty’s cynicism is bound up with a sense of moral phthisis eating its way into everything in sight. Getty practices rigorous tax avoidance by plying all of his earnings into purchasing artworks that pile up around his manor, including purchasing a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child by for over a million dollars on the black market even as he’s fending off Gail’s entreaties. When Chase learns that Paul had floated, possibly as a joke, the idea of staging his own kidnapping to earn ransom money for himself, he reports this to Getty, who takes it as a sign he’s been used again, and to dig in his heels against any further attempts to get him to pay up. Scott drops hint as to Getty’s part in the sociological upheaval his own acquisitive instincts, noting with ironic alacrity that the energy crisis of ’74 was another kind of hostage drama set in motion by Getty’s fortune. Meanwhile Paul, much like the human shells and twisted homunculi of Alien: Covenant (2017), finds himself canvas for cubist alterations to the human form, as he’s held down and has his ear sliced off by his new captors whose idea of business is just as formidable and unyielding as Getty’s.

Scott stages this scene, one anyone who knows anything about these events will be waiting for with cringing unease, with a gruelling but concise and unflinching detail where others might have cut away or rendered it a kind of horror movie blackout. Throughout his career Scott has let slip a side to his cinema that betrays his British TV roots with their strong traditions of documentaries and realistic and factual dramas, in his fascination for pointillist detail and carefully observed processes that sometimes take on an imperative over and above nominal narrative through-line. This facet usually comes out most crucially in his thrillers like American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. Here small details like Cinquanta trying to get Paul drunk before surgery and the “doctor” insisting the ‘Ndragheta heavies hold his patient still and then setting to work for a piece of ragged work that just won’t end, serve to focus Scott’s exacting sense of this torture as another business transaction but also one that involves real people who feel obliged to do obscene things for some reason. It’s rhymed, not so subtly but with the sourly totemic kick of an old-school noir director, with the sight elsewhere of a butcher slicing off a hunk of meat. Paul’s cruel curtailing follows a gutsy and cleverly managed escape attempt achieved with the unspeaking collusion of Cinquanta as he improvises a method of setting fire to dry grass neighbouring the building where he’s held, only to be immediately surrendered back into the ‘Ndragheta’s hands, a sequence of casually expert suspense-mongering that builds up to a Fritz Lang-esque punch-line where the conspiracy of evil proves entirely enveloping.

Like Blade Runner, American Gangster, and The Counselor, however, All the Money in the World isn’t really a thriller in the generic sense as a series of compulsive set-pieces. It’s more a heightened dramatic study in familial perversity and obstinacy of character as well as a holistic attempt to encompass the workings of peculiar niche of society, and the methods of various forms of capitalism. Just as The Counselor reduced the drug war to the image of a body in a barrel being endlessly shipped back and forth, here high capitalism means its street-level equivalent and speaks a peculiar language in flesh and blood, building to a sequence that depicts a small army of women working to tabulate the ransom money for the mob bosses and handing over the added total on a slip of paper, echo to the strings of ticker tape Getty adores studying. Rival moral systems are invoked, of course, particularly family, as Cinquanta notes with bemusement the lack of family feeling evinced by the Getty patriarch. I get the feeling Scott, who’s long been the preeminent member of a creative family and who’s been buffeted by loss over the years, feel this point closely. Other forms of fellowship also provide unexpected islands, particularly Cinquanta’s growing empathy for Paul and attempts to help him.

Given that Alien looked a lot like a remix of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it seems more than coincidental that Paul’s kidnappers strongly resemble refugees out of Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974), that most pungent of paranoid Italian self-diagnoses from the same era, probably even inspired by the very events Scott is analysing. Scott complicates and amplifies Bava’s games of perception and appearance: people are rogue elements within all systems, a point codified in visual terms in the finale as heroes and villains and people in between dodge and weave in the shadowy aisles of an Italian city that turns vertiginous faces to the street, bespeaking a history of self-interest within fortresses turned to the world’s maelstroms. Family proves to be the initially unacknowledged battlefield of wills between Gail and Getty, as the tycoon feels robbed of his grandchildren, whilst Gail was determined to remove them entirely from the sphere of careless and destructive alternations of starvation and plenty that had defined her former husband’s experience of the Getty fortune. Getty is more determined to drive Gail to the wall than he is to pay or punish the kidnappers, insisting on her surrendering custody of her children and signing Paul aboard for stringent turns of repayable loans before he does finally agree to pony up ransom dough up to the maximum that’s tax deductible.

Getty finally bends that far after Gail strikes up another deal with newspapers, in another scene of carefully diagrammed intersection of commerce and violence, to publish a ransom photo of the maimed Paul, so she can then mail a stack of papers emblazoned with the image to Getty. The old man receives them, only for a strong wind to scatter the pages harum-scarum about his driveway, a great little touch that turns biting moral gesture into an active physical force setting a carefully ordered universe in anarchy. Williams as an actress has worked very hard in recent years but I’d also learnt a certain Pavlovian recoiling from her presence in movies as too often it spelt a certain laborious excursion in suffering was in the offering. That’s true of this movie too, to a certain extent, but what’s rare about Williams’ performance here lies precisely how well she inhabits a character who resolutely refuses to be pinned down by hostile forces until driven to insufferable extremes, always retaining a hard edge and a quality of sardonic amazement even as she being driven to the wall by ruthless bargainers on both sides in regarding both the ugly detachment of other human beings and her own capacity to engage in active self-defeat in the process of trying to gain a more vital victory. When Gail does break down, it takes a lot to do it. The Minotaur statue, which seems like a Chekovian gun that offers the chance for a painless solution to Gail’s trap, proves to really be just a trinket, and the mother buckles with crestfallen realisation not simply that Getty bullshitted his own grandson but he also invested illusory value on an object, thus giving it that value until it was tested—which proves true of Getty’s entire enterprise.

Chase, for his part, seems every inch the well-made man of action; taking up a shotgun when invited by Getty to join in trap shooting with other guests, he easily swats clay pigeons from the air. But even he begins to quickly lose his bearings in the maze of motive and potential he wades into, and Chase repeatedly defines his experience as a CIA agent and operator for Getty as more the life of a businessman, a professional deal-maker and mollifier. His ultimate function however is less save-the-day swashbuckler than as intelligent witness and consul to Gail’s war, a war he hinders as often as he aids. Appalled by Chase’s high-handed technique when he intercedes during a conversation, Gail swats him in the brow with the phone receiver, but Chase tries to make her understand his approach, speaking in perfect calm with bleeding forehead all the while. There are a few moments when Wahlberg’s diction in playing a worldly and confident protagonist where he irresistibly reminded me of the actor’s role within a role as international man of mystery Brock Landers in Boogie Nights (1997), and the part has a similar subtext as Chase lets slip he’s still brushing up on his culture under Getty’s tutelage, suggesting he’s a man who quietly hopes to be evolve into warrior-poet serving the emperor.

The spectacle of the kidnapping however imbues new self-knowledge upon Chase, knowledge he finally turns on Getty in the film’s climax of its moral drama if not the physical one. He loses his temper with the old coot and gives him a serving of truth, confessing he’s another pampered rich white boy and that neither of them knows what real struggle or risk actually means. Chase also illustrates with ruthless clarity the fact that Getty might consider money his fortress but in fact that only represents the sum total of the work Chase has put into building his cordons and bastions of muscle and attention. His security is ensured by actual labour and not magic powers. It’s also, of course, a form of prison, one that must be maintained with perfect vigilance without risking one’s life in the same way that Paul did simply by enjoying an evening stroll. When the ransom is finally paid and Paul is abandoned in the woods, he soon finds himself hunted by his vengeful former captors as they realise Chase and Gail alerted the police.

Scott builds to a climax that cross-cuts between young Paul’s efforts to find safe harbour and Getty’s succumbing to a stroke, likening them in flailing entrapment, wandering labyrinthine spaces that offer no safe harbour from fear of death, a metaphor that bears out the dramatic patience lurking in that Minotaur motif. The sequence echoes moments of lost and haunted characters trapped in the belly of the beast in many a Scott film, from Alien’s spaceship innards to the animate and terrorising streets of Black Hawk Down (2001). It’s also an echo and partial inversion of the finale of The Third Man (1949), a film that insisted on Christlike parables regardless of its subject’s utter moral nullity. For Scott it’s close to an existential vision of flailing humanity, one that sees the real flesh and blood boy delivered into arms of mother and dogged helpmate whilst Getty expires pawing his painted Renaissance boy in longing for the real thing. The ultimate irony comes when Getty’s lawyer Oswald Hinge (Timothy Hutton) slides a contract across the table to Gail that will enable her to take in hand the Getty fortune: the same flukes that placed her at the mercy of the same fortune make her master of it. “I think of you as one of the family,” Gail tells Chase at the end as she begins the Citizen Kane-esque deconstruction of the great man’s acquisitions. “It’s nice of you to say that,” Chase replies in complete disbelief, and perhaps a certain relief too. Everyone has their reasons, as the cliché has it. That doesn’t let them off the hook, Scott retorts.


17th 11 - 2014 | 2 comments »

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, 2014)

Directors/Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

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By Roderick Heath

The cinema of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has hardly lacked admiration since their breakthrough La Promesse in 1995. The duo all but defined a new style of European realist cinema, charting the evolving moral, economic, and social states of their native environment with keenly felt authenticity, but also quietly blending aspects of many forebears who covered the same terrain of utterly ground-level human experience. The brothers have stuck to a basic template that’s served them well, turning what at first glance would seem to be major impediments—the recessed, caught-between nature of Belgian identity, the lack of fame and import accorded to their native city of Seraing, an industrial and port city of staggering ordinariness—into perfect keynotes for their studies. The stark character drama of their first Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta (1999), portrayed the dogged and perhaps unwelcome persistence of common human feeling even when survival dictated determined self-interest in its hard-bitten young heroine. Two Days, One Night, their latest opus, deals with a spiritually similar drama, but inverts the focus. Like the brothers’ previous work, The Kid with a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night tries to comprehend the forces both overt and subtle that create not just the context for individual failures and miseries, but also the forces that bind communities and that snap into action once they’re faced with intolerable situations.

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Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is first glimpsed dozing on her bed, waiting for a tart she’s baking to finish, when she’s roused by a phone call. Sandra’s immobility proves to be portentous, as she’s recovering from a bout of intense depression. The phone call reflects this: Sandra, barely recovered and still emotionally fragile, is faced immediately with a crisis her condition has precipitated. She learns that at the solar panel factory where she works, the foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), has essentially given her coworkers a choice to either keep Sandra on or receive their annual €1,000 bonuses, because the company can’t afford both. The call has come from Sandra’s friend and advocate Juliette (Catherine Salée), who believes that if they can confront the factory boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) quickly enough, they might be able to call another vote on the Monday morning when she can be present and argue her case. Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a chef in a local fast food restaurant, encourages Sandra to fight for her right to be heard, and when she and Juliette manage to catch Dumont just before he drives home from work, they gain his harried acquiescence to another vote. What becomes immediately clear to Sandra and Manu is that she can’t afford to wait until the Monday to plead her case with her fellow employees: she must lobby them individually with pleas not to agree to her sacking.

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Sandra’s journeys to confront her coworkers are laced with more than a plea for her economic survival, as Sandra’s very sense of self and worth is at stake. At first, she can barely be stirred from her bed, her sense of uselessness and unworthiness now seemingly affirmed as she has been implicitly indicted by her coworkers as a being no longer worthy of their loyalty and affection. Only her husband and Juliette’s unswerving loyalty get her moving, though their loyalty feels almost cruel to a person who can barely face the mirror, never mind the outside world and the glares of people she has to beg for her job. To achieve her ends, Sandra quickly realises, she not only has to confront people who have effectively declared her a nonperson, but has to do so in their own little worlds, their own lives, some of which prove to be as straitened as her own and all of which involve a certain rupture of comfortable privacy and precious leisure time, or, indeed, the lack of either. Some are busy with second jobs or coaching children’s sports teams, or looking after babies or trying to kick back.

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Most of us have been in a predicament like Sandra’s at some point in our lives, and the Dardennes are brilliantly attuned to the states of mind and little epiphanies that move with quicksilver intensity during such times. The shifts of Sandra’s headspace are casually but acutely noted, as she murmurs in a momentary wish as she and her husband sit eating ice cream in the park, “I wish that was me…that bird singing.” It becomes clear through such touches that the Dardennes are actually telling two closely related, but slightly asymmetrical stories: the tale of Sandra’s recovery, as well as the crisis that both threatens it and confirms it. Fighting for her job and sense of self causes Sandra many anguished moments of doubt and self-disgust, particularly after a violent incident she believes she’s precipitated. But Sandra’s journey is, of course, only intersecting with others, and indeed becomes a study in the uncertainty principle, as her knock on the door both encounters individual quandaries and collides with and catalyses them. This proves particularly crucial when she visits the home of Anne (Christelle Cornil), who explains that she can’t want to give up her bonus because she and her husband are renovating their house, but promises to talk it over with her husband and asks for Sandra to return. Sandra comes back to find the couple quarrelling violently, and soon after, Sandra and Manu find themselves taking Anne in after she leaves her husband.

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The tight and remorseless structure bears out some of the Dardennes’ influences. The film’s plot is driven by cause and effect of almost Sophoclean concision, up to and including the limited timespan, the traditional 24 hours of Greek tragedy expanded to about 60. Echoes, too, of French realism like that of Emila Zola can be found, and those particularly Spanish genres, the picaresque and tremendista stories of wanderers and of slices of lives afflicted by sudden calamity. Cinematically, the Dardennes have always seemed close to the unvarnished, resolutely proletarian work of early Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but they’re better character students than Loach and far less untidy than Leigh. Their films often feel closer to the rigorous, unblinking portraiture of Robert Bresson and Neo-Realist studies in compressed desperation and blue-collar straits, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), except, of course, the world has changed so much since those works were made, and today’s economic turmoil is more elusive and insidious. As some have noted, Two Days, One Night is something like a thriller as we cheer on our heroine through mounting tension and twists of fate, with Jean-Marc, unseen until the “climax,” cast as the antagonist who’s carefully laid the carrot and stick on the employees. There’s even a strong echo of High Noon (1953), stripped of its gunfighter bravado, and reduced instead to a round of pleas for conscience versus self-interest; that film’s roots in the milieu of the blacklist is crucially similar to the forces the Dardennes are exploring. The film also bears the imprint of Flemish art traditions, the internationally renowned product of the Dardennes’ corner of the world: Holbein’s “Hunters Home from the Hunt;” Rubens, in the glimpse of Hicham’s wife as Madonna with child; and Hicham himself hefting about farm produce in echoes of a once-popular subgenre of Flemish painting. Nor are these mere aesthetic echoes, but they also are reminders of art fundamentally based in things people actually do, and a belief that in such things lie deep truths.

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The Dardennes often evoke religious images and ideas in their work, not with the sense that they’re quietly proselytising, but rather to invoke the most common roots of communal ethical understanding, the vivid and collective intensity of parable. The ethical drama is as important as the surface fate of the characters, whilst Sandra, our everywoman hero, moves through a range of possible likenesses: Jesus sacrificed for our sins, Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Pamina called back from the dead, Diogenes searching the marketplace for honest men. Whilst Sandra and Manu are working to keep their toehold in the middle class, the question as to what sort of person Sandra is and can be becomes a vital issue, and indeed, seems the question that plagues the woman herself most powerfully. Seeing the melancholic self-contempt etched into her face, we can only immediately assume empathy for her, for she’s such a hapless and assailed creature, and yet a dissonance is carefully built, as Sandra’s rounds uncover the degree to which people remain mysteries to each other even when in close contact. Her workplace is filled with such vile characters and subtle iniquity that it seems reasonable to assume working there might have precipitated her depression. The question looms by the end: does Sandra have the kind of mettle she looks for in her fellows?

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The Dardennes’ characters are so often in desperate search of something, usually a definite goal, a job, a loved one, but with a hint of existential anguish lurking just behind that official end, because they’re lost in the world. The very elusive issue in Sandra’s life is also the crucial question of the film: where’s our solidarity? The political dimensions of the film are immediate and powerful, of course. This is a portrait of working-class people and the kinds of problems that afflict them. The boss Dumont is portrayed believably as a man with his own reasonable motives and worries, a person of responsibility and judgement who tries his hand at Solmonlike wisdom and repeatedly fails, and thus becomes party to barbed and cruel choices that make one of his employees a scapegoat, transmitting downward the pressures of the market to the level of the individual employee, the canaries in the coal mine of capitalism, the one who has no room to move and can’t shift the effects any further. The choice to situate this drama in a struggling solar panel factory nicely complicates the situation insofar as it’s not some long-caricatured bastion of capitalism. Interestingly, implicit but not actually spoken aloud in Two Days, One Night is the prejudice against Sandra’s psychological malady as unreal compared to a physical injury that would mark her as a nobly injured worker.

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The film correlates this invisible state of crippling with the equally hard-to-discern nature of financial distress in a modern Western state, where the accoutrements of suburban life give an illusion of stability that can become a perpetual goad to anxiety. This belief in Sandra’s status as a glorified malingerer is plain in what proves eventually to be the conspiracy against her whipped up by Jean-Marc, who has characterised her as a useless drag, a feeling some of the workers clearly share. The Dardennes are keenest in studying the links of individual psychology to larger subjects. They trace unfailingly the stew of fear, annoyance, frustration, anxiety, outright transference, and prejudice that conspire against Sandra, as well as the empathy, common feeling, and scruples that aid her and gain her unexpected fellowship. The worst reactions Sandra encounters, from Anne’s puerile inability to face her at all to Jerome’s (Yohan Zimmer) assault, suggest intense displacement, and even Jean-Marc’s conniving is rooted only in his function as the man who turns top-down whim into achieved fact. Sandra is introduced to gradations of personal necessity, as what might seem as a luxury to one of her coworkers is for another an overriding and desperate need. Sandra also stumbles into the subtle distinctions of class between the nominally equivalent workers: Alphonse (Serge Koto) is one of the factory’s contract workers whose job security is much less assured than the other workers, and he informs Sandra that he’s afraid to vote for her in case it pisses off his bosses.

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The film’s moment of biggest dramatic potential becomes instead an almost comic diminuendo. With echoes of Chantal Akerman’s stringent portraits of hapless domestic women, Sandra, after a particularly hard rebuff from one of her coworkers, goes home, does the housework, fixes her kids lunch, and then goes into the bathroom and takes a fistful of antidepressants to kill herself. Juliette comes by to break news of a fresh chance, whereupon Sandra admits to her and Manu what she’s just done, with a blankly sheepish look. The Dardennes cut straight to Sandra in a hospital bed, fresh from her stomach pumping and already clearly itching to get moving again, suicide already no solution for a woman who’s starting to relearn the joy as well as the pain of fighting for herself. The Dardennes build the film around two interludes of listening to music in the car as Sandra and Manu drive about on their torturous route: the first time Sandra irritably stops her husband turning down Petula Clark’s French-language version of “Needles and Pins,” “La nuit n’en finit plus,” whilst the second sees the pair joined by Anne, singing raggedly along to Them’s “Gloria.” Such a scene suggests the influence of another classic feel-good movie moment where characters sing along to a pop hit, but without the feeling of vulgar manipulation; instead they rather capture the vitality of the place pop music has in many people’s lives that no other art form can touch, and its power to bond them.

Two days

Cotillard’s French-language work has seen her moving from strength to strength lately, and Sandra complements her turn in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2013), a role that offered and demanded more acting pyrotechnics, but was similarly about a woman learning to repair herself and operate in a harsh world, eventually turning her weak points into points of armoured strength. The Dardennes only recently broke with their general preference for nonprofessional actors in lead roles: the rest of the cast mixes in several actors, including Rongione, who have become regulars. Cotillard, whose signature smoky eyes deliver registers of sensation like a seismograph, both blends in with the scenery seamlessly and lends the proceedings the finite intelligence and charisma a good actor can offer, defining her character’s states of mind and mood with pointillist precision. The outcome of the meeting on the Monday morning that will decide Sandra’s immediate fate is in doubt until almost the very end, but by the time Two Days, One Night reaches the destination it’s been heading to with inevitability for every little swerve in fortune, it is clear that Sandra has all the tools she needs to continue and formed a small fellowship who affirm both her and their own rights to exist. When Sandra is given a Faustian offer that could swerve off the worst, however, we realise that the entire movie has been leading to this point, as it presents Sandra with the same dilemma she’s presented everyone else with, only intensified in its you-or-them meaning. Sandra’s eventual choice is bound thus to entail defeat either way, fiscally or morally. Which choice you prefer may say too much about yourself and the world you live in.


13th 10 - 2010 | 6 comments »

CIFF 2010: Tuesday, After Christmas (Marţi, după Crăciun, 2010)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been more than 20 years since the Romanian people overthrew Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and then began jettisoning the privations, both physical and psychological, of repression. Romania’s economy expanded rapidly in the 2000s, and it joined the European Union in 2007. During this time, a burgeoning group of filmmakers called the Romanian New Wave started wowing audiences around the world, with Cristian Mungiu’s searing drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days walking off with the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

The first wave of Romanian New Wave films were preoccupied with life under Ceauşescu, but as filtered through the personal. Even The Paper Will Be Blue, a 2006 film by Radu Muntean, the director of Tuesday, After Christmas, that bases its story around a militia unit, shows the familial and friendly ties that bind the unit together. Now Muntean has returned with a full-on domestic drama that has left behind communism and moved on to life under capitalism, examining what happens to people who no longer have to struggle to meet their needs and now have the luxury of pursuing their wants.

The film opens with a scene of bourgeois decadence that would have turned Ceauşescu’s hair blue. Paul Hanganu (Mimi Brănescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistaşu) are lolling naked in bed, engaging in pillow talk and random fondling. Only a small bit of dialogue indicates that the pair may not be married; in response to a question Raluca asks about his daughter Mara (Saşa Paul-Szel), Paul says “we haven’t decided yet.”

Indeed, Paul, a bank loan officer in his 40s, is married to Adriana (Mirela Oprişor), an attorney, and Mara is 9 years old and in her “pink” phase. They are a very ordinary family living in a style that befits their professional class. They have everyday conversations and make everyday plans for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Shopping for a snowboard for Mara, they insist on getting one that is too big for her because the right-size one has a skeleton painted on it; they wouldn’t consider not getting her the present she asked for.

Paul’s affair is well hidden from Adriana, even though he thinks about little else and complains about time Raluca has set aside in the coming weeks to spend with her mother. All that changes when despite Paul’s attempts to dissuade her, Adriana insists on meeting him at the dentist’s, where Mara is being fitted for temporary braces. Naturally, Raluca is the dentist. Perhaps the lovers met over Mara’s teeth, or perhaps he’s just throwing business her way as an act of love and trust. He’ll come to regret his largesse, as Adriana questions the necessity for the appliance and then scrutinizes Raluca as she works to get an impression of Mara’s teeth. Raluca beats a hasty retreat to her mother’s, determined, she tells Paul when he follows her there, to end their affair. Instead, Paul comes clean to Adriana and says he wants to be with Raluca. They spend one last, tense Christmas together at Paul’s parents’ home, decide when they’ll tell Mara and their families about their split, and close the film listening to some offscreen carolers in the foyer after Paul has placed the Christmas presents hidden from Mara under the tree.

Films of family collapse are frequently set during the holidays, for when else is harmony more demanded, and when more do we feel we deserve to give ourselves a present. This particular collapse revolves around Paul’s wants. Unwilling to be separated from Raluca, he simply follows her, forces her disapproving mother (Carmen Lopăzan) to ask him into her home when he can’t reach Raluca on her cellphone, returns home after feeling confident that Raluca wants to be with him to tell Adriana he’s in love and wants out, and then moves directly into Raluca’s small apartment. Adriana’s meltdown includes telling him that he’ll never see Mara again and to “get her to make you another one,” only to hear him say “I don’t know if I want that.” Raluca is 26 and may want children, but that doesn’t seem to figure into Paul’s thinking. And when I saw him move through her apartment, frowning at and straightening her unmade bed and throwing her scattered clothes to the side to make room for a wardrobe his cohort in midlife crisis Cristi (Dragoş Bucur) comes over to assemble, I saw a bad end to the relationship. Although Raluca seems to be with Paul as part of a daddy fixation—her father is absent from the picture—she’ll soon outgrow her need to be bossed around.

The very cliché of this story and the unlikeability of all of the main characters seem to me to be a critique of how Romania is squandering its potential following liberation. In Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006), the bravery of the Romanian people on the cusp of freedom is highlighted, with optimism for a better future clearly signaled in its final flash-forward. However, Muntean seems more in tune with Romania’s hidden antagonisms and betrayals, amusingly signaled when Cristi finds a DVD of Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) in Raluca’s apartment, a film in which disreputable characters seek to define courage exactly and one that shows great skepticism about those who are making money and getting ahead.

Still, please don’t get the idea that this film only works on a macro level. Muntean’s extreme facility with a camera creates a hothouse atmosphere in which nearly every frame is filled from edge to edge with people, frequently in pairs or trios. We are always on top of these characters, enveloped in their drama, aware of their every discomfort. The actors are, without exception, very skilled—every interaction feels very, uncomfortably real. The confrontation between Adriana and Paul swirls believably through shock and anger, with Adriana imagining lurid sexual details to distance herself from someone telling her he doesn’t want her anymore. The disposability of human relationships—divorce increases in prosperous times—is a concept Romanians are encountering with more frequency; it’s one Americans know about all too well. (Still it’s better than poisoning one’s unwanted spouse.) Freedom is a great thing, but Tuesday, After Christmas cautions that it has its own pitfalls. I look forward to seeing the new Romania continue to develop through the films of its great cinematic artists.

Tuesday, After Christmas has no more screenings, but may be shown during Best of the Fest. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)


31st 12 - 2008 | 6 comments »

The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)

Director: Bryan Forbes

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

By now you may know that I find year-end wrap-ups a difficult exercise. I don’t make lists, so I can’t fall back on that well-worn discussion starter. I hardly see any mainstream films, so I can’t form a common bond with the moviegoing audience at large. I look for the films in the attic, so to speak, so it’s not always easy to relate to even my most loyal readers. What I’ve decided to do to bid 2008 farewell is present you with a film that I think represents this moment in time—the fading of a dark and destructive era in the United States, and the rise of hope for a more peaceful, just, and generous country than we’ve seen in a long time.

The Madwoman of Chaillot started life as a play. Written in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France and first mounted in Paris in 1945, Jean Giraudoux’s story imagines good triumphing over evil, life enduring against living death, and above all, the survival of France and all that is unique about the country. Its fantasy quality and 19th century nostalgia are reminiscent of the fairytale and period films French filmmakers were forced to retreat to during the Occupation to appease the German authorities. Some of these films conveyed a veiled message of resistance that only their French audiences would understand. Thus, I imagine these films influenced Giraudoux in his protest against the Nazis, lending weight to this exaggerated parable. It’s a message that was current when the film was made, and unfortunately, it still reverberates today.

The film announces visually the turbulence of the late 1960s and the forces that will join to set things right: a street protest violently broken up by the Paris police and a tall, elderly woman dressed in fin de siècle garb moving through the streets causing minor havoc—cutting a surveyor’s line so that she doesn’t have to walk around it, pouring a window washer’s bucket of water into a window box of flowers. The woman is our madwoman, Countess Aurelia (Katharine Hepburn), on her way to her favorite café in the Chaillot district. She will ally with one of the young protestors, Roderick (Richard Chamberlain), nephew of the rich and lunatic Prospector (Donald Pleasence) who sets the plot in motion.

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Roderick returns to his uncle’s home just as a new addition to The Prospector’s collection of toilets is being hung on the wall—a very rare outhouse from Johannesburg for which The Prospector paid 1.5 million francs. Roderick, bleeding from the blow he received from a policeman’s baton, goes up the stairs to tend to his wound. The Prospector complains that he is bleeding all over the towels. Roderick answers that he has been injured doing something that matters, to which The Prospector sneers that he’s all talk and no action. He then hands Roderick a large suitcase containing a bomb and tells him that if he really wants to take action, he should plant it in Room 22 of the Municipal Hall, where a truly nefarious bureaucrat is making plans for war.

The scene switches to a Chaillot café where The Reverend (John Gavin) and The Commissar (Oscar Homolka) sit at a table awaiting the arrival of the rest of “The Board.” The General (Paul Henreid) and The Chairman (Yul Brynner) arrive in a white limousine. Shortly thereafter, The Broker (Charles Boyer) arrives to tell The Chairman how, with a bit of market manipulation, he helped The General make 5.5 million francs. Happily, The Chairman announces he will pay for lunch, until he recalculates his profit and comes up with only 5 million francs: “You pay for lunch,” he instructs The Broker.

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The usual denizens of the café, including a juggler (Gaston Palmer), a flower seller (Harriet Ariel), and The Ragpicker (Danny Kaye), come to The Board’s table, as they do to all the tables. The Chairman rudely dismisses them and shouts insults and orders at their waitress Irma (Nanette Newman). He tells the rest of The Board that he is waiting to see a man he has never met to receive instructions for his twelfth successful campaign. This is no ordinary rendezvous: the stranger will have the very key to the scheme and the proper name for it, and they will recognize each other through some strange look in the eye. As it happens, the man The Chairman is looking for is The Prospector. Indeed, The Prospector comes over to their table and having secured enough dirty secrets from each of them to insure against a double-cross, reveals the secret. He has been all over Paris sniffing and sampling the tap water and finally found what he was looking for—the taste of petroleum at this very café. “There’s oil under the streets of Chaillot,” he declares. The Chairman’s eyes light up as he orders the Board into the café to sample the tap water at the bar, bothered by the appearance of an eccentric—The Countess—demanding her usual table from its current occupant.

The only thing standing in the way of drilling is a pesky clerk who won’t issue a permit. The Prospector has seen to that by sending his nephew to blow the man up. Unfortunately for The Board, Roderick sees a family with small children sitting outside of Room 22 and runs to a bridge over the Seine and tosses the bomb in. He is mistakenly thought to be jumping, and gets punched unconscious by a policeman. The Countess and Irma see to his care. When he comes to, he and Irma lock eyes and fall in love. When Roderick realizes his uncle planned to do away with a simple clerk and the reasons behind the assassination attempt, he reveals all to the good people of Chaillot. The Ragpicker—the philosopher of the group—must explain to the Countess how the world has changed. “I looked at people, and they looked back. Now, they stare back with dead eyes.” Realizing that they are now living in an age of The Golden Calf, the Countess lays a trap to stop The Board from destroying the world.

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The view from the café appears to be the same one used when little Pascal first finds his balloon companion in The Red Balloon (1956), establishing Chaillot as a magical place for this viewer. Certainly to the “good guys” in this film, their world is indeed a wondrous place. For Countess Aurelia and her three similarly garbed friends—Gabrielle the virgin (Guiletta Massina, in a rare English-speaking role), Constance the Madwoman of Passy (Margaret Leighton), and Josephine the adjudicator (Edith Evans)—the world is an illusion into which they can slip when they aren’t living in their ancient memories of youth. The common men and women of Chaillot must break through this illusion to convince the Countess that the world has changed, grown coarse and mean, to rouse her to action. The Countess is, in fact, a representative of historical France—an aristocrat from the 19th century, when monarchy returned for a time to the French Republic. Her decision to exterminate the members of The Board is the type that an absolute monarch would make; it is Josephine who insists that a trial must take place, thus marrying the ideals of the Republic with the nostalgic place of the monarchy in France.

To lure her victims to her mansion, she plays on their greed. She visits each of them and shows them a sample of the oil that is under her home—in fact, a mixture created in the café kitchen. She has the opportunity to see for herself the darkness they spread. From The Broker she learns that to make futures trading profitable, crops that could feed thousands may be burned. She watches The General bumble around with nuclear missiles. The Reverend reveals himself to be an Elmer Gantry with an intolerance for other religions. And The Prospector and The Chairman are unbridled greed itself. These episodes may be preaching to the converted among many in the audience, but they are important in order for the Countess to enter the modern world and do what must be done.

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The members of The Board are delightfully villainous. Yul Brynner and Donald Pleasence are yin and yang as The Chairman and The Prospector, their bald heads nodding in unison, their madness perfectly matched. Brynner assumes a maniacal glee as he plays his role large, not an unpleasant caricature by any means. Pleasence, however, really convinces as a man who trusts his nose. When the others wonder at his prediction of oil under Paris, he wags his nose in their faces, turning profile to emphasize its impressive size, as a phallic symbol of his power over nature.

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The most compelling scene of the film—and also the most stagey—is the trial. Josephine (a shrill creation of Dame Edith) rules that the criminals can be tried in absentia as long as they are provided with proper counsel. The Ragpicker is chosen to defend them. This may be Danny Kaye’s finest hour on film. He presents arguments about the legitimacy of progress and the rights of innovators over those who would squander their resources, and wins Constance over. This alarming development encourages him, and he reveals more of his clients’ naked purposes. Revealing the true hubris of the oligarchs, The Ragpicker sums up his defense with, “We buy the legislators who make the law. We ARE the law!” Kaye’s performance taps the potential cruelty and arrogance in us all, infusing The Ragpicker with the integrity a defense attorney should have for his clients, but also their guilt. Those who only know Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen are in for a shock here.

Katharine Hepburn has a sufficiently imperial air to glide easily into the role of a nearly untouchable grand dame. Yet she fails to capture a real sense of madness, preferring to be a garden-variety eccentric in a role that calls upon her to commit some highly significant murders. We see moments of callousness in the Countess during the opening sequence and in her offhanded treatment of her mad women friends. But Hepburn softens her character so much, particularly by dissolving into tears early and often, that the strength and, yes, righteous cruelty she represents don’t come through. Her supporting cast offers little to bolster the sense of power that I always associate with a nation of commoners who could overthrow a monarch and establish a republic.

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Bryan Forbes is entirely too enamored of the keyhole shooting style that was popular in England at the time. He frequently shoots Hepburn through a “gauze” of leaves, scenery, and monuments, perhaps to suggest her illusory life; to me, however, it just looked like he got his framing wrong. The cinematography in the Countess’ mansion is appropriately gothic, but not nearly as horrifying as it could or should have been as, say, the kangaroo courtroom in M was. The film’s look is at its best in the streets of Paris, where the cause the Countess and her friends are fighting for can be seen and appreciated.

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While The Madwoman of Chaillot comes up short in various areas, the overall impression of a cautionary fable does its job. Standing at the doorway of 2009, I hope along with the rest of the world that the United States will be a better place in the coming year. But in keeping with the above title card, I’m not holding my breath.


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