3rd 11 - 2017 | no comment »

Daguerrotype (Le secret de la chambre noire, 2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Here there be spoilers.

Daguerrotype begins with a canted shot of a train moving into an open-air station. A young man gets off, follows some other passengers down some stairs to the exit, and walks a distance to a gated home where he has to speak into an intercom to be let in. He is expected. With this brief, subtly disturbing opening, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, master of the eerie, takes us from the modern world to an old, dark house of the mind.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Kurosawa’s 1997 movie Cure is my favorite horror film. Cure is a bloody police procedural, but it is most interested in the way psychological pathologies can manifest in ordinary people given the right circumstances and stimuli. Thus, Cure and other films in Kurosawa’s oeuvre ask us to look inward, to empathize with his damaged, overstressed characters and recognize the limits of our own self-control and the ends to which we will go to regain it.

Daguerrotype and Cure share a trigger in common—guilt. Like the cop burdened with a mentally ill wife in Cure, Stéphane Hegray (Olivier Gourmet) is overcome with guilt over the suicide of his wife, Denise (Valérie Sibilia). Once a highly successful fashion photographer, Stéphane has retreated into his mansion, where he makes nothing but fragile glass daguerreotypes, a type of photograph that was born and almost completely died out during the Victorian era. He creates small images for clients—one of an old woman who seems to want to create something of a death mask of herself, another a portrait of a dead baby for a grieving mother and father, mimicking a common practice from Victorian times.

His newest obsession is creating lifesize daguerreotypes. The weighty, cumbersome photographic plates are too much for Stéphane’s aged assistant, Louis (Jacques Collard), to handle, so the young man we saw in the opening scene, Jean (Tahar Rahim), is interviewed as his replacement. While Jean waits to meet Stéphane, he spies a woman in period dress on the stairs above him. He learns later that she is Marie (Constance Rousseau), Stéphane’s daughter and frequent model. Jean is hired and starts to learn the particulars of his job, including locking Marie into an intricate metal frame to immobilize her for the lengthy exposures—some more than an hour—Stéphane needs for his daguerreotypes.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to the everyday lives of the characters. We watch Stéphane’s agent, Vincent (Mathieu Amalric), try to coax him back to his career; Stéphane try and fail to conduct a commercial shoot; Marie, an excellent but amateur botanist, try to land a job at a botanic garden. We see Jean commuting on a subway back to Paris, where he lives, and go off to meet friends at a local sports bar. As a sign of his newfound prosperity, Jean settles a debt he owes one of them, only to be scolded for not returning his calls. This is the first hint that Jean is turning toward something new. His life is changing because of his budding love affair with Marie.

The central conflict of the film revolves around the difficulty of forging a future when the traumas of the past freeze us in place. Stéphane considers that he has ensured Marie will live forever by capturing her image on a lifesize daguerreotype, but the flesh-and-blood Marie was literally trapped in a metal vise, unable to move, while he made his pictures. His need for her puts her in a similar bind when she decides to pursue her own life and dreams. She is offered a job at a botanic garden in Toulouse and tells him she has decided to accept it. The consequences are almost immediate, as her father stumbles to the cellar, sees the ghost of Denise, and admits his betrayal of her devotion. Marie goes looking for him, only to tumble violently down the cellar stairs. Stéphane’s sin will be passed to his de facto son, Jean, who ventures into a criminal attempt to sell off the mansion for a substantial commission so that he and Marie can start a new life.

Daguerrotype shows Kurosawa’s command of Japanese horror conventions, specifically those of ghost stories, but put in service of his meditation on the shackles that love, memory, and guilt can impose. His frames reveal images at the edge, like nagging thoughts that won’t come into focus. Similarly, his ability to conjure actions that strongly corporealize his characters leave us confused when we suddenly find ourselves staring at empty spaces. He shows how prolonged exposure to supernatural beings can bring on insanity—it seems that Stéphane, Marie, and Jean are all touched by fire to one degree or another.

Kurosawa is at his most Japanese when Stéphane attempts to hide evidence of his complicity in Denise’s death in the chemical waste containers near Marie’s greenhouse. Hanging lamps that move by themselves entice him into the greenhouse, where he encounters a ghostly Denise moving toward him, slowly choking the frame as her form moves closer and closer to the cowering man, her long-nailed hands reaching for Stéphane’s throat, her unfocused, close-up face crowding everything else out. The moment is terrifying, but resolves in an unexpected way.

So, too, does Kurosawa defy the allure of Paris, so often a supporting player in so many films. We are never really sure what city Jean commutes to and from, as the director refuses any cliché establishing shots and stays on the back streets and in Jean’s crummy apartment when he is in the city. Tellingly, the only time we know for sure we’re in Paris is when Jean and Marie are leaving it for the last time and pass the Eiffel Tower, shrouded in fog.

All of the performances are strong, but special praise goes to Rousseau and Rahim. Rousseau’s Marie is delicate, a Mona Lisa enigma who, like the subject of that masterpiece, is set among the artifacts and attitudes of a past time. Her loving attentiveness to Jean is naturally expressed, characteristic of the passivity she had accustomed herself to in her father’s world. Her few moments of independence don’t really penetrate the serenity of her demeanor—she’s a gentle soul who believes others will treat her gently as well.

Rahim’s performance is a masterful slow burn. We can see the aimlessness of youth in his early scenes and his naïve eagerness to get started on a path with some kind of meaning. Interestingly, he is hired because he knows nothing about photography. That blank slate, like one of Stéphane’s unexposed glass plates, will be developed by his master—much to his misfortune. His attempts to get Stéphane to sell the estate get more and more desperate as Rahim signals the strange possession Jean is undergoing, one he is scrambling to escape. But Rahim never oversells his character’s emotional states, and the genuine feelings he and Rousseau express keep us boring more deeply into their story and invested in its outcome.

Cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine paints a gorgeous film, with rich and meaningful shadows and colors, and interesting depths of field that comment on character, particularly Jean’s. The timing of film editor Véronique Lange adds suspense and plants doubt in our minds. For example, bubbles from below the surface of a river where a body might be submerged churn an anxiety-inducing amount of time before a diver surfaces, empty-handed. The script by Kurosawa was translated into French by Catherine Paillé, revealing both writers to be literate and exact. Daguerrotype is a consummate work by a master and his talented team.

Daguerrotype is available on demand on iTunes, Sony, Google Play, Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu, Comcast, Charter, Cox, Vimeo, and various other cable operators.


7th 03 - 2016 | no comment »

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, 2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remain a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.

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Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.

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Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”

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Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.

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It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?

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One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.

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But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.

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Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.

One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)

How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)

Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)


30th 01 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Bug (2006)

Director: William Friedkin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I was going through the comments on IMDb about Bug, I was amused to read that one “reviewer” considers director Bill Friedkin a one-hit wonder. That hit, of course, would be The Exorcist (1973). Ah, how quickly they forget. Friedkin’s early career contained his biggest bangs (The Thin Blue Line [1966], The Night They Raided Minsky’s [1968], The Boys in the Band [1970], The French Connection [1971]). He uncorked another great one, To Live and Die in L.A., in 1983, and recently directed the respectable Rules of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003). I remember reading someone ask when Chicago was going to build a monument to this talented and active native son. (Perhaps when it decides it doesn’t need someone named Daley in the mayor’s office—in other words, not soon.)

Then I started to ponder Chicago’s contributions to world art and entertainment. The city has sent hundreds of influential comedians into the world via The Second City, the city’s famous improv troupe and its offshoots. I’ve found fans of the Blues Brothers (Second City alum John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) all over the world.

And then there’s the theatre company that made the term “Chicago actor” instantly and enduringly hot—Steppenwolf Theatre. John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Tom Irwin, Laurie Metcalf, and many other Steppenwolf ensemble members have gone on to great success in the movies, on television, and in the theatre. Their physical, in-your-face theatrical style went with them, in the process, helping to popularize their favorite playwright, Sam Shepard.

TracyLetts%5B1%5D.JPGThe original ensemble members rarely show up in Chicago anymore to shine their light on early fans such as myself. That’s all right. Steppenwolf keeps the flame alive by nurturing new generations of actors, directors, and playwrights and sending them out into the world. One of them, an Oklahoman who has made the Steppenwolf Theatre an exciting place today, is playwright/actor/director Tracy Letts. Letts has written one hit play after another for Steppenwolf, including August: Osage Country and Killer Joe, the latter of which transferred to New York and wild success. After I saw a knockout performance of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser at Steppenwolf in which Letts had the title role, I was more excited to approach Letts on the street to thank him for a riveting performance than I was to greet the man he was talking to—Oscar winner Adrien Brody. As you can imagine, when I learned that Bug was adapted from a play by Letts, I was more than eager to see it.

Bug was marketed as a horror movie, but its audiences got something both more complex and more basic than today’s horror movies deliver. Letts understands that psychological terror is the worst kind, and that it’s better not to show the monster if you really want your audience to scare itself to pieces. He uses this trick of the unseen threat to terrorize his female protagonist, Agnes White (Ashley Judd), and furiously spin this story of insanity and obsession.

Agnes lives in a seedy motel room with kitchenette in Oklahoma. She smokes, drinks too much, snorts cocaine, and works a deadly dull job at a lesbian tavern. Her days are spent sleeping off the night before, which generally involves partying with her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). One night, R.C., trying to convince Agnes to come to a party after work, says she has a man for Agnes to meet. The episodic film skips the introductions. We next see Agnes in her room, getting drunk and high with R.C., while the man spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. R.C. leaves. When Agnes learns that the man has no place to go, she invites him to sleep on the couch. He promises not to get funny with her, saying he has sworn off sex.

In the morning, Agnes wakes to the smell of coffee and an empty room. The shower is going. She thinks this is rather strange, but gets up to pour herself a cup from the coffee pot. When she goes to the bathroom to thank her guest, she is greeted by the tattooed, threatening figure of her ex-husband Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), only weeks out of prison. He has been calling her—we witnessed her answer the phone, hearing nothing, over and over to an unnerving degree at the start of the film. Without explicitly learning why he was in prison, we already guess that Jerry was incarcerated for spousal abuse.

Just then, Agnes’ guest returns with breakfast in hand. Jerry confronts him, slaps Agnes, and leaves. Before doing so, he learns that the man’s name is Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). This is the first time we’ve heard it, too. Agnes sits down to a bran muffin and vodka and coke with Peter, feeling protected and cared for.

Her contentment is shattered when Peter announces that people are after him and that he has to leave to protect her. She smashes her drink against the wall, slams into the bathroom, and weeps uncontrollably. Peter returns to the room and speaking through the door, tells her that he was a guinea pig for the military in its biological experiments. He ran away, but is still being hunted. Agnes, moved by his desperate story, opens the door and runs into his arms. They make love in a psychedelic scene, interspersing naked bodies with microscopic views of blood flowing through veins and arteries. When Agnes gets up to use the bathroom, Peter says he has been bitten by an insect. He shows her red marks on his arm. She thinks it might be a spider bite. He examines her sheets with a table lamp and finds a tiny bug, an aphid. He instructs her about the power of this tiny bug. We will see exactly how powerful as the film moves through Peter’s paranoia and Agnes’ dependency to a chilling, almost apocalyptic end.

Agnes is a borderline personality dealing with a tragedy and hopelessly lonely, perfect prey for a parasite like Peter. Because of the episodic nature of the film, we don’t watch Agnes move slowly into Peter’s delusions, and this creates the shock Friedkin mined so effectively in The Exorcist. But the shock is more like meeting someone you haven’t seen for a while and finding them skeletally thin or filthy and deranged. Letts is adept in the mania of American conspiracy theories, tapping into some ideas many audience members may wholeheartedly believe or at least find somewhat plausible. Thus, he shines a table light on the sheet of our own gullibility and distrust.

Ashley Judd gives this role her all. She looks extremely unglamorous in the beginning, softening upon meeting up with some kindness from Peter, and descending into self-loathing and delusion by the film’s climax. Having said that, Letts clearly wrote an actors’ showcase piece; at times, I felt lost in the zeal with which she strutted her stuff. Michael Shannon originated the part of Peter when it was workshopped at his home theatre, A Red Orchid, in Chicago, and premiered the play in London. He’s clearly an oddball from the word go, but modulates his descent into madness at an even pace. His focus on Agnes is total and mesmerizing, a Svengali for the self-destructive. Lynn Collins and Harry Connick, Jr. are both wonderful, creating fully fleshed supporting characters who seem more in control than Agnes, but are in way over their heads when dealing with Peter.

And what about us? The ride Bug takes us on is as exhilarating as it is absurd. Watching Peter and Agnes examine their blood for bugs using a toy microscope is ridiculous, but we can’t stop them from seeing what they want to see. Reduced to almost a primitive state at the end, Peter and Agnes horrify us as much as they sadden us. I don’t think there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is a certain cynicism, even fatalism, in every ball of energy Steppenwolf ensemble members toss into the world. That’s Chicago, all right. l


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