Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day is prefaced by a quote from Tolstoy about the persistence of nature, no matter how much we industrialize. In the end, with a cackle of thunder, nature comes down in torrents—soaking a bag of money and the corpses of grifters who’d spent the movie failing to launder it. What I liked most about this Chinese animation is that it’s shrouded in night the way that South Park is always covered in snow. The filmmaker, Liu Jian, crawls through that night like that lizard crosses the train tracks. His style bypasses implausibility; the whole vibe is permissively absurd.

Sometimes, it’s a little too casual. As in a Mike Judge cartoon, the only element moving inside any given frame is usually the mouth of whoever is talking—which is to say, droning on in a cynical deadpan. This, plus the strain of keeping track of sometimes crudely drawn figures—the female characters more so than the men—can be disorienting in a way that does not seem intentional. They leap in and out of the plot like dolphins doing flips. To be fair, the bricolage is a pretense for commentary: a kidnapped painter who spends most of the film in the big boss’s trunk doesn’t affect the story, but provides an excuse to bring up Fauvism. Moreover, he shows that even the loftiest professions are snared in the ambience of crime.

Everything seems to be part of the black market here; there’s a bleakness that’s familiar from movies imported from other communist (or formerly communist) regimes: films such as My Joy or Ida. For each of its various thieves, the stolen loot is seen as seed money to mend broken dreams: an escape from industrial ennui. As Jian sees it, Western-style progress only gets us so far. His exteriors have a geometric precision, but the frames pass by languidly enough that one can get lost in the cross-stitched decay.

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The Square

I didn’t find The Square insufferable, exactly, but I read into its “awkward humor” style and “biting” satire an embittered cry for help. And, without sinking into my armchair too deeply, I think that much of its acclaim (it won the Palme d’Or) stems from elite circles’ sympathy with the director’s predicament. In other words, the call is coming from inside the house.

If Amour reflected the death of the haute bourgeoisie, The Square is its Night of the Living Dead. The tune of its dog whistle is the sadomasochistic tension that the cultural elite feels these days, a sense that their authority as “gate keepers” has been chipped away to the point of castration mingled with a contradictory pang of guilt over their status and privilege. This is a movie by a privileged white man about a privileged white man: the curator of a contemporary art museum, played by Claes Bang. (I don’t know if his name, Christian, has symbolic import or if that’s just what half of the men in Stockholm are named.) The theme of his story might be that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that’s a trifle less damning when one considers that bad intentions are imputed to just about everyone else. Christian gets to be bonehead and egghead in one sleek package.

The art world provides such low-hanging fruit for satire that it’s faint praise to say that the director, Ruben Östlund, scores a few sour grapes. But the film makes no distinction between a Jeff Koons and a de Kooning, and assures us that the characters don’t either. The two artists who figure into the plot are foppishly detached and committed to the point of psychopathy, respectively; and it’s clear from the first five minutes, when Christian can’t articulate basic premises of art theory that have been ersatz since Warhol, that he doesn’t have much passion for his profession either—which leads one to wonder how and why he stumbled so far up the ladder.

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Embrace of the Serpent

The last of anything gets a leg up in the ranks of tragedy; the loss of a people ascends to the highest rungs. I was pleased to see that Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, played to a packed house when I saw it a month ago. This movie features a shaman who’s the last of his tribe played, in advanced age, by a performer who’s among the last of his own. Its stated purpose is to preserve a fading memory. It is more, however, than a specimen jar with first-world guilt reflecting back from the glass. In its (sometimes juddery) black and white, the Amazon cools to wending mercury. It’s veined with life yet still.

At the risk of making the sort of critique I don’t particularly like to make, most white-men-where-they-don’t-belong moviesincluding Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of Godare conceived from the conquistadors’ point of view. Though imperialism is shown to wreak havoc on the foreign environments where it has beachedVietnam in the first example and the Andes in the secondthe narratives seem to be generated less by thoughts of genocide than suicide: by white man reckoning with his own corruption rather than examining the effects his corruption has had on others. That one-sided approach does not take away from those movies or from their filmmakers’ perspectives. But it does redound to this film that its director, Ciro Guerra, has cultivated a fluid perspective that’s thorned by prejudices on both ends. He has the grace to find wisdom in those wounds.

The shaman, Karamakate, is the point-of-view character. The action shifts between his hot-headed younger self (Nilbio Torres) to a 30ish-years-older version (Antonio Bolívar), lonely no longer by choice, for whom senility is creeping in like the first volley of a summer storm. In both timeframes, he encounters a white man; in short, he distrusts the wrong one. The first is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is stricken with a disease that only Karamakate is thought able to cure. Abetting a perceived enemy is a bitter pill for the medicine man to swallow; he shoots medicaments like cannonballs up the dying man’s nose. Theo’s frail white wrists clasp the shaman’s after each ministration, completing a fraught pietà.

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45 Years

A few years ago, a spate of critically-acclaimed prestige pictures like No Country for Old Men were scrapping from simple, grisly horror films like Halloween. The difference was the objective. Whereas slashers aimed for the gut, these “psychological thrillers” aimed for the head. The problem is that their aim was way off. A man chasing you with a knife doesn’t give you much to think about; it’s why he’s chasing you that does (though it’s probably not worth dwelling on unless you can take a breather).

If you shovel it out from under its pretensions, No Country is effective in a campfire-story sort of way, and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has its anthropological merits. But these movies’ overwhelming acclaim could, in large measure, be attributed to intellectual pettifogging—Black Swan had me gagging on its existential feathers. (Risible though it was, I can’t hold the film responsible for the grotesque review it wrenched out of me.)

In short, the essential sham of the horror-chic cycle was that it tried to claim depth by wallowing in the ineffable: Chigurh was a monster born of our suspicion that human life is meaningless. He killed people because … the universe. Depending on your perspective, No Country is the statement on the human condition or a cop-out that sidesteps anything so frivolous as character motivation or a serious view of life from the ground. The thing is, thrilling is easy—it’s the psychological part that’s hard.

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M

An appraisal of Fritz Lang’s M, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.

You can read the full piece here.

Ida

Humanity is meted out in Ida, as if hope and happiness were going out of stock. Shot in standard—four-by-thee—ratio, and black-and-white, Paweł Pawlikowski’s film resembles the behind-the-wall hits of the era in which it is set, such as Miloš Forman’s Czech tragicomedy Loves of a Blonde (1965). But a style which once implied alacrity is, in Ida, painstakingly composed, with subjects trapped by staircases and power lines, stark contrasts and infinite sky, snow blowing nowhere. The muted expressions, which glaze the women’s faces and have few rest stops on the road from numbness to suffering, are circumscribed by the limits of one character’s experiences and the other’s expectations. It’s like Melancholia externalized: a perpetual, institutional post-apocalypse.

Ida makes one feel cloistered; it begins, fittingly, at an abbey, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking her vows. Before this happens, the novitiate is instructed to visit with her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who she has never met. (Anna had been deposited at the convent as a baby.) Wanda, whose apartment is luxurious by Lodz standards, goes through cigarettes and assignations on an assembly line, and greases the gears with booze; she has the worn, black pout of Jeanne Moreau. When she informs Anna that she’s a “Jewish nun,” the revelation is loaded like a black joke or insult. To Anna, it’s a non sequitur. Shown no more hospitality than a photo of her dead mother, and neither expecting nor feeling entitled to more, she heads back to the bus station that afternoon—till Wanda has a change of heart. They embark for the provinces to find where Anna’s parents were buried during the war.

These stories of Jews hidden, and ultimately betrayed, under the gun, by their Christian neighbors—the only American variant that comes to mind is the Jonathan Safran Foer novel Everything Is Illuminated—are rarely told from a Gentile perspective. Seen through the prism of a “Jewish nun,” who is learning to react to external stimuli as a toddler, innately resigned to Original Sin, might, Ida’s journey has elements of both freshness and detachment. Pawlikowski’s take on it is both aestheticized and ascetic. I wasn’t thrilled with the disjuncture between his glacially paced, high-art cinematography and the glacial, dismal settings at first; the implication seemed to be that direct emotion would be too vulgar. But this is a story, essentially, of aftermath: told after the action has happened and history had been set. The film’s deliberative style gives the viewer unusually broad license to scrutinize each frame; it’s like looking at beautiful portraits in a gallery that don’t catch or create a moment in time but digest it. The two women embody “earth” and “grace,” but unlike Malick in The Tree of Life, Pawlikowski makes them flesh—lets them be flesh. In Wanda’s case, waxing flesh, sweating like a candle melting to the nub. A magistrate, she was nicknamed “Red Wanda” in the early ’50s because of her zealous prosecution—and execution—of enemies of the state. She gives the lie to the Soviet bureaucracy; public policy has absorbed her private thirst for vengeance, which neither blood nor vodka can sanctify.

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Under the Skin

Scarlett Johannson looks no less unworldly under a mink rug, and curtain of splenetic dark hair, than she does wearing nothing but a cell-phone case. She also looks no more of her time. Her talent for radiating an unkillable precocity keeps Under the Skin true to its title. This out-of-left-fielder, directed by Jonathan Sexy Beast Glazer, is an erotic fable in sci-fi drag, and Johannson is a Disney princess in stiletto heels and black leather. (BuzzFeed be derped for whipping me with that image.) More than its star, she is its cynosure. I missed the first few minutes, but she appears to be an alien put on this earth to cruise for men—a Pied Piper for Penises—though her objective is unknown. Rolling down her van’s windows, and coming on to passersby like a street-walking mannequin, she picks up her prey and repairs to her lair, a black-hole bordello where both parties wordlessly strip. To a ritualized drum beat, she marches backward; each man who follows is swallowed by the quicksand floor. As if by hypnosis, his game face remains fixed on Johannson—even as his eyeline sinks. There are no signs of struggle.

Now, I’ll acknowledge here Glazer’s inversion of the “male gaze,” which has gone from being a valid critique of how women are objectified in the media to an inside joke between coy filmmakers and freshman film theorists. When one has a beautiful woman bear her bounty only to shame the audience for wanting to see it, the brain is not the organ one is attempting to arouse. I see a potential glint of self-serving self-righteousness—the blood and butter of revenge fantasy—in Skin, but it isn’t as exposed as Johansson is; and, as with a similar reservation I had about Blue Is The Warmest Color, I think any smugness is ultimately transcended because the ironies go past any specifically feminist interpretation into something ungendered, apolitical. This unalloyed art-house film is not so baffling if one accepts that its content is not the “story,” or the invisible field of sci-fi reference—with allusions to The Man Who Fell to Earth, etc.—that suggests a context for the action. The content is Johannson’s psychological journey from victimizer to victim; the mystery is in the tragic inevitability with which her arc is freighted. Glazer’s ornate austerity, like the musique concrète blocks he drops, only weighed me down when Johannson’s journey forked off onto a byroad—such as during a scene at the beach that was rather more vague than ambiguous.

But I don’t mean to suggest that Glazer has only one note to play. Under the Skin is remarkably compact for all that it synthesizes, and the gestalt works on its own as a breath of cool atmosphere. In movies, less often really is less; but this one, with its Scottish frugality—it was shot in and around Glasgow—darts past those movies whose makers believe they’re commenting on clichés by distilling them. It is countryside and cobblestone: a modern city built over Brothers Grimm ruins that have their own secret life—an immanence. Shooting surreptitiously, Glazer mulls over the surfaces of daydreams on hard faces which aren’t locked but aren’t open; this is an outsider’s view, and the guerrilla footage adds a layer of irony, of intangibility, to the incomprehensible fullness of all strangers, with the added amplification of kaleidoscopic effects that evoke silent films about rural emigrants in big cities. It is the sheer volume of life in public spaces that puts Johannson in a headspin; she lives in the safety of shadows, in the cockpit of a van that whirs like the bridge of the Enterprise. Real life gives the film texture, a counterpoint that Air Doll—another poetic fable about a woman feeling the weight of her flesh for the first time—lacked. (Why do all these women-on-the-verge films seem to be directed by men? Now there’s a gaze worth looking into.)

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