Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Peter Greenaway, "Rembrandt's J'Accuse" (2008)

Rembrandt's J'Accuse. 2008. Written and directed by Peter Greenaway. Produced by Femke Wolting, Bruno Felix, and Kees Kasander. Cinematography by Reinier van Brummelen. Edited by Elmer Leupen. Music by Giovanni Sollima and Marco Robino. Production designed by Maarten Piersma. Costume design by Marrit van der Burgt. Sound by Bram Boers.

Cast: Peter Greenaway (Himself), Martin Freeman (Rembrandt van Rijn), Eva Birthistle (Saskia Uylenburgh), Jodhi May (Geertje), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje Stoeffels), Jonathan Holmes (Ferdinand Bol), Michael Teigen (Carel Fabritius), Natalie Press (Marieke).

Peter Greenaway’s new film, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which he subjects Rembrandt’s famous 1642 painting The Night Watch to intense forensic, visual, and historical analysis, is one of Greenaway’s very best films, and certainly his best in well over a decade. I have been greatly disappointed by most of Greenaway’s recent output, for example The Tulse Luper Suitcases, in which Greenaway puts into practice his long-standing theories about what he sees as cinema’s currently impoverished state, which he sees as essentially illustrated literature, and how Western culture is text-based instead of visually-based, leading to what he sees as a woeful lack of visual literacy in the public at large. (Early on in Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, Greenaway gives voice on screen to these opinions once more, in the scolding, schoolmarmish tone that is probably his most off-putting and least attractive quality.) Greenaway’s recent films have become increasingly impenetrable and hermetic, seemingly made only for an audience of one – Greenaway himself. The alternative he has come up with to conventional cinema, using text, calligraphy, and frames within frames within frames to form an ornate collage, however visually elegant it often is, turns out in practice to be not quite as compelling as he thinks.

So it is with genuine pleasure (and relief) that I say that with Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, Greenaway has finally come up with a film that puts his visual and intellectual arsenal to brilliant effect, turning Rembrandt’s The Night Watch into evidence of an elaborate murder conspiracy. (Call it CSI: Amsterdam.) Greenaway appears on screen throughout to state the case for the prosecution, namely that Rembrandt’s painting is his “J’accuse,” or accusation of guilt towards the perpetrators of a conspiracy on the part of a group of Dutch military officers to murder their captain to gain more power for themselves. The officers planned to disguise this murder as a military accident. Greenaway is our guide to the evidence for this conspiracy, all of which he believes can be found within the frame of Rembrandt’s painting. His running voiceover and visual presence (usually in a box in the bottom center of the screen) relates 31 clues to the murder conspiracy (Greenaway’s well-documented obsession with numbers and lists continues unabated in this film) that can be found in the painting. Fully-staged reenactments with actors are peppered throughout to illustrate Greenaway’s thesis.

Greenaway identifies The Night Watch as the beginning of Rembrandt’s popular and economic decline, which he sees as a result of the successful attempt by the powers that were to suppress and bury Rembrandt’s accusation and force him into a later life of poverty and obscurity. As Greenaway intones at the film’s conclusion, “It is imperative that we reopen the case.” Greenaway uses the canvas of Rembrandt’s masterpiece to create one of his own, a film that is simultaneously a documentary, a murder mystery, an art history lecture, a political history of Amsterdam, and a seminar on the arts of both painting and visual analysis, and is endlessly fascinating and compelling.

Rembrandt’s J’Accuse is at Film Forum now through November 3. Click here to purchase tickets.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Lars von Trier, "Antichrist" (2009)

Antichrist. 2009. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. Produced by Meta Louise Foldager. Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Edited by Anders Refn. Production designed by Karl "Kalli" Juliusson. Art direction by Tim Pannen. Costume design by Frauke Firl. Sound design by Kristian Eidnes Andersen.

Cast: Willem Dafoe (He), Charlotte Gainsbourg (She).

Lars von Trier's latest (and most extreme) provocation, Antichrist, opens today at the IFC Center. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened earlier this month at the New York Film Festival.

At the New York Film Festival, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be at least one controversial film to set the Alice Tully Hall denizens’ tongues wagging. The Danish cinematic enfant terrible Lars von Trier has supplied a few of these throughout the years – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay. It’s safe to say that his latest, Antichrist, is without a doubt his most extreme provocation to date. Reportedly the result of a lengthy depression von Trier suffered in the period before he made it, this film astonishes with its free-associative, dream-like (or, more accurately, nightmare-like) style. Though it seems like most of the film doesn’t make a lick of sense, it is never less than riveting, even though most viewers will very much want to look away, especially in its extremely violent latter sessions. Von Trier has often been tagged with the label of “misogynist,” and Antichrist will do little to assuage these detractors. However, as with all things von Trier, the reality is not quite that simple.

The scenario is spare and archetypal: a couple, known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), after the death of their young son, venture into the woods, to a place they call Eden, where He, a professional therapist, attempts to cure She of her extreme grief over her child’s death. These are the only two characters in the entire film, and von Trier unleashes an arsenal of nightmare imagery and WTF moments to depict this couple’s psychic journey. There are talking animals, genital mutilation, and other extremes, and at first it seems that von Trier is having a laugh at our expense. But it eventually becomes clear that what we see is far from a joke, and that this is as close a peek into an artist’s id as any that has ever been created. Gainsbourg won best actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and while evaluating performances in a film such as this almost seems beside the point, one can’t help but admire the fact that both actors are more than game for everything von Trier throws at them.

Divided into four chapters – “Grief,” “Pain (Chaos Reigns),” “Despair (Gynocide),” “The Three Beggars” – bracketed by a prologue and epilogue, Antichrist begins with a gorgeously shot slow-motion monochrome sequence depicting the death of the couple’s child. Accompanied by the music of Handel on the soundtrack, we see the child make his way out of the crib and fall to his death out of the window, unnoticed by his parents having passionate sex, very graphically shown – par for the course for von Trier, ever the provocateur. At the outset of the film proper, which switches to a muted color palette, She collapses during her son’s funeral and is subsequently admitted to a hospital. He pulls her out of the hospital, believing that the hospital is prescribing her too much medication, and that he could do a better job at curing her of the extreme grief and guilt over their son’s death. He intends to be analytical and logical in how he goes about doing this, to the extent that She at one point accuses him of being indifferent to their son’s death.

When the two retreat to “Eden,” a small log cabin deep in the woods, He puts She under hypnosis, to exorcise her guilt as well as her deep fears of the woods themselves. But very soon, his carefully planned strategy begins to unravel. She becomes increasingly erratic and less responsive to her husband’s admittedly unorthodox treatments. Through flashbacks and her husband’s discovery, we learn that She has been working on a thesis titled “Gynocide,” about the history of man’s brutality to women throughout the ages. (The film’s credits include a “misogyny consultant.”) Her studies have brought her to an unexpected and disturbing conclusion: women are the source of evil in the world. And in the increasingly brutal final reels of the film, she sets out to prove her theory in very graphic ways that will torture her husband, as well as the audience.

The above description may make Antichrist seem much more coherent than it actually is, at least initially. Von Trier also indulges in some rather clichéd and tacky depictions of the hypnosis sessions. And yet there is an elemental power to the flow of images in the film that, to this viewer, eventually proved irresistible. Von Trier clearly means to give the audience a taste of the psychological torture he experienced during his depression. Given the catcalling and booing that greeted its premiere at Cannes, it would seem that I am in the minority opinion. How one responds to this film ultimately depends on how one responds to its creator. If you are a hardcore von Trier fan (as I must confess I am), then you will fund much to savor. If not, well, as they say, caveat emptor. As one of the film’s chapter titles state, “Chaos Reigns.” That statement could stand as a credo for von Trier’s entire oeuvre, and it has never been truer than his latest work.

Antichrist can be seen (if you dare) at the IFC Center beginning today. Click here to purchase tickets.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Adolfo Alix Jr.'s "Adela"

Adela. 2008. Directed by Adolfo Alix Jr. Written by Adolfo Alix Jr. and Nick Olanka. Produced by Arleen Cuevas. Cinematography by Albert Banzon. Edited by Aleks Castaneda. Production design by Adolfo Alix Jr. and Jerome Zamora. Sound by Ditoy Aguila and Marc Locsin.

Cast: Anita Linda, Jason Abalos, Joem Bascon, Angeli Bayani, Perla Bautista, Iza Calzado, Ricky Davao, Cyra Dela Cerna, Katherine Luna, German Moreno, Kenneth Ocampo, Arnold Reyes.

The wonderfully expressive face of veteran Filipina actress Anita Linda is the heart and main attraction of Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s mesmerizing film Adela, which recently concluded its run at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of its ongoing series “ContemporAsian,” highlighting recent films from Asia that have not been widely seen in New York. Alix takes the opposite approach from many recent films from the Philippines that have gained attention on the festival circuit, exemplified by such filmmakers as Brillante Mendoza, who recently boosted his profile considerably by taking home the best director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his film Kinatay. Mendoza’s restless camerawork and depictions of the desperate slums of Manila have been echoed by many of his peers, affording their audiences a visceral, vicarious experience of poverty, hustling, and corruption. Alix eschews all of this in Adela, preferring long takes and panoramic master shots when it is not intimately focusing on its title character. Adela is celebrating her 80th birthday (the entire film takes place on this one day) and hopeful that her children and grandchildren will finally pay her a visit, which we quickly learn is a very rare occurrence, as her children have their own lives far away from her. Adding to her solitude is the fact that she has been a widow for many years now; Adela often passes the time by listening to radio plays as she cooks and does other chores in the home. Many years ago, Adela was a popular actress on these radio shows, giving it up both because of her husband’s wish for her to stay home with the children, and the waning popularity of radio dramas due to the advent of television.

Adela, however much she dominates the narrative, is by no means the only character here, and one of the great strengths of Alix’s film is the broad view he affords us of the environment that Adela exists in. Before we are introduced to Adela, we first follow a very pregnant woman who catches her mate having sex with another woman, whom the pregnant woman is in debt to – whether this other woman is her landlady or some other sort of benefactor is not quite clear. As she fights and hits her philandering partner, she suddenly goes into labor, and is helped through it by Adela, who becomes an impromptu midwife, helping the woman deliver her baby. Adela’s other neighbors are just as colorful – other important characters include: a ne’er-do-well who habitually steals from people’s homes and tries to sell off his ill-gotten goods afterward, and who may or may not have stolen Adela’s wedding ring; the boisterous and very effeminate neighbor who gives Adela a manicure; and in the film’s most amusing scene, a neighbor and fellow grandmother whom Adela walks in on as she is having sex with a much younger man, justifying her behavior as a necessary way to stave off loneliness and fulfill her sexual needs. “Besides, I won’t get pregnant, anyway,” she tells Adela. Most pertinently to our understanding of Adela’s character, this friend asks Adela, “Are you happy?” The silence that follows this query speaks volumes.

Anita Linda does so much more than portray this elderly woman; she seemingly inhabits this woman body and soul. And that face! It is as transparent a vessel for displaying emotion as any I have ever seen. This now is the second film I have seen this remarkable actress in; the other is Brillante Mendoza’s latest film Lola, which I recently saw at this year’s Pusan International Film Festival. In the latter film, she is just as riveting, playing a very different character than Adela. Color me a fan: I would love to see her earlier work. She is in practically every scene of this film, and minute by minute we are drawn deeper into her world. Alix’s style is austere and spare, but without the aridness of similar films that employ this kind of aesthetic. The final scene of the film, in which we feel the full force of Adela’s solitude, is what remains with me: the sound of lapping waves, crickets, and passing airplanes as she has a picnic alone, one of the saddest scenes you will ever see in any film. Adolfo Alix, Jr., with Adela, has created a brilliant character study that also doubles as a sharply trenchant depiction of the casual corruption that manipulates the lives of poor people in the Philippines. The political backdrop against which Adela’s story is set concerns the bribery, with food and money, of the people of her village to join a rally in support of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It is a testament to Adela’s sense of dignity and justice that she resolutely refuses to participate in this farce, probably because she and the rest of her neighbors will soon be forced to move out of the shacks that sit beside a landfill to make way for a highway extension. It is this awareness of both the macro and the micro of his characters’ circumstances that made Adela such an emotionally and politically astute film.

Adela trailers:

Interview with Adolfo Alix Jr.:

Interview with Anita Linda:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Alain Resnais, "Wild Grass" -- New York Film Festival Press Conference, 9/25/09

The 2009 New York Film Festival opened with Alain Resnais' loopy and lovely film Wild Grass. You can read my Meniscus Magazine review here. Below are clips from the afternoon press conference on September 25, 2009. From left to right are Resnais, translator Lucius Barre, and actors Andre Dussollier and Mathieu Amalric.

In this clip, Resnais offers his thoughts on the future of film, which he believes is represented by one director in particular:

On Mathieu Amalric's performance:

And here, Alain Resnais discusses the theme of sexual desire in his films, and his disavowal of the label "auteur":