I have seen some interesting films in the last week or two that have been rather dissimilar from each other in form and style.
I will take them one by one:
Aimer, Boire et Chanter (/the Life Of Riley): This was the last film made by the late Alain Resnais, who made his name with such classics as Last Year In Marienbad, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour. This one could hardly have been further from the style of those great films (only half of which I understood at the time). This was based on a play by Alan Ayckbourne, the playful British playwright, who came to prominence in the 1970s after I had moved back from Britain to Canada, and whose works I have never before seen. Resnais, using a cast of expert French actors, found a remarkable way of filming a stage play: since the play is set in Yorkshire, he filmed many shots of the Yorkshire countryside, which metamorphosed into large drawings of the cityscapes in which the play took place, eventually metamorphosing again into a setting for whatever the next scene might be, always with a backdrop of long canvas-like drapes. So there is a slight air of unreality about the action taking place, which, to be quite honest, was unreal enough to warrant such a setting. It is all about a character called George, who is falsely rumoured to have been diagnosed with cancer, setting off his four or five mates into paroxysms of grief (and some gallic shrugs of indifference). They discuss George’s characteristics, among which is his fondness for women, and what emerges as the play goes on is that George has threatened to take a holiday in Tenerife, and appears to have promised each of the wives of his four friends that he will take her with him. His wife, who is present from time to time, protests that he is taking her, and eventually, faced with the dilemma that each of them has been promised the trip, the wives reconcile with their husbands, and George goes off with the young daughter of one of them. George, who has been living the life of Riley, as the English expression (and title of the play) has it, finally expires, and all we ever see of him is his coffin. Tellement drole, as the French might say.
Boyhood: This film, hailed as a masterpiece, was made over more than two decades by the American director Richard Linklater. It runs for 166 minutes, rather too long, even for a supposed masterpiece, I would say. But it is a remarkable affair. Linklater began to shoot around a six-year-old child Ellar Coltrane, and returned to film aspects of his life every year until he was 21. When I went to the film I thought it was a documentary, and I wondered how he managed to film scenes of family life which, frankly, did not bring much credit to the characters at its centre. For example, the boy’s mother had three husbands, at least one of whom developed into a domestic tyrant, who didn’t seem to mind his tyrannical ways being filmed, which seemed most unlikely. Not only did it seem unlikely, but it was unlikely, and, in fact, never happened, because all the characters surrounding the boy were played by actors. The film, thus, was a documentary only in its portrayal of the boy, but was otherwise a feature. As such, it did present what seemed a rivetingly authentic view of middle class (or perhaps just a touch below middle-class) American life. The father of the boy, who was estranged from his wife from an early stage in Ellar’s life, was expertly played by Ethan Hawke: he portrayed a man who was raffish, verging on ne’er-do-well, in the early stages, but who somehow, through various shifting relationships, managed to emerge at the end as a more solid and dependable character who was at least capable of talking and mingling with his ex-wife from so long before. I kept thinking of Barack Obama’s statement that he believes in American exceptionalism with all his heart, and what I was thinking was that this film might serve as a corrective to that absurd and Amero-centred view of life. The people in his film seemed more representative of that class of Americans we read about from time to time, people who are hanging on by their fingernails, mired in debts that they believe are unpayable, and whose passage through life is more truncated and confused than a normal middle-class family might expect.
Zulu: I have not heard much of South African film in recent years, although their plays have reached a world-wide audience, and their novelists are among the best writing in English. Zulu
is a gritty, realistic film made by Jerome Salle last year, and starring two excellent American actors, Forest Whitaker, as the embodiment of a politically-conscious black policeman, who, along with his scruffy, disrespectful sidekick, played by Orlando Bloom, is trying to uncover the murder of a mutilated corpse that has been discovered in Capetown’s botanical gardens. She turns out to be the daughter of a formerly well-known Rugby player, and what occurs and is shown in excruciating detail in this movie is the almost insensate violence that hangs over South Africa these days as a cloud. The movie is good in that it portrays a South Africa struggling to emerge from its former insane policies of apartheid, showing black-white acceptance (up to a certain level) that seem realistic. But the level of violence shown, of casual violence, is exceptional, even for an action movie. For example, when the policemen go to the beach to talk to people who might know something, they are suddenly put upon by a gun-wielding gang of thugs, who, having discovered in one of the policemen a certain fear, zeroes in on him, and almost casually hacks off his hands with their machete. The fact that this violence affects everyone is emphasized when the lead policemen discovers that his mother is threatened in a effort to get at him, and that she has, in fact, been killed in one of those inconsequential episodes of violence. He is so enraged by the death of his innocent mother that, knowing who to blame, he stalks the gang, and as soon as he comes upon them, brutally shoots them down, one by one. When his sidekick, in search of him, finds him in the desert, he is lying propped, dead, against a tree, the life apparently having out of him in the course of his path of destruction. This is a scary movie, and it reminds me of a statement made in the 1960s by the brilliant correspondent Stanley Uys, who reported on his country for The Observer newspaper in England for many years. He wrote that apartheid was having such a deforming effect on South African life that if it went on much longer any government that followed it would probably find the country ungovernable. In certain aspects, this seems to be true.
Babel: I came upon this movie, made to great acclaim in 2006 by the Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalaz Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, on Netflix. I had seen it before, but at that time did not appreciate fully how remarkable it is. Using a gun as a connecting point the movie follows the stories of three groups of people in Japan, Morocco, Mexico and the United States. The gun was owned by a wealthy Mexican who, during a hunt in Africa, gave it to a Moroccan guide, who sold it to a man, who handed it over to his two pre-teenaged sons, who, testing the boast that it could shoot three kilometres, fired form the hills at a passing tourist bus, and happened to hit an American woman, played by Cate Blanchett, with one of the bullets, putting her life in danger. Her husband played by Brad Pitt, was a peremptory rich American who had left his two small children in the care of their Mexican maid, Maria. When Maria had reported to him that she had to attend her son’s wedding, Pitt had peremptorily told her to cancel the wedding, she had to stay, especially if she could not get anyone else to look after the children. Perhaps unwisely, she decided to take the children with her into Mexico, rather than cancel the wedding (which was, in any way, impossible). And when, the wedding over, she travelled back into the United .states with her drunken nephew, they got involved in border problems that ended with her being set adrift in the desert with the children, who were saved just in the ick of time, but which incident led to her being deported, because she had been living illegally in the United states for sixteen years. Meantime, in the home of the rich Japanese, his deaf-mute teenage daughter, contemptuous of her father, goes out into the city with her deaf-mute friends, and flaunts her youthful sexuality to bad effect, while, back in Morocco, a hunt is on for the killers, thought by the American ambassador, to be terrorists who had carried out the shooting on the Ameircan tourist bus. It all has been shot with such verisimilitude, the sequences all being shot with an impressive attention to local colour and custom and possibilities, and impossibilities, come to that, that I found it, overall, a most impressive movie, and one whose characters, rooted in life as they were, it was impossible to lose interest in. Try to pick this one up, if you can.