• The Finical Filmgoer •
Peering from behind eyelet curtains: the cloistral apartments of M. Chariot
Of late, M. Chariot seems entirely unable to capture the proper modus operandi which confers attention on Open Salon: namely an unhesitating ability to jump to immediate, infuriated conclusions regarding current events — particularly events about which one knows next to nothing. My unfortunate tendency to ruminate on subject matter over a period of time, plus a natural, discreet resistance to the temptation to add to the pandemonia, seem to define my abject failure as a contemporary writer.
And yet, complaining is against my nature: I have larger issues with which to entertain myself. Readers with outdated tendencies to loyalty or affection may have noted my recent intimations of ill health, but you haven't heard the half of it, my dears: this has been a very precipitous year. During times of political and economic upheaval, it should come as no surprise that the aesthete does not fare well; delicacy is not served by cultural temblors. Fainting among the bibelots and hairline cracks in the Limoges tea set foretold greater fissures in the constitution, with which the author now finds himself contending.
Nights racked with feverish imaginings
These days one invariably finds M. Chariot sulking on a meticulously polished, walnut Victorian wheelchair, peering forlornly through eyelet curtains. To think I was once le toast français! Sigh. It seems such a long time ago.
Better days on the Boulevard
And yet one question remains: what to do with oneself during a long convalescence?
Casting about to give life some meaning against this period of personal collapse, I came to notice that my tiny film reviews of the past piqued not a few lively commentaries among those gentlepersons incomprehensibly participating on the forum — which led to the newish submission you are reading now.
I am chagrined to inform you that the following material cannot be described by even the most reticent among us as thrillingly of-the-moment; this post may therefore be subject to even more obscurity than Open Salon generally confers upon her roster of the obscure. Still, one languishes in the hope that considerations of contemporaneity will not inhibit you, lovely reader, from the leisurely perusal.
And if, like mine, your health is a bit iffy at the moment, let's splash the face with a few drops of cool water, put on a pot of our favorite tea, fluff the pillows of our respective daybeds and sit up, shall we? A return to some degree of health or vigor may well be around the corner, and how shall we be able to revel in a bit of self-indulgence then, I ask you? Housebound and invalidated, we may as well enjoy ourselves while we can. So fire up the telly, plug in the following, and let's talk cinema: Cinema for the Indisposed!
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
One is swept away by the sheer enchantment of this film, which is considered a classic of French Nouveau Roman. Much has been written about it, and afterward I was absorbed for hours not just by fascinating professional reviews, but also by myriad User Reviews on IMDb. Last Year has captured the imagination of countless intelligent moviegoers, whose ruminations on the story, the style and the philosophical underpinnings of memory and narrative provide some fascinating reading.
Last Year at Marienbad is set in an opulent, meticulously maintained hotel, where the sophisticated guests pose in elegant tableau, and wander about slowly, enigmatically. We are treated to long pans of the salons, the windows, the doors, the chandeliers, the carpets and the boiserie. Dream-like and repetitive, the narration and dialogue have a cantatory quality, with subtle changes and shifts in content, focus and detail.
There are three central characters: the Stranger, the Woman, and the woman's Husband. The Stranger is attempting to seduce the Woman, to convince her that they have been meeting yearly, and that they must run off together. The Woman resists, refusing (or mysteriously unable) to recall the Stranger or their affair, while the Husband, unsuspecting at first, imposes increasing menace.
The luminous Delphine Seyrig portrays the Woman with soigneé opacity, a suffocating and brittle French elegance, all poses, evening gowns and bewitching romantic anxiety. The Stranger (Giorgio Albertazzi) and the Husband (Sacha Pitoeff), perfectly dressed in tuxedos, present the viewer with emblems of masculine romantic yearning, suspicion and betrayal.
The film is like an eerie bath in the chilly waters of an alienated social milieu, throwing into high relief the frustrating checkmate of passion vs. artifice, desire vs. a thwarting façade of wealth and refinement. It is open to endless interpretation, as revealed by a perusal of its countless commentaries. My own interpretation is that the Woman and the Stranger are ghosts, trapped in endless repetition of their tragic melodrama within the walls of a haunted hotel. Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais.
Edge of Darkness (2010)
I resisted seeing Mel Gibson's 2010 "comeback" — Edge of Darkness — for as long as I could, for several reasons.
First, I found the telephone tapes of Mr. Gibson's virulent attacks on his wife to be so utterly repulsive that I wished no longer to support the actor's work.
Secondly, stories which focus on characters who are malevolently injected with or exposed to chemicals/diseases/bacteria/tiny foreign creatures which infiltrate the body and require a "race against the clock" to find a cure/antidote fill me with a deep, existential dread: M. Chariot cannot stomach plots of this kind.
Perhaps it is because I have seen up-close-and-personal the magnitude of suffering endured by friends with serious, real-world ilnesses. Perhaps I find it outrageously exploitive that such suffering should be tapped for edge-of-your-seat entertainment purposes. Or perhaps it is the ongoing horror of my splayed pinkie disorder.
But, like many weak-willed persons hoping to display a bit of integrity in the face of massive juggernauts of greedy commercialism, I was eventually worn down by the unrelenting, seductive presence of that Eye of commerce — namely, the television — which looms, glaring implacably at every feeble human alternative played out on the stage of my cloistral apartments. Books, conversations, cocktails, musical interludes, all eventually peter out, until I finally look into the Eye and the Eye looks back and says, "I will now screen The Edge of Darkness and you will watch it." Exhausted, I obey.
What I can confirm, for those who may have forgotten, is that Mr. Gibson is an actor of no small skill. His forehead now etched with the kind of lines which indicate frequent paroxysms of spleen, he capably carries the film without any other visible signs of strain.
Mr. Gibson portrays a Boston police officer whose activist daughter, on a visit home, is shot to death on his doorstep. His investigation of the murder uncovers a (zzzzzzzzz) vast conspiracy (zzzzzzzzz) — oh, I'm sorry, I seem to have collapsed into contemporary plot narcolepsy for a few moments — a vast conspiracy which involves her having been poisoned with radiation to keep her from revealing the criminal secrets of some malevolent corporation involved in weapons manufacture. Gibson is eventually also poisoned in the same manner, as his flinch-free, rage-fueled investigation threatens to expose corporate machinations.
Along the way, we are introduced to cops, FBI, elected government officials and, of course, corporate operatives exemplifying the most degenerate sensibilities, and we are gratified to see them thrown down staircases, run over in automobiles, waterboarded with radioactive milk and shot point blank in the face. Many of these actions are performed by Mr. Gibson himself, whose personal predilection for murderous, eye-popping, spittle-flecked revenge lends the entire affair a certain panic-stricken believability.
Perhaps vast, malevolent conspiracies are the only thing horrible enough to give personalities like Gibson's an air of legitimacy. By film's end, his unshrinking ferocity has rendered him not only legitimate but saintly, and he strides, arm-in-arm with his tragic daughter, into the heavenly Light.
With Ray Winstone, Danny Huston and Bojana Novakovic, directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Golden Eye).
Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Directed by John Schlesinger from a novel by Thomas Hardy, with Nicholas Roeg as cinematographer. Julie Christie is Bathsheba Everdine, a strong-willed, flirtatious young woman, who inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three very different gentlemen: a shepherd (Alan Bates), a lonely, wealthy farmer (Peter Finch) and a philandering soldier (Terence Stamp). This is one of M. Chariot's favorite films; I would even say it's a masterpiece. I've seen it at different times in my life, and it evokes different issues and perceptions with each viewing.
Deftly capturing the mood and tone of pastoral England prior to the Industrial Revolution, the film represents the best work of each of these great actors. Far has an archetypal quality: the characters embody classical themes of love, ambivalence, constancy, loneliness, control, arrogance, power and obsession. There is a curious pre-feminist subtext which examines the havoc a singular woman can wreak on the kinds of men who cannot fathom her independence.
Not shying away from Hardy's bleak view of existence, we see how romantic obsession can ruin lives, and how the pursuit of true love is not simple, but fraught with obstacles, danger, self-delusion, tragedy and death. Haunting, poignant and unforgettable.
It's Complicated (2009)
Don't get me wrong. I adore Meryl Streep, and I adore Meryl Streep in practically everything. But ugh. I loathed Meryl Streep's characterization in It's Complicated. Why?
I once read in an interview that Mme Streep hates to be photographed. Isn't that odd? The one person you'd think wouldn't mind a damned bit. But she explained that if she is portraying a character, it's no problem; she simply can't stand being photographed as herself.
Is this a kind of clue as to why she is so difficult to watch in this film? She most definitely is not portraying a Holocaust Survivor or a Mother Superior or a South African Scientist or an Urban High-Fashionista. I wonder if the character she was asked to portray in Complicated was a little too close to herself - and she didn't quite know how to manage it?
Additionally, seeing Meryl Streep play the lead in a romantic comedy really does shed a light on the dynamics of the genre. The most intelligent and accomplished actress of our generation is suddenly rendered so giggly, ditzy, loopy and flustery she seemed like a feeble-minded idiot. I found myself wondering if she was simply channeling Diane Keaton (who has made a career of that particular gambit)! My dear Meryl, such monkey business is simply beneath you, and I beg your pardon for thinking so, but there you have it.
The only scene worthy of our esteemed actress is the last, where she and Steve Martin look into each others' eyes and decide, despite an obstacle course of syrupy, clownish nonsense, to make a go of their fledgling relationship. Suddenly the sniggly tittering is evaporated and one can see two intelligent, vulnerable, middle-aged people reaching out to one another. I only wish the film could have started there. Directed by Nancy Meyers, with Alec Baldwin as a hairy sugarplum marzipan teddy bear.
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