Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Late Style in TRIPLE AGENT

LALANNE: Have you seen his final films?

GODARD: Yes, on DVD. Triple Agent is a very strange film. I'm really into espionage, but I wouldn't have imagined that such a subject might interest him.”

- Les Inrockuptibles, (translated by Craig Keller)

"All my films are spy films in a sense. They all deal with characters spying on others or being suspicious of others."

- Eric Rohmer

One way is to look at the late works of a major artist’s career is to see it as its culmination. The artist, at the peak of his talent, examining as well as refining to its final shape, the craft and philosophy of his métier; re-examining well-honed themes with a wealth of experience, personal as well as historical. The crucial example is perhaps John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, set entirely in sets and interiors (acknowledged by Ford in a letter to Bosley Crowther as an atavism to his silent films); non-realistic casting of aging actors as types and icons more than flesh-and-blood characters and a poetic examination of the transformation from wilderness-to-civilization, and by extension the Western genre itself. Along with this is the temptation of seeing the late work as a fount of serenity and a promise of wisdom at the end of a long life. The other way to see the late work, examined at some length by Edward Said, is to perceive an artist, free from commercial considerations and indifferent to social tastes, confronting the contradictions at the center of his oeuvre without any attempt or promise of resolution.

Before The Lady and the Duke, Rohmer’s period outings were box-office failures. His sole previous non-contemporary films were made back to back after the completion of Six Moral Tales (the first of his film series). Die Marquise von O… and Perceval le Gallois were highly stylized literary adaptations. His final film, Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, completes this cycle. The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent on the other hand, despite its period grounding and the stylization of the former’s use of digital effects, are markedly different in the detailed historical milieu in which the story is set and which Rohmer brings to life in his mise-en-scene.

These films differ too from each other in the approach to history. The Lady and the Duke adopts the journals of Grace Elliot (Lucy Russell) as its spine and remains at all times within her subjectivity, her experiences and purview of things. Triple Agent, though set in a far more recent period of history, has no such detailed documents to offer. The facts of the original case proliferate in enough missing information to befuddle the likes of Borges. Rohmer evokes the implications of the dark, shocking story of Nikolai Skoblin and his wife, by focusing on their marriage. The single complication of this happy and contented marriage is the period in which the story is set and the specific occupation of the husband. The wife’s background and occupation, her Greek origin and profession as a painter, is a major departure from the original story. “A beautiful, sensitive, touching woman, a foreigner borne on the tide of History,” says Rohmer, “I feel very comfortable with this character.”

Aside from two crucial and carefully staged scenes at the beginning and towards the end of the film, there are no scenes of Fyodor Voronin(Serge Renko) outside the viewpoint of his wife Arsinoe(Katerina Didaskalou). With regards to the actual nature of the plot, Rohmer lets us know only as much as Arsinoe learns and knows. Yet Rohmer also situates another viewpoint over that of Arsinoe and that is the actual reportage of the newsreels. Rohmer daringly uses nine excerpts, carefully edited and cut, to structure his film. The newsreels serve the same relation to Triple Agent, as the Grace Elliot’s journal does to the previous film. It tethers the film to actuality. The narrative of the Voronin couple unfolds from May 1936 to September 1937, succeeded with a brief, stark epilogue concluding the action at 1943 in the middle of the Nazi Occupation. Title cards tally the years and months of the action of the story.

Rohmer’s use of these newsreels covers greater ground than mere period dressing. These newsreels are obvious public records created for the public of its own period, serving today as a record of its time. Rohmer, who was 17 when the Skoblin affair occurred, must have known these newsreels as do the characters of his film. A newsreel depicting a bombing of a factory cuts to Russian émigrés discuss theories of conspiracies on the perpetrators of the bombing. A conversation about Picasso’s mural for the World Expo of 1937 cuts to a newsreel showing the highly politicized event. The newsreels evoke the period as the characters lived through it as well as the way the contemporary audience will perceive it at one and the same time. The Nazi and Soviet pavilions reek of kitsch, the deadpan coverage of these monstrosities makes lampoon irrelevant. The audience benefitting with the hindsight of the eventual collapse of these entities can afford a wry smile that faded when Rohmer lingers to a shot of the Nazi flag fluttering against the Eiffel tower. Even more so in the scenes covering the Spanish pavilion. Rohmer preserves from the reportage, a haunting lateral pan of Picasso’s Guernica. The newsreel shows the painting as it appeared then, a new urgent work by the most innovative of all painters, freeing it from the baggage of international artistic treasure it has carried since then.

Rohmer’s double perspective evoking life as the characters live it and history as we know from hindsight, allows him to evoke the special mystery at the heart of the film as well as chip his two bits for historical speculation. Arsinoe, as the sole sincere apolitical character in the film, listens at the beginning in silence as Fyodor delights his embassy with his insight into the rise of the Popular Front and the implications of Stalin’s condoning of the cross-partisan affiliation of communists, socialists, middle-class liberals and Catholics. She grows progressively more curious in each public display of her husband’s dizzying display of his keen political acumen, which despite his essential dubiousness, contains keen insight that we cannot ignore. With his Dostoevskian name, Fyodor Alexandrovich Voronin cannot escape bearing with his intelligence, an arrogant appetite for performance, verbose monologues and pithy summations. When he describes to Arsinoe that he is a man behind the scenes, pulling strings, his wife asks on our behalf, “What strings?I know what you mean but how?”, he replies, ““That…is a trade secret. A state secret, even.” The firm, steely eyes of Voronin, at once the most talkative and enigmatic of spies, betrays no emotion, not even to the woman he loves. What can be perceived is a vain relish in his power for dissembling. The heart of the film is the extent to which Fyodor is capable of using it on his wife and to what extent will she resist it.

Fyodor promises to Arsinoe that he never lies to her and so avoids discussing his line of work at home. His concern for her health leads him to resettle to a rented country house of their wealthy friends. The main story of Triple Agent begins off-screen as do other key events of this film. It occurs in a casual conversation between Arsinoe and Maguy(Cyrielle Carrier), the wife of the patron lending them the house. She informs Arsinoe of rumours that her husband is a double agent on the pay of the Soviets. Arsinoe scoffs at that but she is speechless when informed that her husband was seen at Berlin entering the headquarters of Reinhard Heydrich. She responds defensively that he is in Brussels, the last postcard sent to her was marked there.

Voronin is outwardly a member of the White Russians Veterans Association. The White Army, of little obvious threat to Stalin, seems mostly to work as a cultural center for Tsarist exiles in France. Fyodor’s presence in the Third Reich and its dark implications mark the beginning of the erosion of her private space, which the newsreels depict in gradual escalation until the final erosion of the state of war. Arsinoe, owing to her marriage, experiences the consequences of events and choices made by agents of power through specific actions which she does not see nor comprehend. Fyodor weaves around him a tangle, establishing himself as the most politically astute and intelligent of the doddering relics left of the White Russians, all the while mulling over defecting to the Soviets at the same time maintaining his life and influence in France. Arsinoe’s discovery of his real activities creates a sense of desperation in his acts. Fyodor announces that he wishes to defect to the Soviets, being appalled by the vulgarity of the Nazis, he is shocked at her outbreak of happy tears. Her sense of peace is wavering thin, subjected as she is to the same torture Joan Fontaine is in Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

The moments which create the greatest ambiguity is the sequence of Dobrinsky’s kidnapping. Like every spy moment this one isn’t seen, we see details, we notice pieces that carry curious hints. In a scene where she is present but a conversation she does not hear, Fyodor converses with two gray haired men in Russian. As in the real case of General Miller, these gentlemen pose as Germans. The kidnapping scene is announced in a stark shot of Fyodor against the dressing table. He convinces Arsinoe to fix an appointment at the dressmaker, so that she would wear something different for a cocktail dinner. The most startling moment in the film occurs when Fyodor prevaricates and leaves Arsinoe alone at the shop. Arsinoe sits on a sofa and starts to read, a dressmaker moves past her. The decoupage of the film is arranged in direct cuts with no dissolves and fades which makes Rohmer’s use of the iris-effect startling, beautiful and elegant.

In the space between the iris fade-out and the iris fade-in, Dobrinsky is kidnapped and the Voronins fate is sealed.

Triple Agent which is set in the twentieth century, and a reflection on the twentieth century, ends in a completely desiccated final scene. Set in the midst of the Occupation, instead of the Liberation, Rohmer in his final period provides no sureties to the immense inscrutability of the human motivation at the centre of his story. The least political of the French New Wave auteurs crafts a film where politics are at the centre of every dialogue, movement and action, which seeps into and completely obliterates private life.

In the crucial final conversation between Fyodor(Serge Renko) and Arsinoe(Katerina Didaskalou), the dialogue, the direction and Renko’s performance particularly emphasize the use of the word “grotesque”. He describes the kidnapping of General Dobrinsky (Dimitri Rafalsky) and calls it a “grotesque” kidnapping. “Grotesque” applies in far greater measure to the final fate of Fyodor Voronin, (“a brilliant man”), and his “charming wife”.

“Is she still in prison?” asks the Gestapo officer at the end of the film.

“Non, elle est mort.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Few Movies I Saw At the Mumbai Film Festival...

The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) film festival offers a selection of the most interesting films in the world in the calendar year, along with a retrospective of old classics(this year an auteurist catalogue of key masterpieces of Japanese cinema from the 30s onwards). Given a time span of 7 days, scattered across 4 mutliplexes in different sides of the city, naturally every moviegoer has to pick and choose. Among the movies I was especially regretful to miss are David Fincher’s The Social Network, Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Mikio Naruse’s When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(which I had seen before but not on a 35mm print), the documentary Two in the Wave, Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s BurialThe Strange Case of Angelica.

So what did I finally see? Among others...

Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki)

The first screening I attended was on the 22nd October. It was at PVR multiplex at Juhu (next to a single screen theatre Chandan which is the official hosting ground of the entire event). Branded to Kill was playing at Screen 5. Suzuki’s boundless invention in each frame was accepted with great cheer by the audience. No. 3’s(Jo Shishido’s) famous kill of an optometrist via a washbasin sinkhole (recreated in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog) brought out an impressed silence and an appreciative applause.

Suzuki entered the production of Branded to Kill at the last moment, when the producers of Nikkatsu Studios deemed the script to be “inappropriate” despite setting a release date for the film. Given a low budget and creative freedom, Suzuki boldly ventured to create a film like nothing else. Goro Hanada is the number 3. hitman in the criminal underworld. Between hits, he’s like any man with a job. He’s married and so spends much time and hard-earned money satisfying his wife's shopping and sexual needs, he hangs out with his buddies and even finds a protégé(who gets killed early on). Relating the rest of the plot is a pointless exercise. What matters is the shift in tones, the juxtapositions of images and conceits. Suzuki layers competing ideas side-by-side, in the same shot, the same movement.

The serial-killer as existential hero achieved its apotheosis in three films made in the year 1967. Point Blank, Le Samourai and Branded to Kill. Of the three Branded to Kill is free of the humourless cold formalism of the first two and in its refusal to accord anything close to the tragic bearing Lee Marvin and Alain Delon achieve in their films, the most radical of the three.

The Story of the Late Chysanthemums(Kenji Mizoguchi)

Zangiku monogatari is for some people(such as myself) the toughest to admire of Mizoguchi’s masterpieces. One reason is the fact that the surviving prints of this film (released in 1939) has never been in the greatest of conditions. This adversity does not pose any obstacle in admiring the splendor of the film’s images; its carefully constructed staging of actions in extended moving takes, and especially the magnificently use of off-screen space to considerable dramatic effect.

The condition of the print doesn’t help us, however, in adjusting to the film’s unique rhythm and slow pace. On the big-screen with a relatively good print, supplied by The Japan Foundation, Mizoguchi’s film casts its spell. Zangiku monogatari is a bildungsroman of a pampered son of an acting dynasty. It charts his journeys, the hardships he passes through to finally attain the skill and accord of a great artist.

What’s visible and powerful in this film(one of Mizoguchi’s two or three best) is the emotions which, as in the films of Max Ophuls, suffuses even the slightest of calibrations of the camera. The suffocating world of privilege into which Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) is born into is rife with mendacity. Contempt is palpable in every gesture of abeyance directed, by his family and relatives, towards encouraging Kikunosuke’s acting hopes. The only person who is honest to Kikunosuke is Otoku(Kakuko Mori), a nanny of his cousin. They fall in love and leave together to pursue their destiny. For Kikunosukue, the pursuit is driven by romantic love and a need to define his identity. The painful irony is that the ultimate destiny of Kikunosuke(named after his ancestors) lies within his family, the system he sought to escape from, which Otoku comes to terms with and accepts long before he does. The devastating final moments of this film lingers for hours and days after leaving the theatre.

Bright Star (Jane Campion)

Mizoguchi's film is a story of love thwarted on account of a woman suffering out of her efforts to aid and nourish
her artist-lover. The enemy in that film is mostly society and partly time. The enemy in Campion’s film is time, the brief years the couple knew each other. These years also mark Keats’ greatest period as a poet, achieving a plateau in his short life that most writers never reach despite greater age and experience. Maurice Pialat insisted that Van Gogh, his story of a doomed artist aimed to prove that the painter’s work was ultimately driven by a vision of beauty in his life, out of a love of life, which was even conveyed in his ultimate suicide.

John Keats, in Jane Campion’s film, lives a life haunted by death. The death of his brother Tom, the debts and deprivations he lives in, the neglect of his talent by the literary public. “I have been half in love with easeful Death,” he wrote in his Ode to a Nightingale(recited twice, as an excerpt in the film and then in its entirety over the credits). The looming presence of death does not make Keats morbid, nor is it a portent of his poetic endeavor, it is very much a real thing as is the love he shares for Fanny Brawne. As seen through Fanny Brawne’s perspective, John Keats comes off as very down to earth, very much the “least poetical man” self-described by Keats as the bearings of a real poet. The poetry is entirely in his words, it comes out of his brief existence.

As always in Jane Campion’s films the sensuality of the images, and the actor’s performances carry the real weight of the film, it’s one of her strongest recent efforts and very much a must-see on the big-screen.

Akitsu Springs (Kiju Yoshida)

Kiju Yoshida (credited as Yoshishige Yoshida in this film) was one of the banner film-makers of the self-styled New Wave promoted by Shochiku studios in the early 60s. David Desser notes in his book on 60s Japanese cinema (titled Eros + Massacre, after a Yoshida film of the same name) that the attempts by Shochiku to create an alternative kind of film-making within the system, rather than the film-makers themselves establishing alternatives outside the system led to inevitable tensions in the early careers of Oshima and Yoshida. Eventually both of them as well as others, made films under the Art Theatre Guild. Of Yoshida's Shochiku films, Akitsu Springs is the most well-known and admired.

Shot in colour and CinemaScope(the early scene on the train is especially powerful on the big screen), Akitsu Springs, has an ambivalent relation to the 50s melodramas of Ozu and Naruse, in particular the latter's Floating Clouds. Its narrative is charted against social, economic and film history. Yoshida looks at the characters critically, their feelings towards each other are presented with a retrospective awareness of the failure of a generation. Their feelings, at the beginning of their relationship is bright and passionate, yet as they move away from each other and as time passes, their passion becomes a memory of time passed.

The titular Akitsu Springs is the central location where the lovers encounter each other for more than ten years. The location is shown in different seasons, evoking pastoral idyll in the early years of Shinko(Mariko Okada who also produced the film and designed the terrific costumes) and Shusaku's(Hiroyuki Nagato) relationship and cold winter in its elegiac moments. The use of landscape and colour at times reflects the strife in the relationship but at other moments it serves as a counterpoint to their individual problems. The final moments of the film, a remarkably edited and timed denouement, takes place in bright sunlight, completely at odds with the tragedy of the scene.

Immortal Love (Keisuke Kinoshita)

With all due respect to partisans of Seijun Suzuki, the strangest and weirdest of the films on offer at the film festival is this shocking film by Keisuke Kinoshita, starring Hideko Takamine and Tatsuya Nakadai. I haven’t seen many of Kinoshita’s films, but his reputation as a maker of humanist message movies means that Immortal Love isn’t as well known as it should be. This is a film that’s unmerciful towards its characters and the audience. The story is about an anti-couple. She(Hideko Takamine) loved another who fought in the Manchurian conflict of the early 30s, a fellow farmer’s class citizen, while He(NakadaI), the son of a landowner came from the conflict crippled and in love with Her. On discovering her affections for someone else, someone beneath his class, he rapes her. She tries to commit suicide but is rescued by her brother, is married to her rapist and gives birth to their son from the attack. This plot, enough for a three hour movie, forms the prologue of a 103mins film. The film then goes on and shows what kind of marriage these two have, how they raise their children in a house of bitterness and disgust. The film divides itself into chapters and at the end of the chapters, a Brecht/Weill-esque ballad intones repeatedly Takamine’s anger and sense of injustice which she carries all her life.

The pace of this film is fast but the speed carries exhaustion. The tone of this film is deadpan but there aren’t any laughs at all. The film has one of the most jarring musical scores in film history, its Spanish guitar and percussion making this melodrama that spans nearly thirty years feel like science-fiction, not unlike Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

Certified Copy played to a nearly full audience at the Chandan theatre, an old-fashioned movie auditorium. The old movie-screens permit the kind of audience participation celebrated around The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a nearly every day basis around commercial Hindi films. The relatively sophisticated audience still found time to clap and cheer Juliette Binoche’s name when it appeared on the credits and added a whistle on seeing “Un film par Abbas Kiarostami”.

Kiarostami had once stated that he would never leave Iran to make a film and he has done just that for Certified Copy. It’s a kind of film that’s easy to call serene and leisurely if it wasn’t so enigmatic. Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful comic performance as a married housewife and mother who juggles a smart-nosed son(similar to one of the early passengers in Ten), while finding time to pursue a visible attraction to a writer James Miller(Wiliam Shimell) who is in Arrezo, Italy(where she, her name is Elle, has lived for five years) for a book tour, his book of course has the same title as the film. The subject of the book-within-the-movie is for once worthy enough to pursue and publish in real life. As non-Italians, the landscape of Arezzo very rarely veers away from being a tourist space. The occasions it does, a hilarious conversation with a coffee-shop owner and Binoche in Italian, are few in this film. The couple are strangers in this film(Strangers is one of the many titles of one specific film by Roberto Rossellini, a key Kiarostami influence) and they form a connection but the overall experience is ambivalent as is the end of the film.