Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Duchess of Langeais

Jaques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais (titled more sharply in its original French as Don’t Touch the Axe, a reference to the beheading of Charles I) presents a spellbinding adaptation of Honore de Balzac’s short novel of the same title worthy of both our momentary rubbernecking and long-lasting artistic contemplation. The movie begins in medias res (or nearly at the end of the story actually) in 1823 on a Mediterranean island home to an order of Carmelite nuns where the film’s protagonist, Napoleonic war hero General Armand de Montriveau, has finally tracked down, after five years of fruitless search, the object of his unconsummated and tormented affection. Once known to friends as Antoinette in Paris, the Duchess is now known only as Sister Theresa on the island. Armand, through the help of an associate, uses his social status as a symbol of legendary bravery to gain entry into the convent, a place forbidden to any man not the confessor of the Sisters. The gesture represents entirely his character as a tragic figure in the Athenian sense. It’s his social status and stubborn will, after all, that lead him to Antoinette, and likewise those twin forces that ultimately forbid him from her--both during their affair, and here again, at the end of the story (and the beginning of the film).

What follows this deftly arranged, if ill-fated, meeting between the pair retells their story from the start. Their affair, if you can call it that, presents a fascinating study of inner contradictions and outer contrast. Consider, for instance, an early scene between the two when Armand asks to kiss Antoinette’s scarf. “I regard you enough to give you my hand,” she tells him. “Will you always give it to me?” he responds. “Yes, but we will leave it at that,” she adds, sliding a glove on slowly over her long fingers and wrist. Part Beauty and the Beast, part Fatal Attraction, Antoinette and Armand seem most at home testing the confines of their rigid social restrictions, as if inflating a balloon with as much air as possible without wanting the balloon to burst. As Armand, who meets Antoinette by chance at a ball one evening, tells her of his heroic past over a series of private meetings, his passion grows. But the more he offers her himself, the less outwardly interested she becomes. In fact, his affections toward her only repel, until she draws near again under the threat and intimidation of the General. Armand soon tires of this game. A soldier by trade, he takes matters into his own hands, blindfolding and abducting Antoinette one evening as she leaves yet another ball by carriage. His brute strength and desperation, though, only show Antoinette his elusive wit and seductive capabilities, and not his violent desperation, which attracts her to him once and for all, and eventually turns the tables between the two.

As a director, Rivette not only captures the brilliant performances of Guillaume Depardieu and Jeanne Balibar, but he also stylizes the movie into a perfect blend of colorful art and rash execution. (Balibar, with her round cheekbones, firm jaw line, and cream-colored skin, is nothing short of an otherworldly beauty, and an absolute showstopper.) Parts of the film are minimalistic: no music, save a ballad Antoinette plays on the piano and sings for Armand one evening ("River Tage"), accompanies the film. Instead, it’s the patient sound of background noise that punctuates the pair’s incessant series of flirtation and rebuke: the creak of wooden floors beneath the feet of 19th century aristocratic society, the pop and snap of wood in the fireplace, the incessant ticking of the clock, and, most notably, the pouncing sound of Armand limping to a stumble with every desperate step he takes. Yet, parts of the film are quite over-the-top in a way that’s both delicious and consuming, too. Borrowing perhaps from silent film, Rivette allows intertitles of text to splice the story, sometimes right in the middle of critical dialogue. Instead of contextualizing the action, though, the intertitles create perceptible voids in the narrative, deleting objectivity and rendering the heartbreaking into the wryly comic, and visa versa.

Of course, other noteworthy elements of the story remain at large: Where is the Duke of Langeais, and what has he done to the Duchess to make her even entertain the dangerous notion of an affair in a society so choked by etiquette? The questions are both rhetorical and inappropriate. Delight, in fact, is the only response to Rivette’s breathtaking film. Well, that and revelry.

Friday, December 18, 2009

La Ventana (The Window)

In The Window, Argentine filmmaker Carlos Sorin has recast the subtle existential genius of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries as a Patagonian masterpiece of minimalistic and exacting art. (For example, no musical score accompanies the film.) Sorin admits as much in the liner notes to the DVD when he says he tried to recreate the spirit of Bergman's Victor Sjostrom in telling the story of his own Antonio Romero: "Somehow the spirit of Wild Strawberries has remained latent in me for over forty years." The plot presents the archetypal story of the prodigal son, with a slight twist. Antonio's son, a now world famous pianist who lives in Spain, flys home to visit his father, but Antonio, having suffered a recent heart attack or stroke, is hardly the picture of perfect health. Even though it remains unstated, the pending visit between father and son, who have quarreled over the years and suffered through long bouts of silence toward one another, feels final, and an undercurrent of anxiety runs through each character.

The movie begins and ends in a Borgesian reverie. (In fact, Sorin has fun with this. Antonio, an author himself, shows his doctor a book signed by Borges and dedicated to Antonio.) Much of what comes in between is procedural, though not in the way that the Cohen Brothers' adaptation of No Country for Old Men is procedural. Sorin, in the absence of plot, meditates on the quotidian, in particular, how Antonio's caretakers prepare for the day's occasion: A worker has been driven to Antonio's house to tune the piano, an old bottle of champagne dusted off, readied for a toast. Don Antonio's breakfast is prepared, his IV changed. At times, the conversation between Antonio and his caretakers explores, at its greatest depth, what damage an overnight storm has done to his vegetable gardens. Antonio, understandably, is a proud and stubborn man. He wants to dress nicely for his son's arrival. He wants to go outside and see for himself what the storm has done. And Anthony Larreta plays him perfectly, counterbalancing Antonio's vibrant octogenarian will with its own necessary confusion and misunderstanding. It is a deeply human portrait of a man who's near death, and in his eighties. Thus, it's no coincidence that Antonio's large house, San Juan, looks nearly flesh-colored in the long hours of twilight. But it's also a comic portrait, and one with great drama when Antonio walks out of his house, IV in his hand and still connected to him, to examine the landscape of his life one more time.

Much of the film remains unexplained: What are the circumstances of Don Antonio's health? Over what, exactly, and for how long have he and his son disagreed? Why? Sorin refuses, not only to answer these questions, but even to pose them. Some viewers might argue that, in doing so, the script has created an unnecessary void. (At eighty-five minutes in length, Sorin easily could have done things differently.) To criticize the film, though, for such an approach precludes missing the point of the movie to begin with. Neither Don Antonio himself nor his son, or even his caretakers, need or want answers. They simply long for the recognition and reassurance of each other's presence for a final time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Bride Minaret

As Wayne Miller writes, Heather Derr-Smith's second full-length collection, The Bride Minaret, "pays close attention to those displaced and/or disconnected from the society around them." A couple of poems center on orphans or refugees. Still others survey the modern Middle Eastern landscape from an outsider's perspective. But more than disconnection, The Bride Minaret is also a book of volatile juxtapositions, where the domestic sphere offers little escape from the surrounding political terrors of our time. "Gift," one of the finest poems in the book, exemplifies Derr-Smith's precise pacing and unparalleled agility. When the speaker's son pushes a cereal bowl onto the floor from his high chair, breaking the dish into pieces, the purposeful yet surprisingly adolescent gesture sends the speaker back to another mystifying moment a decade ago:

It was a gift I bought in Paris
After the Charlie Chaplin festival

And the stranger I kissed by an unnamed canal.
The stranger, too, was unnamed, and we didn't speak.

I didn't know then, nor do I understand now
Why I followed him and why I opened my mouth,

for the pleasure of it.

Later, in "Bit," the speaker reflects of her son, "One day this one I love could kill me, if he wanted." Throughout the book, the voice of Derr-Smith's poetry showcases the capacity to ignite, saying almost anything at anytime, however desperate, satirical, honest, or irreverent. In "Blow," when the political and domestic spheres collide, the speaker reflects that "My son would love war," and "I feel as if I've come home. Genocide always has that effect on me." Or later:

The truth is, poets are liars.
And prayer? Get down on your knees and suck.

In "The Bell," a mother watches children spill out of school when the day is over, which somehow leads to this wonderful stanza:

When my mother dies, I'll change into a man
Living in women's clothes. I have a collection of Nanette Lepore dresses.
I'll go breastless.
She always said there such a wide gulf separating this world from that.
She won't see me. I'll run like a man running like a woman.

Themes change, of course, as we encounter settings like Cairo, Paris, and the West Bank. But, at their core, the poems themselves do not. The work of Derr-Smith is fearless and without peer. At times stark, endearing, wry, or sexy, The Bride Minaret is a must read. And once you're done, you've got to read it again. After all, when the speaker of "Anatomy" says, "I'll do / Everything, everything // Just to touch you," you won't know whether to be frightened or flattered. Or both.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Artistically speaking, Steven Soderbergh is nothing less than an enigma. Twenty years ago he made his directorial debut with 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape. His efforts made him an indie film hero, and, ironically, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Some of his best work has also gone largely unnoticed since. Take 1999's The Limey, for example, a highly-stylized crime thriller starring Terence Stamp, or, more recently, the two-part biopic Che, in which Benecio del Toro plays the oft-posterized Marxist Revolutionary with a subtle sense of terror and acute pathos.

However, Soderbergh's also not one to shy away from the mindlessly mainstream. He directed Ocean's 11, and later, Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13. Nearly a decade ago, a year before he put forth the remake of Ocean's 11 and the first of the Ocean's franchise, he was nominated not once, but twice, in the same category for an Oscar as Best Director of both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning for the latter. Furthermore, some of Soderbergh's most enigmatic zest feels like misplaced and unnecessary affectation: Reading through the credits of his films, you'd never realize that he often serves as his own cinematographer and film editor under the psuedonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Berand respectively.

Make no mistake, though. When it comes to contemporary film, Soderbergh is often dubbed a so-called "genius." And, twenty years after his debut, he's finally pieced together a follow-up to Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Sort of, if not directly anyway. 2009's The Girlfriend Experience packages itself as the "mainstream debut" of adult film actress Sasha Grey. Forget for a moment that the phrase "mainstream debut" is somewhat of an oxymoron in this case, that a "debut" almost always precludes a parade of future performances, performances Grey might never get a chance at precisely because she's a porn star. Because, in fact, Grey is the true revelation of the film. The plot tells the story of Chelsea, a 2000$ a night escort whose clientele is Manhattan's upper class. Chelsea offers her clients more than sex; she provides them a listening ear and a beautiful shoulder to cry on. In short, she provides The Girlfriend Experience. But, as the economic crisis of 2008 unfolds, Chelsea too begins the feel the downswing of the market. So, too, does her boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer who seems mostly benign toward her profession, so caught-up is he on whether or not his own clients will be able to afford to have him train them anymore. Survival requires that their collective tension is thus diverted from each other. Soon, personal crisis follows, and it's Chelsea's performance as a girlfriend that's called into question by Chris.

The cinematography, artistically done by Soderbergh himself, feels like high-class surveillance footage. Most of the angles from scene-to-scene are fixed. Often, set pieces, like couches or counter tops or potted plants, block our views of characters' faces as the dialogue unfolds. The film creates a strikingly vague voyeurism. The plot itself is told out of sequence, and it takes some time for the viewer to piece things together in the first half an hour of the movie. But, as the film nears it's denoument, we're left to question how much objectivity and awareness Chelsea still possesses when it comes to the illusions over which she, at first, seemed in complete control, illusions which have only left things shattered, personally and professionally. As an actress, Grey is smartly understated. But she's certainly genuine, and it's her quiet performance (not Soderbergh's)--in particular her willingness to show and suppress emotion at the same time--that steals the show. One is left to wonder, then: How much of the film is an illusion after all? Is Grey really acting, or playing a character she's embodied for years, albeit under altogether different lighting? Is there any way we, as viewers, or Grey even, can begin to answer these questions?

Map of the Folded World

Anyone willing to use the awkward verbal acrobatics of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ("There are known knowns, etc.....") as the epigraph for their book ought to be commended for both their bravery and originality. Map of the Folded World, John Gallaher's third full-length collection, and first published by The University of Akron Press, does just that; but it deserves so much more than just our kudos or commendations. It deserves our unswerving attention. Because in Gallaher's hands, a worker's daily commute becomes a flowing landscape "[w]here one can lament / the trailing of the idea, amid fewer thoughts / and comfortable scenery." And in "The Danger in Plans," childlike superstition gets confronted with unforgiving, if sympathetic, sarcasm and wit:

If you are just funny enough,
if you can just run fast enough,
no one will ever die.

Do you remember that?
And are you better now?

The tone of these poems is always warm, the diction simple, but the work still follows a logic all its own, one we've never quite heard before in the long history of the written word, even if it's an instantly recognizable path we're walking on some Sunday afternoon wearing our favorite hat and comfortable slippers. Take the opening of "Minneapolis Is a Fine City":

Or maybe you love me and then you don't,
or never did, or I you
and I quietly lose your name
among the bridges and news.

Or, better yet, consider this extended metaphor from "Caution to the Wind":

It's somewhere there in your big book
of spy rules, that maybe you'll never know who did
and who didn't, and you'll have to deal with not knowing
waiting out in the car with the radio on....

Has anyone ever articulated better the silent and paralyzing grief of uncertainty? The astonishing thing about this book is that Gallaher does this at every turn of the page, poem after poem. Most often, his work recreates the fluidity of thought in our everyday inner monologues. You get the feeling so many of these poems are collages of overheard dialogue compiled in an itty bitty notebook stashed away in a pocket. A series of scribbles penciled in handwriting only Gallaher could claim to read. But his poems shed light, too, on the unique logic of intuition. And, because of this, his poems are difficult to classify, and all the better for it. It's rare to run across essential reading anymore. When it comes to poetry, however, Map of the Folded World is nothing short of essential. Each of his first three books has bettered the one before. And we're left to wonder just not just where Gallaher can go from here, but, really, where he can't go.