Archive for November, 2013

What is it that happens to Adele and Emma? Well, who are they to begin with?

Adele enjoys eating, comes from a static and work-oriented family, is not in command of her sexual desires nor really aware their importance to her. She is certainly aware of her own lapses, intellectual shortcomings and inarticulate social skills.  She can barely say “Merci.” Her dreams are mundane: to become what she knows – a teacher. If she were American, she would be suburban.

She is lovely, awash in physicality, slyly shy, open.

Emma is the temperamental artist, comfortable with ideas and artistic society though she has her issues with the art establishment.  Her pursuit of her art leads her away from her voluptuous ardor of Adele to the sophisticated but cool relationship with Lise. Somehow this paves the way for her success. Her parents – step-father and mother – are, too, sophisticated art lovers and epicureans.  The two families could hardly be more different – one lives to eat, the other eats that they may talk about it.

Much of the criticism focuses on sex and length.  Most of the criticism of “the sex scene” centers on the lesbian duo, Emma and Adele. The film’s length 179 minutes is unusual enough to attract attention.

About length: please, we can all tell time. Only Remembrance of Things Past in the book world is more criticized for length. The question is not what to do with a restive viewer, but what about this film would make a viewer restive. Little, very little. This story thrives on its length. It takes three hours not to tell the story but to bring the viewer into, along, and through the story. It is an emotional journey that must not be rushed. It is the story of a young love turning slowly older with the prospect of lasting, as Emma says, “my whole life.”  Anyone who has loved – it goes without saying that he or she has also lost – knows that is true. Love may not be as long as suffering.

About sex. The scene all will refer to – they say it is eight minutes long –is extended, hot, and uncovered. It is enough to remind anyone of the best sex they have enjoyed or to wish that they had enjoyed such. No matter that critics of the film like to quote Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel (Le bleu est une couleur chaude) on which the film is based, as calling the scene “pornographique,” and also like to stir the pot by asking the actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lèa Seydoux how it was filming the scene which, they say, occupied many uncomfortable hours over ten days. No. It is not pornographic and it is not about how the filming felt, at least not for the story. It is about love and bodily delight.

If the scene were alone in the movie, it would be open to those criticisms. But the scene is one of many most of which are about love: the dream-sequences and masturbation scene (self and other love), the scene itself (I consider the several love making scenes between the two women as one), the park bench scene, the hetrosexual Thomas-scene, and the restaurant scene. Only the last two are not about love. The Thomas-scene is about exploration and, perhaps, exploitation. In the restaurant scene Adèle more tries to seduce Emma than to express her love.  That scene is about sex and might be considered pornographic though it is not skin-filled.

In the early dream-sequence, Adèle sees Emma close up. The “love at first sight” her teacher refers to during their in-class reading is now embodied in Adèle’s attraction to the blue-haired girl she saw on the street.  In a sense it is herself, her own body, she is in love with that allows the attraction to spark into something more substantial. Her sensual radar are out and working. This is where the direction and story are so well done: How to express the physical in the emotional and the other way round?  Abdel Kechiche’s direction builds from the “eating metaphor” to the sexual acts as metaphor for love. Adèle eats like she loves like she cries. It is all oral, physical, and emotional, very little intellectual. She cannot discern. She cannot express in language. She can only act.  And the blunt act can never be enough in human society. Therein lies the tragedy. Adèle cannot fulfil Emma’s intellectual needs, and those needs are as palpable as the need for food, the need for affection, the need for sex. So? Adèle has to go.

In her bumbling, thoughtless way, Adèle affords Emma the easy way out. Infidelity. Adèle is not sure who was unfaithful first – Emma and Lise are repeatedly shown in enamored conversation, not all intellectual by the look on Emma’s face – and neither should the audience be so sure either. Emma is quick to finish it. And the rest is ennui and suffering.

Where do they go from there – there being the art opening where Emma portrays “suave” itself. She has clearly “arrived.” Adèle, too looks good, dressed in the blue of the title, the blue Emma has now forsaken in her success, but she is not, of course, good. The world of the intellect is still a foreign land. She is rooted in the physical. That is where she will remain. But wait . . .

That failed actor appears – Sir Galahad? Adèle has turned the corner. Is he going for his car? Will he find her? Well, if he does, she may sell out as has Emma to something less fulfilling but more livable than what she’s had. Being a French film that is where it stays. There will not be a sequel.



Salvador and F. Scott

Posted: November 26, 2013 by Jollymore in On Films
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Let me get my impressions and thoughts down while the images are fresh in my mind. The latest screen version of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby excited my imagination and feelings in ways that I don’t clearly understand but was able to make the viewing of the story at once a sparkling review of the story I know well and was able to make it a story I came to as if for the very first time.

Who was to know that The Great Gatsby was a surreal work of art? Certainly, Fitzgerald lived amongst surrealists, had a life that perhaps could be called surreal in many ways and wrote in Gatsby sections that now seeing this movie I can look back on and call surreal though they have to my recollection only been before called symbolic.  The sign featuring the eyes of Eckleberg certainly is the foremost of these. But the very valley of ashes, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the glitter of the parties at Gatsby’s, perhaps the odd meeting with Wolfsheim in New York, and a scene I have always admired and loved the shearing of the wheel in the drunken, horn-honking fest after one of Gatsby’s parties. Drunkenness may very well be the mother of surrealism.  Had I thought any of this prior to the release of this film, the Literature-Police would be pursuing a warrant for my arrest.  But now? I say with certainty, and will certainly offend lovers of the book, that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a surreal book.  I like, have always admired and been fascinated by, surrealism. But that is not all.

I went to see Carrie Mulligan.  Her performance was at once more compelling, less a veneer, and sympathetically cleaner than Mia Farrow’s Daisy. Though presented, as all the characters were at some time in the film, in something like an odd cameo performance, Mulligan’s Daisy reached me on an emotional level. Perhaps the film goes too far building sympathy for Daisy – Tom Buchannan also comes out a more decent buffoon and bigot than in the Redford movie, or than in the book. Maybe since that earlier film, what 30 years ago, we have all worn a bit, become more of what we feared and perhaps hated, and so can forgive people like Tom and Daisy even when they go about smashing things up and retreating into their money. Aren’t they like reckless bankers uncowed by their recession inducing activities that smash lives of millions. Don’t we understand and forgive them? Aren’t we rooting the stock market upwards? Despite the character herself, Mulligan plays a sympathetic Daisy.  She is less a siren, than enraptured in her siren’s song of love.

Tobey McGwire brought me in as well. I was not disappointed. Even Luhrmann’s confusion of Caraway with Fitzgerald (though there is undoubtedly some truth to it) and with Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame cannot depose McGwire as credible and wonderful to watch. The peak is reached early: his honest, friendly assurance to Gatsby that he will do him the favor of inviting Cousin Daisy to tea is both a high point of film acting and confirmation of correct, wise casting. There are many other times when McGwire’s Caraway is wonderful for embarrassment, gullibility and sophomorism, as well as moral rectitude, but that friendly assurance to his neighbor – a simple, smiling gesture after Gatsby’s clumsy machinations to position his request –  is the best. He convinced Gatsby and the audience, too. I suppose the therapy sequences dramatize Carraway’s suffering more than do his scruffy, unshaven looks at various points of the narrative, a definite mistake, but I have to say it isn’t true to the book though it – again – may be true of our society in what has become since the publishing of the book a truly empty, draining and debauching chase for the “American Dream” which Gatsby has always been said to represent. Luhrmann may have the outsider’s eye to see more clearly what we have become since Fitzgerald wrote the story.

Another word or two about outsiders. The Australian crowd in this film may be responsible for the feeling of newness I experienced even after “teaching” the book several years running. The new but not unknown faces of Egerton’s and Clarke’s Tom and Wilson, respectively, did make the vision fresh. Tom was more human, not more humane. Wilson turned into a more pitiable and less an idiotic dupe through Clarke’s compelling portrayal of suffering. Clarke reveals Wilson’s dementia but also his humanity. By head count of the top five billed actors 2 Americans, 2 Australians, 1 Brit, foreigners win; add the director and site of shooting, Australia as I understand, and you wonder if the Americans are simply window dressing for the Hollywood-followers. Well, that cannot be true.

This time Gatsby is played by an actor capable of internal acting and played on by a director capable of squeezing more from the background story and script than is written on the page. All the irritating discomfort of Redford’s performance and the unsettling disparity of Fitzgerald’s character himself present themselves in this film. But to no avail. The interior strength of DiCaprio’s Gatsby is show through restraint, by what is just barely there, more than through emotive disclosure. Redford stayed so, well, Redford that you couldn’t get farther away from the character if you tried. At least by comparison.

In DiCaprio’s Gatsby, tension is the man, the character, the force of the dream. It is hard to believe that in such an extravagant movie, though, that understatement carries the day. It is clearest in the post-accident scene outside Daisy’s house when Nick discovers it was Daisy, not Gatsby driving the car. It is not what is said, at first, but left unsaid – and the way the unsaid is portrayed by DiCaprio – that tells the story. Even at his fiercest, Gatsby attacking Tom at Plaza Hotel, DiCaprio convinces us there is more underneath than is shown on the surface. By what was behind, underneath his grimace, I was convinced he could kill a man.

To tell the story of The Great Gatsby the director and actors had to go beyond the story itself. It is not the adding of “modern music” or camera angle or Aussie-speech so much that carries the day, but the practice of going deeper than the story to the human struggle Fitzgerald wanted to represent that allows us to see what he hoped for us to see, what Nick Carraway could see most of the time, that which is beyond the glitter, that which we can have even when it is past.


Bluegrass in Brussels?

Posted: November 26, 2013 by Jollymore in On Films

The Broken Circle Breakdown Band was the reason we went to the film of the same name. Howard is a Bluegrass fan, and the reviews were good. However, if you are going only for the music, you would be better off listening to Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley recordings.

No, the music is good. No, again. The music is wonderful, but it comes at a cost, an emotional cost. That is why this film could not be made in America or by Americans even though the music is obviously American.  Here is the way I see it:

I told Howard not to expect much in the way of Bluegrass.  After all, Europeans though their technical skill in other American styles, Blues and in Jazz, had never impressed me as, let us say, “authentic,” they get the notes right – and whew, can they play them fast – but the feeling of Blues and Jazz seems lost somewhere along with the translation.  So, don’t expect to hear the magic of Bluegrass. Was I right, Howard?

Yes, I was. The speed of the music and its emotional timbre were all anti-American, non-Bluegrass interpretation. But I was wrong. It was better than Bluegrass for just the same reasons. The precision and speed may have been missing, but love, joy and, plenty of sorrow are expressed in a way Monroe or Stanley would or, perhaps, could lay them out there. The BCB Band was tight – they wore white and pressed together, it seemed, around a single microphone at times. But they performed a wild and comic The Lion Sleeps Tonight as a coming home present and a death bed dirge, Where the Soul of a Man Never Dies, more lonesome than the prairie. Both were far from the stiff bandstand personae of the “normal” Bluegrass musicians. Likewise the Wayfaring Stranger and If I Needed You, sung by the lead actors, carried those feelings we have never heard so truly conveyed in the lickety-split rush of a tight American Bluegrass band.  Maybe transplanting Bluegrass and reinterpreting it brings new life to the music. Certainly, Veerle Baetens brought what was missing not just to the BCB Band but to Bluegrass itself.

The film? It could not have been made here. The story is famously told in a mixed fashion, flash backs and flash forwards. You know what “happens” early on. Then, like the characters themselves, including the ensemble too, you suffer through the rest of the film.  It is not a tear jerker – that would be the American, Spielberg, way – it is a “sufferer.” The story becomes not the sad, wasting death of a child, it is what happens afterward. The question comes to mind immediately: “How can one suffer the death of a child?” I’ll let the film answer that question, not because I am not a spoiler but because the movie provides a much fuller answer than I can.

Film: The Broken Circle Breakdown. Director: Felix Van Groeningen  Leads: Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens

I will go from memory here, memory of the Picaresque: a story told, more or less, while traveling. Tom Jones is one. As the hero, and perhaps heroine, travel along, they meet folk who tell them their life stories. What is learned from these folk by the hero might be less important than the entertainment they provide, but the stories are usually linked thematically at least.

If one accepts my loose definition, she might begin to think of Sigrid Nunez as a picaresque novelist. What is different here, though, is that a central narrator – in the two books I have read, The Last of Her Kind and A Feather on the Breath of God – relates the stories to her reader. Usually, they do not speak much for themselves except through the narrator’s retelling. The sources are varied and believable:

Solange’s story is told mostly from her sister’s perspective: her longings for her sister, her worries, her suppositions (many of them true), the stories (of Solange’s travels, loves, and delusions), and what the reader “overhears” Solange saying to her sister. Occassionally, we get to directly see Solange in action, during the acid trip for instance.

Turner’s story is notable in that we learn much from daughter Ann, who is certainly not an objective source, then later from his own words/actions related by the narrator, and words shared with Edie, his sister-in-law (some of which were memorized by the waiter – see “Indulgence” or the post, “Marries”). This last piece leads to what is less of a criticism than a characterization. It starts with a question: How can that conversation between Turner and Edie be known to the reader? Easy. Magic.

The magic comes through Nunez’s picaresque point of view. Most the The Last of Her Kind is told from the first person, in Georgette George’s voice. Within this narrative Georgette speculates, for instance about what Solange is up to, whether or not she went to Woodstock, then later confirms what she has wondered as fact. Sometime she varies the speculation to fit later revealed facts. It is a wonderful way to weave what she cannot see or know with what she can. Nunez keeps narrative control in that way.

But what about that which she cannot know? Like the luncheon of Edie and Turner?

She prepares us for this revelation by switching to third person: “Trial and error has shown that I cannot accomplish this difficult thing – the trick is to be cold about the hottest thing there is: love – unless ‘I’ becomes ‘she.’ “ And with that she ends Part Four and begins to relate the love between Georgette and Turner. Now in the third person the narrative can become omniscient enough to tell us what happened between Edie and Turner (and to have the fun of the waiter noting parts of the conversation). Nunez returns briefly to first person in Part Six, but her foray into third person prepares us for another story, Orphan Annie and the Hand of God.

It is possible to form objections about some of this, but it is hard not to accept it and like it too.  Objection: the lapse into third person means Georgette is going to reveal something, but it isn’t going to be as intimate as we would like.  In some ways, Georgette’s readers are treated like her children, “I lie about the symptoms . . . I keep the pills out of sight.” The reader, even within the first person narrative, does not experience that which Georgette does, but is told about it much in the same way we are told about Ann, about Turner, about Solange. Keep us at a distance, like a stranger walking down Fifth Avenue. It feels New Yorky.

How will Nunez tell us what we want to know – or do not want to know – about Ann after she disappears behind the walls of Marysville State Prison? Since George is not one to really be the friend she could have been, we won’t be going up there to visit Ann.  Instead of doing this George is busy doing other things she never shares with Ann (thanks heaven). So, how to tell the reader? Enter Olympia Underwood.

Here is a first person narrative feeling like a third person narrative.  The resemblance in feeling if not style of this narration to the story George tells promotes the suspicion that this is not another voice but simply a narrative-rouse. Would the reader prefer a firsthand account – replete with emotive sentiment and honest feeling – to this supposed prison-story that gives us a window into Ann’s life after Kwame? Would George’s children be better to know of their mother’s illness? It is difficult not to be thankful for a peek through the prison wall – perhaps a shorter one – but it is equally hard not to wish for a more intimate and extended account from our main narrator. To be kept at a distance feels incomplete, like we will wake the next morning finding our Picaresque story-teller already beyond the crest of the next hill.



Let’s allow the writer, Sigrid Nunez, some slack. After all, we’re on the same side, and she is that good. When the payoff is big enough, much can be forgiven.

Take the scene at Edie’s and Turner’s lunch meeting. Edie is there to caution her brother-in-law about his affair. Turner is there to announce his intention to marry said affair. Here it comes: waiter “hovers” taking mental notes on what he considers a great line to use in a screenplay, “Marrying each other won’t do what . . . you may be subconsciously wishing. She can’t replace your daughter, and you can’t replace the father who abandoned her.” It is a writer’s (intentional) faux pas, but one you have to love it.  We forgive the author having a little fun because it tickles us and it fits with the Manhattan we all know, whether or not we live there. The City is the human drama publicly playing out before strangers’ eyes.

Sometimes, Nunez too heavily taps the 1960’s and ‘70’s. It is all there: Manson, the SDS, Weathermen, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, the pantheon of drugs, Altamont and Woodstock, the Black Panthers, on and on. It’s review for a child of the ‘60’s, perhaps tutelage for the later born. Sometimes it warms, sometimes makes one turn away. It was convincing though just for support of the story there was too much. For instance, Nunez appropriates the de rigueur acid trip George and her sister Solange take to establish George’s deep desire to have a child. Well, apparently, all acid trips are not equal. That one, I am not buying.

It is as clear as it is daring that Nunez invites comparison of one main character, Ann, with Jay Gatsby, yes, of The Great. Early in the book George(tte), the narrator,  gasses up on speed to write her pan of Fitzgerald’s novel. That scene along with her paper’s reappearance in her daughter Zoe’s hands at several points notably at the end of the novel, elevate this book as literature rather than just story.

That’s not saying Nunez is a Fitzgerald, though why shouldn’t she be? Rather like Manhattan itself – and the many sites of George’s life in the city – the connection builds upon what had been there before. If Jay Gatsby was the great American idealist of the 20’s, Dooley Ann Drayton is the same for the 60’s. Both rejected their upbringing. Both failed. Both were too inflexible. Both were culpable and tragic. And each has a narrator that is none of the above.

If Ann is Gatsby, George is Nick Carraway. The class switcheroo should not be a bother. Ann is monied, Jay Gatz poor. George is as “rural class” as Nick is “well-to-do.” But otherwise, the comparison instructs.  For all George’s misadventures in the book (spoilers: dropping out of school, suffering rape, escaping rape, drugging, marrying the unloved, loving the unmarriageable and on) she is nearly as priggish as Carraway. Nor, like old Nick, does she change. Forever the observer – even in her great love affair, she may well have stayed on the side lines as the “she” of that part of her story – George seems to float along, bumbling her way to what she hoped would come: family.  Over on Ann’s side of the dorm room, she is feverishly working for the betterment of the races, while George lets come what may. And the result?  Ann gets less than nothing (like Gatsby). Of course, George gets the girl and the boy as well as reclaiming the prodigal sister. Well, I always liked Nick Carraway, but I have to say, he didn’t accomplish much either. At least, thank God, George didn’t tell Ann about her affair. Such self-indulgence, even for her, would be damnable. But Nunez doesn’t let her off the hook even to the end where she has George meeting Nick in an imagined Fifth Avenue saying to him “Pick me, pick me.”

All things George and Zoe say about The Great Gatsby feed our understanding of of The Last of Her Kind:  Mencken’s critique: “‘No more than a glorified anecdote;’” George’s recapitulation of Fitzgerald’s worry: “‘I guess I just like my love stories to include some important woman character’” compared to her love story which included herself as a deluded, ungracious, and reckless woman, hardly an important one; and Zoe’s new-generation take one the book: “How can you not see that it’s a great love story?”

Nunez includes in that final section on Gatsby the schoolteacher’s assignments, inviting the comparison: “Compare and contrast: East Egg / West Egg. Jay Gatsby / Tom Buchanan. New York / The Middle West.” We could add “the 60’s / the 00’s” and say “speculate” to go even further.