Saturday, October 25, 2008

CIFF '08: A Christmas Tale

Like his previous film Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) is a fractured family drama, in this instance set around Christmas at the Vuillard house right after the family learns that the matriarch of the family, played by Catherine Deneuve, has been diagnosed with a degenerative type of cancer. The cancer can only be treated through injected bone marrow, and each member of the family is tested to see whether or not they match Deneuve's rare type, which brings them all together at their childhood home in the days leading up to Christmas. The sprawling family is largely made up of Desplechin regulars like Mathieu Almaric, as the Vuillard's troubled son, Emmanuelle Devos, as Almaric's lover, and Jean-Paul Roussillon, as the older husband of Deneuve. Desplechin divides the film into chapters, with title cards coming up with words like "reunion," and "farewell," but Desplechin's Christmas is hardly storybook-esque. As the film opens we learn that Almaric has been banished by his sister, played by Anne Consigny, after another in a serious of screw ups. Consigny's son just has just been discharged from a psych ward, after suffering a meltdown and coming at her with a knife. As such, the family dynamic is always based in some form of conflict. The numerous story and character threads are weaved by Desplechin in a mixture of film devices, from frequent irises in and out, to having the characters directly address the camera. With all of the family activity and emotional turbulence, Arnaud keeps Deneuve's wavering search for a marrow match as the through line of the film, and allows the rest to be as messy and untidy as life often is. What emerges from the confusion and film devices is the characters, bolstered by uniformly superb performances, including a strong turn from an increasingly reliable Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real life daughter, playing the wife of one of Almaric's brothers, for whom another brother holds lingering romantic feelings. At the end of A Christmas Tale, we're left with an often funny, but ultimately sad story of a family moving in separate directions. It's due to the truth of the performances and great aplomb in the way in which Desplechin and co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu' script unfolds that the story feels so organic to its characters. What makes the film so successful is that Desplechin and Bourdieu don't feel the need to tie up their Tale with a bow, but rather let its characters and various story threads remain messy and realistic, and that's the real gift.

Monday, October 20, 2008

CIFF '08: Synecdoche, New York

As a writer, Charlie Kaufman has always been interested in exploring large concepts in his work, from identity in Being John Malkovich, to memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and directors Spike Jonze (Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine, Human Nature) have helped thread those ideas into what essentially end up being love stories. Directing his own screenplay for the first time in Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has rid himself of the love story, and has this time thread his characters and plot around his ideas. In this case those ideas include theater, death, illness, death, gender, marriage, art, death, and the color of stool. Picking up a visual aesthetic that combines Jonze's and Gondry's, and a score from Eternal Sunshine's Jon Brion, Kaufman tells the story of a theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, after receiving a genius grant from the MacCarther Foundation, attempts to stage an "honest," massive theater piece that "truly reflects who he is." Or maybe not. In a Q&A after the film, Kaufman said he attempted to write with dream logic, and though the film doesn't offer the pat conclusion that it was all a dream, it helps to explain the tone of the film and things that comprise Kaufman's mise en scene. One indicative example is Hoffman's assistant, played by Samantha Morton, who moves into a house that is constantly on fire, which her real estate agent explains drastically reduces the price. Other such oddities fill the film, but don't seem to be there just to be eccentric, but rather, as Kaufman said, exist to externally reflect the characters' state of mind. An abundance of characters play into the story, with a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dianne Wiest. As with his previous films identity plays a large part, with characters playing one another in Hoffman's theater piece, and the line between real life and art are blurred, but the film never feels confusing. Nonetheless Synecdoche is a film that's almost impossible to explain after seeing it once, and unlike Malkovich, Adaptation, or Eternal Sunshine we're not offered any kind of traditional narrative conclusion, no strings are tied together, but it's as powerful a film I've seen in some time. A mad fever dream of a movie.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

CIFF '08: Wendy and Lucy

It's not often you find a film that demands an audience to decipher the nature of its characters. So subtle is the film in the way it draws you into its main character Wendy, played by a mesmerizing Michelle Williams, who writer-director Kelly Reichardt advised to give up bathing and make-up, in a film that gets in deep to the rhythms of its characters' lives. As the film begins we find Wendy and her dog Lucy in Oregon en route to Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find work. A transportation problem temporarily strands Wendy and Lucy, and armed with a few hundred dollars they're forced to sleep in her car in Oregon. In a painful and believable development, Lucy goes missing, and the rest of the film follows Wendy in her search for Lucy and the trouble she encounters staying in Oregon. Like Reichardt's previous film Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is not showy in any way. We get a real sense of life being lived on screen through the combination of the performances and Reichardt's understated, observational aesthetic. All of the information we receive about Wendy is indirect, as in a scene after Lucy goes missing, Wendy calls her sister in Indiana who, without prompting, mentions that she doesn't have any money to lend Wendy. One line and Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond's script tells us so much about Wendy's past, and her relationship with her sister. We can draw these few suppositions about Wendy from the film, but beyond that we're left to watch this woman and decipher her emotions and state of mind. The film's success is due in large part Michelle Williams, and in the years since her flirtation with teen stardom, she's had an eclectic career in non-commercial film. Working with Wim Wenders, Todd Haynes, Ang Lee, Tom McCarthy, and others, Williams has turned in performances with progressive depth and skill. So quiet she is in this film, so immersed in this character that you don't for a second question the authenticity of her performance or her circumstances. There's little I can say that can express the tone of the film or the lack of forcedness and plotting, other than to say that the performances are excellent, the photography is splendid, and the film is pitch perfect and among the best I've seen this year.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

CIFF '08: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors, and I've loved his last three films. This is a definite change of pace. Instead of his usual visual flourishes, he strips down his aesthetic, and simply follows the characters. Mickey Rourke is the movie, and through the almost Dardenne brothers like style, we get inside the mind of a man who can do one thing, do it great, but no longer has a place where can excell in that field, professional wrestling. Rourke has few friends, but he does have one person he seems to connect with, a stripper played by Marisa Tomei. As Rourke is sidelined for a time, he begins to try and reconnect with his daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, at the urging of Tomei. This isn't a film you need to go into with any predeliction towards pro Wrestling, you can even hate it, and I don't think that'd detract from what a great movie it is and how special the performances are. I like Mickey Rourke, and I like even more now that his face is a big hunk of battered flesh. Even in a cartoonish role like Marv in Sin City, Rourke brings a sadness to his characters, a kind of big lug with a lot of inner conflict, that you rarely see in men of his build in movies. Tomei and Wood are equally as good in their scenes, balancing out Rourke's tragic hero. The music, much like the wrestling attire, is often cheesy, but it so fits the world of these characters, and what they listen to and like that any other choice would diminish the realism that this film thrives in. A small, human drama that's distincly American, and yet approached from an angle more traditionally seen in European films, The Wrestler is a clear departure for Aronofsky, but one that's not out of line with his creativity or his talent. At the Q&A after the film Aronofsky mentioned that he thought of his first three films as a loose trilogy, building up to 2006's The Fountain, and that he hopes he can continue to reinvent himself and surprise his audience. With The Wrestler, Aronofsky surprises his audience a great deal, and delights them even more.