Chabrol, Noe and more from abroad – DVDs of the Week
Inspector Bellamy (IFC)
The final film by Claude Chabrol, the savvy nouvelle vague director who earned himself the sobriquet “the Gallic Hitchcock” for the psychologically compelling, emotionally jagged mysteries and thrillers that highlight his long (and sometimes rocky) career, may not be one of his great works, but there are major pleasure to be had in the minor production from an old master.
Hard to believe that in a career of some eighty features, shorts pieces and television films, this is the first time Chabrol worked with Gerard Depardieu, who stars as the titular Bellamy, a veteran police detective and minor celebrity thanks to his memoir. He’s ostensibly on vacation with his wife Francoise (Marie Bunel), but as she observes, “Vacation is not in his vocabulary.” He adores her and she understands him and merely makes wry remarks as he drifts into a curious mystery involving an overtly enigmatic man (Jacques Gamblin) in hiding and the wreckage (physical and emotional) of what appears to be a botched attempt at faking his death. As Bellamy drifts through the orbit of a missing embezzler, pulling at strands that the local police seem unable to grab to understand the real story behind a seemingly simple case of homicide, his ne’er-do-well brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) blows into town with a new investment scheme and the same old shenanigans and jealousies that start them going around and around like scrapping boys.
The original screenplay by Chabrol and frequent collaborator Odile Barski undercuts the usual expectations of a murder mystery: the confessions come early and the physical pieces are quickly puzzled out by Bellamy, who doesn’t even bother to share his discoveries with the (unseen) local cops that he takes every opportunity to ridicule. And when a sudden surrender to the police solves the case officially, Bellamy keeps quietly tinkering with the gears of justice, driven by a puckish sense of mischief as much as by his eccentric integrity. Depardieu has ballooned into a hulking bear of an actor but even with all that girth he brings an easy grace to Bellamy, a man who embraces the simple pleasure in life, be it food, cigars, wine (which he had given up until the arrival of Jacques, which becomes an invitation to indulge once more despite the disapproval of Francoise) or the crossword puzzles that he uses to occupy his wandering mind. In a sense, this mystery is simply a much more engaging challenge.
Directed with a breezy ease that takes as much pleasure in its digressions as it does in its mystery, Inspector Bellamy is a character piece with delicious undercurrents of emotion and impulse that defies logic and defines character in ways so perfectly… human. Depardieu’s Bellamy takes the investigation at a stroll, as if dropping by to question a witness is simply another errand on a to-do list, and only gets riled up when his brother gets up to his old tricks (which includes pocketing Bellamy’s gun and blithely robbing his host after shoehorning an invitation to a dinner party). It’s far easier for Bellamy to find his way to forgiving a murderer than to support his screw-up of a little brother, but then the former is simply a puzzle he’s sorted out to his satisfaction. Sorting through the issues of strangers is second nature to this professional meddler. Sorting through the tangled emotional detritus of his own life is far less comfortable.
The disc features a nearly hour-long making-of documentary which is, like the film, in French with English subtitles.
Enter the Void (IFC)
The third feature from Gaspar Noé (and his first since the grueling, brutally violent and at times tender Irreversible in 2002) opens with a strobing, neon-blasted barrage of credits that don’t announce so much as hit and run, flashing by with such momentum that you barely have time to register names let alone make sense of it all. They’re a hoot, a knowing, comic exaggeration of his reputation as a filmmaker who assaults the senses and sensibilities of his audiences.
In past films the assault is through the violence perpetrated by and on his characters and (in his debut feature, I Stand Alone) the festering, foul hatred of its angry, brutal anti-hero, like he’s daring the audience to endure what he’s dishing out: transgression as art. And yes, there is that element in Enter the Void, a spacey, oddly spiritual drama of an American brother and sister in Tokyo shot entirely from the POV of an American junkie, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), who gets high (see the world disintegrate into the void), gets killed (in a seedy club called, now get this, The Void), watches his life flash before his dying eyes (or possibly relives his regrets) and then floats above the world to watch the people he left behind. It channels the same uncomfortably voyeuristic perspective of his earlier features and the bravura visual fluidity of Irreversible while it surveys the underworld of drug dealers, sex clubs, corrupt cops and social outcasts scrambling along the margins of an alien culture. Noé slips back and forth through time and memory, hovers and floats over scenes like a lost spirit, and soars through space over the city and through the human body, all with a camera that never stops moving and a momentum that gives it the feeling of an unbroken shot, even as it detours through the pulsating void of abstract fractal imagery and galactic clouds of afterlife infinity between scenes. (The strobing actually had a physical effect on me and more than once I had to avert my eyes to stop the nausea; as I say, Noe assaults the senses.)
A conversation at the beginning of the film frames it all with a simplified recap of the philosophy of life, death, karma and reincarnation in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as interpreted and simplified by Oscar’s French junkie buddy. And in this film, by Noe himself. For all the bravura of his suspended shots and floating POV and temporal slips through the past, Noe doesn’t offer much complexity of vision, only texture. We are assaulted with flashes of the car wreck that left Oscar and his sister orphans as he dredges through the broken promises of his childhood and the short-sighted plans to make good with a reunion in Tokyo funded by drug sales. His grown sister Linda is a teenage innocent he brings into his dead-end world, but the bee-stung lips and pouty expression of actress Paz de la Huerta gives her the look of a jaded fashion model already corrupted before her descent into the Tokyo sex trade. A nearly explicit abortion scene is tossed in for shock effect and sweaty, fleshy, often emotionally disconnected sex acts are part of the spectacle, and he tops that with what I can only call a womb’s perspective of intercourse. Is it purgatory, a spirit tethered to the place of his greatest failures or just a ghost story conceit put to the service of a conceptual showpiece more interested in the texture of the experience than the meaning of it?
The technical accomplishment, cinematic momentum and visceral immediacy does offer a kind of curious engagement on a physical level, but he remains so emotionally disconnected that the character narratives are more a matter of curiosity than drama. For Noe, the Void could be death, regret, spiritual stasis, a chemical high, a dead-end life of mistakes or the spiritual emptiness of its characters. For me, it’s sometimes the feeling that he just doesn’t know how to care.
At 160 minutes long, this film can be an ordeal, but it is undeniably a unique experience, somewhere between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance. His dispassionate perspective aside, he manages to find human emotion and spiritual transcendence within this bottom-feeding existence of the flesh trade. The miracle of life is present in even the most tawdry sexual acts, if only on a visceral level. It’s just not necessarily a life that Noe seems to care for outside of its long, strange trip.
The supplements are not traditional featurettes but montages of special effects shots at various stages of completion. “VFX,” the longest as 11 minutes, is the most illustrative as it shows the finished shot and then peels back layers of effects in wipes to suggest the stages of creation without really explaining any of it. “Vortex” and “DMT” loop show various stages of the “void” imagery. There are also deleted scenes, a poster gallery and trailers, including three trailers that were unused.
Both of the discs come from the IFC Films label (distributed by MPI) and are fine if unexceptional digital masters. As both of them were available via OnDemand in 2010, they may have same cablecast masters, which are a little coarse with digital grain, mostly evident in haze of darker scenes and, in the case of Enter the Void, the void scenes themselves.
More from abroad
The end of January is an unusually rich week for imports and the prominent of the foreign films released this week is The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Music Box), the final film in the Stieg Larsson trilogy Millennium Trilogy. Director Daniel Alfredson goes through the motions of the exposition-heavy plot with more efficiency than excitement, like it was a checklist and only the fierceness of Noomi Rapace’s incarnation of defiant punk hacker Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Nyqvist’s conviction as the loyal investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist give any personality to the passionless portrait of justice. By the end of the film it becomes an arch, stilted courtroom drama where the tables are turned with such colorlessly systematic precision that the poetic justice loses all of its emotional satisfaction. David Fincher is currently filming his version of trilogy and I look forward to seeing what a director with vision will do with such a potentially dynamic story. In Swedish with English subtitles and an alternate English dub track, but no supplements. A box set of the complete trilogy on DVD and Blu-ray has been announced for release on February 22.
More interesting (and far less commercial) is Dogtooth (Kino), the Oscar-shortlisted social satire and surreal family comedy from Greece and a film that landed on a lot of 2010 Top Ten lists. Also this week: White Wedding (Image), which was South Africa’s submission for the 2010 Academy Awards, and Red Hill (Sony), an Australian thriller with True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten (without the Louisiana drawl the Aussie actor acquired for the show). And that’s not to mention Inhale (IFC), the American feature debut of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, or a pair of rock biopics from Britain: Nowhere Boy (Sony), about the young John Lennon, and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (New Video), the story of Ian Dury, the music-hall showman of the British punk scene. (I reviewed the latter two during their film festival run on Parallax View here.)