Beauty is a dangerous thing. Not because, as we are often told, it is superficial or deceptive or skin deep; nor for any of the other tepid half-truths we admire because they flatter our own awareness of how far from beautiful most of us are. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to surrender to, because devotion to beauty can so easily become an obsession. Which is to say, beauty is harmful not in itself, but for what it spawns in others. Claire Denis understands this fact. In Beau Travail, Denis has made her greatest examination of beauty yet — at least of the films we’ve been able to catch Stateside. It is also, of course, her most beautiful.
The Final Frontier has received any number of varied cinematic treatments over the years, ranging from a Kubrickian adherence to physics, to full-on Road Runnerish refusals to honor the laws of gravity. High Life, the latest barbed wonder from Claire Denis, makes its particular approach to the void clear from the first few moments. Here, the objects set adrift in space either hover poetically, or fall straight down to God Knows Where. While the effect may well make scientists clutch their heads, it informs the film’s startling combination of unblinking body horror and gauzy far-out glories, fueled by the respectively stoic and frenzied performances of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Even at its most baffling, you can always detect the pulse of a master filmmaker. She controls the vertical, the horizontal, and everything in between.
“At the end of each day, the cast and crew convened at the hotel bar. ‘Everyone would sort of be sitting at different parts of the bar, and she’d walk in and it was, like, Shit! Claire’s here!’ [producer Andrew] Lauren recalled. ‘I saw a lot of people wanting to leave many, many times, but they stayed. They stay because they love her—even though they can’t stand her.’ Denis does not deny such behavior. ‘I can be the worst person, the meanest person on a set,’ she said. ‘Shouting, screaming, complaining. I don’t have a lot of respect for myself as a director. People accept me the way I am, because they know I’m not faking. Probably.’” Though it can be a little disorienting to read one of the world’s greatest directors constantly referred to as virtually unknown, Alice Gregory’s profile of Claire Denis captures the director’s mix of intellectual severity and overwhelming sensuousness that makes her telling any story from her life—of caring for her younger brother, self-indulgent frolicking on a South African beach, a terrifying sexual assault—as heady and unforgettable as her films. Vague spoilers for Denis’s upcoming sci-fi film High Life.
“By 1982, historically, transgender people were classified as mentally ill, if acknowledged at all; the term “gender identity disorder” first appeared in the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980—incidentally the same year that Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma’s more clinically curious Psycho riff about a “transsexual” murderer, was released. That satirical thriller’s villainous Bobbi functioned as a figure of shock, but Come Back to the Five and Dime’s Joanne, also disruptive, is perhaps even more cinematically unusual. Her presence is indeed as a catalyst, inciting soul-searching among the women, but, as embodied by a never sturdier Black, Joanne also registers boldly as her own person; she radiates a strength that feels especially earned considering that her younger self, played by Mark Patton, was the image of insecure, fey fragility.” Michael Koresky argues that Altman’s innate compassion for and curiosity about all walks of humanity and his just burgeoning engagement with theatrical formalism makes 1982’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and its unapologetic admiration of a trans character’s self-worth, a key innovator in queer cinema.
Sorcerer (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – William Friedkin spent years trying to untangle the rights to his 1977 film, an expensive dream project that he made after hitting it big with The French Connection and The Exorcist, and after suing to force the studios to clear up the legal morass he supervised a restoration, mastered from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, that screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 and played around the country before making its Blu-ray debut in April.
It’s a remake of Henri George-Clouzot’s survival thriller The Wages of Fear, about four men hiding out in a grimy South American village who agree to drive two trucks with unstable dynamite in the back over 200 miles through the jungle, and apart from a lengthy prologue that introduces the men and the crimes that sent them into hiding, it’s a faithful remake with a very different feeling. Friedkin gives the jungle a primal quality, an aliveness that makes their journey feel like a trip through an alien world waiting to swallow them up, and makes the trucks themselves characters in the film (the title Sorcerer is actually the name of one of the old trucks, which are practically reconstructed by the drivers for the trip). In contrast, the men are oddly without dimension apart from Roy Scheider’s New Jersey mobster Jackie Scanlon, who takes the name Juan Dominguez in his underworld witness protection plan. A gangland wheelman in his former life, he’s the driving force (so to speak) in grinding through the challenges of the overgrown road: a fallen monster of a tree, a rotting suspension bridge, cliff roads almost washed away by monsoon rains, and a terrorist band hiding in the jungle. The score by German electronic outfit Tangerine Dream—their first soundtrack for an American film—helps set the otherworldly tone. Their music is actually used sparingly through the film but their slow but insistent rhythm and electronic tones (unique at the time and still quite effective) is the film’s defining sound.
Though Friedkin hinted that the release would feature new commentary and other supplements via his Facebook page back in 2013, there disc features no supplements beyond a letter from Friedkin and the 40-page booklet in the Blu-ray Book package, featuring photos, art and an excerpt from Friedkin’s autobiography. The disc looks and sounds superb (the greens of the jungle look unnaturally overbright though it gives the ordeal a hallucinatory quality) but beware that Warner botched the DVD, producing it from an unrestored master, and Friedkin himself has warned buyers to wait until Warner comes out with a remastered DVD on June 10.
Trouble Every Day (KimStim / Oscilloscope, DVD), Claire Denis’ wigged-out 2001 take on the vampire film, makes it stateside disc debut more than a decade after its theatrical debut. It’s about time. While it had its boosters, the film was lambasted on its original release (look at Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see the majority of its positive reviews from the 2013 revival) for its utterly insane portrait of a madwoman (Béatrice Dalle, but of course) who is locked in a basement because of her propensity to devour her lovers. And I mean literally devour them.
It’s a cannibal film, but in the Cronenberg sense—horror as biology and disease and psychological transformation—with Denis’s weird mix of too much intimacy and observational distance. The tangle of sex and death is obvious but no less visceral: Dahl giggles and coos and barks in pleasure as moves from caresses and kissing to eating her lover come dinner. She’s never sadistic; it’s more like playing with her food. Vincent Gallo, Tricia Vassey and Alex Descas co-star. The disc features an audio introduction by director of photography Agnès Godard and a booklet with an essay by Melissa Anderson.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(New Line, Blu-ray 3D Combo, Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) – “What have we done?” asks hardy hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in the final seconds of the second film in the Hobbit trilogy. If by “we” he means Peter Jackson and company, then “we” have reimagined J.R.R. Tolkein’s storybook odyssey of a modest hobbit finding the courage and cleverness to help a band of dwarfs reclaim their kingdom from a usurper as a sweeping spectacle that transforms the delightful adventure fantasy into a blood and thunder epic. Suddenly it’s no longer a lively fantasy adventure but the prequel to Lord of the Rings with new stories and characters woven through it. The seeds of Sauron’s rise now sprout in the margins of the story, every battle seems to be a personal grudge match, and Bilbo is reduced to a supporting character in what is supposed his story. It’s a mistake as far as I’m concerned but at least it works better in this film than it did in the first chapter, ironically enough in part because of a new character who is nowhere to be found in any of Tolkein’s fictions: elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who brings some much-needed passion to a film filled with characters reduced to stock types.
The dragon Smaug, who makes his entrance late in the film, is a beautiful creation, slithering through his scenes both physically and verbally (thanks to silky voicing by Benedict Cumberbatch), but Jackson can’t resist turning the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug into yet another theme-park ride of a spectacle. To give credit where it is due, Jackson is very good at this sort of thing—the barrel-ride escape from the elves is really quite fun if utterly unnecessary—and there are audiences who want just that. I’d prefer Jackson simply tell a story.
It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions feature the behind-the-scene documentary Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set, the featurettes “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2,” “Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 1,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 2? and “Music Scoring,” and “Live Event: In the Cutting Room,” a recording of the March 2013 Q&A and studio tour hosted by Jackson and streamed live in the web.
Bastards (IFC, DVD, Digital HD) may be the bleakest drama yet from Claire Denis, a filmmaker with her share of dark portraits. Vincent Lindon is a cargo ship captain who returns home after decades for reasons that don’t become clear until much later. His sister is mess and his niece (her daughter) in the hospital, the victim of terrible sexual abuse. Their story comes together slowly in fractured flashbacks as we struggle to understand how everyone is connected, including the woman next door (Chiara Mastroianni), divorced from a powerful businessman with some shady business. What comes together most clearly is the rot in the family line and reason Kindon left it all behind. In some ways it’s like a warped version of Chinatown with an even more black-hearted backstory and insidious ending. This is a tough one, but it’s worth the investment. The score by Tindersticks adds a haunting atmosphere to the journey. French with English subtitles.
Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) takes four true stories of life in the modern China economy and weaves them into an unsettling portrait of the country, where the runaway growth takes its toll on the citizens racing to simply survive. Jia isn’t known for a sense of humor and this film, with its stories cleverly woven together in subtle ways, has a mercenary edge to it—there’s murder, predation, and bureaucratic indifference to the ordeals of citizens just trying to get by—but there’s a dark humor to its satire as well. Welcome to the modern economy where everything is for sale and human capital is just another commodity. Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.
If Alfred Hitchcock were still alive and exploring 21st-century modes of moviemaking, would he come up with something like Bastards? The Master of Suspense changed with the times, and maybe it’s not too far-fetched to imagine him experimenting in the style operating here: a terse, elliptical, and ultimately horrifying method that withholds as much information as it doles out.
This thought passed through my mind halfway through Bastards, but make no mistake: This movie is definitely the work of French filmmaker Claire Denis (White Material, 35 Shots of Rum, Beau Travail, etc.), whose cryptic approach only adds to the film’s creeping sense of unease. The picture begins by contemplating a wall of rain, as though preparing us for how hard it will be to see and understand what’s going on.
While Cannes assumes its privileged position in the cinematic cosmos, the extant film world lurks in relative shadow, an eclisse that nonetheless calls attention to more modestly proportioned proceedings. Still flashy in its own west coast (relaxed) way, the recently wrapped San Francisco International Film Festival – 54 and counting! – soldiered on in relatively familiar fashion and hit a sweet peak with an inspired musical program that would be the envy of any croisette flaneur.
British ensemble Tindersticks play chamber pop that lends itself favorably to the Festival’s continually popular, if occasionally enigmatic, pairing of musicians with silent films at the city’s choicest venue, the historic Castro theatre (note to John Waters: no cuts in the ticket line!). Straying from the usual script, the Festival enlisted the band to perform pieces from their fruitful and cryptic collaboration with director Claire Denis, (a SFIFF regular) with whom the band, in various incarnations, has worked since Denis’ dreamy family drama Nenette et Boni (1996). ‘Worked’ is the operative term here, but it hardly conveys the depth of their engagement, so effectively have the band insinuated themselves into the textures of Denis’ radically dynamic oeuvre as to become generative of it. Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard, who has acutely penetrated and exposed the supple surface of Denis’ troubled world – from the latent desire lurking in bed sheets to the violence of dreamed dogs thrashing in snow on other continents – the band issue haunting and wistful treatments of Denis’ often opaque narratives in unsuspecting ways, discreetly eddying around already elliptical occasions (better to think of Denis’ stories in terms of thrust rather than plot) with repeated motifs tinkered out on vibes or plundered with bass, always restrained until loosed like the prevailing animal instincts onscreen.
Expecting a concert, then, would inevitably mislead. Here was the band playing song sketches to a tightly (and cleverly) edited sequence of passages – from what will likely become known as Denis’ ‘midcareer’ – with the practicality of musical instrumentation dictating a non-chronological approach, and favoring no one film. Langour and crisis intertwine like love and hate in Denis’ films – slightly indulged in Vendredi Soir, exaggeratedly in Trouble Every Day – and it’s curious to listen how the band fold this in to their compositions: a flute somehow signifying a portentous note to White Material’s imminent colonial collapse, a melodica riff bringing a sense of simultaneous levity and melancholy to 35 Rhums’ becalmed generational divide. Propulsion and stasis are key too, as a kinetic rhythm accompanies the film’s train montages, while apartment scenes are charmed with a childlike keyboard/melodica sigh, evocative of Denis’ Ozu homage while capturing some of Mati Diop’s beauty. With an unsensational sensitivity, the band converge the two strains like parallel tracks meeting, just as Denis manages to convey a sense of time passing both gently and tragically (Josephine’s romance and Rene’s death as versions of equally inevitable departure/loss).
Claire Denis’s debut feature, Chocolate (1988), took on the legacy of French colonialism in the West African country of Cameroon through the eyes of a young French woman recalling her childhood growing up in the tensions of race, class and dislocation. Thirty years later she returned for White Material, which takes on many of the same issues from an older, more experienced perspective, both in terms of the artist and our protagonist.
Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, French by ancestry, African by birth. Denis was raised in Cameroon until the age of 13 and the experience still clearly haunts her, but Maria is no stand-in for Denis. Maria is a woman in an unnamed West African trying to hold on to her family coffee plantation that her family no longer cares about while a civil war rages around her.
The film opens in the midst of chaos and fear as rebels advance on this dusty patch of country and Maria defies the tide of evacuation to return to her farm. Huppert’s incarnation of the intensity and will of Maria, beyond logic or safety, powers the film. She is maddeningly single-minded, risking not just her life but her family and the day workers she rounds up to help harvest the crop when her employees run off. She refuses to acknowledge the danger and hides the truth of the situation from everyone else. Meanwhile armed child soldiers wander the property, looting the “white material” of European habitation, and rebels close in as one rebel leader (Isaach de Bankolé) bleeds out in a corner of the plantation.