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Film Festival, Part IV

October 9th, 2005 (02:53 pm)

© 2005 D. Gordon

Yesterday was a three-fer:

I. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is four things:

  1. A movie version of the Lawrence Sterne novel;
  2. A movie about the adventures of a film company shooting the Lawrence Sterne novel;
  3. A modern-day version on the Lawrence Sterne novel, taking place among a film crew shooting the Lawrence Sterne novel.
  4. Very funny.
It's doubly funny because it features British television comedy stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon who are perfect at playing jokes off each other. (The movie starts off with the two of them in their dressing room, Rob insisting that his role is costar, Steve insisting it's supporting actor. You know right away that this isn't going to be a straightforward tale.) But although it's full of great British humor, and well worth a look-see, it might run into distribution problems on this side of the pond. Coogan and Brydon, as funny as they were on screen and in the Q and A, are primarily British television stars (24 Hour Party People is supposed to be funny - but how many people saw it?). In addition, Tristram Shandy in book form doesn't get the attention that other British classics do. More's the pity, if it doesn't get the buzz it should.

They say it should be out in January. I'll have to track down a copy of the book in the meantime.

And maybe Brydon will get the lead in Winterbottom's next movie. %^}

II. The Sun, by Aleksandr Sokurov (aka Mr. Russian Ark), follows Japanese emperor Hirohito for several days at the end of World War II, from just before the Americans enter Tokyo to the day that Hirohito surrendered unconditionally and renounced his claim to divinity. (Historically, the Japanese emperor was believed to be directly descended from the sun goddess Amateratsu; thus the significance of the title, and the lighting, and many things about this film.) The camera is tasked with following the emperor, through his bunker, in meetings with his military advisors, into his biology lab in the palace, through the bombed-out streets of Tokyo, to General MacArthur's headquarters. We see the old ways, the complete and utter deference with which his servants treat him: he hints that perhaps he isn't divine at all, and his valet is shocked until he tells the man that he's merely joking. (He wasn't.)

Sokurov uses very limited lighting in the bunker, and colors muting down towards blacks and white, along with very stylized speech and mannerisms by Issey Ogata as Hirohito to emphasize the difficulty of being a god when one doesn't believe it. He knew what was human, he knew what was the truth (I personally believe the historical figure was a puppet of his military, and that's how he's presented here); but the weight of tradition didn't allow room for that and Hirohito didn't know how to get around that barrier. Perhaps the saddest part is that although he gladly renounces his divinity, the mere words don't end the practice.

The film's tone is significantly formal and distant, which worked slightly better in Russian Ark (for a different reason) and can be slightly off-putting here; but to a certain degree, that may be just what this material requires.

III. Gabrielle is Patrice Chéreau's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short story, "The Return." The Hérveys live in pre-WWI Paris; they're wealthy and, although they don't have the most renowned parties, they have their circle and they enjoy their friends. Madame Hérvey may have given up her independence with marriage, and M. Hérvey may have willingly traded intimacy for smooth predictability, but it seems to work for them - until the day that Gabrielle leaves Jean, with only a note in explanation behind, and then returns 3-1/2 hours later. The rest of the film documents both this incident hanging between them and the resulting implosion of their marriage.

This film has an extremely complicated structure. The orderly pre-letter life of the Hérveys is documented mainly in black and white. It's telling that Jean's reaction to Gabrielle's note is to drop a liquor decanter, in the process cutting his finger - nothing like that would have happened before in their orderly world. On the surface, Madame Hérvey leaves Jean for the oily editor of his newspaper; but what's been going on between them, since the early days of their marriage, has far deeper roots than an affair. Chéreau uses black and white intertitles to emphasize particular plot points; he mentioned during the Q and A that Conrad's actual story has next to no information about the woman, and in fact doesn't name her; he needed to fill in to a certain degree, and the intertitles help with that. He uses a lot of silent "technique" (the black and white, the intertitles) for emphasis. (His words, not mine; I wouldn't have described it as silent technique and I didn't quite understand his rationale.)

I dunno if it all works for me. There's a lot of sharp-edged emotions and actions. To a certain degree, I feel that my responses are more towards the shocks than the filmmaking. I just don't know.