Friday, July 24, 2015

Phoenix (2014) A Film by Christian Petzold

In Christian Petzold’s Holocaust drama Phoenix, dignity is a question of positioning within the expansive 2:35:1 cinema frame. Nelly (Nina Hoss), the film’s heroine, a concentration camp survivor requiring facial reconstruction surgery to reintegrate into the bombed-out wasteland of postwar Europe, is more or less kept in the center of Petzold’s compositions throughout, even when she’s on the move. When we meet her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have rat her out to the Nazis and who jumps at the opportunity for an inheritance when he finds this seeming doppelganger of his presumed-dead wife at a Berlin nightclub where he’s working, he’s charging left and right, the camera unable to neatly contain the movements of his brawny frame. This being a movie by Christian Petzold, who directs as if trying to curry all attention away from what the camera’s doing, such pictorial schemas don’t come right out and announce their presence. They’re ingrained in the thematics of the story to such a degree that there’s nothing to show off.

Nelly’s centrality in Petzold’s compositions is vital. Phoenix is set in a historical context in which consciousness of the death-shrouded past is paradoxically the key to progressing into the future. In her suicide letter, Nelly’s friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) puts this dynamic in existential terms, stating that her heart is with the dead and that she can’t go on with the living. Her point is that she’d rather die than live in a compromised world where her fellow Germans can’t acknowledge recent traumas, preferring instead to “live” in denial. Nelly lacks this firm stance, but her character arc is one of gradual realization, of a shifting of priorities from a longing to reclaim her pre-war comforts to an understanding that such recuperations can only be illusory after being subject to dehumanizing treatment.

Thus, Phoenix’s script is fundamentally didactic; at its core is a lecture on the dangers of historical repression. What’s remarkable about the film, though, is the ways in which it subsumes its point-making into visual drama, a subtly evolving interplay between appearances and motivations. After receiving her facial surgery, Nelly finds herself in a series of situations in which keeping up a stoic front is imperative—first as a matter of survival, then of submission, and finally of deception. It’s only in the bulldozer of a closing scene that she is able to emerge from beneath an artificial shell and outwardly express a personal objective.

And yet, because of Hoss’ totally psychologically invested performance, the ripples of internal transformation become apparent, if only through barely discernible fluctuations in her facial muscles. When Johnny, trying to mold this woman into the seamless image of his wife (which, of course, means Nelly herself), asks her to mimic her own penmanship, he’s taken aback by the exactitude. Nelly, sensing he might arrive at an acknowledgment of her identity, lets out a hint of smile, though it lasts less than a second before her face reverts back to its default blankness. The patient cutting of Petzold and his editor Bettina Böhler—everything’s boiled down to the Nelly’s reactive energy, not necessarily the patterns in the dialogue—is sensitive to these modest eruptions of feeling across largely fixed surfaces, and the sparseness of the compositions, with Hoss’ face looming large amongst nondescript negative space, encourages us to see them too.

The closest Phoenix gets to expository instructions on how to read its narrative is a scene when Nelly’s friend verbally chides her for attempting to reunite with her husband, who she knows betrayed her. A series of photographs she shows to Nelly corroborates this certainty, and from this point Nelly, who’s already advanced beyond the bandaged blank slate of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, undergoes a shift from the Madeleine of Vertigo to Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, or from a woman complicit in her own distortion at the will of a man to a woman cleverly exploiting those masculine perversions to meet her own ends. Just before a key scene when Nelly interrogates Johnny on the disintegration of his relationship with his “wife”—a metaphysical moment staged on a fast-moving bicycle, with both characters facing forward as the world blurs behind them—Nelly is seen wearing a black sunhat and a netted veil, the iconic get-up of Fassbinder’s classic postwar heroine. Without calling obvious attention to the references (the emergence of the “new” Nelly out of darkness in Johnny’s apartment, suggesting Hitchcock’s sensational reveal, being the nearest to a direct quotation), Petzold has shuttled Hoss’ malleable figure through a series of feminine representations from the history of postwar art cinema, each one more human, more whole, and with more agency than the last.

Barbara and Beats Being Dead, Petzold’s last two films, withheld expression—performative as well as aesthetic—to the point of flatlining-sine-wave blankness. For me at least (though I do intend to rewatch them), they felt locked within their character’s environmentally motivated restraint, unwilling to open a door for the viewer while willingly cultivating a stuffy room. Phoenix is more seductive than either film, beginning with a ludicrous pulp plot and only then tunneling into behavioral nuance. Stefan Will’s uncluttered upright bass and piano score establishes the ambiance of a detective film, while Hans Fromm’s voluptuous cinematography—juxtaposing the shadowy alleyways of dilapidated Berlin against the garish neon of the night clubs in the American sector, then introducing the olive greens and morning dew of the German countryside—extends this aura. To watch Phoenix is to be put in the position of an investigator analyzing the psychological import of the most microscopic of gestures. Historical insight and cinematic sophistication, coexisting in a tight bind that puts neither on a platform, rarely synchronize with such tremendous grace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) A Film by Robert Hossein

"If Cemetery Without Crosses feels subtly but unmistakably different than other westerns, that's because it is: It's the lone French western to emerge from the genre's European (though mostly Italian) overhaul in the mid '60s. This geographical and cultural novelty adds another layer of pretext to the film—importing and performing a popular filmmaking mode from another country, and indeed even offering its own spin on the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (who, in a telling gesture of artistic cross-pollination, guest-directed one scene). Hossein, who stars in his own movie as a mysterious lone rider lured back into violence by an old flame, was a popular actor in France at the time (Jules Dassin's Rififi being one of his celebrated roles), and with Cemetery Without Crosses he uses his star persona to both point toward the icon-driven nature of the classical American western and ultimately undercut the narrative implications of that tradition." Full review of the new Arrow Films Blu-Ray courtesy of Slant Magazine.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Big Significant Things (2014) A Film by Bryan Reisberg

"In case anyone needed a refresher, Bryan Reisberg's Big Significant Things is here to make the rounds through yet another coming-of-age trajectory for an awkward white kid perched between adolescence and adulthood. This time the young man put through the trials of aging is the generically named New Jerseyite Craig Harrison (Harry Lloyd), about whom it's hard to remember much after the credits roll. He's a lanky brunette with a loose comb-over whose casually fitting, solid-colored wardrobe suggests he's perhaps funding the unexciting vacation that constitutes the narrative through a series of J.C. Penney modeling gigs."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Black Stallion (1979) A Film by Carroll Ballard

"With the exception of the hushed pitter-patter of feet pressing into earth, the occasional low murmur of rather inconsequential dialogue, and a varied score that often pares down to just the soft plucking of a harp, Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion might as well be a silent film. A curious artifact from the unstable transitional period as the New Hollywood Cinema ceded to the early blockbuster era, the film owes the storybook simplicity of its visuals to the crystalline children's films of Albert Lamorisse—most specifically 1952's White Mane, with which it shares the subject of a boy-horse friendship. The breakout effort from now-ubiquitous cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, The Black Stallion is a relentless procession of lavishly framed images, each one a marvel of compact visual storytelling. Only in its latter half, when Ballard accommodates a plot progression involving a Kentucky horse trainer, does the film exercise conventional mise-en-scène with shot-reverse-shot patterns unifying a dramatic space. Before that, and especially in its lengthy sequence of courtship between the boy, Alec (Kelly Reno), and the stallion, referred to simply as "Black," Ballard affords each deep-focus shot a concise descriptive power unto itself. The sound could be muted without any loss of comprehension." Full review of Criterion's new Blu-Ray continued at Slant.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ardor (2014) A Film by Pablo Fendrik

"Ardor's silliness is best crystallized by a scene midway through, when the taciturn rainforest dweller who's been helping a family of poor Argentine farmers ward off a band of pitiless gunmen manages miraculously to emerge alive from a dead-meat situation. Kaí (Gael García Bernal) is canoeing feverishly away from the bad guys, all of whom are heavily armed and seemingly hell-bent on terminating anyone brave enough to get in the way of their land seizure. Because of the indifferent lensing (the focal lengths are short enough that distance doesn't register) and preponderance of close-ups, it's not clear how far Kaí is from the shooters, but one suspects the space is condensed enough that landing a bullet in Kaí's head wouldn't be too much of a stretch of their professional abilities. Nonetheless, the men bafflingly elect to punch bullet holes in his oars instead, presumably for the sole reason of elongating the movie's build-up to its Leone-lite final duel." Full review at Slant.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Strangerland (2015) A Film by Kim Farrant

"In the portentous outback thriller Strangerland, a giant dust storm engulfs the film's small-town setting just as the central mystery is introduced. Everything gets caked in reddish desert filth and stays that way for the duration of the film. Art-house cinema has a long tradition of signifying the ambiguities of human nature with climatic abnormalities: Torrential rains, fog clouds, and snow storms blow through the history of modernist narrative filmmaking, upsetting cosmic balances in the worlds of Fellini, Antonioni, Angelopoulos, Tarr, and many others. By the same token, there's also a precedent for art-house frauds orchestrating atmospheric turbulence in the interest of distracting from the fogginess of their themes or hinting at a larger significance that's missing from the text. Strangerland falls into the latter category, as the inciting haze that rolls into town ultimately just serves to underline how covered in dust the film's commentaries on gender, sexuality, and parenting are." Full review at Slant Magazine.