Monday, 25 March 2013

Prisoners of Love


I meant to post this a month ago, on St. Valentine's Day to be exact, but I was held up with other things.  It's effectively a list of my favourite "romantic" films, loosely assembled; just general comments on a handful of movies that centre on the emotion of love, in all of its various guises.  As ever, the following notes aren't in any conceivable way 'reviews'; they're just observations on a theme, intended to give a very vague justification for the inclusion of a particular title and why I found it so compelling.  No doubt the selection of each title and my own analysis of it says more about me as a viewer than it does about any of the films in question, but again, the list is not definitive; just a selection of films that came to mind when I first thought about the subject.  Unfortunately, several key films are probably missing from this selection, but I may make an effort to write about them at a later date.

Also: I regret that I now post a lot of these list related things, but I'm not really up to doing the longer essays anymore.  Ideally, that is what I'd like to do, but it's hard work and never really feels worth the effort.  Hopefully any potential blog-visitor won't mind these trite diversions.  Boring content is better than no content, right?
 

L'Atalante [Jean Vigo, 1934]:
 

The concerns and insecurities of a newly married couple are expressed in poetic-realist style in Vigo's final film.  Thematically, the story on paper is pure melodrama; the struggle of this couple against the harsh realities of a situation, full of hardship and adversity, has been done and done again.  However, it is the direction of the film that sets it apart from many other works of the same period.  The stylisation of Vigo's approach, which throughout combines the gritty actuality of 1930s Paris - perfectly evoking the atmosphere of its cluttered streets and foggy canals - with a stylised lyricism that turns the entire film into an external expression of the character's innermost thoughts and fears.  Small moments, like Juliette's dance on the deck, seem expressive of her own restless need to articulate the beauty and the freedom of youth, as her new life on this barge becomes both suffocating and unbearable in its solitude and routine. 

The dance suggests the dissatisfaction that this character must feel within the cold embrace of her husband.  A young woman, who in her provincial way, only wants to experience the thrill of the city and the excitement of its classy stores and vibrant culture, but in her heart and mind is still drawn to this simple man, who can only love her with trepidation.  As ever with these films, the man must eventually prove his love to the women; plunging himself into the cold waters of the canal to be stirred by the image of her love and to be reborn as the man she wants him to be.  The final scene, which hints towards a potential future - unwritten, full of sadness and joy - is perhaps the most beautiful reconciliation in all of cinema.
 

Les amants du Pont-Neuf [Leos Carax, 1991]:
 

The film builds on the foundation of a scene in Carax's earlier feature, the excellent Mauvais Sang (1986), in which the protagonist, Alex, unable to express in words his love for the beautiful Anna, does so through physical expression; erupting into a mad, acrobatic dance through the late night streets of a quiet Parisian suburb to the sounds of Modern Love.  For a brief moment, the entire film seems charged, as if by some unseen electrical current, through the passion of this central character.  The editing, cinematography and soundtrack all intervene on behalf of the protagonist to help communicate the transformative effect that his unfulfilled romantic desire has had.  In Les amants du Pont-Neuf, the entire film has this same feel of an outward, physical expression.  When these characters are no longer able to communicate in words or even gestures, the film intercedes, disrupting the natural flow of the narrative, a scene or even a shot, to express a thought or feeling, aurally and/or visually. 

For instance, the above image of Michèle's printed face as it withers within the flames might serve a greater purpose to the development of the film and its plot, but it also suggests, on a purely figurative level, the volatile powers of jealousy and obsession.  The flames of passion, literally, destroying the individual identity, to be replaced by the shared indentify of this couple, this symbol of the new French cinema.  The entire film is like an ode to the madness of love, elusive and allegorical, where the vast spectacle of the Bastille Day celebration becomes a cinematic representation of the burst of emotion, excitement, violence and confusion that we associate with the feeling of love.
 

Buffalo '66 [Vincent Gallo, 1998]:
 

The only American romantic comedy, post-Annie Hall (1977), that might actually be worth a damn?  Gallo's obnoxious protagonist kidnaps Christina Ricci's placid teenage tap-dancer and has her play-act the role of his new wife in a harebrained attempt to impress his equally obnoxious parents, who couldn't give a shit either way.  In doing so, Gallo skewers the artist/muse relationship that dominates most western art, in which the sensitive 'artiste' projects his own desires onto the blank canvas of a woman, validating her existence with the Midas-like stroke of his genius.  Like Pygmalion in reverse, Gallo's character attempts to transform Ricci into the woman he wants her to be, coercing (if not actively bullying) a performance out of her in an on-screen deconstruction of the relationship between actress and director, but in the end, the force of her personality is too strong. 

Ultimately, it is Ricci herself that ends up transforming Gallo, validating his existence by countering the bitterness of his confrontational despair with a calming sympathy and an attempt to understand, without judgement or critique, the sadness of his life.  As deplorable as Gallo's character is, the mentality of Billy Brown is that of a person that has never experienced "real love", and as such cannot decipher how to react when finally embraced by a character capable of loving him, unconditionally, in return.  As with the director's next film, the modern masterpiece The Brown Bunny (2003), the vulnerability of this character, in his honest and unguarded disgrace, is both candid and overwhelming.
 

Faithful Heart [Jean Epstein, 1923]:
 

Two lone misfits find love in a loveless place, only to be pulled apart by the manipulations of a cruel and heartless society, more concerned with unburdening responsibility than with the happiness of the individual.  As with L'Atalante (1931), the story, on paper, is nothing unusual.  It is the direction of the film and the intensity of its performances that elevates it above the majority of other more conventional melodramas of the silent-age.  Epstein's direction of the film recalls Vertov in its street-level observations, its energy and its atmosphere.  The noise and the grime and the chaos of the streets and tenements is palpable.  The waterside, where the characters steal moments in the arms of each another becomes an oasis, where the image of the city across the waves is like the promise of a bright future. 

The park, with its fairground attractions, feels almost abstract, as if we're looking at reality as a reflection in a funhouse mirror; a cinematic expression of the disorientation of the characters' emotions when challenged by the endless hardships of a perilous misfortune.  Throughout the film, the sense of drama comes from the endured suffering of these characters, who only wish to be together, but are denied any semblance of happiness by a world that resents both the purity of their spirit and their dedication to one another, which must struggle, against all odds.
 

In the Mood for Love [Wong Kar Wai, 2000]:
 

Like Brief Encounter (1947) or The End of the Affair (1999) - both possible contenders for a list of this nature - In the Mood for Love is a film burning with repressed emotion.  The initial inability of the couple to commit or to express their love as anything more than a subtle glance or a tentative caress, makes every interaction fraught with a devastating conflict; an inner sadness that destroys the characters from the inside out.  There is a loneliness to the film; a sense of repetition that jars against the short moments of intimacy and freedom that these characters eventually find in their own brief encounters; their attempts to steal away moments of time shared and spent.  The filmmaking approach communicates this feeling visually, presenting the narrative in fragments; significant moments that emphasise the emotions of the characters, their desires but also those feelings of guilt and shame. 

The inter-cutting of slow-motion shots suggest the slowing down of time - the way time stands still when this couple are in the presence of one another, making the most of every hour, minute, second - while the distance of the camera, the way it imprisons these characters behind various objects, framing them through doorways or windows, not only shows the figurative imprisonment of these protagonists by the social conventions of the time but also suggests the presence of the audience, as observer; as much an intrusion into the lives of these characters as their own friends and neighbours.  All of this repressed emotion and solitude leads towards the beautiful expression of the final scene, with its ruined temple and its whispered declaration.  A secret ode, from one character to the other, that stands as possibly the most moving depiction of unrequited love ever committed to film.
 

A Matter of Life and Death [Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946]:
 

Most films present the idea of love as a thing worth dying for.  In A Matter of Life and Death, it's presented as a reason to live.  Perhaps the only reason; reason enough to snatch life from the jaws of death; to argue a case for existence in the celestial court when all other explanations have failed.  If The Village (2004) by M. Night Shyamalan suggested the hypothesis, "the world moves for love; it kneels before it in awe", then Powell and Pressburger's film could be seen to suggest that even in the afterlife such emotions, such commitments, are worthy of a similar acclaim.  Of course, much of the film's fantasy can be read as metaphorical, as the wounded protagonist finds himself teetering on the brink of death, his mind inventing an imagined reverie, as if willing himself back to life.  However, such practicalities do not rob the film of its feeling of pure romanticism, nor the honesty of its emotions. 

To die for love might be fine for the existentialists, but in the cruelty of war and its endless devastation, there is no greater cause than survival.  Without fully anticipating the hollow 'hippy' mantra of an aphorism like "make love, not war", the film, in its vision of the afterlife as an officious, black and white bureaucracy, against the vibrant Technicolor of the everyday, seems to be championing a commitment to the beauty of existence or the feeling of love - its spirit of emotion - as reason enough to endure, to persevere.
 

Ondine [Neil Jordan, 2009]:
 

The pairing of the characters represents a collision between fantasy and reality, which, as usual for Jordan, is one of the main themes of the film.  The central character, an alcoholic fisherman with a disabled daughter, casts his net into the deepest blue sea and pulls from it a beautiful young woman, desperate and afraid.  The woman is thought to be a Selkie (a mermaid like creature popular in Nordic myth), but darker secrets lurk beneath the sadness of her eyes.  As ever with Jordan, myths and meta-fiction entwine with the faint traces of film-noir, as the love story develops into a sinister mystery that imbues the more leisurely or lighter sequences of adventure, or family bonding, with the threat of a very real, very brutal violence and retribution.  Despite this pervasive darkness, or the jarring ruptures of the narrative - intended to suggest the 'voice' of each narrator, inventing the story as it unfolds - the film, as a work, as a story of love, is entirely moving. 

The soundtrack by Kjartan Sveinsson, which incorporates both the piano melody and the vocal refrain of the song All Alright by Sigur Rós - which throughout the film becomes a siren's call to the fisherman, alone and in pain - blends beautifully with the sunken and submerged look of Christopher Doyle's shadowy cinematography, which turns the naturally rugged and verdant vistas of the Irish coast into a mythical kingdom, both dangerous and enchanting.  Though the love affair is intended to dramatise, in an abstract sense, the personification of the two forms (social-realism and bedtime fable), the weight of feeling created by the film - its sense of lyricism and the grand, passionate gestures of its characters and scenes - is illustrative of a writer/director attuned to a particular kind of romantic sensibility; one poetic and unashamed.
 

Prénom Carmen [Jean-Luc Godard, 1983]:
 

They meet, these characters, against a whirlwind of violence.  'He', a guard at a Swiss bank, 'she' a bank robber, and member of a terrorist group.  The violence of the heist - choreographed like a musical number, or like a scene from a film by Jerry Lewis - mirrors the violence of their emotions, intense, confusing; the chaos of the scene reflecting that inner chaos of the heart; the mayhem, the irrationality of two people suddenly in love.  The film, from the outset, is a story of love, but is also a story about the madness of love; the magic venom that transforms the soul.  Like the earlier, no less remarkable masterpiece Pierrot le Fou (1965), Godard once again places the audience in the presence of a young man willing to follow a beautiful nuisance to the end of the earth, even if his passion, jealousy and obsession for this woman will inevitably lead to destruction.  While 'Pierrot' was undoubtedly striking, the full force of its emotional tragedy was guarded by post-modern abstraction.  This later work more readily (and more recklessly) embraces its central theme of beauty as the beginning of an endurable terror; indulging the emotions of its characters; presenting them through a jarring contrast of slapstick comedy and an anxious, mournful spirit that infuses every expression, every scene, with a wanton desperation. 

In very loosely adapting the narrative of Bizet's opera, Godard turns the character of Carmen into a Circe type figure; a seductress, effortlessly bewitching the various men of the film and transforming them into swine.  A figurative acknowledgement of their own willingness to debase themselves and their beliefs for the love of this ferocious woman.  While such an adaptation of the character might have pushed misogyny, it is ultimately the emotional weakness of the men - the protagonist in particular - that leads these characters into peril.  While Carmen is undoubtedly unbound by social conventions, existing almost as a force of nature - as wild and as spirited as the crashing waves that Godard uses to invoke Woolf and to suggest the tempestuous nature of the relationship - it is the male necessity to possess - the need to control - that ultimately spells disaster.  In Godard's film, the madness of love is effectively a madman's 'story' of love; a confession, from the depths of his despair.
 

Roselyne and the Lions [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1989]:
 

Throughout the film, Beineix uses the spectacle of lion taming as a metaphor for the often destructive impulses that drive the majority of relationships, where anger, jealousy, passion and pain threaten to obliterate the bond that exists between two people, driven close to insanity by their obsessions and insecurities.  The spectacle of the film, where the 'tamer' and 'trainer' attempt to control these monsters that stalk and prowl the barred perimeter of the cage, works as a visual representation of their love for one another; all-powerful and all-consuming; dangerous and destructive; volatile enough to spill out into violence or blossom, flower-like, into something beautiful; a display of pure emotion, which, in its graceful theatricality, becomes art.  The art of living or the art of ardour. 

By countering the often volatile relationship of these characters with the visceral scenes of lion taming, Beineix could have risked sexism (if not genuine misogyny); turning the woman into nothing more than a "wild beast" there to be tamed by the lash and command of the domineering male.  Instead, he presents the character of Roselyne as both strong and independent.  It is her power and her passion for the lions that ultimately tames the jealousy of the headstrong Thierry, making it clear that their relationship, like all relationships, is a collaboration, full of compromise and accord.
 

Solaris [Steven Soderbergh, 2002]:
 

The planet throbs like a beating heart.  Dual strands of energy pulsate across the face of its lilac globe, mimicking the same gesture of the protagonists when their hands first met, momentarily, during an earlier embrace.  The film - which plays like a powerful encounter between two people trapped in the cycle of a relationship doomed to repeat itself, endlessly, like an echo through the depths of space - brings to mind the haunted expressions of a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) or Muriel (1963), where its fragments of narrative, and the sense of time and space as something oppressive or tyrannical, turn the experience into a breathless reunion between the wounded and the dead.  This feeling of a memory made real, turned frightful by the bitterness and isolation of these characters lost in space, is further suggested by Soderbergh's cold, formalist approach; where the framing of actors as immaterial objects against a labyrinth of buildings or planetary structures, or the play of lights, which evoke the inner emotions of characters unable to express, is more suggestive of a feeling of sadness and regret than any conventional line of dialogue. 

In the metaphysical manifestations of this planet, 'Solaris', the astronaut Chris Kelvin is able to relive the lost love that haunts the very fabric of his being, but only if he's also willing to relive every moment of pain and self-hatred that led to her untimely demise.  The entire film, in this acknowledgement of the often selfishness of grief and the pain of letting go, becomes, like the planet itself, a mirror to the characters' despair.
 

Trouble Every Day [Claire Denis, 2001]:
 

The title song by Tindersticks captures the wounded tone.  A feeling of late night loneliness, passion and obsession, reflected in the combination of staccato drum, mournful piano, shimmering strings and the voice of Stuart A. Staples, anguished and in pain.  Each sound, in collaboration with the other, fills the empty spaces of Denis' film; the lonely streets and the soulless roads that evoke the loss of life, or the black cloak of the river, which communicates the idea of separation; the two sides of each relationship, unable to reunite.  In Trouble Every Day, the primal, "animalistic" nature of relationships - the desires and the insecurities, the commitment and its demands - is dramatised in such a way that it becomes akin to a horror movie, both violent and intuitive.  It is a film about love, in the sense that it focuses on two couples, both in-love, but at the same time the victims of love - caught in destructive situations that are devastating, emotionally as well as physically - but it's also a film about responsibility, about the other side of these relationships, the lengths that two people will go to protect their partners from the influence of the outside world. 

The intensity of the film, its performances and the invasive, observational focus of the direction, is overwhelming.  The characters, in their crazed states, become like vampires; stalking the lonesome highways or the endless corridors of a hotel looking for a partner, a victim, a mate...  Their desire becoming more like an addiction as they're effectively consumed by love, insatiable in their appetite for sexual gratification, pleasure and release.
 

The Village [M. Night Shyamalan, 2004]:
 

Though more powerful as a political allegory (this film about deception, which deceives the audience, but only to make a point), Shyamalan's multi-layered masterpiece is also a beautiful love story.  A vivid declaration of love, not just in the longed-for courtship of its central characters, Ivy Walker and Lucius Hunt, but in the unrequited relationship of their respective parents, Edward and Alice, forced to sacrifice any possibility of love as a consequence of their strict, archaic beliefs.  It is Shyamalan's sensitivity to his characters that makes him a master; the way he evokes the relationships between people - and the pain of these relationships - through subtle gestures, body language and the space between words.   The influence of the Brontë sisters is palpable, not just in the air of mystery, or in the "mad woman in the attic" reveal, but in the atmosphere of the film, its colour and its mood. 

The nocturnal encounters between characters, cloaked in the light of a nearby lantern, or enshrouded within the thin veil of encroaching fog, suggests the clandestine nature of their relationship (a secret within a secret), before a dramatic turn of events forces at least one of these young lovers to risk life and limb; to atone for the sins of the village.  These characters are prisoners of love in the literal sense, and their relationship, no matter how pure and true, is there to be exploited, as a symbol, as a possibility, by the governors of this community.