Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Top Ten: 1995

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

God's Comedy [João César Monteiro, 1995]:

Casino [Martin Scorsese, 1995]:

The Flower of My Secret [Pedro Almodóvar, 1995]:

The Neon Bible [Terence Davies, 1995]:

Nixon [Oliver Stone, 1995]:

Ulysses' Gaze [Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1995]:

Salaam Cinema [Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995]:

Whisper of the Heart [Yoshifumi Kondô, 1995]:

The White Balloon [Jafar Panahi, 1995]:

A Close Shave [Nick Park, 1995]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

C'est Le Vent, Betty

Thoughts on a film: Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) (1986)


I'd been struggling to find the words for this film, which seems impossible to define or to explicate in any rational or meaningful way beyond the meagre confession that I saw myself in its moving reflection; a past-life remembrance glimpsed in the fragments of a wayward courtship between a young bum who dreams of being a writer, but who hides from life and its various difficulties and concerns, and the beautiful brunette with the bee stung lips and the wide eyes that seem to burn with the passion and intensity of a protective lioness.

In this couple who find paradise in the arms one another - in the skin against skin embrace that becomes a suit of armour that protects them from the slings and arrows of a difficult world - I saw the ghost of something stirring.  A long lost relationship that was as haunting, magnificent and unpredictable as the film itself.  It's possible that without these bare emotions to draw upon, the film might have remained inaccessible, too eccentric, or forever beyond my reach.


Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986]:

So often with film criticism - or even film appreciation at any basic, mainstream level - we're taught to approach a work using the parameters dictated by genre and tone.  A comedy is a great comedy if it makes us laugh and smile.  A tragedy becomes a powerful tragedy if it "moves" us; if it forces us to think about the plight of characters, the suffering of people; if it compels the audience to break down and cry.  A romance should be romantic (naturally) and whimsical (maybe), but also contain enough passion and pathos to remind us of our own greatest loves, either lost or won.

We cling to these hand-me-down expectations or classifications of intent because it makes it easier for us to put the work into the correct box; to say, "This is a drama, so it should work like this."  But how then do we approach a film that makes us laugh and smile, but also rips the heart out; that is evocative of fond and warming memories, but still brings us to the brink of tears?  How do we move between scenes that are light and breezy, eccentric and full of love, to scenes of bitter remorse, anger, brutality and violent self-harm?  How do we identify with a relationship where the characters are impulsive, selfish, impetuous, but are led by emotions both honest and true?

To do so, the viewer must throw out those limitations that we've been taught to embrace.  We have to accept the madness of the work - its contempt for tradition, the emotional highs and lows - just as the central character of the film, the luckless Zorg, must accept the irrationalities of Betty; the free-spirited, impulsive, volatile but deeply beautiful nuisance whose presence and spirit dominates the entire film.  Zorg loves Betty and finds in her a reason to live.  He accepts her often belligerent conduct - tolerates it, makes excuses for her - because deep down he recognises that her presence and love is enough to light the darkness of a bleak and soulless existence.

From the earliest scenes the behaviour of Betty is erratic, impulsive, tinged with violence.  It's obvious that this is a relationship doomed to failure (if not worse), but the power of Betty, and her limitless passion, is overwhelming.  She transforms Zorg as she transforms the viewing audience, captivating us both.  Her presence, smile, the sound of her voice, the touch of her body, is enough to bring colour into the world.  She encourages the protagonist, and while her actions get him into trouble, or propel him on this journey into heartache and devastation, she undoubtedly enriches his course of life.


Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986]:

When the film begins, Zorg is in retreat.  He's given up on life; no longer living, just making do.  Betty energies him, first through her passion - their lovemaking, the intensity of the physical act - but soon through her compassion, her belief in his talents, her commitment to his beliefs.  By burning down the beachfront shack where Zorg lives and works as an off-season caretaker, she's forcing the character out of his sense of complacency; pushing him out into the wider world, to engage with it and to realise his full potential as both an artist and a human being.  This causes problems for the protagonist, but in the long term it pushes him towards greatness.  From this point on the character will live for Betty and this commitment will give him direction, a purpose; after all, to live for someone is the same as having something to live for.  The tragedy of the film comes from the reversal of positive and negative energies.  While Zorg flourishes - his life without hope and direction transformed by the love of this woman - Betty begins to wilt.  Denied the things she most desires (a baby; to see Zorg become published) their relationship falls into despair.

While the first half of the film is effortless, fun, vibrant and sexy, the third act is tinged with frustration, sadness and a heart-wrenching grief.  And yet throughout, the emotions of the work are completely true.  The film is suffused with a very real and very palpable feeling of life, with all of its ups and downs, joys and regrets.  This is the power of Beineix's work.  While its flights of fancy, its indulgences and eccentricities, its scenes of heightened emotional intensity, might suggest something beyond the realms of reality (more like a fairy tale, or romantic fantasy) there is an inherent truth to this relationship; to their moments of intimacy, their arguments, their fears and concerns.  This truth gives credibility to even the most wild or exaggerated moments; it brings us back to those core emotions, which are authentic, believable and entirely recognisable.


Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986]:

In discussing the film and its intentions, Beineix himself states the following: "[The] movie came like a fairy tale, like a comet from the skies.  I was sent this novel by Philippe Djian, still in gallies.  It hadn't yet been published.  I read the book and loved it.  From the very beginning, I was in love with the characters and the story.  A lot of people asked me, "How can you make a picture out of that?" And I said, "How can I not?"  I thought it was funny.  There were great lines, which were literature, because Philippe Djian is an author.  But this literature I knew I could put into dialogue, and from time to time I allowed myself to add some dialogue and some other original ideas.  It was the easiest movie I've ever made."

"What appealed to the audience worldwide was the fact that a love story has to be big and this was a big love story.  At the same time, it was very casual.  These were two people who aren't rich or ride fancy cars or live in fancy apartments.  Their lives and the experience of their love brought them to a state of happiness and excitement that everyone would like to experience.  I think it was also the fact that the film was situated nowhere.  It was France but it could have been many places - it didn't look so French."

"I think another reason as to why it was so successful was because of the extraordinary performances of Jean-Hugues Anglade and Beatrice Dalle.  Betty is an image of youth.  She is what young people are.  They need movement.  They needed changes.  They need the world to change.  She is expecting something big.  When she sees the world doesn't match her expectations, I think she turns against herself.  She is an allegory of what young people are.  You have to give them something - not only to sell them clothes and junk food - but ideas that help them to move the world."


Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986]:

While Beineix envisioned the character of Betty as a symbol of youth, she remains, more than anything, a representation of the emotions that define the vast majority of romantic courtships.  In the first half of the film she reflects an unbound passion and sexuality.  She's liberated, uninhibited, like couples in the first stages of love.  As the two characters settle into their new life in the city, she becomes agitated, concerned about the future.  After the move to the countryside she finds a greater contentment, and settles into a role of domestic servitude and the yearning for family life.  However, when faced with the perils and pitfalls that seek to shake us from the romantic ideal, she becomes bitter and withdrawn.  When she transformers herself into a painted grotesque, she's creating an external projection of the black and hopeless thoughts that eat away at that spark of life that so enraptured both Zorg and the viewing audience.  The self-destruction of this beauty remains one of the saddest and most upsetting images in all of cinema.

By the end of the film Zorg too is swallowed up by sadness and disappointment.  His dalliance with Betty has set him on a course for greatness; rescued him from the shitty job, the crumbling old shack.  She gave him love, purpose and fulfillment, but as the tide breaks against the sandy blue dusk, we sense the yearnings of a character who would give it all to reclaim those chaste and innocent moments of physical expression that made the first half of the film such an unparalleled joy.  As ever in times of deep reflection, old photographs imprison memories; warmly but also cruelly reminding us of those happier times.


Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986]:

As a character, Zorg could just as easily be me.  His attitude, his retreat, is all too familiar.  His failure and the shame of failure are similar to my own.  With his big nose and shaggy brown locks, we could even pass for brothers; while in the image of Betty - the joyful Betty; beautiful and resplendent; luminescent in high heels and lips stained cherry red - I found only "her."  This personal connection brought the movie to life in a way that was sometimes painful, but in a strange way as bittersweet as the film's final shot.

Betty may have gone, but the memories still linger.  The mind, as powerful as it is in its ability to conjure up the sound of a voice, the presence of a person no longer there in the physical sense, plays tricks on us.  But these tricks - like our relationships with these lovers that seem to carve out from us a part of our own identity when they leave - give us hope.


Betty Blue (37.2°C in the Morning) [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986]:

As the wistful soundtrack of Gabriel Yared plays us out, Zorg sits on the precipice of an uncertain future.  In his notebook he writes the story of his relationship with Betty; the story we've just seen depicted on screen.  Out of nowhere a white cat appears with eyes that once again burn with a furious attentiveness.  Suddenly, as if compelled by a supernatural force, we hear the voice of Betty, still tender and sweet.  "Are you writing?" she asks.  "No" Zorg replies.  "I was just thinking."  It's a scene that in the wrong hands could have easily seemed phony, comical or elicited uncomfortable jeers.  However, as a moment of punctuation to this film of extraordinary vision, insight, emotion and depth, it is at once heartbreaking and life affirming in its unguarded sincerity.

This is a film that perhaps moved and excited me more than any other film I've seen this year, and as such, I feel compelled to throw superlatives at it; to argue its stature as Beineix's greatest achievement, as one of the landmarks of 80s cinema, as one of the most beautiful films ever made.  I could go even further and talk about some of the colour choices and how they seem to relate to the reversal of gender identities, or express emotions through bold uses of saturated hues (for instance, deep reds, greens, yellow and blue).  I could talk about the use of landscapes (and changing landscapes) to map the progression of the relationship, or to express the idea of freedom, or liberation from the self, but for now I'm content enough to let the memory of the film - its story and its characters, and the emotions that they evoke - rest awhile in the heart and mind, until I can experience the film again.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Top Ten: 1996

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

A Moment of Innocence [Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996]:

A Summer's Tale [Éric Rohmer, 1996]:

Irma Vep [Olivier Assayas, 1996]:

Brigands-Chapter VII [Otar Iosseliani, 1996]:

Drifting Clouds [Aki Kaurismäki, 1996]:

Mission: Impossible [Brian De Palma, 1996]:

Don't Look Up (aka Ghost Actress) [Hideo Nakata, 1996]:

Karaoke / Cold Lazarus [Renny Rye, 1996]:

For Ever Mozart [Jean-Luc Godard, 1996]:

The Pillow Book [Peter Greenaway, 1996]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Top Ten: 1997

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

The Butcher Boy [Neil Jordan, 1997]:

Tren de sombras (Train of Shadows) [José Luis Guerín, 1997]:

Robinson in Space [Patrick Keiller, 1997]:

The Tango Lesson [Sally Potter, 1997]:

Hana-bi (Fireworks) [Takeshi Kitano, 1997]:

Happy Together [Wong Kar-Wai, 1997]:

Labyrinth of Dreams [Gakuryu Ishii (formerly Sogo Ishii), 1997]:

A Casa (The House) [Sharunas Bartas, 1997]:

The Hips of J.W. [João César Monteiro, 1997]:

Taste of Cherry [Abbas Kiarostami, 1997]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Top Ten: 1998

Ranking the Decades
A Year in Film List + Image Gallery

Lovers of the Arctic Circle [Julio Medem, 1998]:

The Truman Show [Peter Weir, 1998]:

The Idiots [Lars von Trier, 1998]:

Buffalo '66 [Vincent Gallo, 1998]:

Festen (The Celebration) [Thomas Vinterberg, 1998]:

Secret Defense [Jacques Rivette, 1998]:

Bullet Ballet [Shin'ya Tsukamoto, 1998]:

The Apple [Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998]:

Sombre [Philippe Grandrieux, 1998]:

Ring [Hideo Nakata, 1998]:

Above, arranged in order of preference, my personal top-ten best films of the year (from what I've seen), accurate at the time of writing.