Monday, 20 October 2014

Key Films #34

The Man Who Lies [Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1968]:

Like the preceding Trans-Europ-Express (1966), the fittingly titled The Man Who Lies is essentially an exercise in cinematic deconstruction.  Specifically, a deconstruction of the conventional devices used in narrative storytelling, and - even more specifically - of the role of the protagonist (or narrator) to provide a greater context, understanding and clarification for the events, as they unfold.  What Robbe-Grillet does to achieve this hypothesis is to dismantle the notion of accepted (or, more "tangible") reality - which conventionally propels the standard cinematic arc - and, in doing so, places the narrator in a greater position of power over that of the viewing audience.  When the narrator (and, by extension, the central character) is gunned down by an armed militia in the film's first scene - only to be brought back to life moments later as if nothing had ever occurred - Robbe-Grillet is communicating the inherent intangibility of narrative form; collapsing the various elements - from reality to fantasy, dramatisation to allegory - in order to remind the audience, in a single gesture, that this is a fiction devised, embellished and told by the central character, and as such at the mercy of his own individual whims.

From this point on, the author will continue to obfuscate the significance of the character's identity, his role and his specific intentions or goals, all of which are intended, in a more conventional film, to make us connect with a character, or to identify or even sympathise with their particular plight.  By making the narrator unreliable (and upfront, the particularities of the title already express a sense of duplicity couched in this character's attitude and approach) Robbe-Grillet makes it difficult for the viewer to become embroiled in the minutia of the film's story, its setting, its allusions to actual historical events, or even in the emotional progression of the characters on screen.  Instead, he focuses our attention on the more elusive and often maddening games being played with the malleability of film editing and of narrative in general.  To achieve this, the filmmaker frequently shows us two very different sides of the same scene, action or conversation - in such a way as to provide intentionally contradictory information - however, with no clear or concise delineation as to which of these conflicting perspectives represents an accurate or emotional truth.

Shot in the former Czechoslovakia, the visual style of the film is noticeably much closer to the sensibilities of certain other films released during the period of the Czech New Wave - such as The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1964), Diamonds of the Night (also 1964) and A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) - than those of Robbe-Grillet's contemporaries, such as Resnais, Godard or Malle.  The style, defined by its high-contrast lighting, intense close-ups, wide-angle lenses and a majority of decayed, rural settings, heightens the emotional uncertainty of the film; creating something like a fairy-tale, or perhaps even closer to that of an incessant dream.  While the final scenes of the film eventually hint towards a more psychological (if not supernatural) rationalisation of the story being conveyed, the real motivation of Robbe-Grillet's film is - like the vast majority of the author's works for cinema - closer to that of an intricate parlour game played between himself and his audience.  A self-aware, self-reflexive adventure through the conventions of film narrative, and how such conventions (and their rules) can be used, or even misused by a filmmaker, to further engage the audience in something other than the banalities of characterisation and plot.


Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl [Manoel de Oliveira, 2009]:

It begins on a train.  An interesting choice of setting, since the figurative history of cinema is trains and bridges.  Here, the train itself becomes a bridge, where - during the course of a journey - a young man will recount his sad tale to a female passenger; telling her a story of doomed love and economic hardship that works to connect the personal to the political, the present to the past.  At this early point in the story the audience is uncertain of where this man (and his fiction) is headed.  Is he in retreat from a secret shame - forced to leave a place of residence in search of somewhere new - or is he making a return, back home, or someplace else?  For now, the destination of the character is unimportant.  The journey is a narrative one, as opposed to geographical; the development and progression of the train along the tracks becoming a visual representation of the machinations of narrative fiction, à la The General (1926) by Buster Keaton, or Trans-Europ-Express (1966) by Robbe-Grillet.

On the surface the story is straight-forward and confessional.  A young accountant working for his uncle spies an attractive young woman, whose family dwelling is adjacent to his place of work.  Already, de Oliveira is evoking the cinematic representation of "the viewer and the viewed."  If the train becomes a narrative journey, then this visual motif - evocative here of Hitchcock and his famous Rear Window (1954) - supplants the author as voyeur and a surrogate for the viewing audience, who sees, within a rectangular frame, a woman of great and enigmatic beauty, and, like the tragic Sarrasine in Balzac's sorrowful tale, is immediately and catastrophically bewitched.   Through this, de Oliveira creates in this woman, at first, not a character, but a representation; an image.  The viewer, in love with the image of this woman (as opposed to the woman herself), works hard to break the fourth-wall of his own existence and to initiate a kind of courtship.  When his uncle disapproves of the young man's plans to marry this mysterious woman, his life is thrown into chaos.  While the "meta" narrative of this character as both protagonist and storyteller is central and compelling, Oliveira nonetheless uses the confessional of this man, not just as a means of discussing the role of the author, the objectification of the male gaze or the representation of the image itself, but as something far more political.

Throughout the film, the director will emphasise the cultural backdrop of the story; placing this modest reflection of love - its fantasy and reality - within spaces that are redolent with artistic, political and cultural significance, most often related to expressions, or representations, of wealth.  The office where the protagonist works, the gentleman's club and extravagant soirées where gambling goes on in the background of poetic recitations, to the jeweller's shop where de Oliveira reveals his orator's final "sting", all reinforce a perception of the world as one that revolves around wealth, status, privilege and the pursuit of the above.  That all of these various elements are contained within a film that was shot and released during the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis gives a greater context to the parallel the filmmaker is creating between the past fictions of the film's author, Eça de Queirós, and the no less confused and unstable realities of our own present day.