What is a film's temperament? Just as we used to have the humours to demarcate people into categories including the phlegmatic and the sanguine, could we look at films according to the temperaments they seem to possess? Perhaps it is a variation on Vivian Sobchack's observations in The Address of the Eye: "The film's "body" is not sexed, although today its vision usually takes up the world as such. It is not "impaired", "fat", "old", or "deprived" - although, as a whole, certain films have been described as "physically handicapped" by, for example, their silence, or lack of color, as "excessive" or "padded" in their expressive behaviour, as "old" in their outmoded interests or ways of engaging with the world, and as "deprived" in their "low-budget" lack of resources..." Heaven's Gate, Pat Garrett Billy the Kid and McCabe and Mrs Miller are great nostalgic westerns, while others like Shane, High Noon and Stagecoach are triumphal. All six films belong to the same genre, but they do not all elicit the same adjective. They are temperamentally distinct. Think of the lam movie: Thelma and Louise, Sugarland Expressand Badlands are all generically one, but they are dispositionally quite different. The former is pugnacious, the latter resigned; Sugarland Express saccharine. We could simply say the films' reflect their makers' personalities, but if Daniel Frampton has claimed very seriously in Filmosophy that movies have minds, then we can add, a little facetiously, what sort of personality does a film possess?
Frampton says film-thinking is the action of film form in dramatising the intention of the filmmind, and gives as an example the early sequence in Rear Window. After surveying the courtyard the film returns to L. B. Jefferies, "asleep in his chair, his leg in a cast, at which point it then moves through his apartment to show the photo of a crashing racing car and a smashed camera." Frampton adds, "Film-thinking resembles no one single kind of human thought, but perhaps the functional side of human thinking - film thinking seems to be a combination of idea, feeling and emotion."
However, Frampton is very keen to avoid the correlation between film and human, evident for example in Sobchack's phenomenological approach to film - "the main problem with Sobchack's film-body is thus its anthropomorphism," We are inclined to think however that it has its uses when offered metaphorically. Raging Bull and Taxi Driver seem depressive; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest resistant, Apocalypse Now bombastic, A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us wise, Lost Highway deranged and so on. Critics often fall into this type of anthropomorphic name-calling, but often don't follow through on the implications of seeing a film as possessing a type of temperament. It is a short-hand put-down, rather than an opening gambit. It sums up the film, but doesn't work it out.
The term that one thinks of when watching After Lucia is tough-minded, and what one wants to do is explore and explain this term through the film's formal choices and the harshness of its content. From the film's opening shot to its closing image, Michel Franco's film insists on this tough-mindedness in the very framing as he opens with a lengthy shot from the back seat of a car as the father comes towards it, and ends on a medium and lengthy image on the father's face as he sits in a small motor boat in the middle of the sea. Of course at the beginning of the film we don't know he is the father; he is just a man picking up a repaired car. Later he will stop at the traffic lights, get out and leave it there in the middle of the street. Further in we'll discover that he recently lost his wife to a car crash and has a teenage daughter, and that they are leaving their home town of Puerto Vallarta for Mexico City. Partly what makes the film so tough-minded is the story itself. The film could potentially have been about how a father and daughter bond and recover from a devastating loss, but instead Franco exacerbates the tragedy. This is through the father Roberto's impetuous temper and his daughter Alejandra's passive need for affection, through a harsh, wealthy Mexico City environment where only the strong survive (as though the kids have picked up on their parents' presumed success in a country of haves and have nots and decided that they will make sure they are among the haves) and narrative strategies that leave us cruelly locked out of a situation that we have a greater context for than the father.
Turning to the latter first, in the last section of the film After Lucia takes on tragic dimensions when Alejandra (Tessa Ia) looks like she has drowned in the Atlantic ocean off Vera Cruz. Roberto (Hernan Mendoza) enquires into her disappearance and discovers that months earlier the class lothario filmed them having sex on his mobile phone and passed the images on to others. One afternoon Roberto kidnaps the boy, hires a boat, takes him out to sea, and, with the boy's hands and feet tied, throws him into the ocean: a just fate, he no doubt believes, for the loss of his daughter. Yet Alejandra isn't dead: we've earlier seen her coming out of the waves, booking a bus and making her way back to Puerto Vallarta. We cannot at all share his indignation, and for two reasons. One is that he kills the boy because he thinks his daughter is dead, while we know otherwise; the other is that while Roberto is aware of the humiliating fact of the mobile phone sex session being seen by everyone in the school, it is unlikely he is aware of all the ritual humiliation, abuse and name-calling Alejandra has received in the following months by many of the kids, and not especially the one Roberto chooses to throw in the ocean. He acts under false premises, and the film is all the more tough-minded for playing fair with the audience in its cross-cutting sequences where the father searches for the daughter and kidnaps the boy, while we know that she is safe. It could instead have focused on Roberto's search and the boy's kidnapping and we would have been much more inclined to share in the father's indignation believing the boy had set in motion Alejandra's death, and then the film could have ironically shown us in a closing shot that she is very much alive.
But instead Franco puts us in a position where we don't want the boy to be killed, aware that Roberto's actions will add to Alejandra's already semi-orphan status. She has lost her mother in a car crash and will now lose her father to a no doubt lengthy prison sentence. This scene where Roberto throws the boy into the sea doesn't possess the singular indignation we often expect from a revenge drama, but the triple tragedy of two lives further ruined and one teenager dying a horrible death. The film may be tough-minded but that doesn't mean it isn't sensitive to the fragility of people's lives: indeed it is the tough-minded approach that allows the film constantly to attend to this fragility.
The film's toughness comes from demanding we look at things lucidly and without undue false feeling. If the film hadn't shown us the daughter escaping from the waves, it could have whipped up indignation only to later show it as false feeling after Roberto has killed the boy and Alejandra appears. We would have identified strongly with the father's anger and loss, only to then realize that the anger and loss were misplaced. We would have identified with a false feeling, and this is often where we see a filmmaker playing with our emotions. The director gets us to react emotionally on partial information, only to reveal later that we 'over-reacted': we acted too strongly to the information we had been given. One of the problems with Up in the Air, for example, is that it cheats the audience for the purposes of a narrative twist and a character reversal. At last George Clooney's character seems to have found a woman he can love, only to realize that she is a married woman with children. Nothing in her character up until this point has indicated she has a family, and she agrees to various social events suggesting she is a free agent. When Clooney finds out, it is a shock to both Clooney and the viewer, but at a price. The more we think about it the less likely would it have been for her to have acted the way she has. The film achieves a surprise twist, but the price is false feeling.
After Lucia's decision to follow through on dividing its time between Roberto and Alejandra is part of its scrupulousness. Wouldn't it feel a little unreasonable that after following both the father and daughter we then only follow the father's story? Not so unreasonable of course if we believe the daughter has been lost to the sea, but all the more unreasonable if only at the very end do we discover that she is still alive. Franco would have led us to assume she was dead not only because we see her school colleagues looking for her, and failing to find her, but also because the film has got us into the formal habit of seeing sequences with Roberto, then with Alejandra, then with Roberto and so on. If she were really dead then it would have been playing fair with its formal strategy, but showing her alive at the very end would have felt a little like a formal cheat.
The Collins English Dictionary defines tough-minded as "practical, unsentimental, stern or intractable", terms that would up to a point suit the father if not the daughter, but that suits the film even better. What would an intractable camera look like, taking into account one of intractable's meanings, that it is "difficult to shape or mould". We would not at all say of Paolo Sorrentino's camera in The Great Beauty, Paul Thomas Anderson's in Boogie Nights, or Clint Eastwood's in Mystic River that it is intractable: the sense of movement in the camera is strongly dictated by movement elsewhere. The camera feels free but it doesn't feel rigorous. When in The Great Beauty the camera opens on a calm series of moments of tranquil Rome before then roaming around the central character's luxury sixty fifth birthday party, the film's first two sequences feel free partly because they aren't rigorous. Pasquale Iannone says in a Sight and Sound article on the film, "Sorrentino has always talked of his opening scenes as representing a few moments of directorial indulgence before the machinations of narrative take over. This is essentially what we have here: a stand-alone sequence, a vision of overwhelming beauty shot through with characteristic black humour." Iannone's talking about the opening sequence, but we're inclined to add the party one as well: this is freedom over rigour as it follows various characters around all the better to announce its own sense of movement. After Luciaopens of course rather differently, with the fixed frame shot of the camera in the back of the car, waiting for the father to come and take it away. This is the intractable camera as tough-minded observer. Like the camerawork in the Austrian school of Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, Jessica Hausner and others, there is in Mexican cinema, in Carlos Reygadas's work, in Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, in Amat Escalante's Los Bastardos and here, also a sense that the camera does not quite go where the story or the character would seem to propose it ought to, but often stands aloof to the proceedings.
If the recent Italian cinema of not only Sorrentino, but also Mario Garrone and Luca Guadagnino echoes the flamboyance of Fellini, Visconti and Bertolcucci, the new Mexican directors seem to be looking more to their peers elsewhere for influence. This doesn't at all make the Mexican directors indebted to the Austrians, for the Austrian directors often utilise the camera as a blank stare; the Mexicans are more inclined to use it as a fretful but removed enquirer. Whether it is the camera concentrating on the chauffeur's face in Battle in Heaven while the main point of focus is the conversation in the back seat, a key killing that takes place offscreen in Miss Bala, or a conversation that is witnessed from the daughter's perspective in the car here, though what matters is the conversation itself, the directors seem interested in forcing upon us a concerned gaze; the gaze of the troubled onlooker. To put the camera where we want it to be is to generate a privilege that may have horrible consequences, as though the directors have all absorbed the cost of enquiry as aesthetic choice. As the Observer explored in an article on gang warfare and governmental duplicity in Mexico, enquiry is expensive when life is cheap: where, according to veteran journalist Mike O'Connor, interviewed in the piece, "the silencing of the press and killing of journalists is integral to the reality of the Big Story." (1/9/2013)
Part of the tough-minded approach in After Lucia rests on making sure the camera is where it needs to be without making it easy. Sometimes it is very close; sometimes at a great distance. In one scene where Alejandra is forced to eat a birthday cake full of human waste, the camera is initially in very close as we get a sense of the oppressive bullying of the other kids all around her, then after a cut the camera seems that little bit too far away as she vomits up the contents and the other kids scatter. The shots don't privilege the story, but create the space for ethical enquiry; for us to be part of Alejandra's fear and also, moments afterwards, part of her humiliation. Yet this isn't achieved through identificatory camerawork that takes us inside her viewpoint, but with a camera approach that wants to stay outside of it as the film generates an aesthetic of distance; as though out of a social concern which is wary of getting too close. How many people in Mexico have witnessed incidents that for their own safety they've remained at a distance from?
It is a point Franco makes in an interview in The Film Experience. "...in reality we do let things happen in real life and look on sometimes. In the scene where the father leaves his car and gets into a fight with someone on the street, you're sitting in the car looking at them and the camera doesn't move, because that's a common thing in Mexico and people just see that and move on." Though the Observer article mentions the similarities between the brave Mexcian journalist Anabel Hernandez and Roberto Saviano who wrote Gamorra, and that was of course turned into a film by Garrone, the Italians have utilised a baroque style to capture the baroque nature of power in Italy; the Mexican directors have been more inclined to suggest powerless distance, no matter the more elaborate styles of other national directors like Alfonso Cuaron, A. G. Inarritu and Guellermo del Toro. Has Mexican cinema divided itself between those who have adopted their style out of immediate social reality, and others who have chosen to utilise much more the privileging vital to American film? Cuaron might not ignore the social in moments in Y tu Mama Tambien, when the camera briefly deserts the main story to hint at social ills elsewhere, but Cuaron is a fine director who has usually absorbed the Hollywood idiom and has also of course often worked there or in 'Hollywood UK': for example making A LittlePrincess, The Children of Men and Gravity. Franco's, though, is a cinema of the intractable rather than the cinematically awe-inspiring.
Another definition of tough-mindedness is the unsentimental. There are many moments in After Lucia that could have generated sentimentality, but Franco consistently body swerves the possibility by presenting the emotion as either incapable of expression, or capable only in isolation. Early in the film when the father is unpacking pots and pans in the Mexico City apartment he suddenly starts sobbing and the camera stays behind him as we watch this large, bulky man break down. Later, there are several moments that we may find heartbreaking, but that cannot induce tears. Whether it is the scene where Alejandra's forced to eat the cake, urinated upon by a kid on the beach, or has her hair shorn by a couple of the other girls, the atrocity generates quiet outrage rather than the lachrymose. Even when we see Alejandra in front of the mirror crying after the haircut, one's response is contained feeling more than emotional release.
A brief and partial synopsis of the film could lead one to think that the movie will be predicated on a tragedy but be redeemed by emotional understanding, another film about family members coming to terms with a loss. Franco's lack of sentimentality resides in blocking the release by exacerbating the problem. If mainstream cinema frequently will put off the emotional release through sublimating it in further action, After Lucia defers it through further tragedy. Franco doesn't create an event that will allow the characters to move towards well being even if it offers one or two moments that might suggest its possibility - evident for example when the perfectionist Roberto gives up working as a chef in a Mexico City restaurant feeling he can't concentrate. Shortly afterwards we see Alejandra helping out in the restaurant kitchen, but nothing comes of this opportunity of the father and daughter sharing a goal.
Instead the director keeps exacerbating the gap, with Roberto welcoming Alejandra with a lovely meal, but just after we have witnessed her eating the disgusting birthday cake at school. There is the added irony of the father fretting that he almost forgot her birthday; while the bullying peers definitely did not. There is of course no humour to these moments, but it brings out the film's tough-minded refusal to allow the sentimental. The father's wish to celebrate is well-meaning and potentially touching, but the earlier events allow us no opportunity to wallow in it as a feeling.
A third definition of the tough-minded is stern, and it is a term applicable to the father no matter how much he loves and cares for his daughter. There is nothing to suggest Roberto is an easy man to be around, and of course the film deliberately refuses to give us scenes from before his wife's death to contextualize who he happens to be after it. However, when we see him at work in the restaurant his attitude is firm and slightly truculent, and the approach is similar when he elsewhere insists he doesn't need psychological help for himself or his daughter. He looks like a man who wants to do things his own way; and there is little to indicate this is a change in personality - more a continuation of it. When he tosses the boy into the ocean it shows again a man who does things on his own terms. Roberto is clearly a figure capable of love and understanding. His love for his daughter is manifest, and probably wasn't any less so before his wife's demise. But Roberto is difficult, someone who doesn't look like he has ever made things easy on himself, and this clich will bear out in the end when he will be looking at a hefty prison sentence.
The fourth definition of tough-minded is practical, and Roberto again looks like someone who knows how to take care of himself and his daughter in materially efficient terms: he has no problem finding a job and an apartment, and money is never presented as an issue. We sense a man of practical skills having suddenly to deal with the further reaches of emotional ones, and who could blame him for not coping? Some might want to blame him a little however for his pride and defiance, for his insistence that things get done his way. If at the end of the film one might feel devastated but hardly empathic, after Roberto's killed the teenager, it is that we will see for at least the third time in the film he is acted wrong-headedly. After all, by the conclusion we might believe that psychological help would have been useful, and the owner of the restaurant looks very keen to placate Roberto. When we see Roberto working in the kitchen with the boss at the edge of the frame, it looks like Roberto is more in control of the place than the owner. In each instance we may think that Roberto has too keenly tried to be his own man. By the same reckoning he has no problem kidnapping the boy and showing him exactly who is boss, but again he pushes that need for control and authority into the self-destructive. Part of the film's tough-mindedness may reside in acknowledging that Roberto is a figure who can take care of himself, evident when at one moment he gets into a fight he may or may not have won - we don't see the fight but we do see him sporting an injury. But as he looks much bigger and burlier than the person he attacks so we wouldn't be surprised no matter the bruising if he'd won it. What he seems consistently to lack are the good instincts to read situations clearly, and though we cannot say to what degree these have been destroyed by grief, they seem traits of character more than acts outside of it. The film does very little to soften its presentation of Roberto, and central to the film's toughness is leaving us to work out for ourselves how much of his difficult personality comes out of loss or not.
Our purpose here has been to understand something of a film's nature, its personality, and to look more closely at how the film offers it. After Lucia has been talked up as a film about bullying, while the director said he initially saw the film concerning a father and daughter trying to get over the mother. "It had nothing to do with violence or bullying" (The Film Experience) he claimed, even if Franco now acknowledges that to some degree it does. Yet by viewing the film not from the content (nor for that matter strictly from the form), but from its affective capacity, its overriding adjectival impact, we can perhaps escape from talking too much about the film's 'issues' as content (bullying) and much more about its own 'issues', its own status as a problem. This inevitably incorporates form and content, but also speculation and contextualization. To ask what sort of personality a film possesses is a little like trying to understand a friend, or an enemy: we want to know what to do about them.
It is perhaps a means by which to make our comprehension of a film a bit more active, taking into account Spinoza's distinction between activity and passivity, where he says "I say that we are active when something takes place within or out of us, of which we are the adequate cause, ie when from our nature something follows either within us or out of us, which can be clearly understood by that nature alone. On the other hand I say that we are passive when something takes place in us or follows from our nature of which we are only the partial cause." (Ethics)
In Filmosophy Frampton questions analytic philosophy's assumption over cinema: he quotes Ian Jarvie's claim denying that film can be a medium of 'discursive thought', insisting that to allow for such conceptual advancement "some equivalent to negation", as well as the subjunctive and the conditional would be required, and that film isn't enough like a language for such a possibility." This isn't the place to enter that debate, but by seeing film as offering a metaphorical personality we can engage with the work; viewing it not at all as a flat text to be analysed, but a living thing to be worked with. The latter allows for something closer to Spinoza's activity over passivity, and while we offer the comparison between film and personality facetiously, that needn't mean that our claim isn't without its own seriousness.
© Tony McKibbin