European Millennial Cinema
Millennial European cinema is so often a cinema of concern, though often couched within an identificatory indifference. Whether it is Michael Haneke's work or the Dardenne brothers' films, Cristian Mungiu's or Yorgos Lanthimos's, this is a Europe that cannot easily pass through consideration for others without acknowledging selfishness within oneself. This is perhaps the central dilemma of a Europe that wants to suggest unity but at the same time creates an environment where individual countries can be hostile to each other, and certainly hostile to what it sees as a deluge of non-Europeans into the continent. The rise of numerous far-right groups in Europe have predicated themselves on this belief. "Most French people say there are too many foreigners in France, immigrants do not make an effort to assimilate and Islam is incompatible with the French values." This was the result of an Ipsos poll for Le Monde. Yet"most of the world's refugees do not come to Europe. At the end of 2013, the countries hosting the largest number of refugees were: Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Chad, Ethiopia, China and the USA," claims an Amnesty International report. ('The Human Cost of Fortress Europe')
The question we want to address isn't the political right or wrong, but how do films capture an ambivalent approach to the question of concern for the other, looking at a dozen films that seem to us good examples of this problem which nevertheless cannot be reduced to the nature of the problem. Here we offer: Hidden, Dogtooth, Toni Erdmann, The Child, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Death of Mr Lazerescu, Dogville, Loveless, Amour and Graduation. We wouldn't insist that these are the finest dozen films of the last eighteen years (though many are), just the most pertinent to our enquiry while also attending to the aesthetic.
Michael Haneke's Hidden asks what is hidden in one's past and the nation's past. The successful TV journalist Georges' family adopted an Algerian boy back in the sixties, but Georges wanted nothing to do with the boy and connived to get rid of him. At the same time France threw several hundred Algerian protestors into the Seine. Haneke wonders what might draw the events together as he explores Georges' complacency in the present. The film also asks us to question our complacency too, but this takes the form of an image we can never quite trust. On a number of occasions footage we might be inclined to assume is real is rewound. It is video footage within the film we are watching: because Georges lacked concern for the boy in the past he believes when he receives notes and tapes through the post, it must be Mehdi who is responsible. But Haneke moves the film from the arena of the thriller into the symptomatics of sociological enquiry. Georges is a selfish man, the film seems to imply, looking out for his own needs and interests who feels no responsibility about what he did to Mehdi nor how Mehdi lives now. By implication France buries its past too - the dead in the Seine was only publicly acknowledged in 2001 when a plaque was placed on Saint Michel bridge. Austrian director Haneke doesn't want to rush to judgement, but he would seem to want to muse over what can heal wounds without falling into sentimental assertion. The film's closing shot can be seen for those who study it closely as a moment of explanation or reconciliation, but Haneke's not for the telling. "Although this scene happens in silence, I did actually write dialogue for it. The actors are actually speaking it and it might stand as an explanation for some. In any case, that dialogue will never be written in the published screenplay for the film and I told the actors never to reveal it to anyone." (Guardian)
This is the productive aporia that insists meaning rests as much on the viewer's part as the filmmaker's: the viewer muses over what is said as the filmmaker withholds the remarks themselves. Vital to much fine millennial cinema is this idea of withholding all the better to generate consideration in the twin sense of the term. There is the consideration we have of caring, but also the consideration that allows for reflection. To give thought to what we cannot ascertain is central to compassion and empathy. We might find this evident in characters whose complexity of feeling cannot be matched by complexity of thought. They would not be able to articulate the depths of their predicament, but that doesn't mean the most complex ethical dilemmas are not taking place within them. In The Dardennes' The Child, set in Belgium, Bruno would not be one to express the spiritual longings of Pascal, Dostoevsky and Levinas, but when he sells his child for money, his journey back to humanity isn't too unlike that of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikoff. But while Dostoevsky's figure is in an articulate essayist, Bruno is a member of the social underclass determined to make some Euros anyway he can, only to find, in time, that the price of dignity and love cannot be measured in coin. His emotional collapse in prison, in front of his partner Sonia, shares similarities with the moment in Dostoevsky's novel, of course - the heroine's name is also Sonia. But it is also cinematically about inarticulacy, as if the Dardennes wished to show in Bruno someone who cannot express himself in words but that the film will find the form in which to express it in feeling.
This distrust in language is taken to absurd levels, diegetically, in Dogtooth, with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos showing a father who will do anything to protect his kids from the pernicious outside world. Except now the kids are adults, suffering both a literal and linguistic imprisonment as they never leave the house. They have been brought up speaking a language that bears a passing resemblance to our own, but with many words mixed up so that the sea is a chair and the salt is a telephone. Like Hidden, and unlike The Child, this is a film about the bourgeoisie, with both families determined to protect themselves from outside influences, while The Child indicates what happens when you don't protect your family. At what point is it selfish to look after one's kith and kin; at what point is it humanly abdicating one's reponsibility not do so? The Child shows the minimal expectation; Dogtooth the surreal lengths a father will go protect his children.
In the Romanian film The Death of Mr Lazarescu, the old man won't even look after himself: years of heavy drinking has left his health in an appalling state, but can the Romanian health care system help him? Eventually he manages to get into an ambulance but is moved from one hospital to the next as the film allows Kafkan delay to meet with starved public funds. Society seems as weak as Mr Lazarescu himself, and we look on, concerned for this man's life all the while the title has already announced his death. He is resurrected through the course of the film that will end in his demise, as director Cristi Puiu asks us to show concern for man who is dying and a health care system that is metaphorically on its last legs too.
If Puiu insists on a grimy realism that pushes the shots to extremes all the better to capture the minutiae of an old man's life in a messy apartment, and yet finds a new aesthetic in the deadpan nature of the camerawork that flinches at nothing, Lars von Trier in Dogville moves towards extreme artificiality and the storytelling mode of the fable. Set in the US in the thirties but filmed on a European soundstage, Von Trier has Nicole Kidman wandering into a community and watches as she initially happens to be helpful before becoming useful. In being helpful you choose what to do; in being useful others choose what you must do, as the film shows Kidman ever more exploited by the locals. Though set in the past, von Trier is surely, like the other films mentioned thus far, commenting on the present, wondering what ethos should be underlining our relationship with each other. In helpfulness resides consideration and care; in usefulness, lies exploitation and the inconsiderate. How can we consider others rather exploit them? Should a healthy Europe wish to seek an ethos based on helpfulness rather than usefulness?
4 Months, 3 Months and 2 Days is also set in the past, with this abortion drama taking place during the last years of Ceausescu's regime. Abortions are criminalized and yet young Gabita manages to find an abortionist who will perform the operation. The abortionist is a man interested in use value, determined to get his money's worth when he finds how far into the pregnancy Gabita is and muses over the risks he will be expected to take. The least he can do is insist the women sleep with him by way of compensation. Director Cristian Mungiu talks of the film as a social drama in the broadest sense of the term. "You need people in a society to have reached a certain standard of living before they can be polite. You learn how to respect others because you don't have to fight as much, you have what you need. We have made progress. Everything was owned by the state, and now everything is private. People need to be polite. 10% of the population left. We had 22 million in 1989, now 20 million." (Indiewire) Mungiu talks here in non-sequiturs, but certainly Mungiu wants to call into question a belief in the importance of the self over the societal. But we might wonder whether money generates healthy communication. We see how the comfortably off father in Dogtooth protects his family, and how selfish Georges happens to be in Hidden.
Indeed, Andrei Zvyagintsev's Russian film Loveless indicates money doesn't protect people from insensitivity. Here the story focuses initially on the neglect of a comfortably off couple going through a break up who ignore their son, He goes missing; they determine to find him. Zyyagintsev is a very fine but far from subtle director whose film is a state of the nation work much less nuanced than Mungiu's and with an inverse assumption. If Mungiu's film, and recent Romanian cinema generally, looks at those who can't find the wherewithal to care for others as they try to get by, Loveless looks at the getting by who aren't even taking care of their own children. This is a Putin era film that looks at the dubious moral values of the haves rather than the have-nots and Zvyagintsev isn't afraid to take on Putin's Russia, nor be heavy-handed in doing so. But there is a vision here as well as in his previous film, Leviathan, a feeling that the great Russian soul isnow constantly being compromised by its need for wealth and the practice of greed. Russia needs filmmakers like him, he insists. "Otherwise how do the people in power see their true face. In ancient times, kings would have clowns and jesters in court every day. On the one hand, they were there to entertain the king. But on the other they were the only people who were able to tell him the truth" (Guardian) In Loveless, the husband and wife aren't so much bad parents as good capitalists and a toxic couple: they want a better life with someone else and their son is caught in the middle.
However, if we have suggested that Romanian cinema is more interested in the struggling poor, nevertheless Mungiu's Graduation indicates what happens when a comfortably off, adulterous doctor dad will do whatever it takes to help his daughter get into a college abroad to study psychology. After an attack, his daughter is left wearing a wrist bandage which slows her writing down in the exam. She needs perfect grades to get into the college in London, and her dad believes that she would have got them if it hadn't been for the attack He tries to then have her exam paper doctored to give her a better result. This is the opposite of neglect but leaves the doctor no less morally troublesome than the Loveless couple who ignore their child. If loveless explores greed and indifference, Graduation looks at greed and corruption. It is in some ways the opposite of indifference as Mungiu shows Romania to be a small place where everyone knows everyone, and where the wheels of power are evident in the greasing of hands. Like numerous great recent Romanian films (the two already mentioned, as well as Police, Adjective and Aurora), Graduation is slow and methodical, determined to entertain all the variables in the given situation as we witness the lengths the father must go, and the tortured ethical feelings he confronts, as he determines to do well by his daughter. He cares for her indeed, but at what price?
If we find the question of consideration and care a vital one in many contemporary European films we might wonder whether this has been an ongoing interest in European cinema or a particularly contemporaneous issue. When we look back on films by Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Resnais and Bunuel, the problematic would have seemed quite different. Freedom would appear important to Godard and Truffaut, and the complicated nature of it no less significant to Antonioni. Whether it is Jean-Paul Belmondo casually leaving wife and children in Pierrot le fou, or wandering around Paris nonchalantly after committing murder in A bout de souffle, Godard does not prioritise care or concern.Equally, Truffaut is fascinated by the burgeoning freedom of Antoine Doinel in 400 Blows, no matter the parental neglect, and in Catherine's determination live as free a life as she can in Jules et Jim. In Antonioni's great films of the sixties, the question is of emotional atrophication in various guises, from Thomas's ennui in Blow Up, to Lidia's determination to feel in La notte. Bunuel's Belle de Jour shows an uptight bourgeois liberating herself sexually, while Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour emphasises the emotional in the context of the historical, with the centra female character linking her feelings to her own past dating a German soldier and her present moment falling love with a Japanese man in the titular city.
Our purpose in this very brief summation of sixties cinema is to indicate film was interested in different things, and perhaps one way of trying to understand many of Europe's finest recent films is to see them reaching for a new social contract, trying to find a contemporary version of what Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume and Kant were searching out near the end of the 18th century. This would be a very different contract for various reasons, not least those suggested by Jurgen Habermas in The Divided West. "Kant shared with his contemporaries the "humanist" conviction of the superiority of European civilization and the white race. He failed to grasp the import of a selectivity of a particularistic international law that was tailored to a handful of privileged states and Christian nations." "Only these nations", Habermas says, "recognized each other as possessing equal rights and they divided up the rest of the world among themselves into spheres of influence for colonial and missionary purposes." European cinema of the millennium would appear much more interestedi in what Habermas would see as an updating of Kant's cosmopolitanism to incorporate the rest fo the world. After all, Kant believed that "at the risk of arousing the resentment of my brothers of color, I shall say that the Black is not a human... The human is not just a possibility of reprise, of negation... The Black is a black man; that is to say that as the result of a series of aberrations of affect, [the black man] is established at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated...We propose nothing less than the liberation of the man of color from himself." (Kant and the Negro) If such thought is at the centre of our enlightenment values, do we need another social contract that indicates precisely that the non-westerner, the non white-man is very much a human too? Numerous European films of the last fifteen years have put the black and Arab experience into their films, including Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, Haneke's Code: Unknown, Jean Paul Ceveyric's My Friend, Victoria, Abdellatif Kechiche's L'Esquive and Couscous, Jacques Audiard's A Prophet and, with deliberate provocation, Manderlay by Lars von Trier. But the point wouldn't be tokenistically including black or Arabic experience; it would be that the experiences of everyone have the same validity. This is why we speak of care and consideration. Kant's philosophy could not allow for the universality it claimed: only a narrow notion of humanity was incorporated.
If contemporary European cinema has a purpose it might be to counter these presuppositions within the social contract and open it up to beyond the immediate borders of Europe, and also include the question of aging, which leads us to Amour. Life expectancy was around 38.3, admitedly so low because of many deathsi n childbirth and early death. But even if someone were to make it to ten, they would be dead, on average, by 58, no matter if Kant managed to live till 80. Longevity is one of the questions of our time, and thus takes the question of care and consideration into the arena of the very old and increasingly infirm. This is not to say this isn't aquetion of film before - Umberto D. remains a very fine and important film about a man no longer young who becomes ill and without a secure roof over his head. But few films have so arduously and unflinchingly looked at this question of caring for another through old age than Haneke's Amour. The word unflinching is overused in the critical vocabulary so perhaps we should say precisiely what we mean by it, and see how numerous films in recent European cinema have adopted this gaze. The Death of Mr Lazarescu raises similar questions of course, but focuses on the carelessness of the self as much as the care or otherwise of others. But its looks at its subject with the unflinching focus that Amour also adopts, even if Puiu's attention is more haphazard and relaxed, a signature of New Romanian Cinema. Haneke's approach is more classical as he fixates on the ritual retreat of Anne from the world while husband Georges insistently looks after her. The unflinching resides noever more evidently than when we see Georges helping Anne go to the bathroom, and later when he suffocates her with a pillow. This is a look that will not look away, as though our care and concern cannot reside in the innoucuous. It must face the iniquitous: the ontological unfairness of our aging bodies as Haneke casts two long-established actors confronting their own bodily decay: Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The director himself was seventy when he made the film and unlike numerous recent British movies that insist on showing the ageing process as a source of amusement and a demographic cash-in Amour wishes to go the core of care. While The Best Exotic Margold Hotel. My Old Lady and others play to the crowd, Amour attends to the anxities to the infirm body. This is the opposite of the demographic eye on the crowd we see in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with Tim Cagney of the BFI saying "studios are very aware of who their audiences are. They see the demographic is changing and it will see a response in the movies that are released." (Independent) But do we want ageing escapism or films that confront the aging process? Richard Brody of the New Yorker might see in Amour a retentive realism he believes is evident in numerous recent European films, but we are inclined to see in this retention room to manoeuvre: to ruminate and meditate on the image. The relative distance generates not a prosthetic sympathy adopted by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with its numerous close ups, reaction shots and its oriental score, but a sympathy that we have to find within numerous absences. Brody may talk of "the bland goodness and almost unearthly decency of this model couple", in Amour, but one thinks otherwise. Georges looks low-key resentful and at one moment Anne refers to him as a monster. Later in the film he treats a nurse with the disrespect she might deserve, but that hardly makes Georges saintly. Haneke so often asks on a socio-political scale abou the state we are in; here he narrows it down to the state an old couple happen to be in and stays almost exclusively within the confines of the couple's apartment to examine the question. This is care of the most personal sort, but care nevertheless.
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann fascinates not least because it attends to the familial consideration and opens up into the social. A German father is so determined to spend quality time with his busy, corporate daughter that he goes off to Romania in disguise to pester her for a bit of that quality time. Over the course of the film, her loneliness and sorrow are manifest but the film also explores the shifts in Romanian society as big business moves in. Ines is part of that big business and the film amusingly shows the father taking advantage of corporate hospitality while playing havoc with convention. It could have been a low comedy that managed to turn into manipulative of weepie. We see a successful woman fall apart and fall into the arms of a loving dad, but the film isn't interested in Ines's weaknesses. That is not the point. Instead, it wonders what happens to be individual strengths and power is a pretty poor definition of them. At one moment Ines is forced into singing a Whitney Houston song in front of her father and some Romanian locals. It is hardly the best rendition of Houston, but it manages to bring out the fragility of a woman struggling more with herself than he career, well aware that "to love yourself is the greatest love of all". Yet that isn't always so easy unless there is the care and consdieration of others helping along the way. Hence the father's coaxing presence. This is a proper comedy if we regard humour as a sub-category of feeling: what it does is make sure that the maudlin is kept in abeyance while never seeking out a laugh for the sake of it. Ever the greatest comedies are always more than the humour they extract: whether it is Modern Times or Manhattan, Dr Strangelove or His Girl Friday, the jocular sits under the pertinent. They offer not jokey prods but humorous probes. As Ade says "I don't think the film is a comedy. It's a drama where you laugh sometimes. It's so funny that people are calling it a comedy." (Cinemascope) Toni Erdmann manages to use humour to look at this question we have been pursuing throughout: European cinema's millennial interest in care and concern.
© Tony McKibbin