New European Film and Beyond
With the fall of the Soviet Union, many Eastern Bloc films have shown a sense of despondency equal to the collapse. This doesn't mean they are in sympathy with Communism, but they do seem to want to capture a feeling of futility as Socialism disappears, theology has long since left people's lives under the dictates of Communist ideology, and material want becomes a pressing problem. But we should be wary of placing films by Bela Tarr, Sharunas Bartas, Fred Kelemen and others too readily into the realm of historical comprehension. Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies may very much feel like a work coming out of an ideological collapse, but Bela Tarr would want us to look for a broader rationale than the historical if people are going to try and read into his oeuvre.
This Hungarian filmmaker who has been making films since the late seventies, has made only four in the last twenty years: Damnation in 1988, the seven hour long Satantango in 1993, Werckmeister Harmonies in 2001 and The Man from London in 2007. All four films are in black and white, and all four are interested in something meaningful yet abstract. As the director says: "first of all I'd like to make it clear that there are no allegories in any of my films and there are no symbols..." He also insists, "as far as politics is concerned I think it is a dirty business and it's not the object of any piece of art. And we would never make political films. We'd like to do more than that."
But what more might that be? We can propose it's to make a certain type of trandscendental film, a work which escapes the miserabilism of its presentation and arrives at the aesthetic grandeur of its form: it transcends its own subject boundaries with an aesthetic spirit. It may present dubious politics, personal greed and emotional emptiness, but it's as if it wants to contain the hopeless and contingent within the carefully planned and thoroughly aestheticized. Bela Tarr may have said he shot the lengthy opening sequence in Werckmeister Harmonies in one take, but his cameraman insisted there were fifteen to twenty to choose from. If his characters' lives are without too many options; the director insists on having a few of his own. Then there is the music, a loving, hauntingly soulful score by Mihaly Vig that again seems to want to find in the non-diegetic an aesthetic of beauty. Some might find such an approach slightly queasy: that the director aestheticises the awful; turns tragedy into beauty.
But others could argue that by aestheticising the chaos of people's lives, the filmmaker can work with a form of meaning that goes beyond the limitations of Communism, capitalism and theology, and allow art to give purpose once again to their existence. It's like an inversion of the 'vicious' circle; it's an ameliorative circle. Bela Tarr makes a series of very, formal, very precise works about the chaos of a country without ready purpose, and people view a work shot through with their own faithlessness and find a degree of faith in the artistic object. There's a nice, well-known comment by Nietzsche where he talks about art being the supplement to life and that at the same time can raise us to a higher level. When people may feel they've lost hope in the ideological and spiritual apparatuses of their lives - the macro-beliefs, if you like - can they perhaps find hope in the micro-belief of art? This possibility is present not just in Tarr, but also in Kelemen and Bartas's work also, as well as other director from the former Soviet Bloc.
Catherine Breillat has been making films for thirty years, but her international breakthrough was probably with a tale of a young schoolteacher searching out self definition, Romance. This was presumably as much to do with its sexual explicitness and the presence of famous Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi as with anything else, but it was also vaguely, mythically feminist in a way that any number of other loosely feminist films of the nineties happened to be. When Breillat said she saw the film as "an initiate's journey. It is like the myth of King Arthur...", it seemed to fit with the magic realist touches offered by Jane Campion (The Piano, Holy Smoke), Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) and Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda) that proved healthy box-office.
But it would appear more especially consistent with another wave of films that were if not successful then certainly controversial, the abject wave, films that have included Seul Contre Tous, The Piano Teacher and The Pornographer. In this 'genre', the initiate's journey usually contains the pursuit of despair through sex, drugs or violence. In Marie's case in Romance it is sex, as her boyfriend doesn't seem interested in making love, and so she pursues it elsewhere. First with Siffredi whom she picks up in a bar, and then with the school headmaster, with whom she embarks on a sado-masochistic fling. This is obviously a dubious form of feminism, but for Breillat the priority is to explore the feminine through the abject, so that a woman isn't so much the sum of her fetishistic parts, as Freud might have proposed, but closer to the truth of her bodily fluids. Thus a woman shouldn't have constantly to mask her bodily realities in male fantasies, but force herself and the men she's involved with, to confront the basic stuff a woman is made of. This isn't an egoistic purpose but if anything of course its opposite: it's a drive towards rejecting a social identity and searching out something more fundamental.
In this sense it is quite consistent with some of the aims of the indecisive feminist cinema we talked about in the week on ideology, and specifically in relation Je tu il elle. But the priority resides not so much in the indecisiveness of feminism, as in the assertiveness of abjection. Marie here seems determined to let go of her female ego and search for a more fundamental self. This may lead to a number of absurdities, as Breillat foregoes conventional psychology for a semi-utopian/semi-pessimistic perspective on society. There's a strange artificiality to the teaching job she does, the white on white flat in which she lives, and how she interacts with her lovers and - when she has sex with Siffredi she seems more interested in thinking her own thoughts than attending to her lover's needs. But for Breillat this brings out her themes more readily; as though she wants the 'realism' of someone searching out their own identity on their own terms, over conventional psychological realism that would finally once again put her heroine back in her place. It is a theme the film shares with other Breillat works: including Virgin, where a teenager chooses to lose her virginity to a fellow and unattractive teenager over a man she loves, and A Ma Soeur! In the latter, a beautiful older sister loses her virginity without much awareness of the exploitation taking place as she is trapped within her own aggrandizement while the young man flatters and cajoles her. At the end of the film her overweight sister gets raped and strangely, and of course very controversially, seems to perceive it as a less violating action than the one perpetrated upon her sister.
Various German films have proved both critically and relatively commercially successful in the last few years, and indicated German cinema was returning to another glorious period, of which it's had at least two: German Expressionist Cinema in the twenties, and what was called New German Cinema in the seventies. But if anything this visceral German cinema of recent years seems first and foremost a reaction to the pensive work of Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog and the Straubs. In films that include Run Lola Run, Head On, The Edukators and Goodbye, Lenin!, the films usually have faster-paced, more sharply defined stories and are much more audience friendly than audience confrontational. Is this a good thing? Ostensibly, perhaps. But what price does an audience friendly film pay? Let's suggest that Head On, for example, is a very fine film with limitations. Its limitations reside ironically in the skill with which it tells its story, and the fact that many films of the seventies didn't always choose to tell a story at all. They seemed more interested in searching out a problematic; looking to explore post-war German self definition over narrative progression. It is why critic Pauline Kael could say one of its exponents, Wim Wenders, seemed interested in telling a story but couldn't quite keep his mind on it.
Here we might think of two things. One is the degree to which a film is expected to tell a story, that it is no more than visual storytelling. The second concerns what sort of assumptions go into the telling of one. In seventies New German Cinema, the filmmakers often wanted to explore a theme and examine their society more than detail the plot. There was a notion that finally truth was more important than fiction, evidenced in Wenders claim that he filmed images, sometimes they become stories, but if they didn't at least he hadn't lied. There was also Fassbinder's remark that "in my films there shouldn't be feelings that people have already digested or absorbed: the films should create new ones instead," and Straub/Huillet who believed "that we should also make films for minorities, because one can hope that they will become the majorities of the future."
This then was a radical cinema that saw a story merely as a means to an end at best. But the recent German films have decided that the story is what matters most, as the audience responds emotionally to the vicissitudes of the tale rather than intellectually engage with the multifaceted truth seeking. In The Edukators, the film works a high degree of suspense when the leading characters break into apartment buildings and rearrange the furniture as a gesture against capitalism, and again later when they kidnap one of their victims and decide whether or not to trust him. The Baader Meinhoff Complex, meanwhile, plays almost like a Bond film, and can be usefully contrasted with various seventies/early eighties German films touching upon terrorism, from The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum, Germany in Autumn, The German Sisters, to see how much narrative has taken over from enquiry.
Even the more distinctive recent German films have upped the narrative ante and dramatic intensity. In a scene from Head On, the central character gets wound up in a standard moment of forced aggression not very different from any number of Hollywood outings. What's at stake here is that the character is beginning to feel real love for the woman whom he's simply married as an act of convenience. Yet because of his actions as he attacks a man in a bar, he's going to spend several years in prison and away from his loved one, leaving her to go to Istanbul alone, lonely and lost. There's an impressive emotional arc to the film as we really feel for these two souls; for his alcohol fuelled self-destructiveness (at the beginning of the film he careers his car into a wall in an unsuccessful suicide attempt), and her desire to escape from familial obligation. (She slits open her wrist in one scene believing she has no hope and no freedom in her life.) We're by no means suggesting Head On is a minor work' just that it works chiefly through one cinematic register (the telling of a story) instead of exploring, sometimes obscurely, sometimes inexplicably, an approach to cinema that could lead to Fassbinder's idea of new feelings. It is true the film has a potentially distancing device: at various stages it cuts to a Turkish band playing on the port of the Bosphorus anticipating and echoing the story the film tells. But this is more an immediacy device finally than a distancing one as it helps contextualize our feelings. Fatih Akin's film is perhaps the best of the recent German successes, but it still seems quite conventional next to the radical works of two to three decades previously.
Some might think the Dardenne brothers are very much in the tradition of Ken Loach: worthy filmmakers of the downtrodden who want to suggest social iniquity, evident in Rosetta, The Son and The Child. But that is only half the story; the other half concerns how they detail the lives they show, and how they want to suggest a very low key spiritual possibility in their cinema. In an early scene from Rosetta we see the degree to which the central character desperately wants to keep her job, but the Dardennes don't just expect audience empathy based on the subject matter; they want to visualise that desperation, and so the camera scurries around trying to keep up with Rosetta's emotional confusion and desperate desire to stay in work. It would have been easy enough to film the scene in a standard establishing shot moving to close up method of conventional realist drama. But the directors want to capture a feral quality in Rosetta, the sense that not only does she desperately need a job; but that society ought to be equally and desperately trying to find employment for people who are almost going mad with lack of purpose.
Later on in the film we see Rosetta capturing fish; an activity that is halfway between purposeful action and simple culinary need. As she lives with her mother in a trailer park, there's the sense that all she wants is a normal life - her mother's an alcoholic who can barely rouse herself. Perhaps what is most interesting about Rosetta is its perspective, a perspective that sees the social element as merely part of the whole. The brothers have invoked Kafka, saying "we thought of the character of K from The Castle...who cannot enter the castle, who is always rejected in the village, who asks himself whether he really exists. That gave us the idea of a girl who's cast aside, who wants to gain something that'll allow her back into society, but it's always repulsed."
It's as though what finally interests the Dardennes is the question of what allows someone to exist, and they want to work through the social permeation towards a more fundamental notion of being. Therein lies the low-key spiritual aspect. For we have Rosetta willing do almost anything to get a job, so much so that in one scene after she's layed off, she tells her former boss that her friend, who sells waffles for him, has been selling his own waffles under the counter. Rosetta hopes that her revelation will get him fired and she can take the job herself. This is exactly what happens, but does she come to realise that perhaps there is more to existence than a job; doesn't it include our relations with other people, our codes of conduct and a belief in something bigger than ourselves?
One of the key tenets of realism is that things happen to characters rather than characters being able to dictate their own lives. The Dardennes suggest that the former is generally true but it doesn't complete negate the possibility of little moments of amplitude, of self-recognition, no matter the despair. If we are to read the ending as remotely optimistic, it might lie in this awareness that moments of personal freedom, moments of very personal decision making, are possible in even the most awful predicaments. This doesn't let an appalling social system off the hook, and the angry Dardennes are quite happy to lambast late-capitalism for the way "not to work...puts you outside society. You lose your points of reference, you unravel, you don't know your place anymore, or even if you still have one." But even from this awful place there are other people, and one's own conscience. How to find a reference point, the Dardennes seem to be asking, that reflects the needs of the soul and not only society?
One of the great young hopes of British cinema, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has directed Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. The former was loved by many and the latter regarded as a mess by an almost equal number. However, what Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher seem to want to do is search out the characters' moral dilemmas without allowing the character to register these dilemmas through conventional narrative and dialogue. This makes especial sense in her debut feature: James Gillespie is a twelve year old boy who has witnessed his friend die in the canal and feels partly responsible. Samantha Morton's titular character in Morvern Callar is a few years older, a young woman looking to explore the possibilities in her life, but does so in the wake of her boyfriend's demise. She doesn't report his suicide, she just takes off and the film follows her meandering attempt to find herself with an issue lurking perhaps at the back of her consciousness, certainly with it still there in the Highland village she chooses to leave.
Morality doesn't appear, first and foremost, to interest Ramsay, we might suspect. What really intrigues her is something much more cinematic: attention. If so often critics and theorists talk about cinema being above all about the story, then we could also argue that a moral ethos is often extracted from that narrative: is not the very notion of a morality tale this coming together of a story told and a morality revealed? But what if a film is attentive rather than moral? Throughout Morvern Callar there is an attention to sensitive detail over the necessary moral arc. Through working very closely from Morvern's emotional point of view, the film shows us numerous things that perhaps a narratively preoccupied filmmaker would have eschewed. There is the lingering over her friend's granny's infirmity, the lengthy scene of ritual humiliation when on a Club Med holiday in Spain various characters are expected, damn near forced, to play swimming pool games, with Morvern nevertheless looking on rather than actively engaged. In such scenes the film allows us to see a burgeoning awareness cross Morvern's mind even as the more obvious narrative details suggest amorality. In one scene she accepts her ex's unpublished novel as her own and publishes it for a tidy sum of money, an amoral activity in most people's eyes.
But then we're not looking at the film the eyes of most people, and that is the film's strength, even if for many it leads to numerous weaknesses: weaknesses concerning its meandering approach where events never quite gather narrative shape. There is a nice term from the French critic Philippe Arnaud, though, where he talks of 'refractory characters': figures who remain unknowable to themselves. What we find in modern cinema is frequently this type of character: to some degree Marie in Romance is a refractory figure, and even Rosetta. In this instance Morvern's refractory aspect is useful because it allows Morvern to know less herself, than the director to use Morvern to search out the world. In this sense Ramsay seems not so much a psychological director than a phenomenological one, an observational, filmmaker who wants to show attentiveness over morality. Like other recent filmmakers, including Andrea (Red Road, Fish Tank) Arnold and Lucrecia (La Cienaga; The Headless Woman) Martel, there is a tactile gaze, a close in view that concentrates on the details of things over the arc of the story.
© Tony McKibbin