Planetary Realignments

Planetary Realignments

Last night a teenager killed himself below my bedroom window. I heard it happen: first a crescendo of police sirens coming up the avenue at two in the morning, then a crash.


Last night a teenager killed himself below my bedroom window. I heard it happen: first a crescendo of police sirens coming up the avenue at two in the morning, then a crash. The car was a big new Range Rover, which the kid had thought he could swerve at high speed into a side street–just like in the movies. At 9 today, the remains of his evasive maneuver were still spread over the sidewalk. A neighbor told me he died bare to the waist.

Walk around the streets of any big city and you, too, will see young people careen toward fatality, or damn close enough. Those out-of-control journeys have now become the special subject of filmmaker Erick Zonca. His first feature, The Dreamlife of Angels, won extraordinary praise (in these pages, as elsewhere) for charting the intersecting paths of two young women in the north of France: members of the working class who don’t work much, and who form an intense friendship till temperament pulls them apart.

Now two shorter films by Zonca are showing up on screens in the United States. (In New York, they’re at Film Forum through March 14.) Alone, a half-hour piece, was made just before The Dreamlife of Angels. The hourlong The Little Thief was made just after. Spare, direct and unsentimental, yet crafted with a moviemaker’s touch, they give us two more portraits of impecunious young people on their way toward catastrophe.

Alone and The Little Thief turn out to be a matched set: the first focusing on a girl who loses her job and her housing within the opening scene, the second on a boy who does the same. Both characters have leather jackets and bad attitudes; both fall in with companions of the same sex, who for a while seem instructive; both get in trouble with the law. That said, Alone is a more anecdotal piece, which sucks down its protagonist as efficiently as a fast-running drain. The Little Thief finds more time to invent circumstances and observe the surroundings, so that its protagonist has a measure of the free will that’s used and abused in The Dreamlife of Angels.

Set in Paris, Alone begins in the middle of traffic, through which Amélie (Florence Loiret) darts on her way toward work. She’s a waitress, though not for long. Fired for chronic tardiness and a manner that upsets the patrons’ digestion, she returns to her apartment to find that an African family has just moved in. What few belongings she has, the landlord will keep till she pays her back rent. “I’ll go on TV and denounce you!” she screams–which is as good a plan as she makes for the rest of the movie.

Thin, fine-featured and haggard, with eyes that burn beneath her dark, blunt-cut hair, Amélie retires to a doorway in which to smoke and brood. It’s while she’s slumped there, knees to chin, that Zonca introduces one of the two key objects in the film: A gun literally drops into her possession. She tucks it into her bag with the film’s other key object: 500 francs in severance pay, which she was given in the opening scene. We now know exactly how much money Amélie has to her name and exactly how long it will last. (She’s checked into a dump that costs 100 francs a night.) The only questions remaining are when she’ll pull the gun, and how.

Being a realist, more or less, Zonca knows it’s not that easy to use a gun–especially not for a young woman who has never before been on the street. While on her downward path, which takes her through a day job at an open-air market to a night in a homeless shelter and at last to a point of crisis in an immigrant neighborhood on the outskirts of town, Amélie does everything she can think of with the gun. She tries flaunting it, selling it, dumping it. Begging is easier, almost. She’s taught how by a young woman of similar size and coloring (Veronique Octon), who might be a foreshadowing of Amélie in a few months’ time. But it seems the future won’t take exactly that form. When Amélie at last tries to beg, she has to force her arm into place, clutching her left hand against the right arm’s crook. It’s a pose you’d assume while waiting for a tourniquet.

The protagonist of The Little Thief has no more talent for crime than does Amélie; he just tries a lot harder. “S” (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a thin, rosy-mouthed guy with close-cropped dirty-blond hair: a kid who might be mistaken for the young Keir Dullea, had Dullea ever worn a scar on his brow or sweated out a job in a bakery in Orléans. It’s a job that “S” keeps for less than a minute of screen time. Declaring his unwillingness to be a wage slave–or, as he puts it, to suck the boss’s cock–“S” quickly commits an act of heartless petty thievery and takes off for Marseilles.

By the time we catch up with him, through one of those abrupt cuts that are a signature of Zonca’s style, “S” has fallen in with a young crew in a cafe. The handheld camera jumps from the face of one to another, as they talk about the filthy wealth of all politicians, Socialist and National Front alike. “S” says nothing. He’s here to ingratiate himself and learn, and also to make a few francs by helping the crew take revenge on the rich. Another cut, and the camera is following the boys through the burglary of a beautiful house in the hills.

So begins an apprenticeship in violence, which is carried out principally at a boxing gym and in the staircases and passageways of Marseilles’s cheaper apartment buildings. The single overriding lesson: Make yourself harder. Once unwilling to show up on time at a bakery, “S” now has a job that requires him to empty chamber pots, put up with sexual taunting and endure repeated bludgeonings in the ring. The worse “S” is treated, the more furiously he throws himself into learning to be tough–which means the teaching method works. But the pupil in this case is of limited aptitude. He’s clumsy enough to bloody himself while shadow-boxing, angry enough to let his rage get loose against his crew boss instead of an acceptable target.

What’s most fascinating throughout this apprenticeship is the silence it entails. Although “S” talks a lot during the film’s opening scenes, using a bass voice that seems too big for his body, he has to choose his words carefully once he’s in Marseilles. Then, past a certain point in the story, he no longer talks at all.

Is he able to? There’s some doubt. “S” may have been rendered mute by an act of bloodletting, one that Zonca presents so graphically that Tarantino himself might avert his eyes. That’s the moviemaker side of Zonca. He constructs his pictures so they’ll give him opportunities to grab you–and he knows how. The filmmaker side comes out through the silence that follows. In the final scene, which is all the more devastating for its calm, someone offers “S” a political voice. Here’s a flier, says an honest working man. We’re going to fight. “S” takes the paper, drags on his cigarette and says nothing. Apparently, he doesn’t feel the need for a political voice. He has a razor blade, and that’s enough.

Grateful for small favors, I now praise the new film by Mike Nichols–or Garry Shandling, or any of half a dozen other people–What Planet Are You From?

Hollywood, when it existed, used to be good at making this kind of team-created light entertainment. Now I stare in wonder when producers manage to assemble a group of extraordinarily talented people and let them do their jobs–although in this case, I would guess, they didn’t work too hard.

Shandling, who was one of four writers on the film, plays H1449-6, an extraterrestrial being who temporarily takes the name of Harold Anderson upon coming to Earth. The mission of this sexless creature, agent of an advanced and ambitious civilization bent on universal conquest: to use the mechanical penis with which he has been outfitted, and use it quickly. The aliens intend to breed us Earthlings off the planet. The baby whom Harold fathers will be the tip of the vanguard.

The joke, of course, is not that an alien should take the form of Shandling, with his rumpled face and please-don’t-bother-me manner. The joke is that an alien should be just like Shandling and every other heterosexual Earthman: in a big hurry to put his penis into a woman, and then in a big hurry to find the TV remote. What Planet Are You From? therefore proposes a sentimental education for both its protagonist and a large portion of the audience. Harold will have to learn to talk to a woman, instead of saying “Uh-huh, uh-huh” and then making a grab.

The woman who provides the learning experience is Susan Hart, a recovering alcoholic who thinks she’s finally overcome whatever makes her choose the wrong man. Since she marries Harold after one date, she clearly has some learning to do as well. I’m pleased to say that Susan, who works as a real estate agent, is played by Annette Bening. The last time Bening pretended to be a realtor, in American Beauty, she had to make herself into a gargoyle. In What Planet Are You From? she gets to be human–which is both an improvement and the point of the movie.

Shandling, too, learns to be human–or at least a different kind of human from the one he first embodies, suavely reeling off pickup lines as if imitating Jerry Lewis imitating Dean Martin in The Nutty Professor. In time, he becomes whining, querulous–more like Garry Shandling.

A passing pleasure–but I’ll take it.

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