Young, thatch-headed Jeremie Renier has a paradox of a face. The level eyes are shadowed, the cheeks are hollow and creases have set around the mouth, where his lips tug upward in a chronic grin. The features are too old for his twenty or so years; and yet they also seem unfinished, as if the jackknife
of experience were still carving them. You can see the want of modeling in the nose and chin, squared off by preliminary strokes and awaiting refinement. The plan, perhaps, is to make him handsome–or to forgo boyishness for a rougher effect.
You have plenty of time to think about this face while watching L’Enfant, because the lens stays close to Renier, as it generally does to actors in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. This, too, is a paradox. The character Renier plays in L’Enfant, like so many of the Dardennes’ protagonists, is a young scuffler of the Belgian streets who sleeps sometimes in the homeless shelter and sometimes in a cardboard box by the river’s edge. He feels no need for a fixed abode; yet the camera’s frame houses him, snugly and perpetually, however restless he becomes.
In the role of Bruno, a petty thief knocking around an industrial town, Renier is so much in motion that he can barely pause to look at his newborn son. When freckled, dirty-blond Sonia (Deborah Francois) tracks him down, having just come out of a hospital he hadn’t bothered to visit, she finds Bruno engaged in his version of multitasking: walking down the middle of a street so he can panhandle from motorists while looking out for a burglary in progress. She shows him the bundle in her arms; he responds with a boisterous sexual overture and a cell-phone call to his accomplices. What’s the kid’s name? Oh, right–Jimmy.
Here, in summary, you have L’Enfant, a film about roads and cell phones, decaying buildings and people who ought to be budding, indifference masked by buffoonery, the belief that money just floats around. When concentrated in and around a soft kid who mistakenly thinks he’s tough, these elements naturally produce the crime on which the plot turns: Bruno sells his son to unknown traffickers in exchange for a wad of cash.
An item for the tabloids, you might think. What could make you care about it, other than the peculiarities of an actor’s face, or the notion that you, too, might have been a Bruno, but for the grace of God and a grasp of cause and effect? There is no question of your identifying with the character; if the Dardennes give their sympathy to anyone, it’s Sonia. She’s the figure you see first (in one of those tight, hand-held closeups), the one who takes you through the streets and leads you to Bruno; and after his story is played out, she’s present again in the last shot, to inspire and share the single, profound moment of catharsis that concludes the film. But she’s not the one on whom L’Enfant dwells. The film lingers on Bruno–and simply by doing so, it justifies this worthless man as a worthy central character.
Once he’s decided to sell the baby, the rhythm of L’Enfant changes; the jumpiness of the early scenes gives way to a steadier pace as the camera follows Bruno to the outskirts of the city, to his rendezvous with the unseen traffickers. The Dardennes want you to experience the lengths to which he’ll go for his crime. And when he gets to the scene of the exchange, where he stands alone in a dimly lit apartment, the Dardennes want you to know what it’s like for him to wait, for once in his life. Half in shadow, he listens anxiously for the buyers to come and go. (It’s easy to hear footsteps in a Dardenne film; there’s never a music track, only ambient sound.) After long, long moments comes a brief interruption–Bruno rushes toward his money. And then time stretches again, as the Dardennes insist on showing Bruno’s return to the city.
This patient rhythm, which somehow will continue even during a chase through the streets, has nothing to do with the ironic, distancing longueurs of a Jarmusch or Kaurismaeki, or with the meditativeness of a Hou Hsiao-hsien. Like the Dardennes’ close framing and tracking, their use of natural light and ambient sound, it’s something more intimate–a way of clinging to the character and feeling the moral weight of his actions, even when he does not. That’s why it’s possible to care about inept, thoughtless Bruno, and care deeply, when at last he, too, feels the gravity.
He has been through his tabloid-crime adventure. He has ended the spree (if that’s what you’d call it) by finally doing the right thing, though not entirely for the right reason. Now, in the closing scene, his cockiness gone, Bruno sits down with Sonia and for once shows an emotion appropriate to the occasion. What sets it off? An offer of vending-machine coffee; everything. The mystery, in this film that has been made so studiously out in the open, without mysteries, is that even a plastic cup now matters. Bruno is meeting Sonia for the first time, at the very end of L’Enfant–and instead of being restless, he’s moving.
War is peace. Ignorance is knowledge. And the torrent of argle-bargle coursing through V for Vendetta is a transgressive, liberating discourse set loose within the most eye-popping thrill-ride of the year!
Your attention, please, for the latest exercise in double-think by the Wachowski brothers, authors of The Matrix Revolutions and other masterpieces.
The Future! England grovels before a huge televisual image of John Hurt, his unfortunate dentition (even nastier in IMAX) forever issuing spittle-flecked decrees. This is the face of a fascist new order, which rules (as you might have guessed) by the old order’s usual methods: propaganda broadcasts, manufactured fears, police violence, shadowy prison camps. Who, or what, can challenge the regime? Not a man, surely, but an idea incarnate; a masked, wigged and caped avenger, with cool knives and karate moves; a living reminder of the spirit of Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot; in a letter, V.
Or, more prosaically, Hugo Weaving, here done up in a cheap Halloween costume, spouting alliterative nonsense and Shakespearean tags in the voice of Keane the Elder.
Now, into V’s hands falls one Evey (Natalie Portman), a lovely but apparently dim-witted young thing who wanders the streets after curfew and accepts invitations from masked men she’s only just met. She will hate V. She will love him. She will sigh, in voiceover, about the impossibility of kissing an idea, and yet she will tenderly press her lips to the plastic of V’s mask. I don’t think she knows what she wants.
But if you want simulated knife-throwing, chaotically edited fight scenes, ponderous musical cliches (the 1812 Overture, Beethoven’s Fifth), wholesale borrowings from 1984, strained allusions to the Bush Administration and Fox News, lengthy and yet inconsequential protests against the ostracism of gays and lesbians, a muddled girl-in-peril plot and some gee-whiz production design, V for Vendetta is the movie for you. Never mind that the Wachowskis’ characteristically logorrheic script defeats at every turn first-time director James McTeigue, who has been asked to make a comic-book movie but can’t possibly keep it going. V for Vendetta is about the idea of a comic-book movie, you see, and the idea of liberation.
Some liberation. By dint of his heroics, V gets England’s narcotized citizenry to abandon their television sets, gather in the streets and become–an audience, passively watching a sound-and-light show. The cops, being just ideas of themselves, do nothing. The bombing of the Houses of Parliament–what an excellent target, for someone striking back at a dictator!–is also just an idea, and therefore can be very pretty, for a wanton act of destruction. And should all these big ideas give you a headache, Evey will explain that this blow for freedom has been struck by (I quote) “the Count of Monte Cristo.”
Revenge is liberty. I can’t recall hearing that particular idea from Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama or the makers of Batman Begins. But, as the Wachowski brothers would say, that’s another paradigm.
Documania: Though unable to do justice to the many extraordinary documentaries now in release, I might at least summarize a few.
Shakespeare Behind Bars, directed by Hank Rogerson, takes you into the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky, where theater director Curt Tofteland is beginning his seventh season of volunteer work with a company of inmates. Each year, he directs them in a play by Shakespeare, the choice this time being The Tempest. A prison is like an island, Tofteland reasons, where the inhabitants have time to think about the theme of forgiveness. In description, this may sound like Waiting for Guffman in striped uniforms; but on the screen, Shakespeare Behind Bars is absorbing, illuminating, wrenching and provocative. You get to know half a dozen of these Calibans–killers, armed robbers, child molesters–who do think hard about forgiveness, as they struggle to find the truth of themselves within Shakespeare’s truth.
Toro Negro (Black Bull), by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio and Carlos Armella, is a portrait of the young bullfighter Fernando Pacheco, whose performances at festivals and fairs in Yucatan have earned him the nickname El Suicida. You will see him gored and trampled (a consequence of his complete lack of technique, not to mention his alcoholism), and you will see him pass the idle hours by alternately cuddling and brawling with Romelia, an older woman who has taken him in. The domestic fights end when someone from behind the camera appeals to Fernando to stop. The “bullfights” end when he’s carried off, or else stabs clumsily at a half-starved beast until it collapses. This is harsh, intense, yet artfully shaped filmmaking that continually takes you one step further than you thought you’d go.
The Devil’s Miner, by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, is an extraordinarily powerful account of two brothers–14-year-old Basilio and 12-year-old Bernardino–who risk their lives in Bolivia’s mines. When on the outside, Basilio goes to school (he hopes someday to escape the mines) and prays to Jesus. When on the inside, he works twenty-four-hour shifts on a nearly exhausted vein and gives coca-leaf offerings to a clay idol of Tio, the devil who controls the mine. A Human Rights Watch title of First Run Features, The Devil’s Miner will be broadcast by PBS following its theatrical release.
Mardi Gras: Made in China was screened in the 2005 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, before Hurricane Katrina had wiped out half of filmmaker David Redmon’s subject. The other half–a wretched factory in China, where Mardi Gras beads are made–is presumably standing and deserves your attention. This is one of the best films I know about real (as opposed to op-ed) globalization. Please welcome it to the theaters.n