January: an excellent time to look back on The Past and other late releases of 2013 and look forward to the new year’s films, starting with Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. There is much to be said for that impressively controlled French thriller, not least that it brings a warm breath of summer into the winter months. Before I get to Guiraudie’s film, though, let’s talk about the problem picture of December 2013, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Because Scorsese has a mind full of movies, it’s possible to guess what he was thinking about at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street: the last shot in King Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd. Vidor, you may recall, finishes his portrait of a terrifyingly, heartbreakingly ordinary family by showing a face-on image of them in a theater, laughing at a vaudeville performance. Then Vidor pulls back the camera to reveal dozens, hundreds, seemingly thousands of their fellow theatergoers responding identically to the show. He leaves you staring vertiginously into a mirror image of the audience in which you sit, where you see yourself reduced to a dot. In a similar spirit, The Wolf of Wall Street also ends at a performance: a lecture that will supposedly reveal get-rich-quick techniques, given by Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the brazenly amoral financial huckster who in real life is a convicted felon and in the movie is the main subject and narrator. As the scene concludes, Scorsese runs his camera over the rows and rows of Belfort’s dull-eyed, blank-faced spectators, and at last you see the people who have been missing from the story for the preceding three hours: the suckers who gave their money to this crook. Look into the mirror, says Scorsese. They’re you.
With this closing gesture, Scorsese finally, if tacitly, passes judgment on Belfort, who until this point has been allowed to run as wild as any picaro. At the same time, though, Scorsese implies a retrospective justification of Belfort’s career, hinting that a man of such energy and talent could scarcely have restrained himself from fleecing these sheep. What strikes me about this finale is that it’s the only moment of ambiguity to be found in The Wolf of Wall Street, and the only instance in which Scorsese alludes to a monument of film history. For the rest of the picture, it seems to me that he’s thinking about the collected works of the Three Stooges.
It would be a dangerously brilliant insight, if in fact that’s what Scorsese has done, to imagine the Stooges as a counterpart to Jordan Belfort’s business enterprise: on the one hand, a highly profitable but frantically churning production unit that spat out two-reelers from Hollywood’s Poverty Row without benefit of recognized authorship or taste; on the other, a lucrative, crass and deeply fraudulent penny-stock operation that emerged from the Poverty Row of Long Island boiler rooms without benefit of any credential other than a classy-sounding name, Stratton Oakmont. The faint simulacrum of Wall Street professionalism that Belfort put up at his headquarters, and the opulence of the toys (human, mechanical and pharmaceutical) that he bought with his loot, could never disguise the nature of Stratton Oakmont’s business, which was valueless, in all senses of the word, even by the standards of the financial services industry. In much the same way, the dazzling high gloss of Scorsese’s production, with its luxury of partying crowds and penthouse settings, does not cover up the essential Stoogeness of the movie’s proceedings.
I don’t think Scorsese wants to cover it up. DiCaprio, with bottle-brown hair sculpted just so and free-floating aggression telegraphed by his every gesture, clearly functions as the story’s fast-talking, overbearing, plan-spinning Moe. (To quote the words of the immortal Homer, “Moe is their leader.” The Simpsons, #9F01.) Jonah Hill, with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and an abundance of wavy hair, is the Larry equivalent, alternately currying favor and dithering into hysterics as Belfort’s partner Donnie Azoff (an invented name). In place of Curly, we have the muscular, bullet-headed Jon Bernthal as Brad, a drug dealer and bagman who provokes slapstick and police activity. Margot Robbie provides the obligatory woo-woo-woo as Belfort’s second wife—really, that’s the extent of her job—and Jean Dujardin fulfills the duties of the upper-crust foil.
Conceptually, the scheme is a stroke of genius, made all the more daring by Scorsese’s willingness to abandon all claims to respectability to carry it through. Unfortunately, though, Scorsese did not abandon the epic scale of his ambitions along with his auteurism. The result might have been predictable to anyone who has tried to sit through more than three Stooges shorts in a row. The characteristic traits build up, intolerably: the grinding pace, the deadening repetition, the pointless wordiness (Terence Winter’s screenplay never shuts up), the self-congratulatory nyuk-nyuks. I suppose the wretchedness of the excess is to Scorsese’s credit—though, really, by the time Jonah Hill effectively coughed a half-chewed hot dog into my face, I felt I’d laughed enough.
Socially conscious moviegoers who believe that artists should act as public scolds might not enjoy this slog themselves but will perhaps recommend it for others, on the grounds that somebody out there needs to see an exposé. Avant-gardish types might instead justify the experience by invoking the Bukowski fallacy—the belief that the most authentic artistic response to a nauseating reality is to vomit. Subscribing to neither view, and reluctant to think that Scorsese has gone so wrong, I have tried to talk myself into the enthusiasm that some of my trusted friends feel for The Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe, on the day I saw it, my responses were simply off. I have to admit, though, that all through the screening I kept muttering the same thing about this movie that I say about our current reign of financial despots: “I can’t wait for it to be over.”
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The people in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake are always watching one another, and yet they try not to think much about what they see. Heads turn appraisingly, cautiously, questioningly every time young Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) walks down the sandy path from a parking area and enters the film’s sole location: a beach by a secluded, sparkling lake nestled in the mountains of southwestern France. Frequent point-of-view shots tell us that Franck returns the gaze of his onlookers and scans the beach in his turn, reviewing the men who gather to swim and sunbathe in the nude and then stroll into the pine forest for further recreational activity.
Over the course of the story’s several days—a time frame that Guiraudie meticulously constructs out of repeated, matching views of the parking area, beach and woods, from dappled morning through dusk and beyond—Franck notices two men in particular and acts on what he learns about them, behaving in ways that a more disinterested observer (for example, the moviegoer) might not. Such discrepancies are the stuff of normal life, and of good suspense thrillers.
Out of kindness or curiosity, Franck seeks out conversations with a newcomer to the lake named Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao). A great-bellied man with a face that would look good on a sculptural beer mug, Henri is ten or fifteen years older than the average beach visitor and sits at a remove from everyone. What separates him from the others is neither physical beauty—a voyeur who is only slightly more presentable roams the woods freely, masturbating at the sight of the lovemaking—nor social class (Franck sells vegetables in the market when he’s employed; Henri is a logger). The difference, which astonishes Franck, is that Henri comes from a milieu where men avid for sex with other men always have a wife or steady girlfriend on hand. Henri, who seems to have lost this layer of protection, professes a gruff, nonjudgmental surprise at the undisguised cruising at the lake. For someone who takes care to appear unconcerned about these comings and goings, though, he keeps very good track of them, including those of the newcomer who is most in Franck’s sights.
His name is Michel—a detail that Franck won’t learn until after the first coupling—and, as embodied by Christophe Paou, he is everything that Henri is not: athletic, flirtatious, slightly exotic (his French has a Mediterranean flavor), and as chisel-chinned and thickly mustached as a Tom of Finland illustration. As Franck soon learns, and as we learn through Franck’s eyes, Michel is also extremely dangerous. The moral and emotional engine of Stranger by the Lake is Franck’s decision to keep that secret knowledge to himself.
For Franck, his pairings with Michel are a tangle in which physical excitement cannot be separated from guilt and foreboding. For Guiraudie, a thoroughly unsentimental filmmaker who might be described as part Hitchcock and part Akerman, this tangle is not to be unwound but rather observed, within an immaculately built structure. One element of that framework consists of matter-of-fact, unsimulated sex. (The accusations of phoniness raised against Blue Is the Warmest Color will never be heard about Stranger by the Lake.) Another element is the landscape, gorgeously photographed in widescreen format by Claire Mathon, with the colors and sounds juiced in post-production to hallucinatory levels. There is no background music at all—if memory serves, not even a tune from a car radio. The only emotional prompts Guiraudie needs to give you about his characters’ plunges toward ecstasy, or their gropings through suppressed feelings and knowledge, come from within the scenes, through variations of light: the glory at full noon, the twilight that silhouettes and suggests, the enveloping darkness that a parked car’s isolated light makes that much deeper.
I suppose it would be possible to receive all this as merely a cautionary anecdote—at base, a slice of sociology—about risky behavior in one sector of gay life. Perhaps Guiraudie wouldn’t reject that reading. He obviously cares deeply about grounding his story in the specificity of its region, and he is not above having one of his characters deliver a stinging lecture to another about communal responsibility. That said, he has given Stranger by the Lake a grandeur that goes beyond the anecdotal. You see it both in the expansiveness of the setting and in the faithfulness of a born filmmaker to the materials of cinema. Guiraudie will demonstrate how one man (like many others) can make himself fatally blind, and he will show you how to make a movie.
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In his extraordinary 2011 drama A Separation, Asghar Farhadi pulled off in full measure the great but often elusive trick of realistic fiction: making the private conflicts of his characters devastating in themselves and revelatory of the tensions within their society. In The Past, the first film Farhadi has shot outside Iran, the influences of class, religion and politics have dropped away. He has nothing he wants to tell you about French society—not even how its attitudes and assumptions might affect a citizen of Arab background, or a former resident who has returned from Tehran on family business. The most you can say is that something feels provisional in the lives of all the members of this film’s troubled, extended family—people who have gotten fixed in a terrible situation and yet remain rootless in their place.
The fortunate one is the most transient: Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who is planning to stay in France only long enough to conclude his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo). She still lives in the house they once occupied together on the outskirts of Paris—a place that sits immediately next to the commuter rail tracks and is undergoing a do-it-yourself renovation that looks as if it might never end. Ahmad does not intend to rest here again, but like everybody in The Past, he gets stuck. Recruited by his own conscience, he tries to apply his calm demeanor and slow, reasonable speech to resolving the bitter struggles surrounding Marie’s intended next marriage, to a dry cleaner named Samir (Tahar Rahim, best known from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet). Samir’s young son is furious and wants to run away from Marie’s house. Marie’s elder daughter (to whom Ahmad has been a stepfather) is even more furious and wants to run away, too. Samir himself doesn’t know whether to come or go. The only person definitely staying put is Samir’s existing wife—who is hospitalized in a coma from which she is not expected to awake—but the more Ahmad learns about how and why the wife wound up in that condition, the more evident it becomes that everyone is going to remain trapped.
In a season when other movies of family tragedy want to make you feel good, like Philomena, and stories about yearning for escape and redemption are mostly chucklesome and well-meaning, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Past draws you into something far more compelling. It lacks the scope of A Separation; it’s more forced in its conceit of the outsider uncovering dark truths. But once its momentum sets in, the narrative spiral of The Past pulls you straight down, irresistibly.