This was the summer when the movies were so bad, people were reduced to complaining about a Mel Gibson film they hadn’t seen. Maybe his yet-to-be-released picture about Jesus would turn out to be awful–or maybe not–but at least it sounded as if it might be worth an opinion. How many seconds of conversation could you wring from the actually existing blockbusters? Much of what I saw in the multiplexes this summer I let pass unremarked in these pages, since (wrack my brains as I might) I could find nothing much to say about films such as The Hulk, except that it had very strangely transformed the Bad Dad into a burned-out Berkeley hippie, or Pirates of the Caribbean, except that Johnny Depp had given a very similar performance, in better company, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Not that the summer was a complete loss for big studio movies. While Finding Nemo was busy making a bundle, it also upheld the honor of American commercial movie-making; and if you had a 4-year-old at home, it set loose many hours of talk, some of which might touch upon the movie itself. But what Finding Nemo did, it accomplished virtually single-finned. The summer’s other wounded-animal epic, Seabiscuit, achieved a smidgen of critical honor but no great success. I ran across few people who were burning to discuss it; and there were none who cared to join me in pondering the unjustly maligned Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. (Where, among the critics, was this film’s Jacques Rivette, ready to declare that the proof of its director’s genius lay simply and self-evidently in what you saw on the screen?)
So, with relief, I now mark the close of summer, and do so with news of two films from far outside the American commercial apparatus. They are the first features of young, talented filmmakers whose pictures are now opening in the United States after winning prizes at international festivals (where the young are marked as talented). The cheaper of the two movies (in all senses) and the better, Suddenly (Tan de Repente), comes from Argentina, where it was written and directed by Diego Lerman, based none too literally on the novel La Prueba by César Aira. The grander, more impressive-looking film, Carnage, comes officially from France but is also (by the wonders of co-production) from Spain and Belgium, where it was directed by Delphine Gleize, based on some odd ideas that were knocking around in her head.
Of course the reason people go to such pictures, or read about them, is not just to have a good time today but to guess at what moviedom might look like tomorrow. (I mean the sliver of movie territory that will be left unoccupied by either Terminator 6: Recall of the Machines or the release on DVD of installments one through five.) Looking ahead from the viewpoint of Suddenly and Carnage, I venture to predict this much: South America will remain home to at least one practitioner of an actor-centered, observational cinema, while Europe will continue to harbor at least one director of image-centered moral fables.
Carnage is in fact such a European Union of moralized images, all buzzing synchronistically among characters who often don’t know one another, that you might think Gleize was trying to stuff a whole Kieslowski trilogy into a 130-minute feature. The weightiest of her symbols, at more than 500 kilos, is a bull named Romero, who dies in a ring in the south of Spain and is cut into pieces. The horns go to a man in Belgium; the eyes, to his estranged brother; the meat (cooked in red wine) to a Spanish woman; a bone to some characters in the north of France and, through them, to a dog. Even the matador gets a piece of the bull, after having been gored. As he lies in the hospital in a coma, three of his colleagues come by with the ear he’s been awarded and tuck it unsanitarily under his mattress.
Everyone who is touched by the bull changes in some way; but these magical results of the animal’s death and dismemberment are only the most obvious of the correspondences and coincidences that run through Carnage. The matador is gored; and a man at an ice-skating rink rams his head, bull-like, against the wall. A little girl with epilepsy is cradled by her schoolteacher; and a timid would-be actress is cradled at a psychotherapy session. The girl makes room for her parents’ enormous dog, which continually crowds her; and a pregnant woman decides to bark at her neighbors through a crack in the door. Add to this far-from-complete list the various emergency vehicles, bandages, flaked-off body parts, animal costumes, stuffed heads and arenas that figure in the film, and you’ve got a system of motifs that’s as elaborately, obsessively controlled as Gleize’s CinemaScope compositions.
Fortunately, a lot of what she does with these motifs turns out to be funny. The delicate equilibrium of Gleize’s world is always tipping, but it’s no more likely to collapse in the direction of disaster than of slapstick, which her camera placements keep cool and droll. Objects and people have a way of going bump when they come to the edge of her frame, as if the visual limits she’d set were real. When that happens, at least some of her characters react with slow burns or deadpan astonishment. Chiara Mastroianni, who has the looks and bloodline of a duchess, plays charmingly against type as the awkward, inhibited actress, who is cast only in sales promotions at supermarkets. Long-faced, shambling Jacques Gamblin brings a well-frayed patience to the role of the eye researcher with the pregnant, barking wife; and Clovis Cornillac, whose shaved skull resembles a lightbulb that somebody ought to turn on, wanders through the proceedings as a philosopher who has given up thinking. Most notable among the characters who aren’t funny is the great Angela Molina–still beautiful, still the magnet who turns all other actors into rings of iron filings–in the role of a woman who is losing her ability to pretend.
But pretend about what? Why is she starting to crack, apart from Gleize’s notion that she ought to? How does a dinner of bull stew push her to desperate action? For that matter, what is Gamblin supposed to be doing with those bull’s eyes, other than “working” with them? How come his brother, the taxidermist, is such a repressed, mother-dominated loner? (I know, that’s the description of all movie taxidermists.) And what makes the little girl, Winnie, so all-knowing? In the image-centered tradition that Gleize is practicing, the pattern is supposed to provide the master answer, eliminating the need for such literal-minded questions. So it does–in some movies. In Carnage, though, the sense of authorial fiat is so overpowering, and the spines of the characters so flimsy, that you, too, may begin to feel pushed around, so that you ask “how?” and “why?” just as a way of shoving back.
Yes, Gleize is an extraordinarily promising filmmaker. (The proof, as Rivette would have said, is self-evident on the screen.) At 30, she already has a daunting set of skills–and if, for the moment, she has more of a will to make films than a need to say anything in them, she’s merely exercising her privilege as a young artist. I admired Carnage, as she’d intended me to; I also enjoyed much of it. But I can’t ignore the fact that the story is bull.
Suddenly starts out as if it, too, might be bull–grainy, black-and-white bull at that. Two young women in Buenos Aires, apparently bored with theft and pinball, accost a passing shopgirl and demand at knifepoint that she join them for sex. The shopgirl, who is obese and moonfaced, is named Marcia. She had tried knotting a scarf around her neck that morning, to give herself a little dash, but had put away the fancy sunglasses she’d recently bought, having understood they were a mistake. The abductors, who are thin and sharp-featured, call themselves Mao and Lenin. One has a leather jacket and the other a sweatshirt, but both wear the same style of knee-length skirt, white socks and heavy boots, which must have been stolen in pairs.
South American lesbian outlaws! What could be cooler? At this early point in the movie, you might reasonably suspect Diego Lerman of playing to the lower instincts of the arthouse and festival crowd; and you would not be wrong. But as he twists and turns his story–first making it a road movie, then changing it into a picture of provincial life and makeshift family–you discover something about Lerman that makes him remarkable. He knows better than to believe what these people believe about themselves. He sees through their acts–even Marcia’s–because he actually cares about them.
The sign of his care is the close-up. Lerman uses a lot of this shot, in part to keep down the budget (I’ll get to that in a moment) but mostly because he trusts his actors and wants to find his way into the movie through them. So he studies the glumness and self-pity of Marcia (Tatiana Saphir), looking for the moment when she’ll break away from routine on the pretense that she can’t help what she’s doing. He watches the straight-faced insolence of Mao (Carla Crespo), knowing she’ll eventually want someone to tell her no, and mean it; he keeps a close eye on the angry indifference of Lenin (Veronica Hassan), because that clenched face has to loosen sometime, and revert to something like the features of a hopeful 10-year-old. Lerman also pores over, and loves, a fourth face: that of Lenin’s aged aunt, Blanca (Beatriz Thibaudin), who outrageously demands rent from the girls when they come to stay in her tumbledown little house in Rosario, but then repays them with smiles, songs and just the right sort of knowing misbehavior.
Toward the end of Suddenly there’s a brief shot of Blanca sitting upright in bed at midnight, looking beatific in a halo of moonlight, that doesn’t really need to be in the movie and yet sums up all its heart. That’s why I trust in Lerman’s promise a little more than in Gleize’s. He still believes he can discover life through his camera; he’s willing to let the world, and the movie, surprise him.
One of his biggest surprises, certainly, was that he finished the film. Suddenly was shot in 2001, the year of Argentina’s economic collapse, using scant funds and the good will of the cast and crew, with production sometimes interrupted by street demonstrations or looting. So this picture, too, testifies to its director’s overwhelming need to make a film. The good news is, it also testifies to a lot more.