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.