About andrew

expectation is an indispensable seasoning to the dreariness of daily life

Lush Lola

From its stunning title sequence to its final melancholic twinkle, Lola never relents in simultaneously tantalizing and agitating your senses. Fassbinder magnetizes all the polarities of his style, infusing Lola with his every last artistic tendency. Filming each scene with a different emotional lens, he obscures any consistent tone for the sake of full dramaturgical expression. Lola saturates the screen with a lush, silken color palette and sun-kissed lighting schemes to fashion a delightfully playful aesthetic. Maintaining a small narrative focus, Fassbinder achieves magnificent scope of emotions as Lola navigates the politics of sex, love, family values, post-war identity, urban redevelopment, class struggle, and capitalism. The film plays like a rollicking performance piece, even though it’s run through with the director’s infamously anti-theatrical choreography and neo-Brechtian curiosity. Lola’s passionate cabaret routines drape the melodrama in elegiac undertones, revealing desperation beneath rosy cheeks. Warm, jazzy transitions convey an emotional flourish, punctuating scenes with a rush of blood to the head. Although he’s kept a keen eye trained on distance (both spatial and social), Fassbinder never so thoroughly examined the distance between our hearts and heads as he does with this film.

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring Barbara Sukowa & Armin Mueller-Stahl
West Germany, 1981

–review by andrew mckeon

Fishing with Bresson: Catch and Release Tragedy

    Jacques Tati may have stretched the limits of comedy, but the silly putty he was reshaping already lent itself to visual storytelling (read: Playtime can wait). Besides, drama is a far trickier conjuring act. Ever since movies became talkies, it’s proved more than a mouthful for most filmmakers. So just leave it to a French painter to illustrate exquisite dramatis without cramming it all into words.
Director Robert Bresson opens up his slender narratives to observe the quiet spaces between story and symbol. Tight-lipped and tender, he draws back the curtains and peers far beyond the stage to fashion succinct dramatic form using nothing more than a few non-actors and some intuition. Just as Tati immersed his alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot, in combustible situations to tickle your funny bone, Bresson immerses his protagonists in a kind of soft brutality to pluck at your heartstrings with a paintbrush.
    Mouchette tugs you along the path of adolescence, following its titular character from first to last obstacle on a crash course through misery. The meat of this coming-of-age story, its moments of vulnerability, unfold in a beautiful poesis of close-ups and tracking shots. Such a deliberate approach imbues the film with its plodding pace, orienting all perspectives around the alienation of a little troubled girl (whose name means “little fly”) as she navigates some colossal metaphors like breast-feeding, bumper cars, choir practice, rabbit-hunting, etc.
Trudging onward in a pair of hand-me-down clogs, Mouchette is deflowered, one step at a time, by the cruelty of others until her innocence is beyond plundered. She becomes destined to a life of misanthropy, and it shows. Mouchette slings mud at the popular girls for making fun of the way she sings, puncturing their perfumed sense of superiority with each clump. Alas, she’s left in the dust when they retreat on the backseat of their boyfriends’ mopeds.
Bresson bookends the film with similar means of escape, sandwiching his heroine’s quiet tumult between twin notions of death and rebirth. In the middle, he crafts an exquisite portrait of a young girl for whom there is no shelter from the storm. Tempestuous cyclones churn forth a parallel of Mouchette’s stormy social climate, externalizing her inert torment via overt symbolism. Lost on the way home from school, she’s trapped by the rainstorm. Night falls as the sky keeps pouring and things just couldn’t get any worse for Mouchette. Yet there remains a glimmer of hope amidst the heavens’ deluge.
Springing from the depths of the forest, the local poacher/lothario, Arsene, arrives just in time to save her from the wicked weather, but this is no knight in shining armor. He sees tender prey, as well as an alibi for his moonlit misdeeds. Escorting the teenage damsel to a nearby shelter, Arsene baits the same hook that snagged the game warden’s girlfriend. He umbrellas the girl with his rugged charm.
It’s no surprise when Mouchette begins warming up to his presence by the fireside. Arsene retrieves her clog from the mire and offers a few swigs of brandy-wine, but, most importantly, he talks with her. Assuming he’s accidentally murdered Mathieu (the game warden), he uncorks a whole lifetime of guilt in one seizing fit of despair. A quick dissolve on his rough exterior quickly reveals the inner damsel in distress. Mouchette can see that Arsene seeks shelter from another storm.
Following his lead on a wild goose chase, she tries to help him cover his tracks and pledges to uphold his flimsy alibi. Once he collapses in anguish, she tends to him as if he were her bedridden mother. Roles reversed, their energies magnetize into a moment of shared hurt. What follows is hard to define.
Bresson articulates the complexities of rape with an eye for all the situational subtleties of sexual transgression. Framing everything within one discreet fireplace shot, he captures the ferocious violation of a little girl, as well as an eerie sense of release. Yet, by no means is this rape scene lined with silver. It’s lit with emotion. Not the kind written on actors’ faces, but the kind that lingers onscreen, hanging in the air to whisper enigma.
With a soft focus on the flames in the background, Bresson shapes the scene’s mixed feelings into a palpable symbol of friction. Withholding any judgment on what is unfolding, the film jumps to a familiar image: the little girl huddled in the forest like tender prey.
Arsene follows her scent, voicing her name like a duck call, but to no avail. Camouflaged amongst the foliage, Mouchette deceives her savior/captor and steals away home, only to be met with hostile reproach. Unfortunately, the child’s family takes little notice of her absence, and even less notice of a young psyche baptized by rape.
Clairvoyant but feeble, Mouchette’s mother cannot parent beyond the edge of her deathbed. She tries stabilizing her daughter’s turbulent conscience with cautionary tales about beguiling day-laborers and pre-marital sex. But, soon thereafter, she perishes and her little girl’s world shrinks tenfold.
Mouchette is devastated, but still ticklish to further tragedy. More scornful than mournful, her father ignores his broken daughter while the townspeople and “caring” neighbors shower her with confections, summer dresses, and brutal condemnations.  Everything shatters to bits when the game warden appears before her, alive and well. Having followed Arsene’s trail like a wounded bloodhound, Mathieu can smell his nemesis’ charms all over Mouchette.  He inquires and she promptly sticks up for Arsene, confirming his whereabouts with a striking proclamation. Mouchette claims her rapist as her lover.
Vindicated, yet still vulnerable, she keeps trudging onward, seeking shelter from the storm. When Mouchette ultimately finds it in the reflections of a lake, she’s reborn.

Jacques Tati vs. Modernity

For his first color feature, Tati focused on the streamlining of French home life. Mon Oncle (1958) pokes fun at how modernity is, contrary to its promises, a terrible encroachment upon a family’s wellbeing.

More shapely and character-driven than anything Tati had written, the story follows a young schoolboy, Gerard Arpel, trapped in a prison of his parents’ homemaking. This fully automated household proves an inescapable fortress of solitude, air-tight enough to suffocate his rambunctious instincts.

Enter Monsieur Hulot, the hapless uncle with a heart of gold, and the boy is saved. Hulot’s pre-modern presence turns the family’s lifeless modern abode into a lively calamity of man vs. machine.

Like one of the stray dogs that open the film, Hulot follows his instincts with a nose for amusement. He delights in the magic of the everyday. Sharing this delight with his sheltered nephew, Hulot points out the comedic potential of the outside world. He partakes in pranks on unsuspecting pedestrians, performs sidewalk pantomime, and just pals around with Gerard on equal footing.

Throughout Mon Oncle, Tati explores the qualities of color film, playing with light to subtly juxtapose the modern and pre-modern worlds. The very same light that illuminates Hulot’s old-world neighborhood bounces off of the sleek and shiny edges of the Arpel home. Its reflection reveals everything that Gerard is missing in life: nesting birds, music, merriment, etc.

Electricity courses through the Arpel home, producing artificial light and powering all of the parents’ modern artifices. But, it also binds all of the appliances together like a string of firecrackers. So, when the dinner party guests arrive, Tati lets the dominoes fall down the line.

Madame and Monsieur Arpel set the scene by flaunting their modernism to the stuffy guests, showing off all of the gadgetry that “simplifies” their home life. When they ask Hulot to retrieve some refreshments from the robotic kitchen, everything goes haywire. The coordinated sight-gags ensue, as does a running joke on the fish-out-of-water metaphor. On the front lawn stands a giant center-piece, a spitting-fish fountain; its malfunctioning becomes a symbol of nature regurgitating technology.

Tati aligns the viewer with Gerard as he watches his uncle unwittingly dismantle the whole dinner party. Hiding on the periphery, Gerard roots for Hulot to ruin things and then laughs at his painstaking efforts to remedy them without anyone else noticing.

This sort of privileged perspective involves the viewer in the situation, making them complicit in the comedy. Orchestrating his comedy from both sides of the camera, Tati builds up a unique understanding of life as a comical arrangement of the unpredictable.

A reprisal of the stray dogs delivers Mon Oncle’s final punch line. Following Hulot’s awkward stride, the mutts trot into Monsieur Arpel’s factory to wreak havoc on all of its modern machinations and automaton workers. Man’s best friend at his side, Hulot proves that all he needs is an audience in this battle of man vs. modernity.

to be continued…



Jacques Tati – maker of funny

On the heels of Keaton and Chaplin in the1930s, the sound era changed the nature of comedy forever. Yet, whilst comedians were getting louder and louder, Jacques Tati managed to preserve the silent spirit of pantomime and make it sound even funnier.

Tati began by tailoring the stage antics of his mime routines to suit the camera lens. He perfected his repertoire on both sides of the camera, home-growing a reputation as an up-and-coming actor/director in his native France. By the 1950s, Tati was redefining the parameters of comedic performance and choreography with a manifestation of himself custom-made for the silver screen: Monsieur Hulot.

The always bewildered, yet never beleaguered Hulot forays into the frightening modern world armed with nothing but a pipe, a cane, and a heart of gold. His first adventure, M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), quickly became a high watermark of physical comedy. A French beach resort functions not merely as the film’s backdrop, but as a composite character foil. All of the tourists, attractions, and resort staff comprise a sort of obstacle course for the unassuming protagonist.

The director paints such a vivid picture of this social setting that, by the time Hulot arrives at the beach, one can easily spot him as a fish-out-of-water. Plot becomes an afterthought in this wandering narrative. As he navigates amusing disasters on the beach, in the hotel restaurant, and at the tennis courts, Hulot single-handedly threads together a story without any plotted direction.

Each hilarious situation pushes its own arc, yet all of them revolve around Hulot’s slapstick survival tale. Winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the film not only captivated Tati’s French audience, but also opened doors for his own forays into the frightening modern world of filmmaking.

To Be Continued in next installment…


- andrew