Searching for Palm Springs 3

By Robert Koehler

Even the Rain is a Ken Loach film directed by Iciar Bollain. Even more, it’s a film by Paul Laverty, Loach’s regular screenwriter. The film is a useful object in this regard: By watching Even the Rain (in Palm Springs because of its status as Spain’s foreign language Oscar submission), it’s clearer than ever that all of Loach’s recent films written by Laverty (up to and including Route Irish, one of the worst films ever to screen in a Cannes competition) are less films by Loach than films by Laverty. The same Laverty formula in the film directed by Loach applies to this film directed by Bollain, who has clearly given herself over to the writer and his John Sayles-like taste for transmitting political causes through dramatic means.

Laverty adheres to a standard British mode of leftist television drama, in which individual characters stand in for various points on the political spectrum from retrograde neanderthal to Communist, and shades in between. Often, a Laverty character who begins as a reactionary conservative is reformed through the story process, frequently by a crisis of conscience or a moral dilemma, into a humane person of the people, their eyes open to the struggles of the oppressed. Now, it can be said that Laverty learned from Loach’s earlier films written by such similarly inclined writers as Jim Allen, and to be sure, Bollain herself co-starred in Loach’s and Allen’s Land and Freedom, which exerts a distinct influence on Even the Rain. (Laverty has been Loach’s writer-partner since just after Land and Freedom, starting with Carla’s Song in 1996.)

The Laverty formula works this way in Even the Rain: Gael Garcia Bernal plays a Spanish director readying to shoot a low-budget epic about Columbus’ brutal occupation of indigenous land and resources during his first landing in the New World, but finds that the indigenous cast members are themselves involved in a contemporary subjugation by the Bolivian state, which has privatized all water delivery services and denied them access to free and safe water. Things come to a head when the indigenous actor (Juan Carlos Aduviri), playing the pivotal role of the most rebellious figure to Columbus’ authority, also leads the movement to take back indigenous water rights in the streets of La Paz. Thus, history is repeating itself, not as farce, but again, as tragedy, with the Spanish film crew as interlopers in their Santa Maria-sized production landing in territory they know nothing about. (The one good joke about this, muffed in the consistently humorless Laverty storytelling, is that the producer, played by Luis Tosar, sought Bolivia as a location to substitute for the authentic Dominican Republic setting purely because the Bolivian extras are cheaper.)

Bernal is reduced to reacting in disbelief to seeing his film being hijacked by current political events, and the film actually belongs to Tosar and Aduviri, who initially represent opposite poles finally brought together by circumstances. The producer is a purely mendacious capitalist, interested only in finding the cheapest solution regardless of safety or artistic concerns. (It’s fair to wonder why such a flagrant right-winger would even be interested in making a film highly critical of Spain’s colonialist empire, but that kind of contradiction can’t be allowed to impede upon Laverty’s cinematic lecture.) From first identifying Aduviri’s activist as a troublemaker, the producer proceeds to have a moral dilemma in which he must either flee with his crew from the danger of pitched battles in the city streets, or help save Aduviri’s daughter, who has also played a role in the film. Tovar opts for the courageous latter option, sending him to the other side where the have-nots live, and thus crushing his old politics. This is the classic Laverty hero (Bernal’s director, on the other hand, is allowed to exit the film with little more than a whimper), a man of reaction become a man of action, changing if not greater events, than his own social conscience.

Such a programmatic cinema is itself conservative, as the past fifteen years of Loach-Laverty films have shown, and reinforced by seeing a Laverty story handled by a director other than Loach. (A far better director, incidentally.) Bollain hardly asserts her own sensibility on the material; the only interesting cinema element is the depiction of the film-within-the-film directed by Bernal as being a completely cut work that often appears staged by Terrence Malick. From the long grass through which the indigenous people roam and hide, to the floating Steadicam moves up and down hillsides, the presence of European soldiers and native tribes–all of it directly quotes from Malick’s The Thin Red Line and The New World. (An opening gambit also quotes from Fellini’s opening sequence in La dolce vita, with a cross between flown by copter for a location.)

What we are seeing is the footage as shot by Bernal’s character, although Even the Rain dispenses with nearly all behind-the-scenes production detail, so that we never see an editing room, and rarely cameras, and only once or twice a screening room to show rushes. Yet the footage we see isn’t rough-cut material, but fully finished for theatrical release; a physical impossibility during the course of a production schedule on location. This is strange stuff which Bollain doesn’t seem to either acknowledge or want to question, apparently assuming that a film-savvy audience will buy the illusory trick. Then again, the film is a welter of contradictions, roughly hewn ideas packaged as telegraphed messages, and an example of outsiders coming to Latin America to make a film and failing to examine their own position inside history–even though this is precisely the central concept of Even the Rain. History is more complicated than programmatic screenwriting can manage.

Searching for Palm Springs 2

By Robert Koehler

Missing a film for eleven months since its premiere, particularly if it won an overrated but nevertheless weighty prize like Berlinale’s Golden Bear, can create an odd mix of sensations, with frustration (how I missed it in Berlin in the first place) to excessive anticipation (from the sheer wait). It can’t be allowed to cloud judgement, but it’s a challenge to sweep away when the film is finally seen. That was what I was going through this morning with the first screening in Palm Springs of Semih Kaplanoglu’s Honey, the final part of his Yusuf trilogy (preceded by Egg and Milk).

I knew that it would likely be good, since Derek Elley roundly dismissed it out of hand in Variety at Berlin in a variation of his usual demotion of art cinema: “grindingly slow, content-light fare for card-carrying minimalists…the viewer has no idea what the main characters are thinking or feeling…the real star of the picture is writer-director Kaplanoglu–which would be OK if he had anything to share with auds apart from auteurist mannerisms” blah, blah, blah…topped by Elley incorrectly identifying the trilogy as the “Honey, Milk, Egg” trilogy, after correctly identifying it in his review of Milk, which he almost identically dismissed in similar terms, in that “the minimalist crowd will lap this up,” or his previous slam of Egg, which is “pure fest fare for the long-take, minimalist crowd.”

Which raises a thought: I would like to meet this minimalist crowd, these “card-carrying” types–a telling variation on Joseph McCarthy’s notorious, Red-baiting handle “card-carrying Communists” from the politically rightwing Elley. I would truly like to know who these card-carriers are, where they live, where they go to have a meal, enjoy a late-night drink…I suppose they’re somewhere. Elley apparently knows something we don’t…..A generally good rule of thumb at festivals is that anything Elley hates is usually good, and anything he loves is usually bad. (I know this from several years as a Variety colleague of Elley’s, before he was unceremoniously let go as Variety‘s chief international film critic in 2010. His decade-long dismissal of Jia Zhang-ke, film after film, starting with Pickpocket, is just one of several Elley doozies that the festival-goer can take as a useful contrarian indicator.)

So, yes, applying the highly reliable counter-Elley metric, Honey is good. It is not, however, great, and there’s plenty of room to debate whether it deserved the Golden Bear. After all, it was up against such films as Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber, Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (also in Palm Springs), Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, and even in a fairly humdrum competition lineup, it can’t be said that Kaplanoglu’s film was the obvious or even correct choice. Very much a classical art film, from what I hear in line with the previous films in the trilogy (which I haven’t seen), Honey continues the filmmaker’s interest in a compact story and a small gallery of characters, placed against a huge physical background. The Yusuf of Egg and Milk is now younger; the trilogy depicts a Yusuf–though, it should be stressed, not necessarily the same Yusuf–in reverse chronological age. ”

Honey, therefore, would be perfectly fine to view first if the viewer hasn’t caught up with the rest of the trilogy, thus reversing Kaplanoglu’s reverse chronology into chronological order. The setting for the new film is more or less in the present, though depicting life at an early 20th century pace in a remote, mountainous region of Turkey that uncannily resembles Switzerland. Yusuf (Bora Altas) is so alienated from his schoolmates that he doesn’t play with them during breaks and has enormous difficulty reading a simple phrase or sentence in class; his intense shyness extends to home, where he’s unable to speak much at all to his mother (Tulin Ozen), from whom he feels an enormous emotional distance, and speaks to his more beloved dad, a sturdy beekeeper (Erdal Besikcioglu), in a whisper. Kaplanoglu isn’t interested in the psychology of this, which will put off literalists (do we dare refer to them as “the literalist crowd”?), but in the existential moment. He dwells almost entirely upon Yusuf, in all of his various moments, which extend most critically to his dream states, which the film visualizes in a highly oblique manner and often without warning or any of the conventional devices filmmakers use to signal the audience.

Kaplanoglu gets too cute by half with this trick (which it is, make no mistake) at a key juncture, when his father has left for an extended trek to search for healthy bee colonies since the local ones appear sick and dying (one of the few truly contemporary details in the story) and has been away for much too long for the family’s comfort. Kaplanoglu cuts to an image of the father hanging by a rope from a tree, followed by the branch holding the rope breaking and releasing him to an airborne death. This is actually a continuation of the film’s stunning opening scene, when the father is seen entering a thick copse, observing honey dripping from the tree, and rope-climbing up the trunk to his prize when the branch gives way, leaving him suspended in mid-air in a sublime cinematic fermata. Once he’s resumed the scene and its terrible conclusion, Kaplanoglu then cuts to Yusuf waking up startled, as if he dreamt it. Or is it an indicator that Yusuf’s dreams foretell what’s to happen, a kind of psychic gift? Either, I suppose, can be read, but to what end isn’t clear from anything else in Honey, and plays more as a distraction from the central matter, which is a young boy is going to go on without the father he deeply loved.

This essential theme is quite enough for the film, but it also lacks the necessary weight that Kaplanoglu’s Fordian mise-en-scene wants to convey, until the final sequence, in which Yusuf ventures into the same dark copse we were at the beginning, now even darker (little light hits the screen, recalling the darkness that descends over the final moments of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, a film and director hugely influential on Kaplanoglu. It’s not, as the Elley crowd–and oh, what a crowd that is–just go to Cannes any old year and see them in action–would have it, “content-free,” which is sheer nonsense. It’s that, at this point in his work, Kaplanoglu is reaching for existential truths of identity and being, including a sense of a person’s place in the natural and domestic worlds, that aren’t entirely within his grasp.

He is also certainly not a minimalist, whatever that is, but rather a symbolic storyteller fascinated by repeated rituals of behavior (Yusuf’s constant eyeing of a glass bowl containing red ribbon prizes given to students for good class work, his running after his father’s pet falcon in flight) and the physical realities of being cut off from the normal flow of society: Yusuf’s house, we finally see in a remarkable left-to-right high-angle pan shot about two-thirds of the way through Honey, is as far above and apart from their village as he is from his frolicking schoolmates. There’s an artist building here, and whatever card he carries, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Searching for Palm Springs

By Robert Koehler

Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Francois Ozon–the ideal trio combo to launch the latest edition of the aggressively middlebrow Palm Springs Film Festival, which promotes a certain brand of world cinema that continues to view Europe as the center of the world. And if it stars Deneuve, all the better. The film? You may have heard of it, even though it astoundingly, amazingly, inexplicably, ridiculously hasn’t screened at a US festival until this very moment. (The closest location was Toronto, on the heels of its world premiere in Venice, which got it because Cannes stupidly passed on it for its obvious slot as–guess what?–opening film.) It would be Potiche, which roughly rhymes with “pastiche,” which, in part, it is. Ozon adopts a quaintly rear-guard position with this film, much as he did with his acrid pastiche musical, 8 Femmes.

From the opening credits, set in a rust-orange bulbous typeface popular in the comedy’s mid-70s setting and observing Deneuve jogging through the woods in a period-perfect exercise suit, Potiche revels in that decade’s half-in and half-out attitude toward kitsch. (During one charming scene between Deneuve and Depardieu, they dance under a disco ball on a club dance floor modeled on the club in Saturday Night Fever.) Reinforcing this is Ozon’s decision to not break out of the stage play frame established by the “boulevard comedy” by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy which Ozon adapted. The boulevard comedy, the enduring theater form of Paris’ commercial theater district, is about, by and for the bourgeois class, an explicit matter in Potiche, since it depicts what happens when the encrusted and belligerent owner of an umbrella factory (Fabrice Luchini, playing out of his usually softer range as an unmitigated asshole) drives his workforce to strike and hold him hostage until their workplace demands are met… the titular potiche (or trophy wife), Deneuve’s Suzanne. With the local town mayor (Depardieu’s Maurice) acting as a Richard Holbrooke-like go-between, Suzanne negotiates a peace, and manages to take over management of the factory from Luchini’s Robert, whose temper has triggered a heart condition that puts him on the capitalist team’s DL.

Thus, the other crowning theme of the 70s (besides semi-kitsch, disco and bad typefaces): Feminist awakening, which the film depicts without irony and absolute sincerity. Suzanne, once a domestic trophy of an arrogant businessman, is on course to be her own captain of industry, and eventually, a MP political candidate who defeats Maurice at the polls. That opening credit sequence again: A fantasy through and through, as Suzanne stops and watches various forest critters forage, scamper and copulate. Is the rest of Potiche also a fantasy? Perhaps, but like the decade, the film has one foot in reality, capturing in broad strokes a family of privilege butting heads with one another and an era in which the formerly powerless are being heard from (women and workers unite! could be the slogan here).

But here’s the thing about the calculations behind Potiche, and what makes it boulevard cinema. The characters are distinctly positioned in terms of their politics. Robert is a corporatist fascist who would be perfectly at home in Salazar’s Portugal or Pinochet’s Chile. Daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche, who looks to our 20-teens eyes like one of those obnoxious blondie anchors on Fox News) is his sympathizer, urging him to amp up company profits by shipping jobs overseas. Son Laurent (Jeremie Renier, playing him as gay but deeply closeted, an interesting choice) is throughly anti-capitalist, anti-materialist and basically anti-daddy, and looking for a direction in life.

Suzanne? Apolitical it seems, at first, and then vaguely Obama-like in her desire for everyone to get along with each other. But being a woman to the manor born, she lives for her neat Chanel couture (and Deneuve rocks the couture beautifully if not ostentatiously) and good life, so she will never adopt Maurice’s proud socialism nor his dream of revolution. In the end, Suzanne, the heroine, is a Democrat who defeats the Republicans in her own family, which makes one so want to witness the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Maria Shriver family watching Potiche. (Or, barring that, James Carville and Mary Matalin.) She won’t give up her wealth (like Democrats), but sympathizes with labor (like Democrats) without going lefty (like Democrats). She represents what is in between France’s, and Europe’s, old ideological fronts of the right and left, that fuzzy middle which loves a moderate sense of justice without revolutionary change, a moderate form of theater entertainment (Neil Simon in this country, boulevard comedy in France) and the kind of movies shown at the Palm Springs film festival.

Ozon’s steady shift to being a conservative filmmaker (he started off as some kind of radical, and then started making money) serves him well this time. Potiche is easily his best film in years–maybe since his early radical ones–and reminds one of the sorts of mildly engaging, well-written but frivolous fare in the 70s that used to star the likes of Jean Lefebvre and Miou-Miou. Perhaps “radical” is too strong to label Ozon’s original position; he was advance-guard certainly, and indicated that he may make some extremely interesting cinema. That never really happened, and like a director such as Pierre Granier-Deferre three generations back, he shifted to rear-guard. These positions remain an important aspect of French cinema, which is in constant self-reassessment, analyzing the placement of auteurs in terms of ideology and aesthetics. Ozon has been flirting with obsolescence; he is most certainly not a filmmaker in the conversation, not a maker of the movies that matter. But he proves with Potiche, in an unfettered way, that he can be an excellent entertainer. That is perhaps what he’s wanted to be all along, what he aspired to. If so, he has realized it.