The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Directed by Luis Bunuel is a peculiar amalgamation of vignettes in the lives of three bourgeois couples, a priest, and a colonel. In almost every brief encounter the characters are attempting to sit down and have a meal together, but time and time again they are interrupted for one reason or another. There are also several dream sequences cut intermittently throughout the piece. Bunuel does what he wants in a film, and that is what makes his movies so unique, he does not hold anything back. The film has enumerable layers that are impossible to decipher, and I am not so sure they are even meant to be.

The film is Bunuel’s assault on bourgeois society in his usual farcical manner. One of the most blatant digs at the artificiality of high society is a dream sequence in which the whole group is seated at a table which ends up being part of a play. The sequence ends with the man who is dreaming saying “I can’t remember my lines! I can’t remember my lines!” The one scene briefly sums up the entire film in a way. It is all an act; the man realizes his entire life is a sham. This is true of us all, we are all just playing our various roles.

Something often ignored when looking at Bunuel film is the technical skil with which it is shot. It is easy to get so caught up in the symbolism and metaphors, and not realize how exquisitely filmed and directed the picture is. There are beautiful smooth tracking shots throughout, and the coverage of groups of characters is brilliant. The camera transitions from one character to another seamlessly in a single shot. There are also several match cuts, which takes us through time and space in what is perceived as a single moment making you wonder is this a dream or reality?

Bunuel is unfairly classified as a surrealist, and those unfamiliar with his work do not realize that he is as much a comedian as he is a surrealist. His humor is discreet, and as a viewer you are almost not sure when he is joking. However, when you finally get in tune with Bunuel’s sensibilities Discreet Charm becomes laugh out loud. Whether it is the constantly repeated fact that the characters just cannot seem to sit down and actually eat, or it is the close up of a cellist’s hand moving rhythmically up and down as he plays a note. Subtly is the key to Bunuelian comedy. Further his comedy is not for everyone, often it can and in many cases has been taken as offensive resulting in nationwide bans for several of his films.

Bunuel was a mad man and a mastermind; an anomaly and an enigma, and his films are no different. His world is one of absurdity, his mission liberation from the confines of class structure, religion, and sexual repression. Discreet Charm touches on all of these in a disjointed, as well as comedic fashion.

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The Skin I Live In Critique

Revenge is something so uniquely human, yet so animalistic.  Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) is a film of revenge at it’s most raw. Almodóvar never shy’s away from the tough issues, and this picture is no different. The Skin I Live In follows a middle-aged plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas, and a beautiful young girl who is being held captive in his home. The narrative presents some interesting ethical questions, but as a whole, the picture is wrought with inadequacy.

During the first thirty minutes of the movie several mysteries are posed. Why is the young girl not aloud to leave? What are the ethical implications of crossing animal and human DNA? What happened to the man’s wife and daughter? Etc. As the narrative progresses light is shed on each issue with the exception of the DNA, which gets almost completely abandoned. It was dropped in as meaningless fluff. The exposition throughout the film is where the majority of the flaws arise. Almodóvar treats the viewer as someone illiterate in film syntax and bereft of life experience. The picture is littered with big reveals each of which comes after any astute viewer has already been able to surmise the information. By the last shot of the film there is not a shred of uncertainty left to the story. Almodóvar appears to have been influenced by the 1966 film The Face of Another. He directly references the surgeon’s workspace using the same glass walls, and similar camera angles. It is an ironic coupling because The Face of Another is a film full of subtly and tact, exactly what Almodóvar lacks.

Almodóvar could have saved his film by removing whole scenes that are unnecessary and distasteful as well as having some trust in the viewers. When we see a young couple disappear into the woods it is easily assumed what has transpired without being explicit. However, for Almodóvar that is not enough, he instead shows the already implied scene of sexual assault. The scene does not enhance the narrative what so ever, it is purely the director in search of shock value. Almodóvar does this not once, but twice showing two rape scenes in the single film neither of which serve any significant emotional effect. He should have focused on the rising tension leading up to the assaults, and left out the actual attack the effect would have been much stronger. Time and time again there is unnecessary exposition; it is a cop out for Almodóvar as he lacks the mastery to use implication well.

Almodóvar needs to learn a thing or two about subtly before he is ever going to make a film that’s worthwhile. Admittedly this is the only one of his pictures I have seen, and maybe it was a fluke, but I highly doubt it. Judging from what he is known for, this seems to be a recurring flaw in his work. Almodóvar is known for being controversial, and in this film he is trying much too hard. The concepts were intriguing, but wildly mishandled by a writer/director lacking the finesse to create something deserving of any merit.

Liberal Arts

The romantic comedy, an all too familiar, and often disappointing movie genre. Often consisting of a cookie cutter narrative structure and happily- ever -after ending; these films are commonly devoid of any real subtext other than the traditional “love conquers all.” They are empty and unsatisfying. There is another genre of films I like to call the “rom-com-dram”, or romantic comedy drama, which are able to fill the thematic void present in a classic rom-com. Woody Allen largely pioneered this genre with films like Annie Hall, and Manhattan, and has given rise to a new generation of writers and directors following in his footsteps. One of the most obvious Woody Allen worshipers is Josh Radnor most known for his role as Ted on the hit show How I Met Your Mother. Over the last few years Radnor has made his writing/directorial debut, with his first film Happythankyoumoreplease and his more recent Liberal Arts. Both films fall into this rom-com-dram framework giving the viewer a fun as well as emotional and meaningful experience.

Liberal Arts (2012) is about Jesse, a thirty-five year old admissions counselor who returns to his alma mater for the retirement party of one of his old college professors. While there he meets Zibby, a nineteen-year-old sophomore. The two develop an immediate connection, and begin exchanging hand written letters. Eventually Jesse returns to the college to visit Zibby, and begins to have an existential crisis.  Jesse suffers from the psychological condition known as Peter Pan Syndrome; he still feels like a teenager, and romanticizes his college days; he does not want to grow up. Jesse is also an avid reader and would rather live within the pages of books than the real world. Jesse and Zibby’s relationship is one of symbiosis. They are both reaching for a time in their life that is beyond their grasp. Jesse wants to reclaim his youth, and Zibby wants to grow up all too fast. Each the film’s major characters are dispirited with their current point in life, but they all must learn to accept where they are in order to be happy.

The film is warm and overly romantic, but that’s the point. It’s a film for the readers and the over thinkers of the world. There are several allusions to literature and classical music that may come across as ostentatious to some, but are a delectable treat for others. Jesse is obnoxious and pretentious at times, but he is loveable nonetheless. The film is a bit muddled thematically. Radnor tries to cram a bit too much in rather than focusing all his energy on the idea that life happens, and we eventually have to face the reality of the present. As any good rom-com-dram should, the picture takes us to highs and lows and everywhere in between, with humor sprinkled liberally throughout.

Radnor is not a great filmmaker by any means, but he is also exceptionally green. His first two films have been enjoyable, and help define his personal style and themes, but they lack the confidence and ambition to be something truly great. Will Radnor be able to develop the self-assurance and maturity to make something that goes beyond mere entertainment? Or will he be like his idol Woody Allen who has numerous good films, but only a few greats? It will be exciting to see how Radnor blossoms over the years to come.

Ackerman and The Meetings of Anna

The art of implication in cinema is often an essential element for successful filmmaking. As a writer it is much easier to simply employ the use of expository dialog, or blatantly significant actions to expose character traits or plot points. This is also a much simpler experience for the viewer, as all of the information is readily available leaving the need for very little mental effort. However, films that do so are in some regard shortchanging film as a medium. They are often cheesy and unrewarding for the viewer. Film has the ability to hold an extremely large amount of information in a single shot, both apparent, and implied. Truly great films are those which use this ability to its fullest.

Chantal Ackerman’s The Meetings of Anna comes surprisingly close to repeating the success of her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman using the powers of implication expertly. Every shot in the film is calculated, and precise. You can tell that nothing is unintentional. The movie is about a young female filmmaker named Anna who is constantly traveling, showing her films, and meeting various people: strangers, acquaintances, her mother, and a past lover. The film is filled with several long take dialog scenes. These scenes reveal quite a lot about Anna, but often without being explicit. There are hints scattered throughout the dialog, but the viewer must piece the majority of the information together and make their own assumptions. For example, it is implied that Anna has had two abortions in her past. Never is it said, or even blatantly hinted at; it is more a supposition the viewer must make. It keeps ones mind constantly engaged while watching the film.

The cinematography is technically exquisite; Ackerman uses symmetry and balance in nearly every shot. It all adds to the careful attention to detail throughout. The Meetings of Anna as a whole is about loneliness, and a search for human connection. The sterility of the cinematography lend well to this theme isolating Anna from her surroundings. It is impossible not to wonder if Ackerman was making a film about her own life and experience. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is when Anna is sitting in her hotel room waiting to go to her film’s premier. Anna lies on the bed, looks out the open window, and makes several phone calls. Anna, a famous, popular director is alone, bored. The premier is never seen; Ackerman instead chooses to only show the simple moments spent alone, and it is a much more powerful scene because of it.

Ackerman is a minimalist through and through, yet her movies are extremely deep and complex. She shows very little, but her films say a lot. The picture posses an acute awareness of humanity, it reveals a loneliness far too many of us have felt. The Meetings of Anna is an extreme example of implication over exposition, but shows how much a film can reveal without saying anything bluntly.

Mon Oncle and Tati

Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) is the sequel to his earlier film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I have seen a few of Tati’s films, but Mon Oncle is the most recent. Tati is known for his nearly silent situational comedies, and this film is no different. It tells the story of the Arpel family who have recently moved into a hyper modern home with their eccentric uncle, played by the director himself. His films are rich in color, entertainment value and have an unparalleled sense for comedy. His work fills a niche that has been essentially barren since the end of the silent era.

In all of Tati’s great works the environment plays a pivotal role in the narrative. Objects transcend their mere physical forms and become characters in their own right. In his film Traffic for example a car modified into a camper becomes one of the protagonists itself as several police officers search the car at customs. The car turns into a main focal point of the picture behaving almost like a living creature as the officers discover the nearly endless supply of gadgets and gizmos the car is furnished with. In Mon Oncle instead of a car, a futuristic house takes center stage. The home becomes more than just an object it becomes a supporting character constantly engaging in a give and take with the characters.

Tati has a remarkable inventiveness when it comes to designing sets and props. One of the funniest elements in the Mon Oncle is a fountain in the front courtyard of the Arpel’s futuristic house. Each time a visitor arrives to the home, Madame Arpel turns on the fountain in the middle of the yard, and after their guests depart…off goes the fountain. This is repeated multiple times throughout the film, becoming prograssively hilarious with each repetition. Yes, it does go on a bit too long, nevertheless, Tati knew the root of good comedy. Often the best comedic films are even more enjoyable on the second viewing, this is because humans are creatures of habit. We like what we know, and this is what Tati plays off of. By repeating comedic elements multiple times throughout a film he first familiarizes the viewer with them, and then repeats that element for increased comedic effect.

Although the use of dialog is almost non-existent in Mon Oncle the soundscape is rich and delicious. Watching a Tati film is like a eating a parfait with your ears, there is layer after layer of juicy goodness. Tati loves the sound of footsteps. For the first several minutes of his  masterwork Playtime, all that is heard is crisp footsteps on a tile floor. This same effect is utilized in Mon Oncle. Footsteps are ever present from start to finish. The steps give the film a constant sense of rhythm in the absence of music.

In conclusion, Tati is a master of his craft. Each of his films are meticulously choreographed, and ingeniously comedic. He managed to make props and elements of his sets come to life. Sound is always an integral part to any Tati picture; he always keeps the ears stimulated without overwhelming them. Comedy is a fine balance that is easily, and often over done; however, Tati manages to walk the line like a pro.