There are difficult films to review, and there are easy ones, and I worry the easy ones yield the least interesting post-screening thoughts. Allow me to test that hypothesis by comparing two movies from the festival, one of which was as hard to love as a Basilisk, and the other as easy to get along with as a particularly affectionate and adorable kitten. At the core of each is the power of performance to transmute the world, but while one is about the artifice of the mainstream and the compelling power of cinematic glamour, the other is about the ways in which a life in the arts is as much a journey for the performer as it is for the artist.
Shades of Caruso has to make a confession: the films of Alain Resnais are an unknown quantity to me. A shameful admission, yes, but the holes in my filmwatching are always terribly embarrassing. Full confession; it was only last year that I finally saw a film by Ingmar Bergman: The Virgin Spring. I think you’ll agree that this was a good starting point. As the film’s breathtaking, cathartic final moments occurred, I was wracked with sobs. Such artistry! Such incredible storytelling prowess! This was art, made by an artist, as powerful as everyone had said. I chastise myself for not enriching my life with the works of Bergman before then. What myopia on my part.
As for Resnais, I can’t imagine a worse starting point than this. The movie begins with a veritable who’s who of French cinema and theatre receiving a phone call proclaiming that the (fictional) playwright Antoine d’Anthac has died, and his last wish was that these actors, his friends in life, would come to his home in the mountains to enact one last request for him. This scenario is similar to that of Jean Anouilh’s play Cher Antoine ou l’amour raté, in which the family and friends of playwright Antoine de Saint-Flour are trapped in a castle in the Bavarian Alps after arriving for the reading of his will. It’s no coincidence that many of the actors summoned here have appeared in Resnais’ films before, including his wife Sabine Azéma.
This phonecall sequence, and the subsequent arrival of the actors at the house, is extremely repetitive, and what little I know about Resnais’ previous films is that repetition is something he has used in a narrative sense, fracturing time and rebuilding it into a non-linear narrative. Here it seems more to denote an acting exercise; the obvious fakeness of the back projection through the main door and the feeble puff of air blowing leaves in with them, contrasted with the theatrical expressions from the actors as they enter, selling us on the illusion of the set and the effect. After the third or fourth entrance, the artificiality of the situation becomes laughable.
The performers, joyful in their reunion and sad over the death of d’Anthac, gather in a screening room in comfortable sofas, ashtrays at the ready, to watch a film recorded by their friend, in which he reveals that La Compagnie de la Colombe has asked if it can put on a performance of his play Eurydice. d’Anthac wants the actors, who have all appeared in versions of this play before, to judge whether this new version is worthwhile. They settle down to watch a film of the performance, which is directed not by Resnais but by French filmmaker and actor Bruno Podalydès, brother of Denis Podalydès, who plays d’Anthac. Plays within plays, familial relations between filmmakers and actors, theatre and film and real life converging nicely.
The play we see resembles Anouilh’s Eurydice. I say resembles; a quick look at the Wikipedia page shows many details are different in the version shown here but I have no idea how much of the dialogue remains thanks to my ignorance of French theatre and literature. The actors are young, the performance set in an abandoned warehouse with a few items of furniture denoting a railway cafe and hotel room, with the only embellishment being an enormous pendulum that swings through the middle of the scene. I have a feeling that this symbolises something, but for the life of me I just cannot figure out what it could be. Something to do with politics?
Meanwhile the actors in d’Anthac’s house, including two generations of actors playing Orphee and Eurydice (Azéma and Pierre Arditi as the older versions, Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson as the middle-aged version) watch this new version of the play, transfixed, until they spontaneously begin to recite the dialogue as it happens onscreen. The rest of the actors, who played the other characters there, join in, while Mathieu Amalric, who is the only one to play the mysterious M. Henri, sits in the background, with his nefarious nature passing over between himself and the character he plays. Or perhaps not. It’s impossible to look at him in repose and not think he’s being nefarious. For all I know this is my misunderstanding.
As the film progresses the actors begin to wander around the house, the background changing to become the sets of the play. Or at least, poorly done CGI versions of these imaginary rooms, now cavernous and ill-choreographed in relation to the actors. The technical errors here would at any other time be inconsequential, but as the movie is about the illusions created by theatre, as transposed to the medium of cinema, and then again into the world of virtual cinema using green screen technology, it’s hard to say whether this is an intentional choice or a result of cheap FX. It’s probably the latter, but even so, without meaning to, the aesthetics of this choice affect one level of the movie’s meaning. The vaulting fake rooms, unstable and flat, symbolising the unreliability of memory, perhaps?
Because surely the main point being made here is the ways in which a memory can be provoked, and how the process of interpreting a story either through adaptation or theatrical performance will pin something to a time in our lives. The actors here, as they are meant to have performed d’Anthac’s Eurydice, have experienced these moments dozens, hundreds of times, and they have been changed by the process as surely as the characters have by the narrative. At least that’s what Resnais seems to be saying, that the memories of a life lived can be revived by going through it once more, and by using actors and techniques and tropes and composers from his other movies (the score is by Shades of Caruso bête noire Mark Snow, of X-Files fame), this too becomes a Proustian trigger for his fans.
The play itself deals with the foolishness of Orphee, twisted by jealousy, as possibly false reports of Eurydice’s sexual history conspire to taint his love for her. She dies in a contrived accident, and he makes a deal with M. Henri to bring her back from the dead. The only catch is that he cannot look at her until sunrise, or she will return to death (a la the myth of Orpheus), but his cruel, selfish fury over her past and possible manipulation of him means he must look her in the eye to find out whether she loved him or not, causing her death. Later he is given the chance to meet her in death. Is this Resnais’ message that trying to pin down emotion or memory is bound to corrupt or kill it? Or did he just like the play?
Coming to this with so few facts at my disposal makes interpretation goddamned hard, so all I can go on is my visceral reaction to it, and that is that despite the flicking between different performers at each point in the play, it’s a retelling of that play with very little variation. Perhaps the choice of Wilson and Consigny for this scene, or Azéma and Arditi for this one, or the actors from La Compagnie de la Colombe, will have some significance in terms of what the play is trying to say at that moment, but without a greater awareness of the symbolism or history of Eurydice, the effect is dramatic stasis. If Resnais is merely saying that revisiting fond memories is nice, he achieves that quickly. Little else happens until the finale, all of it accompanied by Snow’s amorphous, buzzing music.
And that’s probably the bit that annoyed me the most. As the play finishes, and the actors warmly discuss the experience in memory-jogging they have just had, in walks d’Anthac, who was not dead at all. Cue a weedy synth fanfare from Snow and no emotion from the audience, who couldn’t give a damn about a fake playwright and his dumb joke, which was to see whether his friends and colleagues really loved him. If this wasn’t an obnoxious twist enough, we cut with almost comical haste to the next scene in which d’Anthac commits suicide in a similar forest locale to the one in which Orphee is expected to kill himself; d’Anthac looks his friends in their eyes, finds they loved him all along, and kills himself anyway.
So this is just a shaggy dog story? A joke about the impossibility of fulling appreciating what you have in the world while you live in it? A movie about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but with love instead of particles? Hopefully this won’t be Resnais’ final movie (he’s 90 this year), and though I’m willing to take him at his word when he says this was not meant to be a testament to his career, you have to wonder whether this was a game for him. In that sense I salute his cheek, while at the same time feeling pretty cheated that I sat there through two hours of ugly CGI and miserable Mark Snow music while Resnais frolicked, filmicly, in order to make a brazen tribute to himself. The reaction from the audience I saw it with was muted; I was livid and couldn’t wait to get out of the room.
In my review of Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux I commented that it’s time the curent wave of hyper-critical filmwatchers made more of an effort to meet artists halfway, to give them the benefit of the doubt. A choice that might seem like an error can be assessed as an intentional choice on their part that we just don’t understand immediately, and dismissing something without consideration is damaging our dialogue with artists. It’s the same request I’d make of anyone who feels justified in dismissing, say, Lena Dunham’s Girls because the characters are unlikeable (they’re meant to be), or Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia because Kirsten Dunst’s character’s behaviour is random (it’s not; she’s depressed and her friends refuse to accept this obvious explanation).
These are just two common criticisms I’ve heard numerous times over the past year, both of which have annoyed me to distraction. And yet here I am about to dismiss You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet because the choices made by Resnais were either inexplicable to me or seemed to very quickly achieve what they set out to do before being laboriously repeated throughout the movie’s length. How quickly I abandon my principles because engaging with this work of art is too much hassle. My initial reaction to the movie was curiosity followed by concern and eventually boredom, leaving an after-taste of betrayal and a hangover comprised of self-recrimination and disappointment.
The problem is, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet seems like an insular work, something that could only be parsed by Resnais experts or, as with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, something that is essentially only comprehensible to the filmmaker. With the latter, it’s not as big a deal because of the unique atmospherics surrounding the mysterious events therein, but Resnais’ movie feels even more indulgent for being so one-note. I wasn’t even a fan of Boonmee (as I pointed out at the bottom of this post, fully owning my philistinism and displaying exactly the impatience that I have railed against), but that was more interesting than this, an experiment that feels insubstantial.
To make matters worse, this inert exercise was screened while London cinemas were showing Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, a complex and ambitious art movie that shows exactly how this kind of thing should be done. Where You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet doodles in the margins of someone else’s work, Carax’s magnificent, uncategorisable work springs from his mind (a la Boonmee) and then expands to encompass cinema, culture, religion, the world. It contains everything within itself, so much so that watching it felt like a two-hour trailer for humanity. Where Nothin’ is static and frustrating, Motors is puckish, joyous, inclusive. Walking out of Resnais’ movie felt like I had escaped; Holy Motors felt like it was itself an escape from the troubles of the world. It is glorious.
And yet Resnais’ film has inspired me to complain for over 2000 words, whereas I struggle to find things to say about Argo, which is relatively simple but more interesting, more prosaically filmed but more thrilling, less ambitious but far more successful. Regular readers may already know that I’m totally in the bag for Maestro Affleck, and have been a fan ever since he sent himself up in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. His two previous directorial efforts are strong thrillers (can people kindly strip off the patronising addendum “for a Ben Affleck film”?) and he’s been turning out impressive performances for years. Hollywoodland, Changing Lanes, Extract; get thee hence if you disagree. Argo is his finest moment yet, but there’s little I can add to Todd Van Der Werff’s Twitter review:
Argo is oddly weightless but very entertaining. Its greatest joke is that it complains about Hollywood artifice, then devolves into it.—
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) October 20, 2012
I’m tempted to just stop writing here, because that perfectly captures how I felt about Argo, but just for the sake of putting some effort into celebrating this vigorously entertaining thriller, here are some more words (90% of which will be adjectives). Argo details an elaborate rescue attempt made during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979; an event I dimly remember, from a decade which otherwise would just matter to me as the decade in which Star Wars was released, six years after I was born (that’s the correct order of importance, in my mind). While Iranian protesters stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and captured 52 Americans, six others escaped and hid in the Canadian Embassy, their presence unknown, at least for a little while.
The precise details of what happened next were classified until recently; the original story stated that their escape was solely the work of Canada, which did not endear that country to the radical forces in Iran. The full story, here embellished and turned into a glossy thriller, is that CIA operative Tony Mendez concocted a plan to fake a sci-fi movie called Argo, convince Iranian officials that he was coming to the country to scout for locations, then rescue the six escaped Embassy workers by claiming they were the crew of the film. With Iranian gunmen closing in on them, Mendez had to work fast to get them out. At least, that’s what the film depicts, with all of the close calls and last-minute escapes you could hope for.
Post-movie discussions about the plausibility of Argo, or its solidity as a movie, may have led to me dropping a few points off its SoC Quality Total Score Number Quotient, but while sitting in a packed room, Affleck’s taut direction and the uniformly superb cast meant any concerns about Hollywood artifice or audience manipulation were easily ignored. Yes, Argo is a confection; alarmingly so considering the seriousness of the situation even now, as tensions between the US and Iran continue to this day. And yet it’s all done with such slick, confident authority, and such deftly handled sensitivity to the aggravated situation both then and now, that Affleck holds the audience in the palm of his hand. The resolution of the escape earned a surprise round of applause from the audience, and I’ve heard others say it happened at their screenings too.
The pleasures of this lightweight entertainment are legion, but special credit is due to the cast. Affleck gathered possibly the most impressive set of performers of 2012, including numerous SoC favourites such as Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Titus Welliver, Željko Ivanek, Kyle Chandler and Keith Szarabajka. Even actors I’m agnostic about, like Chris Messina and Scoot McNairy (whose weaselly voice in Killing Them Softly violated my soul) do well here, with solid material and the presence of such an instinctively talented director. It’s a great ensemble picture, though this diverse cast makes Affleck’s decision to step in as lead and play the Latino Mendez more questionable than it already was, but as an example of his increased confidence as an actor, it’s good enough.
As for its “weightlessness”, I should stress that this is not a comment on the subject matter, or the heart of the story itself. After the bravura opening sequence — a clever recap of America’s appalling involvement in Iran’s history told via storyboards, followed by a nerve-wracking setpiece in which the Embassy is stormed by a gun-toting mob while the Embassy staff race to destroy sensitive documents — the bizarre story of the fake Argo pre-production kicks in. Comedy after drama, beautifully weighted and correctly dropped as soon as Mendez reaches Iran. Yes, it’s a crowdpleaser, but as I said in my long, fawning review of The Avengers, that isn’t easy to do, and filmmakers who get it as right as Affleck or Whedon should get way more credit.
That said, Affleck’s lucky that he’s working with such an amazing historical event. My reaction was similar to that when watching Ron Howard’s Apollo 13; how the hell can something this incredible have happened in my lifetime? Argo skips quickly through the politics, enough to give factual weight and perspective to the events, before bringing in Planet of the Apes make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman on top form) and even all-time comics legend Jack “King” Kirby (Michael Parks, sadly only around for one scene). If all of this seems too much to take, the credits feature images of the real participants in this drama, and even a quick comment from President Jimmy Carter, who signed off on the operation, grounding the incredible tale in real detail.
Perhaps I’m more forgiving of Argo‘s lightness because this comes from the George Clooney/Grant Heslov stable that gave us such almost-interesting films as Leatherheads, The Ides of March, The Men Who Stare At Goats and Good Night, and Good Luck; films that usually feel about three drafts away from greatness, that stumble before the final act, that sometimes seem like they’re missing another few pages of script. This series of films from Clooney and Heslov are exactly the kinds of films I want to love but just can’t. Argo is the first thing from their production company that sticks the landing. Any concerns about its ephemerality or factual inaccuracy are easily dismissed because at least this ends, and ends well. I’ll take “rousing bullshit finale” over “will this do?” any day of the week.
But even if you take the final, exciting act of this thrilling movie as a journey too far into the realms of Hollywood contrivance, and not as a witty joke about the compulsive need to over-dramatise a story already fascinating, it’s worth remembering that the people involved really would had to perform as if their lives depended on it. As the Wired article that inspired Chris Terrio’s script says, the six escapees had to take on new roles and make them work, or they would have died. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet‘s achievement is that it highlights how acting shapes the lives of the actors. Argo shows us that in a world in which truth can be your worst enemy, performance, imagination and that act of subterfuge that is taking on a new persona can be the thing that keeps you alive. Perhaps Argo‘s not as trivial as it seems.