It took longer than I expected, but I expected it would. In any case, the 2005 Project has finally come to an end. This is the last batch of reviews. Next week, I’ll be on vacation at the beach, but don’t worry, I will come back a week from now with my Top Ten Movies of 2005, and since the semester’s over, the summer should allow for more writing than usual. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on three pretty good movies…
The Proposition (Directed by John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat’s breakthrough movie is a violent and stylistically beautiful Australian western. And like any great western, ‘The Proposition’s depiction of the struggle to “civilize” the Australian outback is really an allegory for something deeper and grander. In this case, we are dealing with the conflict of inner judgment, and everyman’s division between pragmatic rationalism and emotional justice. The age of reason, and the law of savages.
Representing the side of reason is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). He is introduced to us as a villain, the “corrupt sheriff” type you could find in many westerns. As the movie goes on, however, his every move is revealed to be influenced by purely rational reasons. He presents himself as a tough guy in front of the outlaw Burns brothers because he knows that’s how he will get them to cooperate with him, and he wants to “civilize” the outback because that’s the only way his wife (Emily Watson) will survive in a world of ultraviolent men. It’s reason that drives him to strike a plan with the Burns clan, but the logical choice is rarely the most satisfying one, or the one that “feels right.” Reason doesn’t hold a candle in a world as passionate as this one.
Representing the thirst for emotional justice is Arthur Burns (Danny Houston), a fugitive bandit who is feared by both the British and the natives, who call him “dog man.” Arthur’s compass is purely based on passion. He lays at night looking at the stars and talking about how there’s nothing more valuable than love and family. He might sound like a Romantic hero, a lovable criminal, but he is a beast. A feral creature of pure instinct.
The most fascinating -and depressing- thing about ‘The Proposition’ is that here, the triumph of emotion over reason results in the most horrible outcomes. When Arthur and Stanley finally meet, Arthur doesn’t even have to try to beat Stanley into the ground. Passion is stronger, passion drives us, but passion also destroys us. Standing in the middle is Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), the silent-cowboy type, trapped between doing what feels right, and what sounds logical. He is the man looking for redemption, his is the soul at stake in this bloody game. The answers aren’t easy, but ‘The Proposition’ is a hell of a ride.
Three Times (Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘Three Times’ is divided into three stories, each of them starring Chen Chang and Qi Shu as lovers. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Hou movie. What I knew going in was that he is regarded as one of the key directors in the ‘slow cinema’ movement, and that his often impenetrable movies have generated ardent fans and many haters.
On the front of being slow, there is no denying that there is very little plot to ‘Three Times’. As for it being impenetrable, well, one has to get used to its rhythms, but it doesn’t mean that it is not a rewarding experience. In fact, I found the most kinetic of the chapters to be the dullest one. Anyway, let’s talk about said chapters: “A Time for Love” is set in 1966, as a young army recruit falls in love with a pool girl. “A Time for Freedom” is set in 1911, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and sees a concubine unable to act on her love for a radical student. “A Time for Youth” takes place in 2005 Taipei, as a self-destructive pop star cheats on her girlfriend and hooks up with a photographer.
Saying that one of the three chapters seems counter-intuitive, because the movie is clearly designed as a conversation between them. Each chapter has its merits, and is enjoyable in its own way, but they really gain a deeper resonance when taken as a whole. The beauty of having watched ‘Three Times’ is that one can start to throw around theses about what exactly Hou was trying to say with each segment.
But if we’re going to talk about favorites, “A Time for Love” was the most enjoyable one, which makes sense, since it’s the most optimistic and utterly romantic of the three. “A Time for Freedom” is the most formally audacious one -being a silent movie with inter-titles and everything- and adopts the kind of melancholy tone I’m a sucker for. It’s “A Time for Youth” that I’m not completely sold on. It’s in this segment that the lovers’ sexuality is the most explicit, but they’re simultaneously at their most disconnected. Is Hou trying to critique modern love? That would be reductive, and quite frankly, not that interesting. I think he is trying to say much more. What, exactly, I’m not quite sure.
‘Three Times’ can turn into a little bit of a tedious viewing experience, especially towards the end, but it is also often an overwhelmingly beautiful watch. Hou’s paused musicality, the way he moves his camera, and the way the characters interact on the frame without speaking, they say much more than most movies can say in a million words. I’m still not quite sure about that last segment, but Hou is a master of the craft, and I’ve been thinking so much about ‘Three Times’ greatest moments since watching it last night.
L’Enfant (The Child) (Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Luc Dardenne)
Since today was the closing ceremony of the 2015 Cannes Film Festiva, I decided it would be nice to finish my 2005 Project with a look at the movie that won the Palme D’Or ten years ago. ‘L’Enfant’ was the first Dardennes movie I ever saw, back in the late 2000s. Since then, the only other Dardennes I’ve seen is last year’s ‘Two Days, One Night’, which I really liked. As you might have inferred from my lack of devotion to the brothers’ career, I wasn’t exactly blown away by ‘L’Enfant’ back when I first saw it (although I liked it). I thought it was time for a second chance.
I hate to be anticlimactic, but I still think ‘L’Enfant’ is good, not great. It’s the story of a young couple Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah François). Sonia has a baby. Bruno is the father. They’re both essentially kids. But while Sonia wants to do whatever she can to be a good mother, Bruno spends his life living off of petty crimes. Just as the “manchild” was starting to become a staple of American comedy, the Dardennes were making the ultimate “manchild” movie, only this wasn’t a comedic fantasy, it was an hyper-realistic drama.
But even if it’s fun to read it that way, ‘L’Enfant’ was not designed to be a response to America’s man-children. The Dardennes, from what I’ve gathered, are mostly interested in working-class parables influenced by Bresson and Italian Neorealism. As such, I’m not quite sure what to make of ‘L’Enfant’s themes and what the Dardennes are trying to say about class, need, and immaturity.
I will say this: I admire the Dardennes boldness to come up with such a tricky premise. Minor spoilers ahead, but the big plot point of the movie (which is otherwise light on plot) is that Bruno decides to sell the child. Sonia is understandably furious, and thus, begins Bruno’s quest to get back the child and gain back Sonia’s favor. Now, I don’t need to tell you that selling children is wrong. Neither do the Dardennes. They’re not trying to give us a circumstance in which such an action could be understandable, they’re trying to do something else… I just don’t know what it is.
When I first saw it, I took ‘L’Enfant’ at face value, and I thought it was a really well made movie. I still think it is. What’s more, now I think there’s something going in here thematically. I think the Dardennes had something to say with this story, and while I can’t help but invest in the lives of Sonia and Bruno, I don’t really know if the execution is giving me enough hints of the theme behind the movie. I understand that part of the Dardennes beauty is their love for the objective gaze on the face of moral dilemmas. I just don’t think the movie is giving me quite enough to fully engage with it.