Art House

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

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l'avventura

The day after I first saw L’Avventura, I woke up thinking of art, complexity, ambiguity, the iconicity of a face and the complexity of a touch. As the film starts, two women – Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) are setting off on a café society cruise around the coast of Sicily with a group of the louche and the bored, including Anna’s boyfriend, a flash society architect called Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Anna’s father, an elegant slightly weary former ambassador (Renzo Riccci), urges her not to go; Sandro is unworthy and is never going to marry her, he tells her. She, however, insists. He seems accepting of the fact that they might be sleeping together but is sad about it, as if he both mourns and is resigned to the degradation of the daughter he loves.

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Anna is in love. But it’s a long distance relationship. She’s not getting enough attention from Sandro when they are together and the lack of attention makes her doubt his love. Once on the yacht, she first jumps in the ocean — which leads him to jump in after her — and then lies about being in danger from sharks, which gets everyone’s attention. However, when she actually does disappear on the island it takes her friends a while to discover it.

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The people on the cruise are jaded aristocrats for whom the superficial is a shield from oblivion. They’re attentive to spaces in which to quote Oscar Wilde quips, busy only with trying to fend off boredom, and clutching at sensation as a means of keeping being in constant tension with nothingness. Even the possible death of one of them doesn’t really exercise them. They’re afraid of wasting time but what have they to do? After tired and half-hearted attempts to search for Anna, they all go back to more exciting places to be bored. Only Sandro and Claudia persist in their search. In so doing, they’re thrown together and begin to fall for each other. There’s a wonderful moment in the train where Claudia, who has already begged him to leave her alone, emotionally articulates the moral morass of their engaging in a relationship when Ana’s only been missing for a few days and whilst her whereabouts remain unknown, no matter that they’re each now in love with the other. He, however, can’t resist following her onto the train to continue with the chase. Why should he sacrifice himself? He thinks it an idiocy. Why? And for whom? He doesn’t meant to sound cynical but isn’t it better that they face things as they are, i.e. Ana’s no longer there, he no longer cares for his previous love. He’s only interested in his new one. He wants his pleasure. It’s all he can ever think of. Now. Why doesn’t she?

As she flees Sandro, the camera cuts to a the waves crashing onto the shore, the camera indicating the inevitability of Claudia’s involvement with Sandro by panning through the relentless waves and settling onto Anna’s face (see clip below). On the soundtrack we then hear a young man courting a young woman in a compartment as Sandro re-enters the shot and gets close to Claudia. Clearly this young working class couple is being aligned and juxtaposed to Claudia and Sandro. The young man knows somebody that works with the young girl and has heard she’s sensible. He has a Chinese transistor radio. Does she like music? She does? And what does she think is more important music or love? She thinks music; he opts for love first.

Claudia’s involvement with Sandro is now inevitable. Our new couple is surrounded by extra-diegetic music, soft but dissonant and adding to the alienation evident even in their moment of connection. She soon begins to act as needy as her friend. Anna’s absence is a structuring one. Claudia and Sandro might momentarily forget that their love is founded on a disappearance, an absence, possibly a death. When the absence becomes felt — which it does, first intermittently, then more insistently — this new adventure, so full of promise, is already over. Or is it? The one human moment of connection comes in the very last shot. She’s caught him cheating, he cries, he can’t help himself; dissolute, unfocussed, undisciplined, he’s no more able to be faithful than he was to choose art over a house in Milan AND one in Rome. But does she accept this?

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L’Avventura has to have some of the most beautiful compositions in the history of cinema. The seas are raging but the compositions are elegant, classic, balanced; the images they contain are also extraordinary; modernity in the foreground with Balenciaga dresses and sixties kitten heels, Roman ruins and imposing palaces and churches, or simply the natural sublime as background. The images in motion evoke process, tension, a spark of contradiction, which the beauty of the compositions then contains, fixes, naturalises. When Monica Vitti runs in search of her lover, the echoing click of her heels alone evokes a displacement, an alienation, a longing for which the virgin in the background is no help and one that dissipates into solitude even as her heels clack their presence onto parquet.

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There are niggles: the scene with men chasing after Gloria Perkins (Gloria de Poliolo), the celebrity with the torn dress working publicly in journalism but privately whoring herself to whomever can pay. The threat of the old, the poor, the male and the South as presented by the men gather around Monica Vitti in the extraordinary scene in Palermo. Is the North being patronising to the South? Are the filmmakers crudely commodifying the working class, peasants, Southerners? Is Antonioni being critical or making a crude self-serving nod to neo-realist traditions. I don’t know. What I am sure of is that L’Avventura is very great film by a truly great filmmaker.

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Days after I saw it I kept thinking about the beauty of its images and of how mesmeric and impactful Vitti’s final strokes of Ferzetti’s head are. I can’t imagine what its effects would be like on a small screen, though the Criterion transfer is a gorgeous one indeed. See it on as big a screen as you can; it’s worth it even if only for the added pleasure of seeing Monica Vitti’s unforgettable face in as large as size as possible.

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José Arroyo

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 2013)

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In Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are said to have lived for thousands of years but clearly haven’t spent even ten minutes of them Hoovering their homes. They live in dusty spaces crammed with things they’ve loved enough to keep for centuries, books and music mostly. Some people walked out of the film but I loved it; the anomie, the sadness, the great r&b tracks —  particularly Charlie Feathers’ Can’t Hardly Stand It and Denise Lasalle’s Trapped by a Thing Called Love — which speak of loss and loneliness but with an energy that conveys the opposite; the use of drugs as a parable for vampirism; the final insistent choice on life and love. It’s stayed with me all day.

The film begins with Adam, played by Tom Hiddlestone, shy, reclusive, living in Detroit, a city as much of a shell of former glories as he himself, a spectral place with hidden beauties, echoes of former lives and secret places were bodies can easily be disposed of. Adam lives for his music and for his fix. He’s got everything neatly arranged, a doctor who gives him top-grade, really pure blood and a sweet-faced squeaky-voiced young man (Anton Yelchin) on the edges of the music industry who might be pirating and selling on  Adam’s compositions but can arrange pretty much everything else Adam might need and is well-paid for doing so.  Adam  is trying to find a reason to continue living and having trouble finding it.

Meanwhile, Eve (Tilda Swinton) is living in Tangiers, the Tangiers of myth with Pepe Le Moko streets, Paul and Jane Bowles ambiance,  and the sheltering sky of balmy nights and a good supply. She’s got a friend there, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, gruff, poetic, endearing) who is also her connection to centuries-old literary gossip and grade-A blood. Her life is neatly arranged until she talks to Adam, finds out the extent of his loneliness and goes out to him. Adam and Eve once, maybe even originary lovers, reconnect as soul-mates, wonder through the nights, talk, find their old maybe unexciting but still essential rhythm with each other, until Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives. The aptly named Ava, with her disrespect for convention, her selfish need to have a good time, her intense focus on her bodily needs and pleasures disrupt the more cerebral, retired life of Adam and Eve and brings chaos: though Adam and Even try to keep the humans they call zombies at bay, Ava has a positive and dangerous relish for them.

I can’t imagine watching Only Lovers Left Alive on anything but a big screen. It has its own pace, one which requires patience, but if you give yourself to its tempo and its conceits, it draws one into its enveloping images and and hazy rhythms, enthralls, involves you in its play of allegory, meaning, sensation. By the end, the audience becomes enveloped and enchanted by the Tangier sky, the night, the music, the feelings and views of worn out junkies in love wondering what the point of it all is, the speculation on the meaning of life and art. Then, when Adam and Eve, and we, hear Yasmine Hamdam sing ‘Hal’ in a café, we understand why art, why evoking what Hamdam conveys and makes us feel, is worth living for — even if the price is murder. And we then realise that Only Lovers Left Alive has provided that as well.

It was nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes and worth seeing on the largest screen you can find.

José Arroyo

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 2013)

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I love the sound of Casey Affleck’s voice; a high-pitched bass sound, roundly toned, softly uttered, as distinctive as any in the current cinema; and capable of expressing so much; here the strangled murmur of the intensely wished about to be extinguished. It’s got Rooney Mara, very good in it as well; and it’s lovely to see Keith Carradine onscreen at any time. But I didn’t think much of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; and there were moments where Bradford Young’s cinematography was so dark I felt I wasn’t seeing it either.  I suppose I found it sub-Badlands; however, I do understand why others rate the film more highly. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints conveys an acute but flowing sadness that remains in the memory and is difficult to shake off: a sigh for that which is treasured but can no longer be. It feels not only the story of a doomed couple but also a kind of mourning for America.

José Arroyo

Certified Copy, Notes On (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Begium 2010,)

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This is a movie that seems to shift the ground under and over its own foundation as it progresses. The story begins with a French antiques dealer, never named in the film but played by Juliette Binoche and significantly listed in the credits as ‘Elle’, with all the connotations of the eternal, the archetypal, the ideal ‘She’ which every other woman simply performs, conforms to or deviates from, enacts, but might just be a bad copy of; one which nonetheless, in the act of copying, becomes, and becomes no less real, and potentially even more real, than the ideal.

‘Elle’ goes to listen to a British author, James Miller (William Shimell), give a talk on the relationship between the original and the copy in art with, we eventually find out, her eleven-year-old son. The son suggests she has the hots for the writer as she buys lots of copies of a book she’s already told him she has reservations about. She leaves her number with James who then picks her up at her antique store; they head off to the countryside, visit a museum, and then stop for a coffee. At the cafe, whilst he’s in the toilet, an elderly server ‘mistakes’ them for a couple, and she and ‘Elle’ have a long discussion on relationships, marriage, children and what makes for a good husband. ‘Elle’ talks emotionally about the failures of hers whilst the old lady offers a different, more generous interpretation. Ideals can ruin one’s life, the old lady warns her. When Miller returns, and in spite of the real emotion she’s shown for the husband we thought to be him, ‘Elle’ now tells Miller how funny it is that the old lady thought they were a couple.

James, surrounded by representations of 'She', including that of his possible wife reflected in the mirror.
James, surrounded by representations of ‘She’, including that of his possible wife reflected in the mirror.

As the film progresses, as they copy, enact, and re-enact their coupledom, we begin to first suspect that they really are a married couple, then become more firm in our conviction that they are, and, finally, it’s as if this couple stand in for all couples; even though we can’t quite shake off the doubt that, in spite of all we’ve seen, they might not really be one, or at least not the one we thought they were. Each slight shift in the narrative, in our understanding of the story, is accompanied by a shimmer of emotion, one that shines more truly and deeply as the film progresses.

Out of these shifts a possible story accumulates of a fifteen year-old marriage in which the wife loves her husband but is unsatisfied because he’s never there and she’s left alone to bring up her son. He admits that things weren’t as they had been when they first got married because things change but seems surprised to see her questioning the foundations of their relationship. At first, the divisions between them seem to be due to differences of language and culture as well as of character and feeling; but, as the story unfolds, these break down as well:. While we’re told he only speaks English whereas she speaks French to her son, English to her husband, and Italian to everyone else, over the course of the film we hear him also speak in these three languages, and this at least raises a doubt as to the reliability of her perspective and thus of ours.

As the first part of the film embroiders a narrative and a set of relationships, it also offers a rich, extended and variegated exploration on the nature of art. The film begins with a shot of a table, a microphone and a book, ‘Certified Copy’. The camera lingers on that ‘empty’ shot for a while until the author is introduced. He begins a speech on the relationship between the copy and the original in art and the film thus instigates an even more complex discussion on the nature of art that will be extensively developed throughout the first part of the film.

Certified Copy begins with a discussion of art, on the relationship between the original and the copy; is the original necessarily better? But it proceeds from there onto other topics such as the effects of age on value: can you only tell whether something is art if its value has been acknowledged for a long time? The film also dramatises an exploration of the natural versus the constructed or created in art, the question of form, the question of context to perception and art (does Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol putting a coke bottle in a museum, or a copy of an advertisement for a coke bottle in a museum, make it art?), the relationship of art to authorship (maybe if Jasper Johns puts the coke bottle there it can change our perception of it but would it do so if it was you or I that put the bottle there?) The film also brings up question of functionality, responsibility, affect, effect. What is the relationship of art to politics and ethics?

There’s also a wonderful interlude in a museum where our two protagonists are looking at a copy that was admired as an original for many years, is now acknowledged as a copy but is thought to be better than the original. And the film also offers interesting snippets, little asides that are nonetheless rich points of departure for thought on such issues as the look on the work: subjective, personal, creative, inventive; the place of technical skill or technique in value; and the issue of the reputation of the artist.

There’s another marvelous moment, this one  in a piazza, where they get into an argument on the interpretation of a statue of a couple and they rope in another couple , more elderly and perhaps wiser, to offer their views as proof of their own interpretation. I love it that that couple is played by Agathe Natanson and the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter not only of Buñuel’s late great works (Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty, Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire) but also of The Tin Drum, The Return of Martin Guèrre, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and clearly someone who has a thought or two on art worth listening to. Our listening, however, is qualified by the film bringing to our attention that our perception is not always reliable: when we first see this couple he seems to be angrily berating his wife and as if about to hit her; whereas, as they move on, we see that he’s been merely talking to someone on his phone. Things are not always as they seem. There’s a gaze that frames our perception. That gaze can shift.

Carrière’s presence is a reminder that the film is offering not only a discussion on art, on relationships, on the real and on their inter-relationship but that it’s doing so through a dialogue with film history in general (all those long takes beloved of Bazin, that staging in depth Bazin so praised in Welles and Wyler, the use of mirrors to frame, focus and re-compose so beloved of Sirk) but with Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in particular. The dramatization of a relationship in crisis through a journey within Italy is a theme they both share; the scene of Bergman in the museum being told about the cultural legacy of ancient times and trying to put it into her own context (see clip above) is extrapolated as a dominant theme in Certified Copy. There are more concrete echoes such as the reflections of the streets onto the windshield of the vehicle each couple is driving when they discourse on their own internal concerns whilst a whole world is visible in the background behind the rear window of the car (see frame grabs below).

Reflections on the windshield, a world outside the car, in Rossellini's Journey to Italy.
Reflections on the windshield, a world outside the car, in Rossellini’s Journey to Italy.
Talking about art and life in  Certified Copy
Talking about art and life in Certified Copy

The scene in Journey to Italy with the discovery of the lovers extinguished in a final embrace is a turning point in that film not unlike the couple in Certified Copy discussing the statue of that other couple in the piazza. Kiarostami’s film doesn’t place as much direct emphasis on faith, and certainly ‘She’/Binoche doesn’t get swept up by the faithful the way Bergman does in Rossellini’s film, and James/Shimell doesn’t seem to be one to rescue her if she were. But he might, just as his might be the shoulder ‘She’ needs to rest her head on. However, Kiarostami does offer a different kind of faith: that in the enactment, in the everyday copying of the ideal, one comes closer to fulfilling it; the daily enactment of duty, of performing what one promised to do, of conforming to a code, does not necessarily result in mere copy, it’s a copie conforme, a ‘Certified Copy’ so good that it might be mistaken for the real thing, certainly stand in for, and fulfil  the same function as the real thing. And who’s to say that it’s not?

The richness of theme, and the complexity with which the film dramatises and explores it, is one of the film’s great pleasures. Another, just as deserving of praise, and perhaps even more pleasurable, is Juliette Binoche’s performance of ‘She’: all the emotions of that ‘femme eternelle’ who is particularized as a frazzled working mom, emotions that sometimes seem in contradiction with each other, are visible in her face: she’s harried, seductive, worried, pleading, beautiful, middle-aged, all at once. It’s an extraordinary performance. He is the uninspiring unemotional blank; you can hear what he says but you don’t know what he thinks. It’s obviously in character and might be the very reason for Shimmell’s casting but it does detract from the movie, though not to the point were it prevents it from achieving greatness.

Surrounded by pleading and waiting wives.
Surrounded by pleading and waiting wives.
Surrounded by marriages James wants no part of.
Surrounded by marriages James wants no part of.
Some marriages start in tears as James reluctantly joins the marriage party in the background.
Some marriages start in tears as James reluctantly joins the marriage party in the background.

The other, and as regards this account, last of the film’s great pleasures, one which took me a while to awaken to, is the mise-en-scene. It initially seems so simple that one doesn’t notice anything, than gradually one sees ‘She’ reflected in mirrors alongside statues of naked women in Roman Art (see frame grab above) or James surrounded by brides he doesn’t want to talk to or be made to remember but once again in mirrors, in the background, as barely discernible reflections (see more frame grabs above), like a faint echo of a memory slowly rising to consciousness but, repressed by the protagonist, evoked by the staging, lighting and camerawork.

It’s a film that gets richer with each viewing.

José Arroyo