Oct 4, 2011

NYFF 2011: 2 Small Films

Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, a small film about romantic disillusionment, takes place in the wilderness of Georgia, Russia, and follows two young travelers, Nica, (Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) as they go hiking in the mountains. There is very little incident. The opening scene shows her naked and shivering, waiting for him to bring her hot water for her bath. They are roughing it, and the camera takes an intimate look at what seems their budding relationship. There's lots of sex, silent walks in remote places, trying to figure out how to communicate with the locals. Some scenes suggest the possibility of peril (like dancing with drunk locals at a crummy little bar), but nothing ever happens. Alex is relaxed and good-natured and for a Mexican male, extremely confident in his woman. She has beautiful red hair and seems to be fit and a game traveler. We don't know anything about them except they seem to be having a nice time. Both actors are gorgeous to look at in a completely natural way. Loktev is great at capturing unspoken nuance, tiny shifts of emotion, which her actors handle beautifully. Furstenberg is a very charismatic presence, absolutely stunning in some scenes, and coarse looking in others; she has personality to fill the screen and then some. The camera adores García Bernal and he is particularly good at being inarticulate. He is a great silent actor. 
As they traverse the landscape with a local guide (Bidzina Guiabidze), nothing much happens until a small but loaded gesture, a threatening situation, provokes a reaction in Alex that completely alters Nica's understanding of him and changes their dynamic irrevocably. If before they weren't talking because they were happy in each others' company, now they are not talking because they can't bear to be near each other.
The movie aims to be naturalistic, but Loktev's stylistic choices seem pretentious. She cuts abruptly in scenes between them and the locals, but then the camera rambles endlessly in open shots of them walking through the spectacular landscape. She avoids the feeling of travelogue, but at the same time it is frustrating that we don't quite get to see what they are seeing. It feels deliberately claustrophobic. The sparse music score is one of those ugly abstract compositions that call attention to how arty the filmmakers are but add little to the images.

But even though the subtle psychological dynamics of the couple cast a certain spell, since the characters seem to be abstract figures rather than real people with past lives and present quirks, it is hard to be invested in their journey or their conflict.
The movie tries the viewers' patience with long aimless scenes and a disjointed rhythm. Once things get worse, the film gets better. The rift in the couple makes the guide, a man that is between benign and taciturn, potentially menacing, sense an opportunity. The ending is a wash out. Loktev goes for a very stripped-down world and, mostly through the excellent performances of her actors, who do a lot with very little, it does have a certain emotional power, but the self-conscious style gets in the way of raw emotion.

In my view, the same thing happens with Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre, although this is a far more complex work, with a lot of cinematic references. The Finnish filmmaker is known for his stylized, quirky deadpan. Shot in beautiful compositions with harsh light and primary colors against flat backgrounds, Le Havre is quite remarkable to look at but at the same time its style is starting to feel a bit old. It is the kind of thing that directors in advertising try to imitate when they want to give ironic edge to their commercials, except they rarely know how to pull it off as beautifully. Le Havre is a sweet, subversive little fable about racism and immigration. It takes the opposite route of weepy, truculent movies like Biutiful or Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, which approach the topic with indignant moral outrage.
In Le Havre, a dreamlike world that pays homage to old French films with its deliberately fake sets of a quaint France, the old boulangerie, the old corner bar, the little cottage where the protagonists live, in contrast to the realistic, ugly modern port, some old folks band together to help a group of African illegal immigrants that are trapped in a ship container. The protagonists, an old couple that go by the names of Marcel and Arletty Marx, no doubt a nod to old French cinema stars but also to Groucho and Karl, are poor but happy. He is a debonair gent who shines shoes and can't pay the bills and she stays at home and cooks. His friends patiently allow him to freeload. They seem to stem from a distant age of dignity and courtesy, but in complete opposition to the world today, they have great empathy for the plight of the illegals and organize to save one of them, a young boy named Idrissa, who escapes from the clutch of the police. The actors are deliberately wooden and speak clunky, mildly funny dialogue. The characters seem to belong to the world of film, including a police inspector dressed at all times in a black trench coat and a black fedora, perhaps an homage to Jean Pierre Melville's tough resistance fighters. The gang of friends may have been resistance members themselves, with their instinctive antipathy to the police and an organic tendency to altruism. The meanie who blows the whistle on the kid's whereabouts is Jean Pierre Leaud, Truffaut's alter ego in many films, looking ghastly and mugging for the camera. Kaurismaki has composed a little love song to his favorite French films, the ones full of esprit de corps and humanity, the Marcel Carne's, Jean Renoir's, Truffaut's, rather than the brainy Godard, Bresson or Resnais.
The film is gently funny and offbeat and it convinces once we realize that Kaurismaki is not being naive, but quite the contrary, he is being a contrarian. He asks what if instead of rejection, racism and intolerance, Europe would be warm and welcoming to those seeking a better life. He has enough studied quirkiness to make the liberal pieties less preachy, but my problem with this film is that the high style creates distance, it screams look at me, instead of bringing the audience closer to the characters. Even though I really like the idea and appreciate the execution, I find it difficult to feel passion or enthusiasm for this film.
When you see deeply humane films like Miracle in Milan, which Le Havre resembles in spirit, those films are steeped in human warmth and they open your heart. Le Havre might bring a smile to your face, but it does not reach your soul. 

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