Contempt

bardot

(Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1963)

A Tragedy in Three Parts

Shot using CinemaScope, in Technicolor, starring a French A-lister, and a cameo by a world-renowned German director – hardly sounds like it describes the career of Jean-Luc Godard’s revered ‘60s output, right? The man made a name for himself by tearing down the walls of the box studios and financiers had placed filmmakers in. He taught us how to pay homage while forging new stylistic terrain (Breathless), humorously deconstruct an overstuffed genre (A Woman Is a Woman), and turn an exercise in minimalistic verisimilitude into a powerful character study (Vivre sa vie). He was an innovator in a class of his own. And yet, his hotly anticipated foray into commercialized filmmaking Contempt is easily the apex of his fruitful decade and possibly the greatest in his entire expansive career.

It’s unclear why Godard even wanted to risk the inevitable clash with dissatisfied producers and the subsequent compromise he as a self-proclaimed auteur would likely have to make, but he dove in headfirst regardless. Perhaps he knew this would be his one big chance at big studio fare with the most envied technology Hollywood could provide or maybe it was another exercise in genre appropriating that marked his early career and this time a film about film was the trope du jour. Whatever the reason for the decision, it paid off immeasurably. For at its core Contempt is Godard’s Greek tragedy, and the grand scope with which he captured his film only serves to underscore the heightened pathos of that great, ancient genre.

Contempt may be a film about film – as it documents the process of producer meddling in the character of American Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), a stunted visionary director playing himself (Fritz Lang), and a reluctant screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) called in for rewrites – but the troubled production of the movie within this movie (fittingly an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey) is not Godard’s tragedy. No, at the film’s center is the story of a doomed marriage. And, a layer even deeper than that reveals that this disintegrating relationship mirrors the conflict Paul faces between art (Lang’s initial cut of The Odyssey) and commercialization (Prokosch’s demands for crowd-pleasing rewrites) as Paul’s wife Camille (a scene-stealing Brigitte Bardot) distances herself from him as he leans toward giving in to Prokosch’s demands. It’s a brilliantly meta-narrative that possibly finds Godard at his most self-reflexive; his only big-budget film to date is also concerned with the very notion of compromising artistic expression.

Remarkably, it seems Godard makes very few (if any) reductive concessions. Contempt, while markedly more adherent to the narrative and stylistic constructs Godard built his career on breaking, is still a wholly accomplished work. It’s a much fuller film than the intentionally limited debut that rocketed him into stardom, but in this writer’s opinion it’s better for it. Ironically, more money and resources at his disposal serve as a greater constraint to narrow the focus of his direction from the free-for-all nature of his previous work. It may be less technically innovative than either Breathless or Vivre sa vie before it, but Contempt achieves something greater than both those earlier films. It’s certainly ambitious as a film detailing the very process of filming a big studio production, an intimate drama of a failing marriage, and a medium for Godard to explore his own identity as an artist, but it lands on all three fronts.

Godard’s own prowess at the art of filmmaking takes care of the first point, the film’s extended second act revolving around escalating conflict between Paul and Camille enclosed in the suffocating space of their unfinished flat provides the adequate screen time for the second (and the film’s very best sequences), and the film entire in addition to the director’s own marital troubles with the notably absent Anna Karina lend credence to the notion of an artist in turmoil. Godard strictly follows the pattern of Greek tragedy to its inevitable, calamitous finale. Paul ultimately turns down Prokosch’s lucrative offer, but it’s too late. He may preserve his artistic integrity, but his marriage is finished. And, Camille, unintentionally pushed away by her confused husband, leaves him for the slimy Prokosch, but it also spells her demise.

As mentioned, the film’s best scenes are between Paul and Camille in their home. They roam the interior space casually – sipping soda, taking baths, flipping through a book of art – but their conversation fueled by a crucial misunderstanding that takes place in the film’s first act devolves into senseless bickering as contempt for one another grows. Some have read misogyny in the film’s characterizations here citing Godard’s sympathy for the conflicted artist (perhaps even a stand-in for Godard himself) ultimately betrayed by his wife but only mere indifference toward Camille’s position. I can see this argument, especially in light of Paul’s sudden burst of aggression sans consequence and Camille’s late-film switcheroo that finds her in the arms of the man who initially disgusted her. It certainly doesn’t help that Bardot’s played here for her sex appeal (though she acquits herself admirably outshining nearly everyone else in performance alone). But, personally, I find Godard’s position rather balanced. Camille is no mere shell, and if she comes across as a submissive housewife at times, it only validates her increasing intolerance and ultimate decision to leave Paul. Neither party is innocent in this tragedy, and a brief sequence of voiceover narration providing a window into both spouse’s thoughts suggests the dissolution of their marriage tragically hinges on a gross misunderstanding despite their enduring love for one another.

I have heard Contempt compared to Fellini’s 8 ½ released the same year, and the comparison is an apt one. Both are explicitly concerned with filmmaking and inner turmoil artists at the helm face when up against studio or audience pressure. Both are intensely self-reflexive. And, both deal with men and trouble with the women in their lives. But while Fellini’s opus is also his most daringly complex, a work of unparalleled cinematic surrealism, Godard’s (arguably) greatest film is the least like his other groundbreaking work and unexpectedly compliant with cinema’s vast history that it willingly bows to. He most often receives his well-deserved praise for breaking all the rules with Breathless, but I find that when he decides to follow them he makes far more compelling and enduring cinema.

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Beau travail

beau travail

(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999)

Recklessly Abandoned

“Maybe freedom begins with remorse,” former Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) ponders shortly before taking his own life. Discharged from the French military following a heinous act rooted in jealousy, the morose sergeant lives out the remainder of his banal existence in Marseilles far removed from the battalion he once led in eastern Africa. Regret consumes him, and memories of his previous, neatly ordered life fill his thoughts. Claire Denis’ Beau travail begins and ends with the wandering thoughts of this troubled, tragic figure. Somewhat of a breakthrough film for Denis, Beau travail finds the filmmaker, now an august staple of art cinema, exploring the depths of Galoup’s psyche relying very little on dialogue and expanding the possibilities of visual narrative. It also serves as a meditation on such disparate themes as abandonment, jealousy, guilt, and subtle eroticism.

Denis tells Galoup’s story through lengthy flashbacks set in the African nation Djibouti revealing the director’s penchant and knack for capturing alluring imagery. The sergeant, strictly adherent to the order of military life, strives to control everything around him. He precisely irons his clothes, meticulously sets tables for meals, and obsesses over making a neat bed. When new recruits are sent to join his legion, Galoup’s perfect world comes under attack in the form of the young, handsome, lean yet muscular, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Galoup immediately dislikes Sentain admitting envy over the soldier’s character and popularity. Despite his obvious disapproval of the new recruit, the sergeant keeps Sentain close to him at all times; whether through drills or meals, the young legionnaire remains within his grasp.

Exquisitely crafting this story, Denis opts to often imply action rather than show it – a night on the town that Galoup declares a “harbinger of things to come” finds Sentain gaining the approval of his comrades (though we don’t exactly learn why), or a cloud of orange smoke and floating wreckage stands in for a helicopter crash. Likewise, she allows tension to build using an effective, haunting down tempo soundtrack instead of through dialogue. In Beau travail, the image is king, and the filmmaker explores eroticism and potentially repressed homosexuality purely in a visual fashion. Her camera fixates on the male form whether her characters are wrestling underwater, engaged in calisthenics, digging, or showering.

When Sentain wins the approval of Galoup’s commanding officer Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) through an act of heroism, the sergeant’s jealousy is brought to its tipping point. “Sentain seduced everyone,” he later reflects. Determined to rid his battalion of the legionnaire, Galoup leads his men far from the familiarity of their base to abandoned barricades up the coast under the guise of repairing a road. Here the tension comes to a head with a literal and metaphorical standoff between the two – the camera intoxicatingly swirls around these half-naked figures set to grandiose operatic music. A fight never breaks out, but Galoup’s decision has been made and Sentain’s fate sealed. The sergeant sets a trap for the young soldier: he severely punishes a fellow legionnaire for purportedly abandoning his post one night by forcing him to dig a hole till his hands bleed. Expectedly, Sentain defies Galoup’s injustice attempting to give the man water. The sergeant kicks it away and slaps him across the face. After Sentain retaliates with a fist to the face, Galoup hurriedly drives the soldier into the middle of the desert with a faulty compass and leaves him there to die.

Court-marshaled and discharged for his action, Galoup winds up back in France and never sees his victim again. Denis relieves our anxieties by including shots of Djibouti wanderers rescuing Sentain from his inevitable death, but the sergeant is never privy to this revelation. Instead, tortured by guilt and incapable of coping having been stripped of his post, Galoup chooses to end his life. Denis ends her film with the former sergeant’s decision (off-screen) then transitions to one of the most delightfully unexpected finales in cinematic history. The filmmaker cuts from Galoup lying in bed clutching his pistol to a shot of him standing alone on the dance floor of an empty nightclub. After hesitantly folding his arms, Galoup lets loose and starts to dance. His increasingly wild moves belie the rigidity of his serious demeanor that he carries for the vast majority of the film. It’s a beautiful, if not still somewhat ambiguous, metaphor for the release of death. No longer bound by the order that ruled his actions during life, Galoup embraces the fluidity and rhythm of whatever world awaits him.

Claire Denis’ Beau travail cannot readily be reduced to one of its varying themes. In a way, this serves as one of the film’s greatest strengths. Like an intricate painting, it relies on viewer perception and interpretation of its visual narrative. Her film could be about one man’s intense jealousy that ultimately consumes him. It could be an exploration of homoeroticism and the forbidden attraction between men in the military. Or, it could be about the consequences of reckless abandonment: Galoup deserting Sentain, the military dismissing Galoup, even an abandoned continent marred by the effects of colonialism. The director explores each of these in turn and offers no conclusions. Her aesthetic is daringly unique, and Beau travail stands as an important chapter in her mighty oeuvre that continually pushes the boundary of cinematic narration.

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Vertigo

Vertigo

(Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1958)

Objects of Desire: Women in Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock’s tumultuous relationship with his leading ladies – and with women in general – is well documented in the annals of behind-the-scenes histories of cinema with new claims of his flagrant disregard for the opposite sex surfacing to this day. And yet, despite the persistent portrait of the man’s misdeeds – reportedly flashing his female leads to elicit shocked performances and soliciting one actress for sexual favors then enacting revenge on set when refused, to cite the two most startling accusations – most remain curiously unsubstantiated. There are those who worked closest to him who would corroborate these claims as well as many who quickly dismiss them as completely fabricated. Aside from his clear (arguably sexist) preference for blondes and a famous quote suggesting men are inherently better performers, it’s likely we’ll never know whether Hitchcock harbored intense feelings of misogyny or, less seriously, ascribed to the traditional, widely accepted views on women of the time.

Since today’s fans and detractors alike were never on set for any of these alleged incidents, what we have to go on are the movies themselves, the most famous of which all feature (blonde) women central to each film’s narrative. He’s no stranger to subjecting women to violence or tragedy (though he’s certainly no Lars von Trier!) – see Janet Leigh’s iconic shower death in Psycho or the physical and psychological torment of Tippi Hedren in The Birds. But, he’s also occasionally disposed to showcase heroics in the most unlikely of characters as in Grace Kelly’s dainty, socialite Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (though admittedly she’s mostly there for window dressing). But, if there’s one film in Hitchcock’s enormous catalogue that most draws attention to its treatment of and ideas on women, it’s none other than his widely regarded magnum opus Vertigo.

The achievements of Hitchcock’s masterpiece are innumerable – the unparalleled suspense-building in the least likely fashion imaginable, a meticulously controlled mise-en-scène, a gorgeous Technicolor palette that allowed red walls and a green dress to pop against the cloudy grays of San Francisco, Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing score, Jimmy Stewart’s perfectly unnerving performance, one killer twist, etc. – and the plot details are well-known to most lovers of film and casual moviegoers alike. At the film’s center is Stewart’s Scottie – a police detective forced into early retirement due to a rooftop accident triggering crippling acrophobia and vertigo – who’s enlisted by an old classmate to undergo a private investigation of his wife’s abnormal behavior suggesting hints of the supernatural. As Scottie begins tailing the beautiful Madeleine about town, closely observing her every move, he begins falling for her himself. When those sentiments are reciprocated, Scottie urges her to discover the cause of this erratic behavior, now not for her husband, but for their love.

When Madeleine falls to her death from the bell tower at a far-off church, Scottie is overcome with grief and slips into a nearly catatonic depression. Not long after, Madeleine’s perfect double appears in the form of Judy Barton, a brunette without Madeleine’s air of sophistication or seductive elocution. Could this be the same person? Hitchcock doesn’t let his audience wonder for too long. Judy reveals as much in a letter explicitly detailing his old pal’s elaborate ploy to murder his wife and use Scottie as a witness to her faked suicide, performed by Judy as Madeleine’s lookalike. Judy subsequently tears up the note and allows Scottie back into her life in hopes that he can now learn to love her as Judy. It’s a bold narrative decision; a twist that Hitchcock could have milked till the film’s final moments. But, it quickly becomes clear that he intends us to focus our attention not on solving a mystery, but on studying our rapidly unhinging protagonist as he increasingly pressures Judy into assuming Madeleine’s likeness once again. The film’s back half packs one hefty emotional punch as Scottie unravels given our knowledge and his lack thereof regarding Judy’s true identity. It’s maddening to see Judy reluctantly transform into Madeleine in order to win Scottie’s affection and to witness Scottie driven to near insanity as he forces her to mount the stairs where “Madeleine” first died.

The film, ultimately, is a tragedy. In the end, Scottie loses both the woman he claims to love and, more than likely, his mind. Hitchcock’s film is primarily concerned with the psyche and mental regression of his male protagonist Scottie, but the man’s relationship with and treatment of women is crucial in understanding how we as the audience are to perceive his circumstance as either lamentable tragedy or deserved comeuppance. There are two major female characters in Vertigo, and both exist to further the plot of Scottie’s downward spiral. Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy duo is the axis on which the film rotates. The idea of Madeleine is the object of Scottie’s intense desires; so much so that he aggressively projects the feelings associated with her on Judy, though he is at first completely unaware of the actual connection between the two. Hitchcock fittingly captures Novak as if she were a prop, an object to be sought after. A large portion of the film consists of Scottie watching her closely. Her routines and gestures form the basis of his study, then her features and figure fuel his growing desire.

The second female character is less pivotal to the film’s plot, but she provides grounding for Scottie’s character immediately following his accident and intermittently as he falls for Madeleine. We learn to care for Scottie during his early interactions with Midge (Barbara Del Geddes) that provide back-story for both characters. In their very first scene together, it becomes clear that Midge harbors feelings for Scottie to which he remains oblivious. But, as an audience, we’re conditioned to guess straightaway that she will not serve as this protagonist’s love interest. In contrast to Novak’s glowing, distinct features highlighted by melodramatic strings every time she appears on screen, Del Geddes is made to look comparatively homely. We first see her hunched over a desk wearing plain clothes and sporting unflattering spectacles. Throughout the film, Midge is treated as a repository for Scottie’s feelings and insecurities until he doesn’t need her anymore. After Madeleine supposedly plummets to her death, it’s Midge who dutifully remains by Scottie’s side while he recovers. She patiently and kindly speaks to him hoping he’ll snap out of his coma-like state, but Hitchcock immediately cuts to Scottie, now physically rehabilitated, in desperate search for some trace of Madeleine throughout the city. Midge is never seen again.

Hitchcock is so rarely interested in moralizing, and Vertigo is no exception. He does not condemn Scottie for his dismissal of Midge and his harmful actions toward Judy, but rather allows him to fall victim to natural consequences of such unfair treatment. There isn’t any closure for Scottie and Midge, but it’s not difficult to imagine that there’s no room left in his heart for their friendship once the thought of resurrecting Madeleine consumes him. His actions arguably spell the end of their close-knit relationship. As for Judy, not only does she lose her own life because of Scottie, but he also loses his sanity in the pursuit of his desires. Here, Hitchcock shows the self-destructive nature of obsession. For obsession is what this is, no matter how much Scottie cushions his sentiments with flowery words like “love.” He doesn’t love Judy and can’t love her. She is but a shell to him; only her physical appearance matters. Only when she changes her hair, her dress, and her demeanor can Scottie even hold her in his arms.

It might be tempting to read Vertigo as a feminist manifesto of sorts with its seeming denouncement of such flippantly objectified treatment of women, but given Hitchcock’s personal history, women’s rights were not likely at the forefront of his thoughts. Too, it’s important to note, the two women here do not represent fully-fledged characters. The film seems to suggest that the greatest desires of their own hearts beat for one man. Despite Midge’s apparent successful career, the motivating factor for most of her onscreen actions is her affection for Scottie. Likewise, Judy appears unable to assess her own self-worth and remains in a destructive relationship with Scottie allowing him to transform her into another woman, finally worthy of his love. Some might find this assessment unfair citing Judy’s real love for Scottie as her motivation, but if that’s true, then this is a failure on Hitchcock’s part to add any credibility to their supposed blossoming romance (admittedly, this is a flaw of many major Hollywood classics when swelling strings and abrupt passionate kissing could believably stand in for love).

Ultimately, Vertigo is a film distinctly about women (though not a particularly progressive one), but one that sees them through a decidedly male perspective. The women in Vertigo are mere objects of desire, and even if these are not especially nuanced characterizations, the film makes a case against such obsessive longing nonetheless. At film’s end, Scottie is left with nothing. He loses a dear friend, and he loses the one he so desires not once, but twice. There’s only hollowness in such objectification (whether of women or men alike), and the final tragic moments of Hitchcock’s masterpiece stand as a perfect image of that powerful truth.

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In Memoriam: Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman

On October 5, 2015, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman passed away at the young age of sixty-five, only two days prior to the U.S. release of her latest and final film No Home Movie. A week prior to her untimely death, I sat down to watch her agreed-upon opus Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – the film that famously runs about as long as its title. At a whopping 201 minutes, Jeanne Dielman has always been on my list, but I’ve never found the time or adequate amount of patience for three and a half hours of one woman’s daily routine as it ever so subtly spirals out of control. As a cinephile I am, of course, glad to say that I have now seen it. And, though I still can’t say that I loved it, I must admit that it ranks amongst the most ambitious works in all of cinema. And for that it surely deserves all the praise critics and fans continually lavish upon it and its creator.

Call it a feminist document or a study in the breakdown of habitual domesticity, but Akerman’s film is first and foremost a triumph of capturing actual time and space on film. The titular homemaker’s monotonous days unfold in real-time, and Akerman offers her audience no reprieve from every minute detail of Jeanne’s routine as she moves about her flat, accomplishing each trivial task one at a time. Akerman captures her subject in a series of meticulously framed, long static shots. Jeanne comes to life in front of Akerman’s camera, but the effect is as if we’re uncovering this woman’s existence rather than watching a team of filmmakers create it. Of course, Jeanne Dielman is narrative cinema as in its story is fictional, but this documentary-like quality of the film lends an alarming universality to its character’s pathetically methodical life.

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In cinematic art, we praise this quality of directors who compose slice-of-life narratives, who possess a keen eye for uncovering the unexpected beauty in the minutiae of the everyday. Most recently, American filmmaker Richard Linklater achieved just that with his masterpiece Boyhood that chronicled twelve years of a boy’s life, but wondrously focused on the moments in between the major events that make us who we are. Likewise, titans Hou Hsiao-hsien and Yasujiro Ozu built their careers on this sort of elliptical storytelling. And yet, Akerman’s art takes this notion to new heights. Jeanne Dielman alone may very well be the most complete portrait of everyday life I’ve ever seen on film, but Akerman’s entire oeuvre is filled with this kind of reality-driven, mundane moment filmmaking. Following her most talked about feature, I have since seen both La chambre and News from Home – two of her other notable works from the ‘70s.

While there’s not much to say about La chambre – an 11-minute film that finds the camera circling a cluttered room three times, then swinging like a pendulum passing its subject lying in bed – it is an intriguing experiment in space and camera movement. New from Home, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise and a fitting complement to Jeanne Dielman’s rigorous formalism. The film plays out more like a video essay (akin to Chris Marker’s superior Sans Soleil) composed of carefully framed, largely static shots of New York life as Akerman reads actual letters from her mother written during her time living in the great American city in the early ‘70s. This mundane news from home accompanies these moving images of Akerman’s new home simultaneously painting a picture of vivid urban life while potentially hinting at the isolation this artist must feel separated from her family and country.

Akerman shows us the New York she sees – nothing sensational, nothing grand – simply snapshots of everyday life. And when the ferry pulls away from the harbor framing Manhattan’s hazy skyline in the film’s sobering ten-minute final shot, Akerman captures a portrait of New York imbued with an incredible depth Woody Allen might be jealous of. Thus, based on the mere three films I’ve seen of hers, I believe Akerman possessed an uncanny ability to mine tremendous meaning from images, camera placement, and the effects of time and space without relying upon the traditional signifiers of narrative cinema like no other filmmaker I’ve explored. I suppose, then, it would be appropriate to grant her the somewhat limiting title of an “experimental” filmmaker, but I hope this would never keep interested filmgoers from her work. She was an artist of immense talent, and her observational gaze will certainly be missed in the world of cinema.

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The New World

new world

(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)

Through the Eyes of the Other

Terrence Malick’s visionary aesthetic exists in a world entirely its own. No other filmmaker today captures the grandeur of the world in which we live quite like him. The director’s small oeuvre is marked by breathtaking imagery and celebrations of this beautiful earth. With only two (yet near perfect) films in the past thirty years, it would seem safe to say Malick also approaches his craft with careful precision and solemnity. Thus, it would only be fair to engage each of his latest efforts with a sense of reverence in hopes that the great filmmaker would enlighten us once again with his supremely unique vision.

The New World finds Malick exploring actual historical events like its predecessor The Thin Red Line. But, just like that film, we should readily expect that the director is far more concerned with the philosophical nuances of legend than adhering to strict historical accounts. His latest tells the story of the momentous collision of cultures that was the founding of Jamestown in pre-colonial North America. The film begins with the arrival of the English explorers as the natives gaze at the magnificent vessels in amazement. The scene, brilliantly set to Wagner’s “Vorspiel” to his opera Das Rheingold, beautifully captures the sheer wonder that both sides express in anticipation of the imminent meeting.

The settlers land, and John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) are quickly established as our prominent English players. Brought over in the stocks, Smith is already a man with few allies. Presumably anxious to regain one of his finest crewmembers, Newport immediately absolves Smith of his supposed seditious remarks and places him in a crucial leadership role. Malick wastes no time in chronicling the inception of what would become Jamestown and gives us glimpses of encounters with the natives, construction of the settlement, and early failures through an expertly edited brief sequence. We piece together the strain the new environment has had on these settlers with little to no dialogue – one of the filmmaker’s most admirable trademarks. All the while, the young Pocahontas (impressive newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher) watches from afar as this strange new settlement grows. She quickly becomes the film’s main protagonist and the eyes through which we witness this pre-American world.

When the situation for the English settlers becomes dire, Newport returns to England for more aid and names John Smith captain in his stead. Before he leaves, he charges the fearless explorer with increasing trade and improving relations with the natives. Things turn sour during an outlying expedition, and Smith finds himself held captive by Pocahontas’ tribe. In an act of grace, the young maiden steps in front of the explorer’s executioner after his intrusion has sealed his fate. Bound to her by this courageous deed, Smith, allowed to stay with the tribe through winter, becomes the girl’s pupil as she teaches him to see the world through the eyes of her people. This sequence provides the beating heart of Malick’s film. Like Smith, we too are charged with discovering and engaging this beautiful new world. Pocahontas and Smith expectedly form a bond of love as they learn the other’s language and perception of the world around them. Malick captures this blossoming romance and the character’s shared awe of nature through exquisite, copious editing. He creates his story by piecing together seconds of footage woven tightly like an elaborate tapestry.

Spring arrives, and the natives return Smith to his foreign colony. They tear a blindfold from his eyes and the dilapidated state of Jamestown stands before him. Burdened by the despair that lingers in the settlement like a pandemic, the captain reassumes his responsibilities and takes charge once more of preserving the fort until Newport’s return. Smith’s newfound allegiance pits the settlers against the natives on multiple occasions, and this seeming betrayal ultimately leads to his dismissal from Malick’s narrative seamlessly transitioning into another exploration of a different new world for the film’s true protagonist, Pocahontas. Banished by her tribe for her loyalty to the wayward captain, the girl makes a new home alongside the foreigners in Jamestown. She adopts a new name, wardrobe, and religion. Her domesticated countenance leads her into the arms of another Englishman after Smith’s departure. John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a soft-spoken and serious tobacco cultivator, falls for this fascinating newcomer and convinces her to wed him. Pocahontas (now Rebecca) eventually journeys with her husband (and son) to his native England, and Malick’s camera follows the young wife, now a foreigner herself, as she discovers this industrial new world.

Malick ends his exploration of wonder here in England as his protagonist succumbs to a fatal illness prior to returning to her motherland. Before her untimely death, Rebecca faces her former lover again but poignantly chooses dutifully loving her husband. It’s a beautifully subtle close to that chapter of innocent discovery. The filmmaker closes his film as it begins with Wagner’s “Vorspiel”, this time accompanying an unforgettable montage of Rebecca joyfully frolicking around as she used to, only now in this disparate new world.

The New World stands as an undeniable triumph of unimaginable beauty. Though the film’s creator, like his brave heroine, finds beauty in all worlds whether manufactured or natural, he bares an inclination to favor God’s original gift of nature. And, in crafting a story through the eyes of a Native American protagonist, he seems to have found the perfect medium through which to paint this magnificent vision. Seeking to tell its story largely through images and scarce dialogue, The New World proves a perfect successor to the meditations of The Thin Red Line. More than many films of this past decade (and century for that matter), it makes a strong case for the distinct visuals of film as pure art.

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Ten

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(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)

Dashboard Confessionals

The anti-narrative of Abbas Kiarostami’s docufiction Ten moves along as a countdown. But, a countdown, as would happen in a Kiarostami film, that leads to no spectacular, climactic end. For the filmmaker has always been concerned with the minutia of everyday life, people over dramatic storytelling, and the thin line between illusion and reality on screen over flashy camera tricks or groundbreaking filmic techniques. And thus, Ten stands as perhaps his most bare bones film yet – at least, on the surface. In his first foray into digital, he places two cameras on the hood of a car simulating hidden “dash-cams” and alternates between two static angles over the course of the film’s runtime (with one notable exception). If Taste of Cherry found the director stretching the use of a vehicle in motion for a viable set, Ten is the culmination of his vehicular-obsessed cinema, never once capturing footage from outside the car. So, what could Kiarostami possibly achieve within the confines of the front seat of an automobile driving through the streets of Tehran? As typical of the works of this Iranian master, there’s much more going on in the film than what simply appears in the frame.

Comprised of ten separate episodes, the film follows one woman (Mania Akbari) as she drives around conversing with the various people – mostly women – who populate the passenger seat of her car. In the first segment, we’re introduced to the unnamed woman’s son Amin (played by Akbari’s real-life son) first as he climbs into the front seat of the car. For nearly fifteen minutes, the pair argues and shouts over each other, insulting and name-calling the other. We learn Amin disapproves of his mother’s decision to divorce his father, and he thus holds a very low opinion of her. Akbari understandably defends herself, but Amin won’t have it. Eventually, when the car slows, he opens the door and jumps out in anger. Only once he’s gotten out does the frame switch to the camera resting on Akbari and we see our primary character for the first time.

The following nine episodes play out like this with casual and believably natural discussions between the driver and her passengers. Over the course of the film we meet her sister, two friends with similar relationship issues, an elderly woman she picks up and takes to mosque, a prostitute who she picks up by mistake, and her son a few more times. Slowly, a portrait of the state of women in Iran forms as topics of sexuality, marriage, careers, and societal expectations regarding roles realistically surface during these several conversations. There are no men in the film – save for Akbari’s preteen son who stands in for traditional male dominance – so the film’s voice decidedly belongs to women. It’s a welcome change of perspective for the director who hasn’t dealt explicitly with the role of women in his native country or female protagonists in his work in general despite the daring efforts of his former protégé Jafar Panahi to do just that with his The Circle only two years prior.

And while Ten appears somewhat limited in comparison to the filmmaker’s greatest works due to its confined structure, it still remains an impressive effort from one of cinema’s finest directors, and an important pioneering work of digital photography. Certainly, Ten’s dashboard confessional set-up wouldn’t have been possible prior to the advent of such digital technology. It even calls into question the role of a director as film enters its second century as a major narrative art form. Kiarostami himself was rarely present on “set” during the shoot, subsequently creating the film from hours of footage in the editing room. In this way, it reveals its carefully planned structure as well as the director’s insistence on obliterating the barrier between reality and fiction. Akbari starring alongside her real son brings her own sense of what it means to be a woman to the film as a real-life activist and director herself. She’s not, however, an archetype, and it’s crucial to note there was a fair amount of (loosely) scripted material for these actors to perform. She changes her opinions throughout, has good and bad days with her volatile son, at once questions a prostitute’s profession and then later echoes her advice when consoling a friend whose husband will leave her – in essence, through narrative fiction, Kiarostami captures a slice of real life. It’s especially refreshing from a group of people who aren’t often given a voice so freely in their own country. Ten may make no grand political or feminist statements, but its strength lies in this simplicity. Women are people too – with feelings, fears, opinions, goals, dreams – and with his signature automobile setting, Kiarostami provides them a safe place to freely express who they are.

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