Monday, June 9, 2014

Stéphane Delorme on Restless

One of the major through-lines in Cahiers' special 700th issue are strong and heartfelt responses to films. Some recurring remarks are about the liberty and free spirit of what is being shown, the seriousness of the experience and what the film means, the complexity of contemplative film-going experience, and the affect and importance of a beautiful gesture. This, in short, broadly characterizes where Cahiers is at today.

This review of Restless by Stéphane Delorme beautifully illustrates the sensitivity of the magazine today. It is as if the generosity of the artist - its director, Gus Van Sant - is re-energizing the magazine, and making sure that it is the best that it can be. Imagine Cahiers is like a flower, a beautiful pink tulip, which is nourished by the creation and viewing of these perseverant and poetic films that gives the future hope. So the more of them that are made, the better it gets. But also that when cinema strays from this path and nihilism, disdain and formalism takes over, it withers a little, which it necessitates Cahiers to fight back.

In his editorial Le style et le geste, building on Céline and Roland Barthes, and writing on Nagisa Oshima who then recently passed away, Delorme properly defines the politique des auteurs as
talking about the “morality of the mise en scène.” This engagement can otherwise be said by one word: its gesture… The idea of the gesture also has the advantage of bringing up the idea of an event, which connects the films, scenes, and shots. An auteur doesn’t only make one gesture. A film is the ensemble of them, and it is these gestures that we review when we critique a film. 
Delorme brings this level attention to his reviews, and that of the Restless one in specific, which creates a model that raises the level of writing by his fellow critics. Of note in this review is its focus on youth, people, love, and death – all key facets of cinema and life. This criteria of evaluation recalls how it was put into practice in Delorme’s review of David Lynch’s last film to date Inland Empire, Une femme mariée (n.620), where after discussing its key features - how it's haunting, and creates fear and affects - he concludes, “The temptation of adultery or not, dryness or not, there is for sure the story of an amour fou in Inland Empire, but it takes place on the other side of the screen, between the director and his actress, Laura Dern.”

This Restless review from the May 2011 Cannes issue (N.667) isn’t even the official Cahier Critique (that would be by Dominique Païni’s in N.670, and it’s also worth checking out Marcos Uzal’s Trafic N.81 review). I’ve translated it below. It illustrate the heartfelt and lyrical aspects of Delorme's writing, which is seamlessly incorporated into traditional film criticism (e.g. the discussion of a director and his films). It’s one of Delorme’s best and most personal recent contributions, alongside his piece on L’enfant secret. Vant Sant, whose Elephant made Cahiers' Top Ten of the decade (whose directors have all slowly been getting événements), has been over time, surprisingly, the source of some of Cahiers most generous and touching critiques (see in particular what some of their past writers have said, whether it is Serge Daney or Stéphane Bouquet and Jean-Marc Lalanne). Some filmmakers have a way to bring out the best in people. Gus Van Sant is one of them. - D. D.
Gus Van Sant, calme and without rest

Why do we like a filmmaker? We can easily ask ourselves this question in front of the Gus Van Sant’s beautiful new film. We do not find the shock that, from Gerry to Last Days, in three films made this director from Portland the most important one of his generation. But we find something else that no other direct has to offer today: an assurance, confidence, and perseverance in oneself to make works guided by personal wishes and challenges that he wants to take on. 

It was a few years ago that he was at the top of his game with Elephant, Gus Van Sant didn’t try to outdo himself by getting locked into the posture of an auteur or of a superauteur which happened to other past Cannes prize winners and that paralyzed them formally by this quick ascension (Wenders, Moretti, Almodovar – as we anticipate for their new films). Gus Van Sant seems not to be a victim of this pride and complex, public recognition doesn’t seem to affect him: he has nothing to prove, he lands and shows up again surprisingly, in the hippy streets of San Francisco (Milk), in a line waiting at a busy Starbucks (an unrealized project with Tom Hanks), or in a pathetic melodrama à la Love Story (1979), because most people would be able to compare Restless to the Arthur Hiller film.

We like a filmmaker for his gesture of picking what films to direct, just as much for their style. When Coppola takes up projects in the Eighties, without even worrying about how they are just jobs, he then produces some of his best films while multiplying his filming style; he makes a Disney (Jack), and then stops and starts over again to make films at his house. Or like with Lynch when he goes from Lost Highway to The Straight Story. There are a lot of filmmakers that once they reach 50 years old (Gus Van Sant is already 58) don’t bother about gestures, and start to advance while looking behind them, contemplating the vestiges of what they’ve already done. On the other hand, for some, the gesture seems to be guided by a personal challenge, which is hard to necessarily convey, that prevents the oeuvre to just lie down in its own bed. The renewing of the game isn’t that of the director of the classical studio era who was tied to projects as he held his singular identity (the standard model of the auteur, Hawks); it’s a choice, a necessary capacity to accelerate and decelerate, to navigate, follow ones course, through warm and cold currants, without ever stopping swimming through the river.

Why Restless? But also why Good Will Hunting? Or Gerry? Or the aberrant remake of Psycho? There is, first off, the desire and the challenge to realize an intimate film on a heterosexual amorous couple, something the director has never done before, and to tell this 'love story' in a Hollywood fashion. We can just imagine the criticism this will get from the fans of Last Days who will denounce it for its lack of ambition. But Gus Van Sant rediscovers the form of the walk-film, which follows the principals of the pre-mortem of his 'young death' trilogy (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days): the story is that of a man who, haunted by the death of his parents, falls in love with a young women that has only a few more months to live. The director from this then tells the story of their friendship during those few months.

It would be a shame, though, to reduce this subject to the theme of the countdown from the films in the previous death trilogy. We would miss the originality of the usage of the inevitable from that trilogy. We would also miss the originality of Restless. What he’s trying to do is more difficult than trying to accomplish a fourth opus with a Steadicam held by Harris Savides on unhappy adolescents. This is because Gus Van Sant is horrified of routines. The challenge is to bring out the melodrama from this heavy subject, from an adolescent with cancer towards the sentimental comedy. The challenge is to blend the tones. There must be a maximum balance that needs to be achieved that can hold this fragile equilibrium, which takes into account the fragility of the the physicality of the actors as well the extreme finesse of the choices of the director. This airy equilibrium nourishes itself on the trivial, bad taste and a perverse fascination that is brought out with this closeness to death. Gus Van Sant then finds two aesthetic challenges in Restless: the pleasure of pure constraint which he rarely ever stays to (here a love story); and the mixing of genres (melodrama and sentimental comedy), a mixture that he had previously created a perfect model for, though perhaps in a mode less fluid, with his dream-like My Own Private Idaho (1992).

But we can’t stop there. Gus Van Sant (more and more?) is making a moralist oeuvre. He wants to be useful: Milk was a film to make because there was a cause to defend and we were surprised to find a variety of edifying sentiments (the gay adolescent who is handicapped that calls at night time to find comfort). Restless proposes an edifying apprenticeship: the apprenticeship of life after death, in a follow up that isn’t as poisoned as his previous trilogy. It’s almost the antidote. Like with Larry Clark, this fascination for adolescents doubles because it comes from an ethical stance of good will and protection (as if the directors were saying: “beware”). The film wants to be happy, it offers the hero a reconciliation after the sudden death of his parents. He fell into a coma during the accident that was the cause of their death, he suffers from a double culpability, which is that of surviving and that of not assisting their burial. All of the film lies on this traumatism, and on this healing. He hadn’t had the time? Now he has all of the time (three months) to say goodbye to this young girl that he meets just in time to see her off and to accompany her. It is she that dies but it is he who will rest in peace.

To do this, the filmmaker choses to go into an unexpected terrain, even though if it has already been there deep down in certain of his films, that of wonder. This sense of wonder culminates with a great scene in the forest during Halloween, where the boy is disguised as a Japanese aviator and her as a geisha, and they reenact a scene from a Japanese ghost film. The decision to cast Mia Wasikowska is judicious, because it seems like she is still wearing the fairy-like costume from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: a young actress of a rare intelligence, she brings a conviction that interrupts the potential pathos of the subject. A haircut like that of Jean Seberg, a head like a sparrow, boy’s clothes, she has a androgynous figure, which was already apparent under Alice’s amour with the false impression of a Johnny Depp. The male hero (Henry Hopper) resembles a king without a crown, who lives with his aunt in a large house that seems like it’s right out of Last Days. There is a third character, who is really bizarre, which accentuates this Japanese imagination: Hiroshi, the ghost of a kamikaze, who accompanies the hero since the death of his parents. This companion enchants the reality of the young man, but he also weighs the idea of death upon the story. In the extraordinary opening of Elephant, a son interrogates his father about his activity at the Chuuk Lagoon during the Pacific War, before answering him, this adolescent: “I went there” – but how could he? This enigmatic remark resonates with the omnipresence of war, and the uncalled for intrusion of archive images of the atomic explosion at Nagasaki.

The enchantment of Restless relies also on the mise en scene which is unique to this filmmaker: the autumnal colors that pass through the trees to the generous night-robe that Mia Wasikowska wears, the framing that are like friendly gazes posed upon the characters just like a friend’s hand on one’s shoulder; out-of-focus images that find themselves as the scene unfolds, like when the couple find themselves in front of the parent's tombstone, beside a naïve sculpture of two sheep that are side by side. There are also conventions, notably the music, but they are compensated by genius ideas: like the first medical attack of the young girl, who in the middle of a sentence, without even screaming, falls down backwards in a gesture of an infinite violence; or when, before dying, in a scene that counteracts all of the hospital scenes in every Hollywood film, she just simply asks him, “Ok?”, in the vein of “can I go now, will you be fine?”

But the strangest thing, in this luminous film, is the presence of Henry Hopper. With each expression, his face threatens to take on the traits of his father, Dennis. All it takes is for him to squint his eyes a little, and we are back in 1955, the era of Rebel Without a Cause. When the end credits of the film finish and there appears its dedication to Dennis Hopper, a deeper emotion engulfs the whole film, as if this story is the backdrop for this character. The resemblance between the father and son contributes to its power.

Stéphane Delorme

1 comment:

The Geeks said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)