Sunday, 31 January 2010

Friday, 29 January 2010

Battle Royale

What's so surprising with Battle Royale, given its reputation and especially its pitch, is how many positive examples of humanity Fukasaku actually gives us. The film is full of quiet moments of cooperation, love, help... (This might explain why I don't find the "villain" who joins in the game for the killing that convincing. He acts like an invincible zombie more than any thing else, unlike the other two "monstrous" characters of the film, Mitsuko and Kitano). What makes it all the more poignant is how easily those are destroyed by the children themselves when they internalize the dynamics of adults bent on setting all forms of rebellion against each other. This means not only a despairing outlook in which rebellion becomes something that feeds into the plans of power, but also, more hopefully, a vision of simple humanity lending a hand to others as the most basic but most essential act of resistance.

And the ending is one of the great puzzles of modern cinema.

Friday, 8 January 2010

What's most disappointing in Haneke's The White Ribbon, especially given its aims (to represent how a repressive protestantism can destroy the community it tries to uphold) is how almost completely it fails at representing community. The diverse strands of the narrative (doctor, preacher, peasant, baron, teacher) are very rarely brought in contact with one another. The teacher, who narrates the story, seems to have little to no contact with either the peasant family or the doctor, and most of these narrative strands exist in isolation from one another. However many scenes happen in the streets, there is no sense of the village as a public space in which social forces interact (as villages go, Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us or Shimizu's Children in the Wind or Four Seasons of Children could teach Haneke a thing or two... or fifty).

The case of the peasant family is the most typical: regarded with contempt more than empathy (but then the only attempts at empathy in the film are rather unconvincing, i.e. the too-naive to be touching romance between the teacher and a young woman he ends up marrying (probably)), they are represented as suffering from their economic quasi-enslavement to the baron, though that is denied any force: the father tells his son that they are now starving and cannot find work, but there is no depiction of any process, of any attempt to find food for the family, of anything other than the fighting between father and son. They never interact with any of the other characters, apart from one scene which really drives the failure home: at church, the baron makes a speech about those who mishandled his son and how the farmer's son mishandled his cabbages. Though in the communal milieu par excellence, the scene could almost be happening solely between the farmer and the baron: the shots of other members of the audience shown are faces of strangers, giving no opportunity to connect any of the characters we know to this particular issue. There is no sense of roaming, of opening up to other unforeseen interactions, either: Haneke implies, rather heavy-handedly, that the other peasants could be in that same uncomfortable situation one day, but since there is no sense of who these other peasants are, or of what community they form, the point is purely intellectual. There is no sense of how the same framework connects to the teacher, the doctor, the preacher (mentioned briefly at this point in the voice-over, but who carries in this scene zero dramatic significance).

The same could be said of the village ball scene, which serves, in a classical manner, as a superficial setting of joy before the chaos starts: Haneke only pays attention to individual interactions on the margins, except for one brief (and precious) shot highlighting the animosity between eastern European immigrant labourers and the local Austrians. Apart from that, the party might as well have been cancelled with no dramatic impact.

As in Tarantino's uninteresting Inglorious Basterds, which for all its load of hype contained one of the most beautiful images of the last ten years (Shoshanna projected ona burning screen, her face seen in the smoke), Das Weisse Band contains one of the most beautiful shots of the year, which starts off as the most perfect vision of a child's fear I know of, but sadly ends up rejoining the film with its obsession of making a point over observing its unfolding. The doctor's young son climbs down the stairs, calling his sister in a trembling voice, making the supreme effort of entering a dark room (but only moving within the ray of light projected from the door), not finding her there, going back to look for her in a room he has already seen... The first half of that shot is priceless; it conjures a sense of primal fear more effective than the rest of the film put together.