International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 45, November 2005







Martha P. Nochimson


Five International Cinematic Perspectives on the 'Nature' of Love and Childhood:

New York Film Festival 2005 Report (Part Two)



As a rule, Hollywood naturalizes human behavior. For this it has been taken to task for the past thirty years in scholarly studies of gender, race, and class, the fallout from which has reached mass cultural public discourse. Although usually in much watered down form, mass media journalists now question the naturalization of sexism and racism in the movies and are almost ready to question the assumption that anything is natural to human beings, that everything we are, even feelings attributed to motherhood, are all mediated and shaped by social systems. But now 'high culture' may be taking a new direction. What follows is a group of films presented at the New York Film Festival 2005 which, uninterested in Hollywood commercialism or its possible connections to patriarchy and Capitalism, in subtle or not so subtle ways, seem to be espousing essentialist views of human nature. These views are complex to be sure, and are conveyed with the artistry of the auteur (not the zero degree ideal of the old Hollywood studio system and many a current, post-studio, blockbuster directorial type), but they are essentialist all the same. Whether this trend will raise hackles, or promote a feeling of wellbeing that to dig deeply enough is to discover that there is something at the core of humanity not created by culture, will very much depend on assumptions brought by the spectator to the table.


_L'Enfant_ (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium) is not about a child. Or is it? The ambiguous title may refer to the newborn baby of a very young unwed couple, Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois), or it may refer to Bruno himself, who is the narrative focus of the film. The pressbook tells us that the film was inspired by an incident during the shooting of the previous Dardenne collaboration, _The Son_. 'We were in Seraing, Belgium on Rue du Molinay. In the morning, afternoon, and evening, we saw a girl pushing a pram along, with a newborn baby asleep inside it. She didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular -- just around and around with the pram. We have often thought back to the girl, her pram, the sleeping child, and the missing character: the child's father. This absent figure would become our story . . . a love story that is also the story of a father.' Missing the father is in _L'Enfant_, but not in the generally understood sense of the term.


_L'Enfant_ is a film that is wide open in every respect. Most of it unfolds on the street, giving play to a humanity mostly unprotected by the well furnished rooms of bourgeois life and unconstricted by its prudent, conformist values. Similarly, _L'Enfant_ is neither furnished nor bound up by the conventions of genre. In a way that both disquiets and invigorates the audience, the film proceeds unpredictably. When the film begins, Sonia is searching for Bruno. Clearly living on the edge, Sonia doggedly traverses poverty-scarred streets, provoking fears that what we see is familiar narrative code: she and the baby are homeless and Bruno has seduced and abandoned her. But that's not what happens. Sonia has a little apartment refuge for herself and the child, and when Sonia finds Bruno it becomes clear that he feels genuine warmth toward her. What then? The two of them, looking like prettier versions of the shaggy gremlins from _Where the Wild Things Are_, thrive briefly in the disorder of life untrammeled by middle class luxury and hypocrisy. They enjoy each other and the infant, somehow making ends meet through Bruno's almost victimless grifts and there is a sense that we have now found the narrative code for this film: we are poised for a tale of the innate coherence of family constellations, all the stronger for a lack of engagement in the hypocrisies of conventional marriage. But that's not right either, which we understand when Bruno pulls us up short by selling the baby.


Bruno is babysitting, and with hardly a thought that Sonia should be consulted about this decision, casually trades the baby to the black market for more money than he is likely to get his hands on any other way. When Sonia returns and asks for the child, Bruno, proudly displaying the small fortune now in his possession, tells her that they 'can have another one'. The ensuing volcanic outrage and despair that grips Sophia, and Bruno's completely uncomprehending reaction to emotions that he has never seen in her test the acting skills of Renier and Francois, who more than justify the enthusiasm the Dardennes expressed in their pressbook about this pairing. The acting is transcendent, filling the screen with the complexity upon complexity of human passions at their most primal. The Sonia that we now see tears through the layers of the charming child-woman who has been cavorting with Bruno to reveal a torrent of feeling that is as visceral as the sensation of blood flowing through veins. There is nothing mediated by culture in her reaction. Watching Sonia respond to Bruno's thinly shallow sense of paternity is, indeed, like suddenly being in the presence of a window abruptly cut into her autonomic system. Nevertheless, she is not simply a mass of involuntary impulses; layering her convulsions is a conscious rage that is the dawning of the kind of ethical response that had previously been invisible in her daily life.


Bruno is equally captivating once he realizes that he and Sonia are not on the same page; he is equally on the brink of a life change of immense magnitude. His immediate, pure disbelief, a term bandied about loosely that comes to life here with a vengeance as he regards Sonia's simultaneous explosion and disintegration right before his eyes, suggests he couldn't be more flabbergasted if he were watching the floor and ceiling change places. Bruno is neither vicious nor callous. If he were, this film would be of no consequence whatsoever. He is, instead, on a paradoxical manhood odyssey. Bruno at this point in the film lives by his instincts and wits almost like an animal and at the same time he is the opposite of man in a state of nature: he is the ultimate consumer who conceives of everything as saleable. He moves instinctually about urban streets like a wolf sniffing the wind, a tracker observing the footprints of economic opportunity. And yet the idea that the baby is not another factory made, interchangeable object is inconceivable to him. The process by which the materialist glaze in his innards cracks and breaks and an organic sense of life awakens in him as he begins to understand Sophia's reaction is the core narrative focus of the film. Leading us into painful territory, _L'Enfant_ plays out for us an agonizing transition that translates into a filmic language understood in our nerve endings and emotions about being a modern person in a materialist society. Ultimately, each spectator will be the judge of the implications of the story of Bruno and Sophia. Is this a parable of who we are today, living short-term lives that throw us back on native instinct, but leave us devoid of ordinary feelings? Is it an essentialist text that reinstalls the maternal instinct so painstakingly debunked by reams of constructionist feminist criticism? Does it, indeed, posit the natural maternal instincts of women as the fount of ethical understanding? It is, after all, Sophia's spontaneous and non-negotiable maternal anguish that precipitates the dawning of her own conscious ethics and Bruno's discovery of a new humanity in himself. Or is the gendered relationship of femininity to that organic connection with life simply a matter of the serendipitous aspects of the story? Once again, the Dardennes have taken us to the brink of inhumanity in order to reassure us that, if there are no guarantees for happiness, there persists something unquenchably humane within us.


If _L'Enfant_ was inspired by a missing father, _Gabrielle_ (Dir. Patrice Chereau, France) is a film inspired by a missing woman, and the perspective is reversed. _Gabrielle_ is the story of Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) and Jean (Pascal Gregory) Hervey, an upper middle class Parisian couple at the turn of the 20th century. The epitome of bourgeois wealth and decorum, living in childless elegance in a mansion (fabulous by all normal standards) and according to exquisitely structured manners and time constraints -- they are everything that Bruno and Sophia are not. Moreover, the tale of Gabrielle and Jean is not a tale of the jagged edge of modern, urban confusion, but rather a tale of the smooth flow of stately early twentieth-century Parisian civility. This is a life of formal dinner parties followed by card games, cigars, and brandy in which the raised voice of a prominent journalist, earnestly expressing an opinion, grates on the ears of his oh-so refined host, Monsieur Hervey. But Jean's annoyance with this particularly vulgar newspaperman is not simply one more indication of Jean's fastidiously high standards made possible by immense wealth. The journalist is the crack in Jean's world that precipitates a shock of recognition from which he will never recover. Gauche the journalist may be, but he has his charms: Jean learns that his perfect wife is having an affair with him. Sounds like the stuff of pretty standard melodrama, headed toward release from the repressions of middle class life? It is not. It is a pessimistic voyage into bourgeois emptiness that depicts the things in the lovely Hervey mansion as having more life than the Herveys themselves. This film tells the story of _L'Enfant_ from the other side of the mirror. The peripheral journalist, barely glimpsed, stands as an innate fountain of humanity from which the Herveys learn that they are irretrievably exiled.


Patrice Chereau adapted _Gabrielle_ from a short story by Joseph Conrad called 'The Return'. In Conrad's story a woman leaves her marriage to run off with her lover, and, just as the husband is taking in the enormity of her disappearance, suddenly returns to him of her own free will -- but the wife is given no voice, which annoyed and baffled Chereau. As he told us at the press conference, he found it impossible in the 21st century to write only from the man's point of view. Fascinated by the story, Chereau decided to adapt it for the screen, giving the wife parity of expression with the husband, and a little more. Apparently, to make things up to her, Chereau decided to call the film by her name instead of using Conrad's title, although the return is as pivotal to the film as it is the short story. However, in telling the tale of Gabrielle's unexpected departure and even more unforeseen return, the director has chosen to avoid other changes that would bring his film into conformity with the traditions of movie melodrama that its elements might suggest to another director. Although sexual repression is written all over this marriage, and the lover is clearly a passionate man, there is no attempt to build audience identification with the affair, as in so many films that depict burnt-out marriages, from _Anna Karenina_ (1935) to _Written on the Wind_ (1956) to _The End of the Affair_ (1999) to _Far From Heaven_ (2002). Generically, the promise of gratification is at least visible in this kind of film, whether or not we see sexual consummation, and even though these films tend to deny escape to the lovers at closure. (In the list above, only _Written on the Wind_ permits its heroine a way out of a socially sanctified but dead marriage.) In such films, the heavy hand of society on the individual is evoked as the impediment to personal fulfillment, always suggesting that within the individual remains the potential to live according to a more authentic life. In _Gabrielle_, such is not the case. The lover is glimpsed only in flashes and we never see Gabrielle with him alone; he is so absent from the life that we as spectators share with Gabrielle that he exists more as a wedge into Monsieur Hervey's consciousness than as a source of real pleasure for Madame.


When Gabrielle leaves a note for her husband telling him that she is leaving him for the journalist it becomes clear that the lover's function is to short-circuit Jean's systems of denial about a marriage lacking in sexual intimacy and sensual immediacy -- but almost as soon as Jean is finished reading the note, Gabrielle appears back on their doorstep. What happens next makes plain that she is as devoid of raw and spontaneous life as is her husband. He does not stand in the way of her happiness; it is her internalization of beliefs and ideals, never more than vaguely present as inauthentic bourgeois values, that dooms her. The final scene, which I will not reveal (a pun on the title of the short story), suggests that their greatest intimacy is their collaboration in mutual alienation. Chereau is not forthcoming in his accusations against 'good society'. The film simply assumes we have read Henry James and Edith Wharton. In using the lens of the early 20th century for us to peer through at the state of heterosexual relations, this gay director seems to define the domestic conventions of an extremely rigid cultural period as the synecdoche of the marriage relationship, tendering very harsh judgments on love between men and women, which comes off here as a very bad charade. It is also worth mentioning that Chereau has made a very strange decision to, at unexpected places in his film, use the kind of title cards that conveyed dialogue to audiences watching silent movies. In _Gabrielle_ the intertitles are reserved for registering some of the inner voices of the characters and the voice of a narrator. This functions as a distancing device and further drives home the point of view of the film that sees Gabrielle's and Jean's emotional and sexual sterility as an incurable attack of artificiality. However, the performances by Huppert and Gregory are devastating and the film is so beautiful to look at that my mind's eye is still panning up and down the 'bestatued' stone and marble staircases of the Hervey mansion.


Issues of constructed social values and organic experiences of love, as well as the operation of differing kinds of social constraints in different time periods, are also factors in _Three Times_ (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan), a beautifully nuanced film made up of three short love stories from different time periods. In the order in which they appear in the film, the three stories take place in 1966, 1911, and 2005. All three pairs are played by the same actors: Shu Qi and Chang Chen. The first romance, titled 'A Time for Love', concerns a pool hall girl and a sailor. The second romance, titled 'A Time for Freedom', concerns a politically conscious scholar from a prominent, conservative family and a concubine. The third romance, titled 'A Time for Youth', concerns a bisexual rock singer and a man who works in a digital photo shop, as well as the lovers with whom each of them is currently involved.


All the stories take place in Taiwan. 'A Time for Love' unfolds in southern Taiwan, in the Kaohsiung region; 'A Time For Freedom' takes place in Dadaocheng, an area in Taipai; and 'A Time for Youth', takes place in urban Taipai. The three stories are studies in fluidity, rigidity, and motion, as well as film technology and conventions; the possibilities for love and communication vary as the speed of life and the ability of the camera to penetrate intimate situations fluctuate. 'A Time for Love', set in the period when director Hou was nineteen years old, is the most idyllic of the three. Possibly this tale of fortuitous coincidences recollects fond memories of an era. The odds are against the hero and heroine ever meeting, let alone finding time and space in which to conduct a love affair. Both are in perpetual motion, he as a sailor, deployed where he is sent, she as a pool girl, who moves from billiard parlor to billiard parlor for no evident reason. They meet by chance just before he is about the ship out and has come to look for the pool girl who preceded her. They seem to float on the current of life, somehow meeting up as he searches for her, suggesting that the languid pace of their ceaseless peregrinations makes love miraculously possible for them at last. Hou's camera and narrative flow similarly through charming scenes primarily set outside, but always suggesting access to freedom of movement.


'A Time for Freedom', is an ironic title as it does not take place in a time of freedom, but rather in an epoch crying out for some force to make possible a release from the rigidity of class-structured life in Dadaocheng. The sexes lack parity in this tale: he is free to move in revolutionary circles while her movement is restricted by her well-defined place as a beautifully dressed concubine, serving in the beautifully furnished home of a wealthy family. Because the story takes place in 1911, Hou has wittily decided to make it a silent movie. There is no synchronized sound dialogue in this segment; the speech of the characters is presented through printed intertitle cards. This technique underscores the difficulty of communication between the hero and heroine, and the claustrophobic feeling of this melancholy tale, which restricts the spectator to beautiful, enclosed spaces from which the outside world seems distant indeed. Similarly, the hero and heroine spend their time together enclosed within hermetically sealed selves, revealing almost nothing of their feelings for or about each other, as the exploration of their faces reveals the unspoken to the audience.


'A Time for Youth' closes _Three Times_ with the frenzied movement of a world high on drugs and criss-crossed at demonic speeds by motorcycles. The interiors in this segment are dark and claustrophobic, high-tech in their design and virtually forbidding people to live within their confines. But no one does anyhow. Home is a pitstop between blind and fast-paced bouts of careening around the streets. Nor is there a sense of the stability of sexuality here. The heroine is a bisexual singer, leading an erotically chaotic life in which her desires lead her fitfully between her female lover and the hero. He has a female lover too, whom he betrays as his passions overwhelm all other considerations of loyalty. Night and day lose their definition as periods of rest and work because of the after-hours nature of rock clubs, and the confusions fostered by drugs. The blindness of the social setting is given a literal dimension in the encroaching medical condition of blindness afflicting the singer. The title of this segment does not celebrate 2005 as an era of youthful exuberance, but rather as cursed moment which the culture at large replicates the anguished instability of youth. The cinematography and narrative embody a youthful disorientation in the wild aesthetic of 'unpleasure' in this segment, which combines high speed editing with highly elliptical storytelling, in sharp contrast with the stately motion of events in 'A Time for Freedom', and the floating sensation of narrative progress in 'A Time for Love'.


Those familiar with Hong Kong film will be particularly interested in the scope Hou gives Shu Qi and Chang Chen to display their versatility as they move among time periods. Shu Qi, a former model who began her life in film as the 'Bridget Bardot of Hong Kong movies', has previously given ample evidence that she is interested in being an actress. I particularly like her nuanced, no holds barred performance as 'Scarface' (of all things!), a desperate but still feisty drug addict in _Portland Street Blues_ (1998). But here she dazzles with her chameleon ability to completely transform herself from a willowy, wary, affectionate pool girl; to an elegantly mannered but trapped concubine; and finally to an out-of-control woman on the verge of a physical and emotional breakdown. Though he cannot equal Shu Qui's acting pyrotechnics (by virtue of the way the roles are constructed), Chang Chen, who has done some work for Wong Kar-Wai in enigmatic supporting roles in _Happy Together_ (1997) and _2046_ (2004), acquits himself very well. Here he demonstrates his ability to carry a movie as a leading man, as he transforms himself from a sweet natured sailor to a thoughtful but strong willed scholar and finally to an action hero living at full throttle.


_Three Times_ is a *tour de force* of cinematic textures. But it is also a lament that since the lifting of the impossibly constricting old customs, an inverse cultural imbalance has resulted. The privileged moment of grace in the late 1960s has yielded to the ugly and relentless tyranny of centrifugal technology over humanity as the successor to the brittle prisons of decorum of the old days. Interestingly, Hou seems to depict women as the primary victims of the cultural extremes he portrays.


Children are the primary victims of the two films with which I will close Part 2 of my report on the New York Film Festival 2005: _I Am_ (Dir. Dorota Kedzierzawska, Poland) and _Cache_ (Dir. Michael Haneke, Austria and France). The central character of Kedzierzawska's _I Am_ is an 11-year-old boy named Kundel (Piotr Jagielski), facing serious problems at every turn, and by himself. The director, much influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky (a Post-Soviet director in spirit before the Soviet system in fact collapsed), follows him through her quiet contemplation of the mise-en-scene, and also in her dismissal of the old Communist-mandated attributions of suffering only to economic causes. Certainly, Kundel, whose mother has abandoned him, and who is threatened by the casual exploitation that is a way of life for people living on the street, is menaced by the same commodification of life depicted by the Dardennes in _L'Enfant_. He takes refuge in the squalor of the rundown boat house on the property of a mean-spirited bourgeois family, and he makes ends meet by bringing salvage to a scruffy, wily old salvage man whose shrewd business practices would do any middle class entrepreneur proud. But Kedzierzawska is interested in much more than Capitalist-spawned inhumanity.


She sees in Kundel an innate goodness, unrelated to the material circumstances of his life. Kundel's story is an articulation of the dynamics of his goodness, for Kundel naturally calls forth the essential nature of everyone with whom he comes in contact and reveals thereby the imbalances in the world that have nothing to do with how society is structured. There are economics and there is the enigma of cosmic tides of fortune and misfortune unbidden by individual or social initiative or lack thereof. In the spirit of the Book of Job, Kundel is unlucky and he has done nothing to provoke the afflictions heaped on him. And while society can take credit for much of the ugliness in this film, it doesn't explain why it is Kundel and not someone else who is in his position. Kundel's mother is a sensual and attractive woman, but one totally devoid of grace, hysterically seeking for a sense of worth in the arms of men who think of her as an ignorant whore. She left Kundel as an infant, and does it again when he tracks her down, because it is not in her to nurture him. _I Am_ makes it impossible to attribute her pathetic and horrible emptiness to environmental causes, because Kundel, similarly afflicted in his external circumstances radiates from within with caring warmth, which he lavishes on Kuleczka, the neglected 10-year-old daughter of the family in whose boat house he has found shelter. When Kundel arrives on their property, Kuleczka, lonely and depressed, has found solace in alcohol, she is a pre-teen drunkard, inebriated most of the day with beer she takes surreptitiously from the family larder. Her parents, otherwise occupied, take no notice. Her icily pretty older teen-aged sister doesn't care, or, more accurately, she cares in the wrong way. Kuleczka's friendship with Kundel renders her drinking unnecessary and permits her to reveal an inner wisdom and warmth that sustains the boy as he sustains her. But the older sister perversely needs to destroy the beauty of a relationship of which she would be incapable. As these impulses of an innately afflicted humanity play out, the greatness of what is good in the human race asserts itself without a forced narrative collapse into sentimentality and impossible resolutions of deeply seated problems. If you cry at movies, prepare your hankies, but don't expect to be depressed, for Kedziersawska makes us feel, at least for the time that _I Am_ is onscreen, that there is nothing stronger or more enduring than the secret that nourishes Kundel's soul.


Conversely, in Michael Haneke's _Cache_ (aka _Hidden_), which I must say up front looks like it is heavily influenced by the surface images but not the spirit of David Lynch's _Lost Highway_, relentlessly asks us to face a world in which goodness is in short supply and, in any case, is ineffective. The film, chosen to be screened on the closing night of the Festival, is saved by Haneke's cool mastery of the vocabulary of cinema from wallowing in abjection, but it's not a date movie. The film begins by churning up issues of reflexivity and it continues to play hide and seek with the audience. The first shot is a long, long take of a city street which turns out to be a film within the film, a videotape from a surveillance camera trained on the home of a delightfully affluent intellectual couple who seem to have it all: Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anna (Juliette Binoche) Laurent. They live in beautifully furnished comfort in Paris with their handsome, bright, suitably rebellious teen-aged son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). The confusion between videotape of their street and images of their street in the mise-en-scene of the film initiates an interplay between reality (the reality of the film) and images that reproduce reality which threads the entire story. Narratively, numerous taped reproductions of life occur because the Laurents are attempting (in vain) to find out who is leaving them videotapes of their home that bear increasingly sinister images.


What no one has mentioned, to my knowledge, not even Haneke in a recent interview in the _New York Times_ in which he speaks about this movie, is that Lynch's _Lost Highway_ also begins with an attractive, though much less happily married couple, who live well in Los Angeles, and who are also plagued by the appearance of videotapes of their home. Moreover, _Lost Highway_ begins with a voice saying, over a security intercom system, 'Dick Laurent is dead', and that same sentiment is voice multiple times, over an intercom. There is one moment, uncanny for me, when, in _Cache_, a statement (but not that he is dead) is similarly made over phone about Georges Laurent. I would certainly be interested in hearing from anyone who has anything to say about this similarity that seems unlikely to be an accident. (Michael Haneke, if you are listening, perhaps you are willing to talk about this.) However, while Lynch has insisted to me, and I believe him, that his darkest film is nevertheless not a statement of hopelessness, arguably _Cache_ is, not only by Haneke's own account, but by virtue of the experience of the film itself.


As more tapes arrive, the images they bear take on a fantasy quality, and ultimately trigger memories in Georges about his childhood. It would be too cruel to rob anyone of the chilling suspense Haneke builds as Georges is forced to remember, but it is necessary to point out that, although there is racism involved in the incidents of long ago that have come back to haunt Georges, jealousy and simple human perversity gets far more play as the active ingredients in an old dark deed. Haneke, like the other filmmakers we have been attending to here, discounts social constructs as the foundation of human action, cruelty, and unhappiness. As I see it, he makes this absolutely clear when Georges becomes the witness to a death under circumstances that make all our Hitchcockian alarm bells sound. Surely, Georges will be persecuted by the law as a murderer because of some very damning circumstantial evidence at the scene of the crime of which he is innocent, and that will be his punishment for old . . . But no, the law, in a perfectly rational way, discounts Georges as a possible assailant. But in a way that is beyond the law, Georges is responsible for the death and the film devises a punishment for him that will also be administered by a means beyond the scope of legal authority, and beyond the scope of our usual expectations. It is my interpretation that the spectre of Georges's punishment to come drifts into the film almost as an afterthought under the final credits, and it portends a cruel comeuppance, the nightmare of every upper middle class intellectual come true. For me we are left with the knowledge of a situation that may well destroy Georges and Anna -- whether or not they ever make the discovery we do in the final, offhand frames.


For the past three decades, the fear expressed most by serious media scholars has been that the naturalization of human behavior in the representations of mass culture entertainment inevitably supports the naturalization of long held, vicious, but clearly absurd beliefs that work in favor of the domination of property owning male power, and victimize marginalized people, women, and, we might add, children, animals, and the environment. The films discussed above support the intuitive experience of most people that the wholesale rejection of *any and every* belief in innate humanity only propels learned discourse in an extreme direction opposite to the extremities of, to take a clear example, the social views of the pioneer American filmmaker D. W. Griffith. In its way, and I would argue powerfully, _L'Enfant_ speaks truth to culturally constructed power without rejecting belief in an inner reserve of humanity that can escape social conditioning. So too _Three Times_, _I Am_, _Cache_, and even _Gabrielle_, though, as I see it, it is the Dardennes who are leading this charge into the uncharted regions of the heart.


New York, New York, USA



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Martha P. Nochimson, 'Five International Cinematic Perspectives on the 'Nature' of Love and Childhood: New York Film Festival 2005 Report (Part Two)', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 45, November 2005 <>.














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