It was only minutes into Paris Je t’aime (2007) when I realized that my mind had subconsciously set up a resolute framework in which I subsequently evaluated the rest of the film, and more of less the question proved to be something along the lines of: “when given a few minutes can a world-famous director distinguish her/himself from a talented film student?” Perhaps it was because I found the film’s first segment to be nearly unwatchable (I echo Michael Sicinski’s ‘s statement that “I never, ever want to watch a feature film by Bruno Podalydes”), but thankfully the film gamely recovers from the opening low point. I was in a generous mood the day I watched it, and found most of the contributions ranking somewhere between good to very good, with the inevitable clunkers mercifully kept to a minimum. Many of the shorts do indeed display many of the themes, topics and general tone we associate with a given filmmaker—East/West clash from Gurinder Chadha, entrancing, slightly eccentric, patently-French humor from Sylvian Chomet, an overwhelming Asian influence on Christopher Doyle, etc, etc.—and “the successful ones” probably has more to do with individual tastes than anything else (do you prefer the social realism, or the whimsy?). For my part, I thought Gus Van Sant nails the restless, vaguely uneasy energy of a could-be homosexual encounter, while Oliver Assayas’s brooding, chic bleakness carries more resonance than I originally accredited to it, and there’s a kinetic thrill in Tom Tykwer’s fractured fairytale. And as somebody who had pretty much given up on Alexander Payne, the perfectly-modulated catharsis that cuts through the initial condescension took me completely by surprise, ending the film on an unexpected high note. My personal favorite segment was also the biggest surprise—I wasn’t expecting something so literate, funny and slyly sexy from Wes Craven (and Emily Mortimer is quickly becoming an actress I’d watch in anything). I suppose it’s inevitable that the mosaic approach never builds to a unified vision of any kind, though I think the film’s chief beauty arises from all the messy contradictions found in all the individual little epiphanies and moments and slices of subjective reality.
I know of few recent films that have proved as polarizing as Funny Ha Ha (2005), but somehow I’ve managed to find myself in a place suspended between what seems to be the typical “love it” or “loathe it” reactions. There is much to certainly admire in the film, chief among them the relentlessly realism-based dialogue peppered with the inevitable “yeahs” and “likes” and “umms” of everyday speech, as well as a striking lead performance by non-professional Kate Dollenmayer and a particularly mature presence behind the camera in writer/director Andrew Bujalski who seems confident enough in his vision to give the film space enough to meander into its own awkward rhythm that as the film progresses begins to feel surprisingly lyrical.
Depicting Marnie (Dollenmayer), a young woman who finds herself stuck in a period of particularly acute post-graduation malaise, the film has found a particularly devoted following in young people who assert that the film is a dead-on depiction of their own struggles with post-college ennui and insecurities. The thing is, as a recent college graduate myself lingering in a job that is simply allowing me to buy time before I return back to school, it began occurring to me how dissimilar my own experiences feel in compared to the characters in this own film. Namely, I was shocked when I realized how completely absent from the film is any sense of what is probably the defining element of my generation: technology. Indeed, there’s nary a glimpse of a TV or even a computer in Funny Ha Ha, let alone now-ubiquitous “essentials” like cell phones and iPods, to say nothing of the internet, pop culture or even current world events (curious, considering how soon the film was made after 9/11).
Not only do all of these things seem to possess no influence on the film’s characters, but they seem to have no presence in their living whatsoever. In that way, Funny Ha Ha comes off as a surprisingly antiquated film, or at least one not nearly as grounded in the realities of modern living as it seems at first glance. It seems many of my peers have had no problems in enthusiastically proclaiming Bujalski “the voice of our generation,” but like Jonathan Rosenbaum finally admits in his review of Regular Lovers (another film about young people coming to grips with the banalities of everyday living), I can recognize what it is that may give the impression that this film is capturing the essence of my particular generation at this particular moment in time, but when it comes down to it, as much as I like the film itself, I just don’t really recognize the portrait.
My review of the Spanish film El Calentito went up at DVD Verdict on Monday.
I found myself resisting Once (2007) for the first half hour or so—it might have been the comparisons to the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, or the fact that there was something that seemed vaguely coy and manipulative about the initial introduction and interaction of the two primary characters. But by the time the impromptu guitar/piano duet unfolds between Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the back of a local music store I had given myself over completely to the film’s undeniable charms, for at that point the film seems to have found its footing (quickly banished, thankfully, is the vacuum cleaner seeming to foretell an overkill of indie-fare quirkiness), establishing an unassuming low-key rhythm that carries the film to its wistful conclusion.
The film holds up because of the chemistry of the two leads and the undeniable rapport they share when music wipes away their differences and pasts and fuses them temporarily together; Markéta, however, is particularly entrancing— her delicately wrought performance and ethereal singing voice mask what a catastrophe the character could have been if played wrong (how easy it would have been to veer into the territory of foreign-accented gamine or paper-pursuing femme-fatale!). To my mind, the best moment of the film is all hers—in search of batteries for a dead walkman in the late hours of the night, wrapped awkwardly in a tatty old robe, she mentally applies verses to a beat Hansard has written as she walks home. The camera, capturing every second without daring to cut away, watches and listens as the tentative hummed words slowly give way to an implausible crescendo of a fully produced song—it’s a bit of magic only possible in the movies, of course, but it brought instantly to mind my own long walks around Europe, headphones in my ears, the notes seeming to provide the backdrop of what felt like my own little movie that only I knew I was starring in. And perhaps that’s the main appeal of the film for me—it feels like a brief glimpse into somebody else’s treasured, half-remembered memories, and I’m just grateful to be given a chance to take a quick peek.