Tag Archives: Alienation

300. THE TENANT (1976)

Le Locataire

“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Melvyn Douglas, , Jo Van Fleet

PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.

Still from The Tenant (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member . Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
  • Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
  • The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
  • Lensed by Sven Nykvist, ‘s favorite cinematographer.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even ) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.


Original trailer for The Tenant

COMMENTS: Trelkovsky—no first name—is an improbably quiet Continue reading 300. THE TENANT (1976)

251. PLAYTIME (1967)

(G. Smalley contributed additional commentary and background to this article.)

Play Time

Playtime is a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.”–attributed to Francois Truffaut

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: A nearly plotless “day in the life” of 1967 Paris: a group of American tourists arrive in the city, but instead of visiting the monuments they are taken to a complex of skyscrapers to shop. Meanwhile, Monsieur Hulot is trying to keep an appointment, but gets lost in a mazelike building in the same downtown complex. After business hours, everyone converges on a restaurant on its opening night for a chaotic celebration as the building falls apart around them.

Still from Playtime (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The third of four features in which Jacques Tati played the affable, bumbling Monsieur Hulot.
  • Playtime was in production for three years; the downtown sets were constructed by hundreds of workers and were nicknamed “Tativille” among the crew.
  • The film was incredibly expensive to make and Tati took out personal loans to finance it; it was a disappointment at the box office and he went into bankruptcy, giving away Playtime‘s rights in the process.
  • Tati shot the film in 70mm (which was capable of a 2.20:1 aspect ratio, one of the widest formats), and initially insisted the film be screened only in that format in venues with stereophonic sound, despite the fact that very few theaters could meet these specifications. (Partially for this reason, the movie was not screened at all in the United States until 1972). He later relented and allowed 35mm prints to be struck.
  • Humorist and newspaper columnist Art Buchwald wrote the English dialogue for Tati.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many people will best remember Hulot’s view from the second-floor view of a factory-like job site composed of a maze of cubicles—a workplace prophecy that’s come true. We chose a scene—one of three in the film—where straggling Barbara opens a door to one of her tour’s commercialized sightseeing destinations, only to see the Eiffel Tower (or the Arc de Triomphe, or the Sacré Coeur) perfectly reflected in the plate glass. These shots express Tati’s theme of the disappearance of culture under the ugliness of modernity, while retaining the wistful hopefulness that is characteristic of his work.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Faux Hulots; cubicle labyrinth; doorman with no door

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Playtime is about the alienating, isolating influence technology has on human beings. It’s not the standard elements of plot, narrative, character development or dialogue that pulls an equally alienated audience into this unfurling drama, but the careful choreography of hapless humans navigating a barely recognizable hypermodern Paris. Play Time is a sort of anti-Brazil.


Short Clip from Playtime

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on Continue reading 251. PLAYTIME (1967)

CAPSULE: SAFE (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: , Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman

PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”

Still from Safe (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”

COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.

At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a  health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.

Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow, ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CRAVE (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Charles de Lauzirika

FEATURING: Josh Lawson, Emma Lung, ,

PLOT: A freelance crime-scene photographer romances a younger woman in his apartment building, while suffering delusions and fantasizing about becoming a vigilante.

Still from Crave (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is trying so hard to be like its big brother Taxi Driver that it’s embarrassing to watch at times; it has a certain grotty charm and good performances, but needs a huge wallop of subtlety. Its hallucinations are so clearly marked off as fantasies that they never threaten to swallow up the viewer, leaving its weird effect highly attenuated.

COMMENTS: An internal monologue of a disaffected white guy who’s convinced that humanity is rotten. The antihero drives aimlessly through the city at night, searching for scenes of depravity to reinforce his misanthropic vision. He awkwardly romances a beautiful woman who’s out of his league. He plans a crime, practices the exact words he will say to his victim. The delusional self-appointed vigilante eventually wreaks a gruesome vengeance on an absuer of women. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Taxi Driver was the deconstructed, arthouse revision of puerile crime-anxiety thrillers like Death Wish; Crave is an unneeded, on-the-nose reconstruction of Taxi Driver for the modern age. Crave‘s chief problem, for a movie whose promotional material promises that its photographer protagonist Aiden will be a hero whose “dark imagination starts to leak into reality,” is that the line between fantasy and reality isn’t blurry for the viewer—when redheads tear off their blouses and fall to their knees and Bill Gates shows up offering Aiden bags of cash, it’s fantasy. The clarity of that line and the lack of a radical subjective perspective removes a lot of potential tension that might result if we are wondering if what is happening is really inside Aiden’s head. Nor is Aiden delusional enough to create suspense via the gap between the dangers the audience recognizes and what our protagonist comprehends; he not only realizes his grip on his emotional throttle is slipping, he agonizes about it endlessly in voiceovers and heart-to-hearts with his tough-but-wise stereotype cop buddy. And some of the stuff that clearly is intended to happen in reality doesn’t make a lot of sense, like his hot neighbor’s spur-of-the-moment decision to screw Aiden senseless one afternoon just because he’s not terrible-looking and not obviously a psychopath. That’s bad writing, though, not dark imagination.

The script’s lack of originality and subtlety is a shame, because there is a lot of talent here. Josh Lawson is not bad as Aiden, although he lacks the scruffy anti-charisma necessary to take the role over the top. The supporting players fare better. Adorable Emma Lung somehow comes across as a real person, despite the fact that the only character trait the script gives her to work with is a baffling bad taste in men. Edward Furlong, who we last saw in the miserable This Is Not a Movie, redeems himself here as a hipster cad who nonetheless doesn’t deserve his torturous fate. Ron Perlman’s square mug is, as always, a welcome sight; inhabiting his character with ease, he lends instant credibility to any project. The movie’s technical qualities are pro throughout. The neon-noir vistas of Chicago streets at night are memorable, as is the shot of spinning pinwheels reflected in Aiden’s eye. De Lauzirika, who has previously specialized in directing special features for major DVD releases (including Alien, Blade Runner, and three of the extras on the “Twin Peaks” Gold Box set), is a talented director who shoots a good-looking film and elicits fine performances from his actors. But, he may better serve his career in the future by directing scripts written by someone else.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[The performances are] undermined by not just the clichéd story but director/co-writer Charles de Lauzirika’s misguided tone, which veers from straight-up impotent fury to a clunky humor that’s just not funny in the story’s overall context.”–Maitland McDonagh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: AEGRI SOMNIA (2008)

DIRECTED BY James Rewucki

FEATURING:  Tyhr Trubiak, Mel Marginet, Warren Louis Wiltshire, Nadine Pinette, Daryl Dorge, Johnny Marlow

PLOT: A man is hounded by his peculiar friends and haunted by disturbing visions.

AE6 450


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Aegri Somnia is surreal, somewhere between Carnival Of Souls and Eraserhead (which it stylistically quotes). Combined with it’s strange story, exaggerated camera angles, and oddball characters, Aegri Somnia delivers a 100 percent weird viewing experience for even the most jaded bizarre movie enthusiast.

COMMENTS: Light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, Aegri Somnia (which literally means “a sick man’s dreams” in Latin), is an offbeat, visually stunning, independent effort by Winnipeg director James Rewucki. Effective and foreboding, it is almost visually overpowering in the way it pours across the screen like the gush of a blood bucket accidentally kicked onto a canvas. Rewuckie describes the film as an existential arthouse horror movie. Fans of German Expressionist filmmaking will draw comparisons to Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari enthusiasts will immediately be reminded of Eraserhead.

In the story, Edgar (Trubiak) is a simple man, cowed by his surroundings, scared of his own shadow, seemingly terrified by … life itself! Edgar is hostage to a morbid, crippling anxiety. His outlook is that the very world is a giant machine that seeks to grind him up in its gears and mash him beneath its wheels, to consume and obliterate him.

Edgar just wants to be left alone, to go to work and come home to seek the refuge of a peaceful evening in the security of his domestic surroundings. But it’s not to be.

Edgar’s coworkers, who seem normal on the surface, reveal themselves to be creeps, quiet lunatics who either marginalize or manipulate and victimize him in the course of their bizarre exploits. Edgar’s wife is a hostile nag, his boss is verbally abusive, and everyone around him draws him into unpleasant, precarious situations. When Edgar’s shrewish wife prepares a nice supper for him, unfairly berates him, and then kills herself in the bathtub, Edgar is plunged into a waking nightmare of heightened anxiety, loneliness and frightening “what-if”s?”

Edgar falls captive to malignant visions. In the shadows, unsettling shapes are lurking, and from them, dreadful whispers emanate. Edgar’s acquaintances speak in cryptic codes and symbolic double entendres, alluding to .. what? Something awful. At night, monsters visit Edgar in sickening nightmares. Why?

What is happening to him? He has somehow managed to crack open a portal between this world and some twisted, alternate dimension. It’s a dreadful door that should have remained shut. Can Edgar find a way to close it? Or will this new, loathsome reality continue to envelop him until it swallows him up?

Aegri Somnia is an optically engrossing bit of modern art, bearing obvious influences from other films. Plot-wise, it’s an odyssey in a similar vein to Carnival Of Souls (1962), but there’s more dialogue and more twists and turns. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) it’s a surrealistic story about a man struggling to keep his sanity. A final plot twist is right out of Angel Heart (1987).

Aegri Somnia is captured in black and white with periodic dramatic accents of crimson. Color sequences chronicle Edgar’s hallucinatory nightmares. The movie is filmed in a gritty, plodding, semi-documentary style, as if the camera is an appalled, mute witness. The resulting effect is not only strikingly reminiscent of Eraserhead (1977), but Edgar’s entrapment among hellish creatures of abomination also reminds us of In The Mouth Of Madness (1994). The digital special effect of rapid head-shaking is prominent throughout the film. We first saw this effect in Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and since in fare such as the remake of House On Haunted Hill (1999). Many movies openly sport such borrowed elements en masse, and too often they amount to little more than pasted together fragments of better films. Significantly, this isn’t the case with Aegri Somnia! Director James Rewucki concedes his cinematic influences. And it’s true that Aegri Somnia says nothing profound. It’s a visual exposition. Yet Rewucki imaginatively employs well-worn conventions and techniques to produce a memorable horror movie which feels fresh despite it’s derivative roots. And it’s so visually dramatic!

Aegri Somnia is unusual, disturbing, grotesque, and genuinely arty. Unsettling characters, eerie settings, and oddball events create a gruesome funhouse. But we don’t dare step out of the carriage until the end. We want to see where the ride takes us. Imaginative frames and images persist in the mind’s eye like negative aftervision, long after the tab of the final film strand disengages and flap-flap-flaps against the empty reel.

Aegri Somnia (2008)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite the fact that Rewucki may have tip-toed down the slightly contorted path of a predictable plot, he managed to do so with such stealth as not to disturb the wondrous weirdness that bleeds through this monochromatic visual masterpiece of virulence.”–Lacey Paige, Cinesploitation (DVD)

143. THE TRIAL (1962)

Le procès

“It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream—of a nightmare.”–Orson Welles’ prologue to The Trial

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, , , Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, William Chappell

PLOT: Josef K. awakes one day to find two investigators in his apartment, who inform him he is under arrest and will have to stand trial. When he asks what the charges are, the police tell him it’s not their place to talk about that. The authorities release Josef on his own recognizance, and he spends the rest of the movie navigating a legal labyrinth, trying to find a way to absolve himself of a charge no one will specify.

Still from The Trial (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial” in 1914 or 1915; it was never completed and was only published after his death.
  • Feeling that studio interference had ruined Touch of Evil (1958), by the 1960s Orson Welles had sworn off directing for Hollywood studios for good (he continued to accept acting jobs). From 1958-1962 he worked on a never-completed adaptation of “Don Quixote,” then was approached by French backers about making a film in Europe; he would be given complete creative control. He was given a list of public domain titles to adapt and chose “The Trial.” (Unfortunately for the financiers, their research was faulty; it turned out that Kafka’s book was still under copyright at that time, and they were forced to negotiate licensing fees).
  • The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia, Italy and France. Welles shot the courtroom scenes and many of the interiors at the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris.
  • Welles dubbed dialogue for eleven of the actors, and reportedly even overdubbed some of Perkins’ lines.
  • In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich for his biography This Is Orson Welles, the director said that he suffered from recurring nightmares of being put on trial without knowing why and stated that this film was “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me… It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.” The director of Citizen Kane also said that The Trial was “the best film I ever made.”
  • The production company never registered a copyright on The Trial in the United States and for many years it was in the public domain, until the copyright was restored under the GATT treaty.
  • The negative of the movie was thought to be lost, but a copy was discovered and restored in 2000.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Welles begins the movie by narrating Kafka’s mysterious parable “Before the Law,” about a man who withers and dies while waiting his entire life to pass through a doorway blocked by a guard. The fable is illustrated by elegantly grotesque slides created through “pinscreen” animation (the images are created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins) by Alexandre Alexeïeff. Near the end of the movie Welles, now in character as the advocate Hastler, retells the fable, this time projecting the slides directly onto the face of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) as he stands before a screen. Welles’ hulking shadow, invisible to K as he faces Hastler, lurks over Perkins’ shoulder like the impassable guard of the tale—or like an angel of death.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Written at the dawn of the twentieth century, before the horrors of World War I, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is a masterpiece of nightmare literature and a harbinger of the angst that would come to define modernism. Orson Welles, the great grayscale poet, proves the perfect adapter of Kafka, imprisoning the beleaguered Josef K. in bars of light and shadow. Kafka’s story was a picaresque journey through abstract interactions with a sequence of bureaucrats and seductresses that, frustratingly, never brings him any closer to answering the central riddle of his indictment. Rather than elucidating Kafka’s text, Welles’ narrative decisions further muddy it, stringing poor Josef K along with a promise of an answer that never comes. I imagine Kafka applauding in his grave.


Original U.S. trailer for The Trial

COMMENTS: After the dreamlike prologue telling of the man who fruitlessly waits an entire lifetime for admittance to the Law, The Trial proper Continue reading 143. THE TRIAL (1962)

LIST CANDIDATE: ATTENBERG (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Athina Rachel Tsangari

FEATURING: , Evangelia Randou, Vangelis Mourikis,

PLOT: A strange young woman tries to cope with her father’s impending death and her disgust at human sexuality with the help of her equally odd but extremely promiscuous best friend.

Still from Attenberg (2010)


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because you can use the first scene, which begins with the least erotic lesbian kiss ever put on screen and ends with the two girls dropping on all fours and hissing at each other like cats in heat, to clear any unwanted squares out of the room.

COMMENTS: “If ever there was a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla,” proclaims Sir David Attenborough from the TV screen—but that’s only because he never met Marina. The conceit in this study of the ineffable otherness of others is that we watch Marina and her friend Bella as if we’re watching a nature documentary about creatures whose rituals we can only dimly grasp, but not entirely understand. To remind us of that fact, the pair will break into weird dances of their own invention, or suddenly slip into animalistic hissing, spitting, and primal chest pounding. Yet, despite these alienating narrative techniques, we still manage to sympathize with strange Marina, thanks to Ariane Labed’s affectingly melancholy performance and confident direction which manages to keep the uncomfortably absurd from sliding into the merely laughable (as many commentators have pointed out, the girls’ dances are reminiscent of outtakes from Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, only with more crotch-grabbing). Even when the movie avoids experimentation and plays it straight, Marina is one odd bird. She believes herself to be asexual but forces herself to practice French kissing with her best friend, and eventually to seduce a visiting engineer (played by Dogtooth director Lanthimos). The resulting sex scenes are so painfully awkward they make losing your virginity on prom night a model of erotic smoothness by comparison. Marina’s deepest relationship is with her cancer-stricken father. There’s a naturalness and comfortableness to their conversations; it comes across that she’s been in the habit of confessing her bizarre thoughts—like the fact that she imagines her father naked, but without a penis—to him for years, and he’s been in the habit of gently steering her opinions into more conventional channels. When he dies, who will constrain her deranged imagination? If normality and integration into society is the goal for Marina, however, then her only friend Bella is a bad influence, encouraging her in her apparent dream of becoming an avant-garde choreographer for Martians. Bella’s very existence, and her devotion to Marina, is something of a mystery in Attenberg. She is Marina’s mirror image, reversed along the sexuality axis: where Marina imagines fathers without penises, Bella dreams of a forest of phalluses, then worries that “seeing genitals in your sleep is a bad omen.” Attenberg is at its best when it’s spying on these intriguing creatures and their shocking individuality. In those few occasions where it widens its lens to suggest a wider sociopolitical metaphor, as when the dying father pontificates about the death of the twentieth century, Greece’s future, and “petit-bourgeois hysteria,” we politely indulge the discourse as we would the observations of any dying man who’s being used as a director’s mouthpiece, but secretly wish Marina and Bella would get back to dancing like circus monkeys hopped up on fermented bananas. Although “normal” movie audiences will find the casual, naturalistic surrealism of Attenberg insufferable, around here we see it as a case where an infusion of welcome weirdness spices up what otherwise might have been a dreary drama about a disaffected daughter and her dying dad.

First with Dogtooth, and now with Attenberg, it appears that the economic and social crisis in Greece has put national filmmakers in a weird mood; or, at least, that’s what The Guardian believes. Regardless, Greek drama hasn’t achieved this level of weirdness since they were making up stories about guys ripping out their eyes because they accidentally had sex with their moms.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…each commonplace action has some weird twist… Part of the film’s success comes from Labed’s performance as Marina, who infuses all that weirdness with a barely there vulnerability.”–Stephanie Merry, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Gnosos, who described it as “another [G]reek weird movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Chantal Akerman

FEATURING:

PLOT: A widow performs chores around her apartment and prostitutes herself in the afternoons.

Still from Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its belabored 3+ hours (!) of a woman doing dull daily chores in long static real time takes, Jeanne Dielman is an example of how a movie can essentially swallow its own tail, achieving a level of surreality by emphasizing ordinariness and normality to an absurd degree. Like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep,” this deliberate experiment in extended boredom serves a purpose in the film universe; it’s just that that purpose isn’t to be watched by a normal human audience.

COMMENTS: When I read critics rave about Jeanne Dielman, I sometimes feel like I’m scanning reviews from the Bizarro World Times, dispatches from an alternate universe where up is down and audiences are enthralled by watching women shop for buttons and cook meatloaf for hours on end. (Vincent Canby’s claim that the frumped-up Delphine Seyrig “has never looked more beautiful” than in this film doesn’t help counter that impression that every review of the film was written on Opposite Day). It’s not that Akerman’s movie is a fraud or a failure. According to its experimental goal of exploring mundanity to its absolute limit, it’s a success, one that, for obvious reasons, other directors have rarely sought to repeat. But Jeanne Dielman is a formal exercise that no one other than a theoretician could love: we can’t bond with its affectless characters, its punishing three hour running time is a blunt weapon used to hammer home its hopeless message, and frankly, it’s just no fun. Watching this movie isn’t just taking your cultural vegetables, it’s gagging down a spoonful of cultural castor oil. Jeane Dielman‘s high artistic intent and ridiculous integrity of vision are too powerful to give the film a “beware” rating, but this is a movie that’s better read about than watched; heck, even Mlle. Dielman’s son would rather read than act in the movie. On its release the movie was adopted by feminists as a landmark statement on the crushing boredom of “women’s work,” but it’s not (and Akerman herself never claimed it was). That interpretation would require that the men and the working women in the movie—the son, the postal clerk, the waitress—were depicted as living lives of glamor compared to housefrau Jeanne. Rather, the film paints the entire adult world (or at least the “bourgeois” world) as morbidly dull: the only human beings shown enjoying any aspect of life in the film are children briefly seen running and playing in the street. The universal and almost unqualified praise for Akerman’s avant-garde oddity—which bludgeons the concept of “entertainment” with the same subtlety and affection as John Waters did for the concept of “taste” in Pink Flamingos—seems like it might make a great case study for a 20th century edition of “Extraordinary Aesthetic Delusions and the Madness of Critics.” For those who crave such things, a similar modern ennuiscape was sketched earlier, but with greater economy and magic, by in Dillinger is Dead.

After the marketing success of a line of toys based on Star Wars characters, figurines based on popular movies became huge sellers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Obviously not every toy company could afford to license a top-of-the-line property like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles posable action figure was almost certainly the most ill-advised attempt to cash in on the fad. I can still hear the radio spots created to coincide with the movie’s 1983 U.S. release: “Your Jeanne Dielman action figure makes coffee, entertains ‘gentleman callers,’ eats in stony silence, or just sits and stares at the wall, just like international screen icon Delphine Seyrig! For extra authenticity, the molded plastic face is incapable of expression. WARNING: to avoid risk of catatonia, toy should not be played with for more than three hours at a setting. Potato peeler and scissors sold separately.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Miss Seyrig has participated in a number of supposedly experimental films over the years, but in none as original and ambitious as this. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is not quite like any other film you’ve ever seen…”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (1983 U.S. theatrical release)

LIST CANDIDATE: PLAY TIME (1967)

Playtime has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. Please read the Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Tati

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: Monsieur Hulot gets lost on his way to an appointment and wanders around a nearly unrecognizable, technologically transformed Paris.

Still from Play Time (1967)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Play Time is about the alienating, isolating influence technology has on human beings. It’s not the standard elements of plot, narrative, character development or dialogue that pulls an equally alienated audience into this unfurling drama, but the careful choreography of hapless humans navigating a barely recognizable hypermodern Paris.  Play Time is sort of an anti-Brazil.

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on television, there would occasionally be a cartoon showing off a humorous version of cars or homes of the future? There would be no main character, just a narrator describing some startling innovation, and then there would be a sight-gag or funny noise to produce a laugh, and it would move on to the next futuristic comedic set-piece. Play Time is a feature film based on a very similar premise, with two differences:  there is a strong undertone of humanity and history struggling against technology, and there is no narrator to help guide you from one farcical gag to another.

The main characters are French everyman M. Hulot (Tati) and American tourist Barbara, who wander through the modern marvel that Paris has become and are continually obstructed by the technology that is supposed to make their lives easier. Hulot spends a long scene searching haplessly through a (then bizarre-looking but now surprisingly familiar) cube farm to find a businessman with whom he has an appointment. Barbara struggles to take a picture of something uniquely French, not just because pedestrians keep walking between her and the florist she fancies, but also because huge steel and glass buildings have almost completely obscured romantic Paris (the same city Cole Porter lovingly described in 1953, a mere six years before this film was released). With little meaningful dialogue and a tendency to abandon characters to their fates, it is difficult for the audience to make a coherent narrative out of the stark, gleaming, geometric scenes that linger slowly and deliberately on the screen. Particularly during Play Time‘s first half, the series of clever slapstick events that pepper the film supply the only human connection. They allow us to sympathize not only with Hulot and Barbara, but also with innocent cushions that blurt obscenely when sat upon and a broiled fish that is repeatedly heated, spiced, and basted, never to be served.

If discomfort and silly humor were the only features of Play Time, the result would be just like those “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, only bleaker and more disturbing. Fortunately, Tati allows humanity to win over technology, or at least stand on even footing. The citizens of super-Paris do eventually begin to connect with each other. Some of these connections are obvious: Hulot does eventually find his businessman, but he also bumps into several friends from the army, and he also meets Barbara. Some of the connections, though, are subtle, surprising, and hilarious, as when two families engrossed in programs showing on the television sets fixed to the wall dividing their apartments appear to be reacting to the events in the other family’s home. The movie culminates in a riotous party scene—possibly the best I’ve ever watched—at a restaurant slowly falling apart around the revelers due to shoddy construction. Here, technology does its absolute best to ruin the partygoers’ night, but they hardly notice; or if they do, they improvise on the destruction to the advantage of a good time. Meanwhile, a number of seemingly forgotten incidental characters from earlier in the movie—an obnoxious American, a portly sloven, a precise English businessman—come back and become much more alive and interesting amid the chaos. The movie’s weirdness never goes away, but it softens until it gently lands at the conclusion of 24 hours of hectic hypermodernity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hulot on the loose in a surreal, scarcely recognisable Paris… a hallucinatory comic vision on the verge of abstraction.”–Time Out Film Guide

CAPSULE: PULSE (2001)

AKA Kairo

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

PLOT: A computer expert’s suicide is the first in a series of mysterious events and disappearances that leave Tokyo, and the world, depopulated; is a website that dials up people on its own and asks if they want to meet a ghost responsible?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy and weirder than the average scare flick, but Pulse is tuned to the standard turn of the millennium J-horror wavelength.  It’s a good watch for fear fans, and a seminal one for Asian New Wave horror followers, but it doesn’t go that extra weird mile.  Kurosawa’s ambiguous horror/detective procedural Cure (1997) makes for a better bizarre candidate.

COMMENTS: Pulse slips so quietly from reality to strangeness that you hardly recognize the transition; one minute, you’re watching its characters going about their daily lives, dealing with unexpected suicides and alarming computer viruses, and the next minute the world is almost deserted and ruled by ghosts.  The theme of this horror movie is not really fear but loneliness, and how technology fosters isolation more than cures it.  The film is not too subtle in delivering that message.  A plague of ghosts seems to spread via a computer website; one character immediately diagnoses a low-tech character’s sudden interest in the Internet as a desire to connect with his fellow man; a spirit tells the protagonist “death was eternal loneliness” from inside a foil-lined room.  Even scenes occurring before people start disappearing en masse are shot in disconcertingly deserted urban settings, on empty streets and buses and in lonely apartments.  Characters discuss the difficulty humans have making deep and lasting connections, while simultaneously hungering, struggling, and failing to form those bonds with each other.  Those who encounter one of the malevolent spirits in Pulse go through a syndrome (ghost traumatic stress disorder?) that involves locking themselves inside a room alone and sealing the door with red tape.  What the movie intends to say on the metaphorical level is very clear; what’s a little more confused is what’s supposed to be happening on the literal level.  We get half-baked exposition regarding the mechanics of the ghost world, but the spirits’ malevolent motives aren’t ever clearly explained, and it’s not at all certain how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.  If, as one sage tells us, the dead are now leaking into our world because theirs has exceeded its capacity, how do they benefit from convincing the living to kill themselves?  Wouldn’t that just worsen their overpopulation problem?  If the spirits of the dead have no place to go, shouldn’t the world be overrun with ghostly presences, rather than empty?  What purpose in setting up the spectral website that dials up users on its own—other than to scare a technophobic audience?  The movie glosses over answers to these questions, which does make it feel like a weirder endeavor; in this case, however, it seems the material might benefit from a fairer stab at clarity.  But Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kuroswa is all about atmosphere, and he’s an expert at conjuring it.  The long lonely narrative spaces are broken up by several memorable moments, including glitchy technostrangeness involving a metaphysically malfunctioning webcam with a distorting lens, bizarre broadcast television interference from the Beyond, people who melt into black smudges on the wall, and a genuinely frightening trip inside “The Forbidden Room” to discuss matters of mortality with the death’s head who dwells therein.  Mood, not logic or even philosophy, is the glue that holds the movie together, and while it isn’t the horror masterpiece it might have been if that atmosphere was yoked to a better story, it works well on the shiver-inducing level.

The dumbed-down 2006 Hollywood remake with Kirsten Bell, part of a trend of bastardized American remakes of J-horror classics, was widely despised by critics and audiences alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dolorous, shivery, and surreal.”–Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)