Tag Archives: Juliette Binoche

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (1991)

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Klaus-Michael Gruber

PLOT: A drug-addicted derelict falls in love with a newly homeless painter who is slowly losing her eyesight.

Still from The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a conventional (by European arthouse standards) romance with a few mildly surreal adornments. It’s not Hollywood, but Bridge wouldn’t lead anyone to suspect that Leos Carax had something as thoroughly weird as Holy Motors in his future, either.

COMMENTS: While the French have a stereotypical reputation as the world’s greatest lovers, a survey of their movies reveals that they are also the world’s greatest cynics about love. They specialize in a particular type of romantic story: tales of obsessive, destructive passion they call “amour fou.” You can see archetypal examples of amor fou (which translates as “mad love” but also carries the connotation “foolish love”) in works like s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1969), and more recently in the biting Love Me If You Dare (2003).

Far from groundbreaking in its narrative attitude, Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge falls well within the amour fou tradition. Bald, wiry, limping, and covered in the recurring scabs of the young clochard, the chamelonic Denis Lavant is Alex, a sometime fire-eating gymnast and full-time homeless drunk. Lying in the road, left for dead, he is sketched by nearsighted artist Michèle (Binoche). When they later wind up sharing neighboring concrete benches at nighttime on the Pont-Neuf (which is closed for construction), he falls for her. Although he shares his wine and a precious celebration with her, it quickly becomes apparent that Alex has no idea how to love someone unselfishly. He maneuvers to keep Michele away from any return to her previous life of privilege, eventually resorting to actions with deadly consequences. Binoche’s character remains more mysterious; she comes from a prosperous background, but has chosen to abase herself the face of her oncoming blindness. Previous heartbreak also factors in. She promises to fill Alex in on her backstory but never fully does so; we must piece together information, but we are left to fill in some blanks. In fact, a major event we witness in her story is contradicted by a later revelation, leaving us even more confused.

Their love story, then, is at the same time novel and familiar: an old tale of foolish love enacted by new players. The movie’s main pleasures come when Carax indulges his experimental moods in the central section: the camera reels through a Bastille day parade like a drunk; we see a soused Alex and Michèle lying in a gutter, shrunk to the dimensions of trash. The bravura sequence that everyone remembers shows the lovers drunkenly dancing across the bridge as fireworks burst behind them, with the music changing from a polka to a waltz to a rocker every couple of seconds. It’s the kind of scene a movie can hang its hat on, and a director can make a reputation with.

The government allowed Carax to film on the Pont-Neuf, but the movie took so long to make (three years) that permission expired. To finish the story Carax built a massive replica of the bridge in the countryside. This extravagance led to the film’s estimated budget of $28,000,000, which made it one of the most expensive French films ever produced to that time. Furthermore, due to disputes with distributors Lovers did not premier in the U.S. until 1999, eight years after completion. The movie’s finances were even more snakebitten than its protagonists’ romantic prospects, but like them, the filmmakers soldiered on madly. Perhaps it’s cinema fou.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This melodramatic excess leads, after a time, to a romantic conclusion that seems to dare us to laugh; Carax piles one development on top of another until it’s not a story, it’s an exercise in absurdity.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (1999 US release)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tom Trainor, who called it a “Phenomenal film. And weird as hell..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

CAPSULE: CERTIFIED COPY (2010)

Copie Conforme

DIRECTED BY: Abbas Kiarostami

FEATURING: , William Shimell

PLOT: A French antiques dealer and an English author spend a day together in rural Tuscany, discussing (and often fighting about) art, philosophy, and family. As the hours pass it becomes apparent that these supposed strangers may share a much deeper relationship.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While there is definitely a turning point that makes for a very weird, confusing moment, most of this film is well-acted arthouse drama. The questionable nature of the lead characters’ relationship is the only thing about it that’s strange, and in the end it proves to be a comment on the sad nature of a failed marriage.

COMMENTS: Bickering about art, literature, and everyday life while they move around a scenic Tuscan village, the central characters of Certified Copy initially act much like you’d expect a couple in a European arthouse movie to act. They meander through beautiful scenery laced with antique sculptures and architecture, surrounded by jolly tourists and locals who at times provide fodder for their good-natured arguments. They sip cappuccino at a cute cafe. They speak in English, French, and Italian. They visit a museum. At first James (played by opera singer William Shimell) primarily discusses his most recent book, called “Certified Copy,” and Elle (the incomparable Juliette Binoche) talks about her family, especially her problematic teenage son. After a conversation with a nosy but well-meaning cafe server, Elle suddenly becomes furious with James, and he gradually takes on the role of her absent husband.

Whether James really is her husband remains unclear, though it seems possible that these characters are play-acting at this relationship, creating a copy of the missing thing in keeping with their discussions of copies versus originals. James takes on a role and Elle goes along with it, eventually regressing to the giddy romantic girl she was when they married 14 years prior, attempting to understand where their relationship fell apart and perhaps rekindle their long-lost passions. Their conversation continues to wax and wane, moving through lighthearted observations and dark memories, always ambiguous enough to keep the viewer at a distance despite the intimate handheld camerawork.

This is very much an actor’s movie, with Binoche and Shimell shining equally in the lead roles. He is sharp and quiet, always speaking logically and with a cold, intelligent air. She is bright and volatile, shifting from laughter to tears in the blink of an eye as her expressive face betrays a web of complex emotional struggles. His stoic presentation, rarely shaken except for one telling scene at a restaurant, is a perfect foil for her changeable nature. They take turns being sympathetic or aggressive, and while they have so many points of contention it’s a wonder they ever (maybe) had a romantic connection, their chemistry is strong enough to make whatever love they may have shared believable.

It is the mystery surrounding the sudden, unexplained shift in James and Elle’s characters that marks Certified Copy as something special, and keeps its audience focusing closely on every word, every knowing look. Is their relationship just a copy of the real thing, a therapeutic performance piece for Elle? Do they still love one another or are they blinded by nostalgia? Is the medium of film itself only capable of showing copies of true events, shadows of true emotions? Kiarostami does not reveal what is real or unreal, and it is up to us to wade through the wandering dialogue and gorgeous cinematography to find our own truth.

CRITERION SPECIAL FEATURES: The Criterion release includes a new interview with Kiarostami discussing the film, the making-of documentary Let’s See “Copia conforme”, a booklet with an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, and the director’s rare 1977 feature The Report in its entirety.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kiarostami is like a magician who shows you how he does it and still leaves you mesmerized. There’s an effrontery to his method… The film is not so much about reality and fantasy but about deepening levels of reality.” –Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor.