Tag Archives: Melancholy

LIST CANDIDATE: CHICKEN WITH PLUMS [POULET AUX PRUNES] (2011)

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DIRECTED BY: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

FEATURING: , , Edouard Baer, Golshifteh Farahani, 

PLOT: A master musician loses the will to live after his prized violin is destroyed, and retires to his deathbed where his story is told through flashbacks mingled with fantasy sequences.

Still from Chicken with Plums [Poulet aux Prunes] (2011)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a movie made up mostly of deathbed hallucinations that includes visits with Socrates, the Angel of Death, and a giant version of Sophia Loren; that’s enough to get it on the weird map. The fact that it’s visually spectacular and delightfully artificial hurts not a bit.

COMMENTS: In the 1950s all doomed, elegant heroes and heroines in the movies smoked, and smoke is a key visual element of Chicken with Plums. Early in the film, master violinist Nasser-Ali reluctantly smokes opium at the insistence of an antiques dealer; later, his dead mother’s soul is so thick that it’s visible as a cloud of smoke hovering over her grave. Stylistically, the film is itself like smoke, wispy and constantly changing. Dream sequences, flashbacks and flash-forwards explore an expansive visual palette, ranging from figures isolated in Expressionist shadows to popup storybook animations. Everything is deliberately stagebound so that even in the “realistic” scenes, the skies are a hand-painted pink and lavender. The most jarring experiment is a moment where the movie suddenly turns into an American-style sitcom, complete with a laugh track; if you can handle that side trip, you’ll be in for the whole ride. Death-seeking Nasser-Ali, played with frowny melancholia by mustachioed Mathieu Amalric, is a selfish character, to be sure, but the more we learn about his backstory the more forgiving we become. We’re never able to absolve him entirely of his decision to abandon life (and his wife and children), but we do feel the weight he bears through his life, and can appreciate his decision as tragedy. Our hearts break the moment his does. Nasser-Ali’s apparently shrewish wife Faringuisse (de Medeiros) stars in an equally tragic subplot, and one of their two children is given an epilogue that generates further despair. It’s all very romantic, but the old, sentimental “love is worth dying for” theme plays believably only in the unreal movie past the film evokes: the formal world of yesteryear where gentlemen always wear ties, ladies wear hats, and everyone blows smoke directly at the camera. Chicken with Plums‘ 1930s-1950s time frame conjures up a comforting antique nostalgia, and the Iranian setting adds exotic spice. Delightfully strange moments include when the hallucinating musician is smothered in giant cleavage, a visitation from a ragged gravesite prophet, and the chilling appearance of the Angel of Death, who drops by not to claim Nasser-Ali’s soul but just to chat a bit and to tell a morbidly ironic story-within-the-story. Like a solo adagio played on an antique instrument, Nasser-Ali’s tale is beautiful and sad. Unabashedly artificial, unashamed to moon over lost loves, and a little aware of the absurdity of its own romanticism, Chicken with Plums hits a unique note: despondent whimsy.

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s first film collaboration was the award-winning animated Persepolis (2007), adapted by Satrapi from her own autobiographical graphic novel. Chicken with Plums is also from a Satrapi comic, and supposedly tells the (obviously embellished) story of a relative of hers. On an unrelated note, this movie reunites and , last seen together in the Certified Weird The Saddest Music in the World.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The many surreal flourishes, like the film’s giant breasts and petals floating through a pink-tinged sky, are supposed to be absolved of cringing obviousness because they’re, you know, poetic and exotic.”–Farran Smith Nehme, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

SHORT: THE DARK SIDE OF FRIDAY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:  Matt Mulholland

FEATURING:  Matt Mulholland

PLOT: A depressed cabaret singer and sometime mime, overwhelmed by the pressures of

Still from The Dark Side of Friday (2011)

life and loneliness, contemplates suicide and drifts off into a symbolic abyss of despair.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  As devastating a portrait of human despair as has ever been painted, on a canvass black as velvet, this  poison break-up letter to a cruel world from an embittered heart compresses into a mere three minutes an agony that  it would take a lesser artist four minutes or even more to convey.   

COMMENTS: The nameless singer, dressed in black, observes the camera from a skewed angle, indicating his unwillingness to face the world head on anymore.  Alone, he sings of the pressures of ordinary life, but as the tension and anxiety build, a doppelgänger (who will later moph into a trippelgänger) appears.  The ghastly mirror image both harmonizes with, and mocks, the protagonist as he agonizes over paralyzing alternatives, eternally unable to choose (“which one can I take?”).  The minimalist set dissolves into a series of melancholy reminiscences; the dateless singer hanging his head in front of the mirror (the recurrence of the doppelgänger motif); he stands trapped in on a traffic island, his black garb blending into the surrounding darkness as unheeding humanity rushes by him in both directions (more dualities); he holds his head in his hands as, utterly alone, he kills off a bottle of Ballantine’s; he hangs his head in dejection as he stares hopelessly at the wall.  Mysterious images are interspersed into these reveries: running water (shades of Tarkovsky here, with an urban update); the bright lights of the teeming city intruding on his solitude, taunting him; a clock ticking down to an unstated but ominous deadline; glass shattering like a broken will (the deadline arives—the time for reflection is over).  In the finale the singer, now a mime, poses in front of the Void itself, trapped in an invisible box before Eternity.  Flakes of white drift through the Stygian abyss like fragments of exploded angels.  As masterfully affecting as these images are, without the searingly aware lyrics—written by a young postfeminist poetess to explore the ironic dualities of spirited youth versus weary wisdom, and of abandoned Dionysian collectivism versus painful Apollonian self-reflection—without such sure, knowing narration, the project would have come off as corny, weepy and bathetic.  Instead, it is a spiritually acute and devastating portrait of how having nowhere to go on Friday night inevitably leads to a loss of faith in life itself.   

The Dark Side of Friday is currently available to watch on YouTube.

54. YOU, THE LIVING [DU LEVANDE] (2007)

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“Be pleased then, you living one, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”–Goethe, Roman Elegies, the quote that begins You, the Living

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: A large cast of unknowns, who are given approximately equal weight in the story

PLOT: A man napping on a couch awakes, looks into the camera, and tells us that he had a nightmare that bombers were coming.  The movie then shows us fifty or so dryly absurd scenes involving many unhappy characters in a nameless Swedish city, some of whom relate their dreams to us.  Memorable sketches include a musician who tells us of his mutual fund performance while making love and a young girl spurned by a rock musician who dreams that they get married.

Still from You, the Living (Du Levande) (2007)


BACKGROUND:

  • Director Roy Andersson made short films beginning in 1967.  After his first two features, En kärlekshistoria (1970) and Giliap (1975), he began directing commercials and did not return to movies until the critically acclaimed (and Certified Weird) Songs from the Second Floor (2000).  This, only his fourth feature film, was completed when he was 64 years old.
  • You, the Living was refused funding by the Swedish Film Institute; Andersson reportedly accused the body of nepotism after the requested funding was instead granted to a relative of a member of the Institute.   The movie was eventually completed with funding from five different countries, and is officially listed as a Swedish-French-German-Danish-Norwegian co-production.
  • The actors in the film are mostly amateurs with no previous feature film credits.  The musician is played by Eric Bäckman, a member of the Swedish gothic metal band “Deathstars.”
  • All of the scenes (except one exterior) were shot on soundstages created in Andersson’s own studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Everyone talks about the bittersweet wedding fantasy, although the nude heavyset woman riding a skinny man while wearing his spiked military band helmet is also fairly indelible, perhaps for the wrong reasons.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Disorientingly constructed as a series of sketches with common


English language trailer for You, the Living

characters, some completely naturalistic and some totally absurd, united by uneasy, melancholy comedy, You, the Living feels like a series of dreams trapped inside a larger dream.

COMMENTS: An enigmatic movie deserves an enigmatic title, and You, the Living gives Continue reading 54. YOU, THE LIVING [DU LEVANDE] (2007)

34. STALKER (1979)

“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring.  Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.  The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring.  Alas, those laws are never violated.  They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

PLOT:  A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country.  The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it.  A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.

Still from Stalker (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
  • After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives.  All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography.  Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
  • Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer.  Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant.  He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions.  A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released.  The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
  • A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence.  One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream.  The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream.  A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable


Scene from Stalker

containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.

COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a Continue reading 34. STALKER (1979)

25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.

Video trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is Continue reading 25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)