Friday, July 21, 2006

American symphony, French chamber-suite

Last Friday brought the first shared viewing of Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" with my GF. Astonishingly, this legendary "bomb", critically and commercially-- perhaps more prejudicial still, a work passionately embraced by French and British film critics when viewed after the fact of its disastrous American pseudo-run-- suited her fancy so completely that she has now enshrined it as her "favorite film of all time"! Well!-- it took me several viewings and a few years before I was ready to nominate it for any Top Ten lists, though I immediately recognized it as a film of interest and of intense visual magnificence. Needless to say, this auteurist extravaganza is not merely postcard-pretty in the Robert Redford way, but an intensely realized visual tone-poem a la Visconti or Bertolucci; cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who also shot Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", exceeds his previous achievement in every way, lensing with greater richness and resonance. But it is surely Cimino himself, who carves up space with a crane better than any other American director in film history, and whose architectural sense of composition is on par with the most epic-minded of European filmmakers, who deserves the lion's share of credit (and credit is what this film deserves!) for achieving the unique painterly tone of "Heaven's Gate", a tone that extends beyond the purely visual dimensions of the palette into the poetic yet novelistic handling of narrative (a subject on which I must refer the reader to Robin Wood's magisterial tome "Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond") in creating what is genuinely a unique cinematic experience. My last viewings on VHS, some years before my dvd arrived the other Wednesday, had confirmed for me that "Heaven's Gate" is not only readily, but compulsively, viewable (I had devoured it one night and awoke to view it immediately again, with no sense of restlessness at all); in its widescreen splendor it can be savored with more relish still.
It is thus not quite so perverse that my beloved, who has balked at Visconti and runs from "Vertigo" as though it were root canal, has found in Michael Cimino's legendary 'folly' the very "'Gone With the Wind' of the West" that UA's executives were hoping for. Doubtless Cimino and his cast and crew should feel more vindication in her simple avowal than in all my cineaste's bumbling raptures! . . .

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But at the moment I am immersed in a more dubious, but most intriguing, cinematic case: Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool." This classically-composed cinematic mashup (as I reckon it to be) of Bergman's "Persona" and Rohmer's "La Collectionneuse" (promiscuous young woman interrupts the South-of-France idylls of a protagonist who wishes to be left alone, then maybe/maybe not practices an elaborate scheme of deception upon that protagonist, who finally escapes to civilization, in both cases London) also in a curious way flirts, perhaps intentionally, with being taken for a standard late-night Showtime entertainment. That is to say, with its plenitude of female nudity, its somnolent "erotic thriller" musical score, and its sleepy holiday setting, "Swimming Pool" may look superficially like a lot of Hollywood's backdrawer attempts at a "classy" sex thriller, one of those low-budget films with overthehill stars that strives somehow to be a modern noir and fails predictably and fully. There's also that "Murder She Wrote" genre to contend with: Ozon clearly understands that when a thriller puts forward a female mystery-novelist on holiday as its heroine, the audience expects she will turn detective as nefarious dealings are uncovered. In fact, the nefariousness doesn't surface until rather late in the day, and the heroine's role in it, while ambiguous (particularly in motivation) is clearly not that of the moral champion of empirical resolution and justice. "Swimming Poll" is, we might say, a French David Lynch film, in the old-fashioned sense of "French", meaning here that what is blatantly Gothic, and executed loudly in high visionary style by the American director is here restated in a very muted way. So much so, in fact, that even the moments of metaphysical dislocation hardly announce themselves. So much so, in fact, that I cannot be sure they even exist.
I suspect the kernel of Ozon's "game" has to do with a literary substitution for the psychological fractures of Bergman's "Persona". In short, Sarah's book is the substitute for the composite Elizabeth/Alma shot in Bergman's film. So is "Swimming Pool" an art film about literary contamination? Well, this doesn't quite sound right. But if Sarah isn't crazy, and Julie isn't a fantasy projection, her "bad girl" self on the prowl, then the only exchange in the film is not psychological but literary. That doesn't mean, of course, that the film isn't also findamentally psychological in character. But in pouncing on the role of the mystery novelist, Ozon makes literature, or at least certain conventions about genre and about its authors, his theme. That a mystery novelist would lend her talents to covering up a crime may only be a passing joke in his larger statement.

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