Three Colors: Blue

98/100
Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue

It’s hard to defend the artiness of Blue. With a Kieslowski movie (maybe with all Kieslowski movies), either you get it or you don’t. If you get it, you’re a fan. The movie becomes a mystical, dream-like experience. You recall the most indulgent camera angles and close-ups at the oddest moments of your day. Perhaps you hum a few bars of Zbigniew Preisner’s formidable score as you drink your coffee in the morning, or you have a nightmare about the kind of car crash that sets this story in motion. And when a friend doesn’t appreciate the film — in fact, they think it’s a dull, pretentious throwback to the French New Wave or somesuch — you find yourself speechless. It’s hard to use words to explain the cinema’s moments of great beauty, and you may as well give up before you begin.

Three Colors: Blue is the first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy built around the precious themes of liberty, equality, and fratenity (the second and third films are White and Red, respectively). The concepts correspond to the three colors of the French flag, and the conceit is actually less a stricture than a simple excuse for Kieslowski to make a set of movies that meditate on love, loss, and our essential humanity. Liberty is personified in the newly-widowed Julie (Binoche), who survives the automobile accident that kills her husband Patrice (a famous composer) and daughter Anna. This sea change in her life drives her to divorce herself from familiar people and surroundings, but she’s dogged by an unwelcome artifact from her husband’s life. His unfinished composition, Song for the Unification of Europe, is the subject of intense interest, and although Julie disposes of Patrice’s notes for the piece (and tries to dispose of all her own memories), it continues to insinuate itself into her life until she confronts the music as well as her own devastated psyche.

It sounds very color-by-numbers, but the film is actually anything but. Kieslowski is a bold filmmaker, with a knack for hypnotizing an audience. As much as Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique seemed concerned with lenses, this one dwells on reflections — Julie’s face reflected on the curve of a spoon, a doctor’s face reflected in the iris of her eye, filling the screen. The richness of imagery occasionally rivals that of a novel (Julie touches a sugar cube to coffee; as we watch, the sugar turns the luminous color of her own skin). And Kieslowski works at capturing the essence of memory and the passage of time. At four moments during the film, the screen fades completely and music swells – Patrice’s unfinished piece – and then the music cuts, and the scene fades back in at exactly the moment where it faded out. It’s part of the mystery of the film that a viewer can have an immediate and intuitive grasp on such an abstract device.

Intuition, indeed, is the driving force behind Kieslowski’s films. The relationships and imagery are drawn so intricately that the pictures reward repeated viewing, and it’s only on the second or third time around that the whole power of one of these films really becomes apparent. It’s easy to belittle a film like this, with its languid pace, elliptical dialog, and propensity for introspection (navel-gazing?). Don’t these somber sequences substitute a content New Age-ism for any real statements in response to the questions they pose? Isn’t Kieslowski living in a blithe, egocentric dream world? How can we be expected to identify with the rich widow of a French composer as she mourns her way through Paris?

Yet through Binoche’s performance and Kieslowski’s guidance, we do identify. We feel Julie’s aloneness even as we understand her resolve to cast off her sentiment and distance herself from the inexorable sadness. At the end of Blue, as Preisner’s music swells up on the soundtrack, all of the disparate characters and situations that make up Julie’s story finally come together. Pictures recall pictures as Julie is finally reflected in the eyes of another, and the delicate shape of another character is traced on a video monitor, echoed in shades of blue. These final moments articulate character and contradictory emotion in one crystalline, irrefutable passage of images, absolutely wordless — the very definition of great cinema. If you’re asking the same questions as our director, the simple clarity of such images provides answers enough.

Three Colors: White

77/100

Bookended as it is by Blue and Red, the second film in Kieslowski’s liberty/equality/fraternity trilogy is a welcome relief from the sometimes tragic sensibility of the other two films. White is about post-Communist Poland. It is about the tricks that hold up our own quests for “equality” (is there really such a thing outside of mathematics?). But most of all, it’s a love story.

Of course, all three of the films are love stories in a way; but Blue is a love story that ends as the film begins, and Red is a love story once removed. White is a story about stubborn love, a sort of codependent relationship that endures despite the best efforts of both lovers. Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Karol Karol, the impotent hairdresser who is abandoned in Paris by wife Julie Delpy. Unable to support himself, the spurned lover eventually returns to his native Poland, smuggling himself in inside a friend’s suitcase. Seething with resentment, he makes a fortune in his newly capitalist homeland, and then sets off on an elaborate plan to revenge himself on his wife. Kieslowski makes some wry observations about the nature of capitalism and the lust for “easy money.” Karol doesn’t simply want to make himself the financial equal of his wife; he wants to become “more equal” than she is. That being the case, it’s not enough for him simply to make a fortune. He wants to humiliate her, as well.

He manages that, but the circumstances are an idiosyncratic delight. White isn’t lofty enough to avoid an occasional detour into sober, existential territory, but the side trips add a little weight to the story, which is at heart a marriage farce. The sublime Zamachowski pulls his best Chaplin routine here, and it pays off charmingly. It’s no surprise that Delpy is radiant, and plays the ice queen well (my favorite shot of Delpy is still her cameo in Red, where all three films touch briefly). In most ways, this film is the least of the trilogy — White is so conciliatory that it threatens to float away. But at the end, it’s anchored by a Chaplinesque moment of revelation that justifies our attention and respect, and this film’s solid place in Kieslowski’s admirable trilogy.

Shivers

84/100

David Cronenberg’s debut feature prefigured both Alien and AIDS with its tale of parasites — a metaphorical sexually transmitted disease — that turn humans into nymphomaniacal zombies as they move from host to host, infecting the residents of a Canadian apartment complex. Like other early Cronenberg films, the movie has a low-key immediacy that makes the perversions of its milieu all the more distressing. Shivers is the original Canadian title of this film. If you’re looking for it in the U.S., the title is They Came From Within. The movie was originally edited for U.S. consumption, but as far as I can tell, the most recently released TCFW videocassette (Vestron Video VA4403) is identical to the Canadian cut of Shivers except for the title.

Update 09/18/10: In the intervening decade and a half since I originally wrote this paragraph, Shivers has come into wide, easy availability on DVD and then gone back out of print again. Cronenberg deserves better distribution.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

76/100

One of the neater tricks in recent memory was Wes Craven’s reappearance in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, once again holding Freddy Krueger’s puppet strings. The directorial possessive is deserved here, since the filmmaker has made a movie about the making of one of his movies. I can’t think of another film that casts its own director and studio executives — let alone its own actors — playing themselves in addition to their characters.

You follow? The concept is that once New Line stopped releasing movies in the Nightmare series (remember, the previous entry was titled Freddy’s Dead), the very real evil that was embodied in Freddy’s character has been stripped of its outlet in the movies. As a result, it’s crossing over from the world of fiction into the real world, apparently giving creator Craven some very bad dreams. To stop it, he has to make another movie in the series, with the original star — a reluctant Heather Langenkamp. If the film’s execution lacks the stuff it struts in conception, it’s still quite a concept, and a unique, cerebral horror film.

On laserdisc, the concept goes one step further, with a movie-length commentary from Craven himself on one of the supplementary audio tracks. Quite a treat.

Exotica

98/100
Elias Koteas in Exotica

After the final reel of Exotica had unspooled, like a slender key filling the last hole in a wooden puzzlebox, a woman at the New York Film Festival screening last year had a question for director Atom Egoyan. She wanted to know what happened at the end of the movie. Visibly perturbed at the question, Egoyan dodged it. Heads craned as the woman pressed for his answer. She explained that she had seen each of Egoyan’s previous films, had enjoyed them tremendously; it was just this film, she said, this was the one that she didn’t “get.” Finally, Egoyan gave in and answered her question. Here is what the last scene in the film meant, he explained, his four- or five-word declamation a stark and numbing negation of the gentle, almost languid spirit of the film, which invites the audience to its own discovery. The “what happened” is simple enough to explain, but you can’t really understand it unless you’re fully caught up in the cinema when it unfolds in front of you.

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Pennies from Heaven

85/100

<i>Pennies from Heaven</i> key art

How cynical can a musical be? Director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Dennis Potter did a neat job of distilling the British TV miniseries (also written by Potter, who died last year) into the length of a U.S. feature film. Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, an unpleasant idealist who sells sheet music (or “songs,” as he puts it) during the American Depression. When Arthur falls in love with schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters), he abandons (then returns to) his wife, who is less accommodating sexually, but does have an inheritance that Arthur wants to exploit to open a record store. In glimpses into characters’ minds, the actors dance and lip-sync with canned recordings from the era to bizarre and ironic results, as when Vernel Bagneris mouths “Pennies From Heaven” in front of a photographic blow-up of Depression-era homeless. Later, Christopher Walken (yep) puts on a show-stopping version of “Let’s Misbehave.” “I want to live in a world where the songs come true,” Arthur tells Eileen (now Lulu), in a tableaux drawn from an Edward Hopper painting. “There must be someplace where them songs are for real.” Only in your dreams.

Shallow Grave

50/100

There’s a guaranteed audience these days for the “sophisticated thriller.” In genrespeak, that’s the movie with a self-consciously twisting and turning plotline, overtly intelligent characters, and a calculated streak of nastiness allowing the viewer to feel truly decadent, giggling along with the filmmakers. Shallow Grave is such a movie, a British import about a trio of flatmates who conspire against their own better judgment to take advantage of someone else’s ill-gotten gains. When I saw it, with a “sophisticated” crowd on Manhattan’s upper west side, the folks to the left and right of me were swept up in the movie, cackling evilly or burying faces in hands when the proceedings on-screen became particularly gruesome. No doubt about it, this movie is a manipulator and a crowd pleaser. Continue reading

In the Mouth of Madness

71/100
Sam Neill (center) in In the Mouth of Madness

Horror films have always been prone to navel-gazing. Often neglected and sometimes maligned, the genre has tackled more than its share of Imponderables: what scares us, and why? What happens when you stick a knife into the tender underbelly of faith? What is the face of evil? What does it mean to be a storyteller, and what is the nature of film itself?

John Carpenter has done as fine a job as anyone at exploring these issues. From his landmark Halloween (whose unforgettable final moments offer up a chill that is pure cinema) through such underrated strokes as the paranoiac’s bedtime story The Thing, the anti-Reaganite They Live, and the sublimely creepy Prince of Darkness, Carpenter’s films have been smartly crafted with a real story to tell. It comes as no surprise that his newest horror picture, In the Mouth of Madness,, taps the offbeat yet ubiquitous Sam Neill to anchor a wacked-out tale that pokes sly fun at the Stephen King phenomenon while at the same time offering an odd picture of mass culture.

Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator sent on a mission to locate best-selling novelist Sutter Cane. Cane writes horror novels, the kind that make fans of “literary” fiction wrinkle up their noses. We get the impression that he’s a sort of amalgamation of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, with a rabid contingent of fans who grow inexplicably violent — they break windows and bloody one another’s faces scrambling for copies of Cane’s new book at the local shop. A few of those readers, among them Cane’s former agent, wander the streets with bloody hatchets, drooling and raving. The problem is that Cane has vanished, after delivering just a few chapters of his newest manuscript to publisher Arcane. Trent sets off to look for Hobb’s End, the presumably fictional New Hampshire town where many of Cane’s stories take place.

Trent finds Hobb’s End, all right, a small town torn from the pages of Cane’s novels that’s not on any map. And he finds Cane there, as well (Jurgen Prochnow, having great fun as the messianic novelist banging out pages on a manual typewriter as the walls around him sweat and breathe). The story takes a Twilight Zone spin as Trent and Linda Stiles, his companion from Arcane, discover that the good townsfolk are acting out their parts in the books of Sutter Cane. The author is manipulating reality, and he promises that his new book will drive the entire world stark-raving mad. What about people who don’t read books?, one character asks at one point. Well then, he’s told, there’s always the movie (starring John Trent, of course).

Shot for the wide screen and brilliantly visual, In the Mouth of Madness is great fun to watch, with even the requisite cheap shocks doling out a good jolt. Sam Neill is always a pleasure, even when it seems that he’s hardly trying, and his staid characterization is balanced by a slew of icky demonic crowd-pleasing creations that fly in the face of his pronounced skepticism. The down side is that the movie isn’t really about anything, save perhaps the power of the media and the purported dangers of paying too much mind to pop culture phenomena (yawn!). Another old horror hand, Wes Craven (who has been savaged like few other filmmakers for his brutal debut feature,The Last House on the Left), did the genre a bigger favor last year. Even though both films empower the artist, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare went a bold step farther, offering a clever and impassioned defense of the horror film when it needed it the most.

In fact, one might suspect that Carpenter has been sleeping with the neo-conservative enemy, offering up a critique of the mania that could ensue when people read too many scary books. Still, the director is on record opposing censorship, and has always stood up to critics who called his films (The Thing, especially) too violent. We can only interpret the new movie as a love letter to horror fans, a brotherly nudge and wink toward our own cathartic experiences as we sit in the dark, waiting to be scared. At any rate, it’s a tremendous improvement over such Chevy Chase fodder as Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and we can hope that in his next film (a remake of Village of the Damned), Carpenter’s incisive, critical vision will snap back into sharp focus.