Bear's Film Journal

Words and images with a focus on cinema.

Un lac (Philippe Grandrieux, 2008)

Recently I viewed Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, a work that had such an immense impact on me that I must credit it with spurring on an evolution in the way I experience, analyse, absorb and interact with cinema. Beauty, as we so often see it in art, that seductive, poetic beauty, is an obstruction. Aesthetic romance shields the viewer from total introspection, putting an artificial limit on the exploration of our figurative abyss by way of decoration, distraction, divine visual comfort. Tarr has convinced me of this; I felt it so completely as I stared into the dark hollow he had carved out, where the soul, the meaning of life, could never exist. Philippe Grandrieux wields similar power as a director by masterfully tethering the viewer to his art. That is the ultimate success; to bridge the gap between mind and screen. Starting with the camera and the sound, these base devices bring forth the characters and their surrounding world, giving birth to atmosphere and, more importantly, opening a channel for direct communication with the visceral, emotional animal inside all of us. The messages Grandrieux chooses to transmit are often ambiguous and challenging, a fervid assault on our manicured sensibilities, making his imagery all the more piercing and immortal. Throughout Un lac hands earn the attention of the frame, portraying intimacy through movement. Hands hold warmth, blood, nerves and tendons, behind each minute action hides a consciousness. Every gesture has an intent that conveys a subjective, subliminal meaning. A blurred hand sinking in a sea of black feels more like a painting than a photograph, evoking a yearning for closeness, a desire to experience the touch of nature, be it in the form of snow, a tree, a horse, or a sister. Even in third person the camera behaves as if inside the head of the young man, Alexi. It shakes nauseatingly while observing his violent seizure. The cinematography is sympathetic, strengthening the bridge, drawing us into bondage.

Stark, overexposed compositions of the endless treetops against a vacant sky burn black and white, yet the morality unearthed in this story of the strange visitor remains shrouded in grey. This saturating sparseness absolves the family of the clutter and complexity of the quotidian; trudging through the harsh wilderness brings the characters closer to their isolating environment. Even in this life the most essential aspects of our continued existence, survival and sex, remain the cardinal impetus for deep self-reflection. In extreme conditions, where luxury is an unknown and staying alive is a challenge, fringe behaviour becomes frightening and evocative. Alexi’s silent shout is a challenge to reality, simultaneously a beacon of endurance and a protest against his struggle. Wails of despair, frustration and strife fill the dead air more than dialogue. As ghostly figures float inside a cloud they ward off depression and emptiness with strained love and affection. Tender, silent moments are crafted to be just as encroaching as the earlier seizure. With each swing of the axe there sparks a dichotomy of violence and determination, anger and contentment. Chopping wood is a tiring job full of instinctual pleasure. It is a task that must be completed, an accomplishment worthy of adoration. The two men give it their all, acutely aware of its significance, its therapeutic release and crucial purpose. After the work is done they share a drink and smile, laughing under the fresh falling snow. A rewarded exertion of force, as in sex, brings happiness. With so much action shown and so few words spoken I begin to make assumptions regarding the internal state of the characters. This is based partly on projection and partly on a familiarity gleamed from their nuanced facial expressions and unnatural body movements. Grandrieux’s channel transmits in both directions.

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The Territory (Raoul Ruiz, 1981)

By pouring an astounding amount of skill and energy into the visual and atmospheric elements of his work, Ruiz is able to excuse stilted acting, a lack of narrative fluidity, disjointed exposition, clunky transitions and thorny sound mixing. This aggressively cinematic approach succeeds by overwhelming the viewer with a torrent of dense, sensory stimulation. It is a gamble that darts straight for the whimsy by first escaping without notice into a borderline fantasy scenario where all diversions from cohesive realism are effortlessly forgiven as just another uncovered piece in the larger puzzle that makes up the vibe, the tune, and the individually crafted language of symbols and behaviour that develops inwardly as it is progressively revealed. No matter how many undesirable quirks may threaten to pull us away and eject us from our already shifting post, for instance underdeveloped ideas which materialize out of thin air to establish themselves for but a few inopportune, chaotic moments, the compositional beauty, meticulous design, artistic presence and overall flavour persistently grows stronger to compensate. With so much value placed on maximising the strengths of the medium itself, this flamboyant directing style tends to bleed over into more customarily structured areas such as character development and transparent motivations. As a result, these rudimentary trappings can feel rushed, jumbled and all over the place, which throws the tone about wildly from scene to scene. Certainly this can be alienating, even destructive, but what it really results in is a clear, distinctive, bizarre display of confidence and purpose. There is no fault in the performances, which vary from nuanced to overdramatic, for they are all in aid of the singular metaphorical structure that is being built from the ground up to serve its own devices. As the journey continues the absence of any straightforward, relatable naturalness becomes the intention, for it portrays confusion and detachment as it fuels the impact of events and brings to the surface the internal process going on behind the eyes of each character. Such material can only be succinctly approached by defying the rules and regulations of real world conduct through the fictional substitution into a playground of imaginative expression.

I cannot fathom how but I swear that Ruiz always has the sun exactly where he wants it. His lighting is a miracle, whether indoors or outdoors, natural or artificial, day or night, there is definitely something going on that gives it a dreamlike, elegant, surreal, picturesque ambience. Meshes of living colour paint each shot, often changing at will to signal a shift in disposition or figurative landscape. Here the palette is made up of everything from the costumes to the foliage, with plenty of aesthetic tweaking going on over the top, teetering on the edge of being garish. Under all of these stunningly weaved images there are grander notions gestating than just those that the plainly taken narrative divulges at first glance. After submerging itself into the waters of a psychological and philosophical work of art horror, all the pieces rapidly fall into place. Everything from the discomfited first act had its purpose. Cannibalism has been normalised in a new world of pseudo-religion spurred insanity. Now that the unthinkable, weird and inhuman has happened, how can it be dealt with? Confusion flourishes as the mental collapse of each character manifests itself in their physical actions and abrupt change in composure. Stories surrounding the making of this film mention a few interesting occurrences, such as Wim Wenders borrowing the cast and crew to use for himself, Roger Corman producing via telegram, a dangerous dwindling of necessary funds, and Jon Jost filming a documentary at the same time that focused on Ruiz. Still, it was completed unharmed and the ending provides a genuinely potent, juicy and unexpected twist, while managing to squeeze in the strongest dramatic performance of it all as a final treat.