Saturday, 23 January 2021

News from Home [1977]

 In 1971, 21-year old Chantal Akerman briefly moved to New York, and that period had a lasting influence for her; “living like a vagabond” on minimal finances and working multiple odd-jobs, it compelled her to experience a complex mix of longing and alienation, and introduced her to different schools of experimental cinema. These transformative aspects were magnificently manifested in her sublime, transfixing, melancholic and silently wrenching essay film News from Home, which she made upon a revisit to NYC right after her extraordinary masterpiece Jeanne Dielman. The way she combined formal rigour with profoundly personal touch, and spare style with a haunting tone, made this a work of rare beauty. Comprising of roughly 60 shots photographed in grainy colours, largely using a static camera and in ambient sounds – she’d revisit this approach 16 years later in the equally stunning D’Est – it comprised of edgy, gritty, visceral vignettes of the city, viz. subways, underground stations, pavements, alleys, diners, shops, buildings, walls, waterfront, etc. The subway sections were especially arresting, as was a 10-minute sequence taken from a moving car capturing the city’s imposing skyscrapers, and the 10-minute finale of a receding Manhattan skyline shot aboard a ferry bound for Staten Island. This gripping mosaic was accompanied by intensely personal letters from her mother (read out by Akerman) – filled with mundane details and immense yearning for her daughter, with the tone ranging from affectionate to petulant – written from Brussels during that period. That her mom (who we’d get to know very closely in her touching swansong No Home Movie) was a Holocaust survivor, laced additional layers of meaning and pathos to the underlying neurosis, loneliness, fears and desperation in her letters.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Avant-Garde/Experimental

Language: French

Country: Belgium

Monday, 18 January 2021

Night and Fog [1956]

 Numerous films, both fictions and non-fictions, have tried portraying, analyzing and interpreting the grotesque monstrosity and primordial barbarism – borne out of xenophobia, right-wing bigotry, religious hatred, racial supremacism, ultra-nationalism and war hysteria – that Nazism represented and manifested through the Holocaust; unfortunately very few have truly been able to penetrate into its heart of darkness. Resnais’ extraordinarily powerful, haunting and gut-wrenching documentary Night and Fog remains an indelible example of the latter; that he did that through a surprisingly concise 30-minute length – perhaps representing the other side of the spectrum vis-à-vis Claude Lanzmann’s gargantuan Shoah (which, unfortunately, I’m yet to watch) – speaks further volumes about it. And, made a decade after the end of WWII and therefore liberation of German concentration and death camps thet were littered all across Europe, it was also perhaps among the earliest confrontations of this topic. Resnais, interestingly, took an arresting dual narrative approach which made it all the more atmospheric, viz. pairing eerily desolate and tranquil present of now deserted remnants of Auschwitz and Majdanek – which’ve ironically become tourist destinations – shot in Eastman colour; with harrowing war-time B/W footage and newsreels – of the ghastly camps, the watchtowers and barbed wires, the skeletal and dehumanized internees, their transportation in cattle cars, medical experimentation and tortures, executions and massacres, gas chambers and heaped corpses, turning men and women into mattresses and soaps, the remorseless perpetrators supervising the camps and later during war crime trials – from just ten years back. Couple of important footnotes – the script was written by Holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol, and aided by Chris Marker; and French censors forced Resnais to blot out the shot of a French guard which subtly revealed French complicity.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Alain Resnais

Genre: Documentary/Political History/Short Film

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Rosetta [1999]

 The Dardennes crafted a searing examination on unemployment – and the ensuing angst, frustrations, helplessness, ignominy, desperation, disillusionment and despair – with their grim, gripping and fiercely unsentimental film Rosetta. In a way, it may be considered thematically connected to their gut-wrenching gem Two Days, One Night, in how the respective protagonists – an impoverished girl living in the margins in the former, and a working-class woman struggling to hold on to her life in the latter – are willing to do what it takes, including swallowing their pride and self-respect, while trying to hold on to their jobs where they’ve been deemed redundant. The titular Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) is a feisty, surly, volatile, emotionally fragile 18-year old living a disenfranchised existence in a shabby trailer park with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux); the film begins in media res as she loses her composure upon being let go, and later fighting with her mom for earning small favours through promiscuity; that she often suffers from bouts of abdominal cramps made her struggle ferociously physical too. In a moment of rare tranquility she befriends Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), who works at a waffle stand, after he helps her get hired by his boss (Olivier Gourmet) and later briefly charms her at his cramped little flat; in a heartwarming moment, she even smiles. Happiness, unfortunately, is ephemeral at best and illusory at worst, and things soon tragically crumble, nearly leading her to the brink. Dequenne provided a blazing turn and Rongione was good too; and they were brilliantly accompanied by the Dardennes’ minimalist and relentless cinema vérité rigour, including frequently resorting to hand-held cams, which added layers of visceral edginess to the steadfastly bleak proceedings.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Genre: Drama/Social Drama

Language: French

Country: Belgium

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Jacquot de Nantes [1991]

 One way to attain immortality, as Godard quipped, is by not dying; but then, there are other more practical ways too. If Jacques Demy earned his share of immortality through his buoyant creations, Agnès Varda too wonderfully played her part in that through Jacquot de Nantes – her tender, affectionate, heartwarming love letter to her fellow New Waver, her companion and the love of her life. That Demy had wanted to make a memoir on his childhood days and how he was immersed into the magic of cinema, but Varda did it on his behalf instead by referring his autobiographical notes as he was too ill by then to make it himself – it released a year after his untimely death due to HIV/AIDS – added poignant layers to this lilting homage, sepia-toned portrait of an artist falling in love with his future craft, finding his voice as an artist, and hence in turn celebration of cinema itself. In an evocation of her formal idiosyncrasy, she composed it along three parallel narrative elements – viz. nostalgia-laden fiction, reflexive references and documentary footage. The biopic, which formed the film’s dominant thread and shot mostly in washed-out B/W, portrayed Demy’s days of growing up in Nantes, his war-time experiences, his close-knit relationship with his parents, his passion for the medium, and the elaborate studio that he set-up at his childhood home where much of the film was shot. And the above dramatizations were astutely interspersed with hand-picked sequences from his films – Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Une Chambre en Ville, etc. – and touching reflections by a now old but still dreamy Demy filmed shortly before his death.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Agnes Varda

Genre: Drama/Showbiz Drama/Biopic

Language: French

Country: France

Monday, 11 January 2021

The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later [2002]

 The Gleaners and I – Agnès Varda’s disarmingly radical, anti-consumerist, irreverent, esoteric and playfully ruminative essay film – wasn’t just an exhilarating achievement laced with dissidence, empathy and profundity, it also garnered the kind of pop-cultural stardom that she’d never encountered before. Hence, overwhelmed by all the love, affection and plaudits, she decided to revisit the docu – more as an afterword than a sequel – to reconnect with some of those she’d filmed earlier, and to meet a few new folks too. Imbued with her customary warmth and self-effacing humour, this is bound to appeal to those who’d loved the earlier masterwork. The deluge of fan mails formed the starting point as she meets a couple whose quirky doodles enchanted her. And then, armed with her camera and indefatigable enthusiasm, she tracked down some of her earlier subjects – who were either compelled to live their lives by foraging discarded produce, food and objects, or did so out of non-conformist, conscientious choices – in order to find out how they’re doing now. Thus she reconnects with Alain, who’s become a local celeb but is still resolutely an urban gleaner and is even fit enough to run the marathon, albeit in thrown away Nikes; the tragically wasted, abandoned and alcoholic couple who’re, fortunately, seeing relatively better days; the farm-workers who’d introduced her to the now iconic heart-shaped potatoes; etc. Conversely, and unfortunately, she finds that François was forced into institutionalization by his neighbours for refusing to lead a standard consumerist existence, by living on trashed food instead; and that the patriarch of a group of aged, warmhearted urban squatters is no more and their existences continue to be as harsh and marginalized as ever.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Agnes Varda

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: French

Country: France