Her (2013)

Romantic drama inside a colourful science-fiction framework puts its finger on the reasons why people stay together and/or grow apart.

her-spike-jonzeUSA
4.5*

Director:
Spike Jonze

Screenwriter:
Spike Jonze

Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema

Running time: 125 minutes

It can be a constant battle for those in a relationship to remain together even as the two individuals grow in their own direction. Whatever sparked that initial euphoria may soon become nothing but a memory of two people meeting each other at a point in their lives that now seems vastly different from where they find themselves today.

This is but one very astute insight from Spike Jonze’s romantic drama Her, one of the most perceptive films about people and relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s work of art that perfectly welded intelligence, emotion and comedy back in 2004. Her is similarly accomplished, as it takes a situation where a happy ending appears to be inherently impossible and makes us experience not just the emotional but also the intellectual fluctuations of its evolution by plumbing the depths of the human soul.

Set in a Los Angeles of the near future, the film examines the consequences of a decision made by the recently separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) to upgrade to a new operating system. Like most people, his current OS is functional but rather impersonal, and his physical and emotional isolation, along with the late-night porn, indicate that he needs more intimate interaction in his life.

The new OS, which he speaks to and which speaks back to him in a way that is cosy and understanding and with a sense of humour, has a name, and even though it doesn’t have a body, it resembles a person in most other ways. It is “Samantha”.

One of the best casting choices for this film was the voice of Samantha. It is important that we can visualise her, and that many in the audience will feel an attraction to her. The moment she starts speaking, we know it is Scarlett Johansson, and we can “see” her just as well as Theodore thinks he knows her.

In no time, it becomes obvious that this is not just going to be an OS to read back Theodore’s e-mails and proofread his online documents, but that Samantha will be an operating system for his soul – one that fills the void that was created when his wife left him. From the very first moment, we know Theodore will fall in love with Samantha. We also know that a relationship that is purely virtual, in which the couple can’t touch each other or be touched by a facial expression, is unlikely to last very long.

And yet, Her goes about its subject with the utmost understanding for why people come together, stay together or grow apart. It doesn’t frighten us with unnecessary drama, as it could so easily have done by transforming Samantha into a hysterical, mayhem-spreading virus that blackmails him to satisfy her own needs. On the contrary, Samantha remains a mostly level-headed being that is aware of its own development and is unsure how to handle the impact of change on a relationship she obviously cares about.

But while she has the world’s knowledge at the tips of her cables, she doesn’t have the same experience as Theodore when it comes to actual social interaction. No relationship is easy, but when you are used to interacting with a physical person and now you suddenly switch gears and expect the other person’s voice and intellect alone to keep the two of you together, it is going to be particularly tough. “What’s it like to be alive?” Samantha asks him.

Interestingly, as if to make herself believe that she is as real as Theodore, Samantha often uses the word “actually” in her speech. She is an artificially intelligent organism that can use its interactions and experiences to develop and adapt, and she is obviously unlike anyone Theodore has ever dated before, but the relationship can only grow to a certain point before her invisibility becomes a serious obstacle. Her artificial origins also raise questions such as whether her feelings are “real” or programmed, and whether it matters, since many of our emotions are also responses based on conditioning or context.

One of Her’s highlights is a scene in which an escort, who has been hired by Samantha to be the body while she provides the voice, arrives at Theodore’s apartment to be a surrogate for his virtual girlfriend. All at once, the problems of the relationship are crystallised, as Theodore suddenly has to confront the fact that his girlfriend will always remain just beyond his grasp.

This disconnect is visible in other ways in film, as we see busy streets and corridors filled with people, all of whom are talking to the operating systems plugged into their ears, but almost no one is talking to anyone else.

Throughout the film, the rich and deeply resonant score by Arcade Fire enriches our experience by seemingly channelling exactly what the characters are feeling with its gentle, wordless numbers. And the product is a glorious mix – just as one would expect given the theme of the story – of sounds and images, that moreover has understanding for the maturing of a relationship, from two people sharing a laugh to them meeting and getting along with each other’s friends, to making sure the other person feels like they are being heard, listened to and understood.

This emotionally intelligent film, a love story for the 21st century, marks a return for Jonze to the world of entertaining think pieces, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, after his disappointing previous project, Where the Wild Things Are.

Love (2015)

An epic film about obsession, rutting and a lot of fluids (once shooting straight at the viewer), but nothing about love.

love-gaspar-noeFrance/Belgium
2*

Director:
Gaspar Noé

Screenwriter:
Gaspar Noé

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 135 minutes

An ode to genitalia, vigorous rutting and the release of bodily fluids, Gaspar Noé’s Love is the polar opposite of Michael Haneke’s similarly titled Amour. For one, its two main characters are immensely unlikeable: Instead of two octagenarians who have spent a lifetime together and are reaching the end of their lives, we have here a chronically oversexed American named Murphy and the “love” of his life, Electra, who satisfies him provided he is not already pounding away between someone else’s open legs.

Love has little to do with the intense emotions suggested by its title and is rather an examination (albeit superficial) of sexual obsession, with the filmmaker intent on showing the audience as many graphic details as possible. Murphy’s tool shoots his life essence as often as possible – at one point directly in the direction of the viewer, who might be catching the film at one of its 3-D screenings. If this were exciting and not laughable, it may have qualified as pornography, but as things stand, this is much worse than most kinds of triple-X entertainment.

The poster of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) appears on the wall of the main characters’ apartment, for no particular reason except self-interest (it is one of Noé’s favourite films), and maybe because it serves as a kind of reminder that we should view this material as controversial but worthwhile, too.

That is difficult to do, as the very thin story is barely worth a discussion, except for the inclusion of the hardcore sex scenes, which appear to be unsimulated, and in which full penetration takes place at least some of the time. Unlike a film such as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, however, there is no underlying interest in seeing these characters growing closer before they grow apart. Noé focuses on the stagnant relationship, held together by bouts of mostly routine sexual intercourse, and he does not allow us to experience any elation or regret at the rare developments we are witness to.

The film’s first shot recalls the heady, steamy days of Catherine Breillat’s Romance X, as we look down vertically onto the naked bodies of Murphy and his wife, Omi, nearly immobile except for them slowly using their hands to bring each other to orgasm. When the moment comes, as it were, Omi laps up Murphy’s juice. This surprisingly explicit action immediately takes the viewer aback, because such a scene is not at all an everyday occurrence in the cinema, at least in theaters without sticky seats.

Noé, perhaps best known for his brutal examination of love, assault and revenge in Irreversible (Irréversible), here intimates, through his main character who is a film school graduate, that movies should be about “blood, sperm and tears”, and this film lives up to the expected trio of fluids.

But even more copious than Murphy’s seed is his use of the dreaded c-word to cuss out Electra, who is right to suspect he is cheating on her with any girl that shows a passing interest in having him inside her. We simply cannot care one little bit about Murphy’s meltdown, even though the film seems to suggest that this is the only story that is of any interest.

The film’s major flaw, and there are many to choose from, is that it does not enable us to empathise with its main character. Even worse, we are not particularly interested in him or his way of thinking, because his actions appear to be primitive, and although far from unexpected, his betrayal of his girlfriend is despicable.

The acting is terrible, and especially the scenes of high melodrama, namely the shouting matches between him and his girlfriend, are laughably amateurish. Contrast them with the break-up scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and you will quickly see what these scenes are supposed to look like if they are to have even a shred of credibility.

Noé, whose unconventional use of the cinematic medium in both visual and narrative terms was laudable in Irreversible, here tries to imitate Jean-Luc Godard’s physical manipulation of the medium by adding black-screen flashes to the entire film, which are not only irritating but pointlessly exhibitionist and silly. Early on in the film, we also get a splashy, full-screen-text definition of Murphy’s Law, because, you know, the main character is called “Murphy”.

And then there is director Gaspar Noé’s masturbatory references to himself. Not only is Murphy’s son named “Gaspar”, but Murphy’s ex hooks up with an “artist” named Noé, played by – you guessed it – the director himself. These names are repeated often enough for us to recognise what Noé is up to, but we never get close to understanding why he is behaving like such a neophyte. Who, except the most amateur of filmmakers, would engage in such ill-conceived grandstanding?

Because of their unconventional nature, the unreserved depictions of sex often harm whatever serious intent Noé had with his story, and some of the particularly graphic moments elicit laughter instead of compassion. This film had no reason to be. Its director obviously thought people would get a kick from unsimulated sex, but unlike Lars von Trier’s amazing look at sex in the double-volume modern-day masterpiece Nymphomaniac, Noé’s film is a fluff piece that has as much to do with love as with serious filmmaking, which is almost nothing at all.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express 2Hong Kong

5*
Director:
Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriter:
Wong Kar-wai
Director of Photography:
Christopher Doyle

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: 重慶森林
Transliterated title:
Chung Hing sam lam

Chungking Express has boundless energy, revels in repetition and is quite simply one of the most absorbing films ever made. This may be the only film made by director Wong Kar-wai that I have ever enjoyed (with the possible exception of Fallen Angels, released in 1995), and it is because whatever stylisation takes place always serves to propel the story forward. There is never a dull moment. The repetition is aural, not visual, and although often slightly manipulated, the images are infused with a gritty Hong Kong realism and feature two of the most likeable cops you’re ever likely to see.

These two cops are #223 and #663, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, respectively, and they both suffer from broken hearts. Their tales are told in two separate story lines, with the Midnight Express fast-food stall serving as the only solid connecting thread between the two. 

The film has one of the most exhilarating opening scenes I have seen in my life. The images jump off the screen, and for a while we are blinded, not by the visuals, but by the music. Michael Galasso’s “Baroque” cranks the action forward with rhythms and sounds that immerse you in a world that is audibly — and then, you notice, visibly, too — in motion. Coming after about 1 minute of opening credits (simple white text on a black screen) in complete silence, the score hits a nerve.

The pictures we get are also different from what we’re used to. A step-printed sequence of images (which means the 24 frames per second shot by the camera were altered in post production to unspool at the same speed, but every second frame has been duplicated, and every other frame discarded) makes for dizzying action, captured with a mobile camera that seems to move both more quickly and more slowly than we are used to from the world around us — or, for that matter, the worlds we know on film. The step-printing process is used again at various points in the film, and it continually succeeds in adding another layer of frenzy to a film that positively throbs with adrenaline in the stiflingly humid, concrete jungle that is Hong Kong.

The action in this first scene, and elsewhere in the first story, takes place at Chungking Mansions, a marketplace where everything can be found because every colour and creed on the face of the earth seems to be hawking their wares here.

In the first story, Cop #223 — whose name, He Qiwu, is only mentioned at rare intervals — has just broken up with his girlfriend, May, whom we never see. He hangs out at Midnight Express, a fast-food joint, almost every night, where the manager (played by “Piggy” Chan Kam-Chuen, who was the film’s still photographer) tries to set him up with girls who are waitresses in his employment. But #223 is not interested. He has decided to grieve for one month, until the 1st of May (yes, the name of his ex), when it will also be his birthday, before seriously pursuing any girl again.

The film’s joyous opening scene ends with #223 brushing past a woman in a blonde wig and is accompanied by a voice-over in which the cop tells us he would soon fall in love with her. At the same time as we follow his melancholy-laden trips to grocery stores where he buys canned pineapples set to expire May 1, we also see snippets of this mysterious blonde’s life. She is dealing with a group of  drug smugglers but when she delivers them to the airport and turns around, they’ve suddenly absconded with copious amounts of cocaine.

Honestly, there are parts of this film that do not gel together all that smoothly. The blonde’s working relationship with the owner of a nightclub, who is also deeply involved in the drug business, takes a few viewings to piece together, and even then it’s not entirely clear, because we are asked to infer meaning and function from mere glances. But thanks to the rapid editing that also accelerates the pace at which the stories are told, small jumps are effortlessly papered over, as it were, by the colourful neon.

The first time around, the viewer may be disoriented by the first part, as there are a few very brief shots (lasting no more than a few seconds) with the three main characters from the second part, whom we don’t know yet. But first, a word about the second story.

Cop #663 meets Faye at Midnight Express, where she starts working at the end of the first story, just as #223 disappears from the film (something else that is never explained). He has a sometime girlfriend, an air hostess, but she gives up on their relationship and hands the key with the “Dear John” letter to Faye, who hangs on to the letter for a while, and on to the key to #663’s apartment for much longer. Meanwhile, she becomes fascinated by this man and even starts going to his place (these scenes were shot in DOP Christopher Doyle’s apartment) to clean and reinvigorate his home (some may think of Amélie here). Here, there are questions of credibility, as she replaces certain items, which #663 notices but doesn’t question.

Faye, the air hostess and the cop all make surprise appearances in the first part. First, the air hostess appears outside the airport when the woman with a blonde wig escorts her Indians with their drugs to the departure gate. While the woman in the blonde wig waits outside a toy store, Faye exits with a massive Garfield toy, which we will see again in #663’s flat later on. Moments later, when #223 leaves Midnight Express, there is a short take on #663 looking down from a raised platform, seemingly at #223, but since geography is rarely established in this film, we cannot be certain.

These are very minor points, but they suggest a film that is slightly experimental and strives to make it clear all the buzzing belongs to the same world yet tells its story at full speed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, producing a vibrant combination of narrative, sound and colour that stays with you.

You’ll never hear The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” again without thinking of Tony Leung and Faye Wong. Few other directors — Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick with Badlands and A Thin Red Line, and Oliver Stone with Platoon — have managed to pull off such an exquisite audiovisual melding using music that had been around for a long time.

Oddly enough, the repetition of the music holds the unconventional storytelling together: Not only is the film divided into two parts, and do the characters from the one turn up unannounced in the other, but like the sequence in Citizen Kane that telegraphs the dissolution of a marriage, a quick succession of scenes involving an array of fast food for the girlfriend precedes the actual introduction of the girlfriend — in a flashback, no less! But Wong Kar-wai breezily ignores the convention of narrative linearity, and yet the viewer stays riveted because these are all such wonderful people.

We love the movies we love despite their faults, not because we think they lack any. Chungking Express, with its numerous awkward plot transitions, is as good an example as any of this, but because I trusted the film from the very first moment and let myself be carried along the stream of images of audio and was never let down by the story or its gentle characters, this remains a truly dazzling film.

Amour (2012)

This film about death is all about hanging on to one’s better half and reminds us what intimate cinema is capable of.

AmourFrance
4.5*

Director:
Michael Haneke
Screenwriter:
Michael Haneke
Director of Photography:
Darius Khondji

Running time: 127 minutes

For most of Amour, the viewer feels absolutely confident she is in the presence of greatness. This is what a film looks like that takes its subject seriously and tries to present it in all its complexity through small moments that all have a very human dimension to them. The human dimension is born out of an intimacy that depends on the chemistry between and very likely also the life experience of the lead actors. And yet, these moments are immediately accessible to those of us who have only had a taste of the life depicted onscreen.

Jean-Louis Trintignant basically came out of retirement to take the role of the octogenarian Georges, whose wife, Anne, played by Emmanuelle Riva, has had a stroke but refuses to be hospitalised. They are both former music teachers and live in a comfortable apartment in the middle of Paris. In one of their first conversations, after attending a music concert, they speak passionately and with erudition about the music they heard.

At first, Georges cares for her and helps her to get into her wheelchair. But gradually her condition worsens, until she has another stroke and becomes nearly incapacitated.

How does a lifelong partner deal with this sudden change? The question is made all the more urgent and unnerving by Haneke’s sudden acceleration of the timeline in unannounced fashion. There are no supertitles to indicate the passage of time: Again and again, Anne’s condition has suddenly deteriorated again, and we are shocked every single time we become aware how much farther down the slope of mortality she has slid once more, and that there is no way back up.

Haneke shoots many of his scenes in single takes and all but eschews the use of close-ups. The film’s characters are thoroughly respected, with two small exceptions. In one of the film’s first scenes, at the breakfast table in the kitchen, at the moment when we realise what will be the beginning of the end, Haneke is a little too rough in his treatment of Anne. The moment itself, the first revelation that something is wrong (we later learn something was obstructing her carotid artery, causing her to switch off for a moment), is perfectly controlled, balanced between tenderness and tension, but the scene could have done without a final pouring of the tea into the saucer rather than the cup — something that emphasises without a shadow of a doubt that things will soon go downhill very quickly.

There is also the matter of a character not properly developed, only to serve as a vessel to elicit our emotion for Anne and her plight: the second nurse who comes to take care of her. She quickly shows her true colours as an arrogant uncaring little snip; her brief appearance and a particularly hurtful exchange with Georges feels like a typical Haneke moment in which evil is revealed to be embedded in society, and he obviously enjoys pushing the knife just that little bit more into our stomachs, though frankly this was quite unnecessary. His subject matter is already powerful enough.

But the film is magnificent. It is a restrained piece of work that is set almost entirely inside the old couple’s flat and unwinds at Haneke’s leisurely pace inside scenes but frighteningly quickly from one scene to the next. Despite a feeling the film may at times be slightly jumpy, there is no disputing that it is consistently effective.

Amour does not venture into the generalities of the care of the elderly, but it does address a number of pertinent issues, including the unspoken pity the world has for this kind of situation, a pity that Haneke himself was probably banking on while making this film.

But there is a complete lack of cheap tricks to tug at our heart strings. Trintignant and Riva bring with them many decades of experience not only in acting but in living; their characters’ gentle interaction, their frustration with the limitations of old age and the steadfast determination to still have a say in their own lives despite the intervention of different kinds of unexpected forces on their lives make them both strong and fragile at the same time. This kind of complexity is what the cinema often lacks, and what Haneke, Trintignant and Riva have brought to the screen with care and commitment.

Only towards the end does Haneke’s evident fear of a straightforward conclusion or an easy explanation strain the experience a little, but it is a very minor flaw in an otherwise first-rate film about perseverance in love and coping with the inevitability of death

Amour is personal, intimate and, together with The White Ribbon, one of Haneke’s least intellectual and most accessible films to date.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.