3 Women (1977) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written and Directed by Robert Altman

2006: the year I discovered Robert Altman. It’s not that I was unfamilar with his work – I knew of his high status, and had seen Short Cuts and Gosford Park, considering the former to be greatly impressive. I think I was just too young for any of it to really stick with me, or to motivate me to seek out more. Well, after Nashville, I really wanted more, and decided I might as well start with one I’d read virtually nothing about. 3 Women is an extraordinary film, one that washes over you and stuns you, lingering in the mind long after viewing it, daring you to forget it.

At first it seems more about two women than three: Shelley Duvall’s Millie, a woman so enveloped in her own trendiness that she doesn’t notice that everyone is laughing at her, and Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, so childlike as to appear utterly dependent on Millie’s guidance (at work, at home, and down the pub). Here, it’s extremely tempting to simply discuss the narrative of the film, because it so closely resembles a dream; there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else one can go when discussing it. Indeed, it came to Altman fully-formed in a dream, and that doesn’t surprise given that it progresses exactly as a dream would – strange, bewildering, sometimes completely illogical, but always feeling natural. You know how you only realise how strange that dream was after you wake up? That’s what it’s like after watching this movie.

I’m not going to do that, though. I came to it untainted by any kind of plot summary, so I’m going to avoid that from now on. Like in Nashville, the characters are defined mostly by their flaws. Millie is often painful to watch, walking just behind other pairs, talking constantly but never being listened to. She sincerely believes that all the men desire her, but before she is even up the steps they ridicule her. Pinky is the exact opposite, a blank slate who approaches every aspect of adult life as though it was for the first time. She believes Millie is helping her, educating her well, which is even more painful because her mentor couldn’t be more misguided. The third woman of the title, pregnant Willie, is usually seen painting disturbing, pained figures on the pool walls and floor. She seems alienated, or alien, out of step with her surroundings. We don’t follow her the way we follow Millie and Pinky, but we often feel her presence in the background, watching over proceedings like a… something.

The music is the first clue. To begin with, it doesn’t seem to fit at all, but it steadily becomes more and more appropriate until it goes perfectly with the images and tone. And it’s not just a case of becoming used to it – the film actually changes into something different, a clear but not incongruous shift. Just like a dream. Then there’s the impeccable film technique, timing every shot just right, and in a few notable cases surprising us with anomalies such as double reflections and a wavy fluid that sometimes partially obscures the image. It’s very strange, and dreamlike. You get it, I’m sure.

Again, Altman captures the potential of the form without resorting to lazy hoodwinks or clichés. The notions that could lead to disappointment are there, but they are executed perfectly. You don’t necessarily understand it – and quite likely, you shouldn’t – but it doesn’t feel wrong, or a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Mulholland Dr., but I kind of feel like Lynch pulled the wool over our eyes. Nothing wrong with that per se, but with Altman there are no smoke and mirrors, and no pretensions. He shows us some stuff, and leaves the rest up to us. A genius and a giant of cinema.

Look Both Ways (2005) (C)

IMDb / Bond / Keller & Urban
Written and Directed by Sarah Watt

As I walked out into the street after seeing Look Both Ways, an overwhelming surge of reality hit me. I saw people walking fast, slow, with their heads down or looking straight ahead, engrossed in their lives so that they didn’t stop to consider other passers-by. I was struck by the banality of it all, the simplicity, when taken at face value. Needless to say, Look Both Ways replaces this seemingly dull real world with a cast of erratic characters and a series of contrivances, viewing this universe with a wide but limiting focus that puts to bed any chance of the story (or stories) having any lasting impact. Shame, really, because it started out with so much promise.

For a film that bundles in no less than 8 meaningful characters, Look Both Ways, at around 100 minutes in length, is about 45 minutes too short. I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: if you want to engage the audience, limit yourself to getting a few things right rather than trying to wow them with many things. This is Watt’s first feature, and I say she was too ambitious in her writing – shear it back, cut some characters, lose some scenes, make others longer, then you’ve got a good movie. As it is, most of the actors are at least once asked to step outside the confines of the character they’ve built in order to offer some kind of revelation, and this just doesn’t ring true. The story isn’t allowed to grow by itself; instead, Watt tries to force a grand conclusion, which ends up doing none of her characters justice.

While her abrupt changes in tone and lines out of place stick with me, so does her interesting directorial style. Most of the film is framed simply and effectively, but there are brief interludes using different media – hand-drawn animation and still photography – that offer insightful breaks in the narrative. They don’t always work in the context of the scene, and some of the epileptic flashing of images on the screen did my head in, but they are innovative techniques that deserve praise. Just tone them down a bit. Her use of music and non-incidental sound, though… well, to put it bluntly, it was derivative and didn’t fit. In most cases, the film would have played better over silence.

The acting is fine, with particularly good performances from the ever-excellent William McInnes and the heretofore unseen Justine Clarke in what one would call the central roles of Nick and Meryl. Of all the characters, they are the most involving – not surprising given that far more screen time is devoted to them than anyone else, but the quality of acting really shines through, particularly when they don’t have anything to say.

This has been billed as an Australian Magnolia or Crash, but I would veer from that and say it has more in common with Zach Braff’s Garden State. Both films, by first time directors, appear to be slight and whimsical but end up aiming for something loftier and more lasting, which remains just out of reach. It isn’t escapist cinema, but it’s miles from verité; while there is potential – big questions are asked about the fundamental element of humanity: mortality – it isn’t followed through, as attempts to answer such questions will inevitably fall on their face. I will be interested to see what Watt comes up with next, though. She’s confident, which can only be a good thing in a filmmaker. A better balance, and she might be onto something.

The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005) (H)

Original title: ‘De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté’
IMDb / Ebert
Based on ‘Fingers’ by James Toback
Written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista
Directed by Jacques Audiard

When James Toback wrote and directed Fingers in 1978 with Harvey Keitel in the lead role, he probably didn’t expect that two and a half decades on it would be reworked by a French writer/director named Jacques Audiard. Those of you who are familiar with his earlier Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) already know what a good director he is; with De battre… he has shown himself to be one of the most exciting and confident filmmakers working today.

This is subjective filmmaking of a very high order. Immediately we are thrust into the world of Tom (Romain Duris), a small-time real estate crook who used to be a decent pianist. Everything that happens in the film, we see from his point of view – he’s in virtually every scene – so the film achieves a real sense of getting inside someone’s head. The plot turns on Tom’s decision to try and get back into playing the piano, with a view to getting out of derelict buildings and onto the stage. Whether he gets there or not depends on how well he can rein in his nerves, his constantly racing brain, and finally find calmness at the piano.

However, just as in La pianiste, piano-playing is shown not to be a pleasant creative outlet but a source of disappointment and infuriation. The scenes of him evicting tenants with rats and baseball bats have a similar nervous energy to those of him practising with his Chinese mentor (who provides some of the film’s best moments). He is always moving – his fingers, his feet, his eyes – he never stops for a moment to just relax. Duris’ tension-filled performance is instantly intriguing, and despite maybe a couple of slightly forced moments, he’s bang-on perfect, a mixture of good Ewan McGregor and (dare I say it) the incomparable Vincent Cassel. As well as the Chinese girl, the supporting characters include his real estate associates, their spouses, his dad, and a shady Russian man. They’re all mixed up in each other’s business some way or another, and they collide in different – some very powerful – ways.

Audiard’s direction is characteristically excellent. While this is not quite as complete a film as Sur mes lèvres, it enveloped me immediately and keep me solidly transfixed for its duration. Like Pawlikowski and Herzog, he has an uncanny sense of timing each scene perfectly so that it isn’t too short or long – each time we cut to a new scene, it feels like a perfectly natural progression, even if there may still have been more to say. The camerawork, almost entirely hand-held, fits the story well; he shoots in a freeform style with useful shifts in focus that is almost invisible. That is, you are never distracted by the nature of the images, but enthralled by what is contained within them.

I’d also like to make a special mention for the music. The best soundtrack I’ve heard in ages, this film mixes classical with French pop and house to extremely good effect. Scenes of Tom listening on the car stereo and Tom listening through headphones are interspersed among the scenes of him slaving away at the piano seemed to fit so very well. I can’t say why, it’s a metaphor for something maybe, or maybe it’s just a great way of showing how he’s in touch with the past and the present but slightly unhinged at the same time.

De battre… ends with an epilogue set two years after the main action that is alarming and brutal. At first it felt a bit sudden, maybe even out of place, but on reflection I think it fits perfectly and even sums up the film. We change, but we stay the same. Things grow in us, and are replaced by new things, but they don’t die out; they lie dormant, waiting for an opportunity to be brought to the surface. This is laid out in explicit detail in the epilogue, and we are left shocked and, in the case of this viewer, completely satisfied. This is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

Hi, Mom! (1969) (R)

IMDb / Emerson
Written and Directed by Brian De Palma

Beginning with a point-of-view shot of the protagonist’s perspective and ending with that same protagonist waving directly into the camera, Hi, Mom! is a film that states a clear desire to involve and manipulate the audience. It wants to make you complicit in its senseless violence, its comedy, its voyeurism. It wants you to be aware that as you watch and judge, you are also being judged. A film like this wouldn’t even get made today in America, but if it were, it would be just as incendiary as I’m sure it was back at the beginning of the 70s.

Practically formless, Hi, Mom! is composed more of a string of related scenes rather than a straightforward narrative. There’s Jon Rubin, just back from Vietnam, who wants to film the people in the housing project across the road from him and sell the footage to discerning buyers. And in the windows of that housing project, we have: the family of four whose mother remarks that their housing project is much nicer than the others down the street (it’s exactly the same); the playboy who forcefully beds a different woman each night; the cute girl who Jon attempts to seduce; and the young actor staging a play called ‘Be Black, Baby!’ with some African-American friends, and the audience for that play. Through all of these characters, these ciphers who do not remotely represent real individuals but instead stand for collective groups of society, De Palma turns his gaze on the American public and says ‘Something ain’t right’. And he does it with a wink and a smile, daring you to distance yourself from it.

As I said, it’s a string of related scenes with not much tying them together narrative-wise; still, many of these scenes are excellent. The absurdly optmistic footage shot by the well-to-do family makes light of a situation most would be disappointed with; little is more depressing than someone trying to say they’re happy with their lot when really, they’re not. Jon’s routines with the cute girl are extremely manipulative, but I found myself laughing along with them because Jon was intended to be a source of amusement – wasn’t he?

Then there’s the performance of ‘Be Black, Baby!’, for which the film’s upbeat soundtrack stops and we descend into hell for several harrowing minutes. It’s the moment in the film where you realise how twisted it’s been all along, how you are just as involved in it as these audience members are in the play. It’s truly horrifying to watch, creating an incredible sense of dread that eventually does spill over into our deepest revulsions. And suddenly, Jon appears to play his part, and we’re back where we were – aware once again that it is just a film, just a performance, as if his presence on screen reassures us. The audience’s eager recommendation of the play at its end is, I suppose, akin to my little ‘R’ at the top of the post there – I felt angry and confused, but I’m damned if I didn’t enjoy it just a bit, or feel like I learned something.

After that, Jon loses it and… well, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but his actions are outrageously senseless, and they are coupled with that same upbeat music that keeps telling you everything’s going to be all right. A character called Joe King (say it out loud, fast) succinctly sums up the film’s agenda, but is listed in the credits as a real person. Then Jon interrupts to register his disgust because, among other things, Mr. King hasn’t been to war and seen what he’s seen. Finally, he says hello to his mother, and smiles and waves directly at us.

What to take from all this? Is he reminding us one last time that it’s all just a performance and we can go home and recommend it to our friends and family? Or is he saying that it is us, the audience, that spawned him and brought him to commit such heinous acts? This is the earliest film I’ve seen that really manipulates the audience and incorporates them into its agenda, and it does it very effectively; in a way, its lack of structure helps its impact. You won’t be able to sit through it and not have a reaction. Just quietly, this is a film that came out of nowhere, almost completely unheralded, and pretty well stunned me.