Review: L’Avenir (2016)


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L’Avenir (Things to Come) tells the story of the philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), who has grown to be an intellectual mediocrity. The times that she identified as a communist are over, and today she is dispassionately living her ordinary life; teaching, raising her kids, having a divorce and caring for her sick mother. After her mother dies and her husband leaves her, Nathalie must get used to her newfound freedom. 


Rating


The film looks great, Isabelle Huppert is a great casting choice and the development of the story is good – it might even have been a joy to watch, if it wasn’t for the fact that L’Avenir never transcends its rather uninteresting story and never decides to show something out of the ordinary. It tries to mask its everyday reality with philosophical quotes, allusions to Rousseau and Levinas (etc.) and talk about marxism and idealism, but these themes never quite catch on. What remains is a film about an middle-aged woman trying to find her way, and not much more.

 

 

L’Avenir takes place in Paris, an immaculate Paris that is, for we exclusively meet high-class snobbish philosophy students and teachers. The film doesn’t criticize this setting at all, it even wears it with pride, showing a world in which some philosophy students start an anarchist collective somewhere in the mountains (and survive just by writing academic papers) and practically no-one ever gets bored of obsolete philosophers. In this barely mildly interesting context of rich philosophers, L’Avenir makes a vain attempt to festoon everyday life in the western world with badly aimed excerpts from philosophical works.

Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film features a popular device in arthouse: realism. Often this stylistic choice is what makes this type of independent cinema so powerful; there is a certain probable intimacy between film and audience, the lack of dialogue creates suspense, the assumed possibility of the scenario allows identification. However, the realism in L’Avenir doesn’t quite hit the spot, not because its use is wrong, but because the narrative may simply not be interesting enough for the device. This approximation of reality in L’Avenir only concludes that what we see is everyday life, which doesn’t come across as profound as is being feigned by the film.

However, L’Avenir is not horrible. As I’ve said before, the cinematography is, though predictable, very watchable and the performances of the actors are to be applauded. The film has been given a lot of praise this year, mainly for Huppert’s appearance, and director Mia Hansen-Løve received the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival – it must be said, there are some things to like in L’Avenir, but it never manages to reach something deviant. L’Avenir is not necessarily a bad film, it’s just a film, and perhaps this mediocrity is worse than being grotesque.

 

Even more

The Guardian: “Huppert delivers a note-perfect warm and wry performance as a philosophy teacher whose life is defined by ideas rather than circumstance, a woman of substance – intellectual, emotional, financial – who faces unexpected constraints and freedoms when the assumed certainties of her domestic life unravel.”

Telegraph: “As a portrait of existential crisis, it might all register as po-faced, if it weren’t for the moments of human comedy Hansen-Løve strews across Nathalie’s newly uncertain path.”

Variety: “At once disarmingly simple in form and riddled with rivulets of complex feeling, this story of a middle-aged Parisienne philosophy professor rethinking an already much-examined life in the wake of unforeseen divorce emulates the best academics in making outwardly familiar ideas feel newly alive and immediate […].”


The Revenant (2015): Observers of Solitude


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There we were, our buttocks clenched in astonishment and horror from the past two and a half hours, knowing The Revenant was going to end soon. Then something strange happened. Breathing heavily, the main character Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is looking straight at the camera, straight at us, just for a short moment, before the ending credits set in and his disembodied breathing continues for a while. We are left wondering what happened. What did Glass’s facial expression say? (Spoilers ahead)


There has been a lot of speculation and discussion regarding the consequences of The Revenant‘s last shot, up to the point that it virtually has become an equal of Inception‘s spinning top. The most logical explanation I’ve found was provided by Screenprism‘s Jeff Saporito, who, in a short article on the subject, argues that Glass “accepts his mortality, yet he will not invite his death”, which he cleverly backs up with quotes from the film. However, the continuation of the story shouldn’t be regarded as important as it is by many viewers. Most of The Revenant‘s story is quite finished: it’s not that relevant whether Glass dies or not, because he got his revenge and simultaneously learned some valuable lesson. Last scenes like those of The Revenant or Inception trick us into thinking that it might be important to know what happens to Leonardo DiCaprio, by leaving something unfinished. We can’t handle not knowing how it’s going to end, but there are as many possible endings as there are interpretations of the story and so, basically, there is no answer to the question the film’s ending poses.

 

 

Far more interesting than the narrative effect is the cinematic effect of this notorious last shot. In the very same article Screenprism‘s Jeff Saporito aims to invalidate a widespread interpretation of Hugh Glass breaking the fourth wall:

“Breaking the fourth wall involves a character acknowledging the presence of the audience, drawing attention to the reality that they are players in a cinematic environment. Glass does no such thing — his look does not imply awareness that we are watching in a movie theater.” (Link)

Saporito proceeds by claiming that Glass doesn’t see the camera, but something greater than himself, “life itself or a higher being”. According to him, DiCaprio doesn’t look at the audience, but the audience looks into “the soul of Hugh Glass”.

I’d like to argue that breaking the fourth wall is very much what director Iñárritu is allowing to happen in the last seconds of The Revenant. With looking into the camera, no matter what his facial expression might imply, Hugh Glass acknowledges the very presence of the camera and thus breaks the fourth wall in reflecting on the artificiality of the film. There is no more direct way in movies to reflect on the medium than have a character look into the camera. Furthermore, this last shot might be the most obvious, but is not the only instance in which the camera suddenly plays an important role in a scene. We see Glass breathing into the camera more than once and Iñárritu allows the lens to be covered with condensate. When the protagonist is carried by the violent waters of the river, the camera – another camera than the one used in the rest of the film – has as much a hard time not drowning as Glass. Even the movement of the camera in some of The Revenant‘s scenes, especially in one of the first scenes in which the men of the fur trading expedition are attacked by an Arikara party, is so unnatural for the audience that we cannot ignore the fact that the use of the camera is very much emphasized. The following excerpt shows the presence of the film’s technicality perfectly.

 

Unfortunately, the selected fragment has been removed from YouTube

 

The camera seems to be a person in itself, walking at the same pace and in the same lines as the characters in the scene, looking at essential events, as if turning its head, all in one shot. The movements of the eye through which the audience perceives the event places the spectator in the middle of the fight – no 3D or IMAX required – and implies the existence of the person controlling that eye. Clearly most of The Revenant is shot with a wide-angle objective, and with the movements the camera makes in this particular scene, the wide-angle distorts the surroundings in an unnatural way. This creates a strange tension between pulling the audience into the film with person-like movements of the camera and alienate the audience from the film through the use of unusual angles.

All in all these effects of the camera are symptoms of a discreet kind of metafiction. The question is: what role does this reflection on itself play in The Revenant? The camera’s oddities, especially when Hugh Glass roams the wilderness in isolation, pose the protagonist’s solitude as rather ambiguous, because with the camera clearly present in his struggle, his confinement becomes strangely simulated. The camera is a merciless bystander, only observing Glass’s painful endeavor and never interfering, which displays the central odyssey as far more disturbing, damaging and unsettling.

Amidst The Revenant‘s beautiful cinematography, amazing acting and brilliant storyline, is the ominous, haunting observer – not only the camera, but the audience as well. We watch as Glass takes on his crippling journey, and we are unable to help. When Glass, in the last seconds of this amazing film, looks back at the camera, it’s as if he finally fights back, confronting us with our disturbing role as spectator.


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Review: P’tit Quinquin (2014)


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Rating
rating-5


Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It denounces anything that is in line with your expectations and still has the ability to satisfy like no other. P’tit Quinquin disguises itself as a proper narrative, but simultaneously bravely fights its medium. Well, I say ‘fights’, but rather: it attacks, because narrative hardly seems to fight back.

P’tit Quinquin is a miniseries, which is another way of saying that it is a film that will test your patience and butt muscles. The miniseries lasts 206 minutes, and, honestly, nothing really happens.

Its story revolves around a small French coastal town, where small bits of human corpses are found in dead cows. Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) are the detectives that are put on the case, and the two do an extraordinary job of failing horribly. Van der Weyden, with a tic that is noticeable every second of his appearances in the movie, strolls around the town, briefly questioning its mostly rather strange inhabitants, often in a manner for which Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks was most likely the inspiration. Carpentier, his humble sidekick, follows him around while voicing pseudo-philosophical claims about the nature of evil, often borrowed from the French writer Zola (although I could never finish Nana and must trust Carpentier on this). Furthermore, Carpentier has a passion for driving their car rather recklessly, and his dream is to get it on two wheels.

Apart from these two detectives, both quite unfit for the job they’re doing, one more character takes a large role in this grand anti-narrative: little Quinquin himself. Quinquin is a young farmer’s boy, who, accompanied by his two friends and his self-proclaimed amour, follows the strange events in town and faces the town’s mysteries and ethnic minorities.

 

 

P’tit Quinquin is a challenge to watch, not only because of its length and lack of significant events, but also because some themes that sometimes reach the story’s surface are quite painful. The film gives its audience hints of necrophilia and bestiality, and explicitly shows heavy racism. But P’tit Quinquin shows these controversial themes so easily and renders them so empty, that the entire film seems indifferent about the atrocities it brings to light. P’tit Quinquin takes on a lumpen attitude, and it finally dwindles into an atmosphere of frightening nihilism, settled onto a layer of simple comedy of everyday life.

Yes, it’s all pretty awful, but simultaneously P’tit Quinquin is very entertaining, very humorous and very refreshing. In the end, its nihilism transforms into comedic scepticism, and from the start the miniseries warns its viewers through absurdity and ridiculousness to not rely on anything the film claims. P’tit Quinquin holds no beliefs and no morals, it revolves around nothing. so any horrifying themes it exhibits present nothing in themselves. The absence of meaning is actually what makes the film hilarious. The balance between disgusting and laughable content is perfect, and the 206 minutes are all entertaining and enthralling.

The absurdity of P’tit Quinquin is only increased by the unnatural acting of the entire cast. Bruno Dumont is known to recruit inexperienced actors for his films, and in P’tit Quinquin this becomes as obvious as can be as some actors stare dispassionately to the horizon when reading their lines. As Dumont claims in an interview with The Guardian: “[…] I like putting very ordinary people in the spotlight. Walk down any street, you’ll see plenty of people who are pretty singular looking”. The cast, indeed, often resembles ordinary people, and most of us, though in shame, even laugh at the guise of some of these actors. However, Dumont’s style demands the use of non-professionals; it fits perfectly.

P’tit Quinquin is a pile of tasty, absurd and hilarious scenes and its unconventional presentation is as refreshing as it is weird, and it is very weird. It’s one of the best ways to spend your spare three and a half hours.

 

Even more

366 Weird Movies: “Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete”.

Roger Ebert: “Pruvost looks like Albert Einstein and has a facial tic that causes his face to move involuntarily in very noticable ways, meaning he delivers something like four reactions for every stimuli and sometimes more”.

The Hollywood Reporter: “[…] by contrasting what the investigators are trying to uncover with the youthful adventures of the children, Dumont seems to suggest that the world of adults, despite appearances, is so rotten that it can only be stomached and perhaps even saved by two things: laughter of the tragicomic kind and a child-like innocence that somehow needs to be maintained into adulthood”.


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