Friday, September 16, 2005

couple parfait and enfant terrible

Nobuhiro Suwa's beautiful film Un Couple Parfait was shot entirely in French, though the director could not speak a word. His motivation was the desire to work with noted French cinematographer Caroline Champetier and luminous, ubiquitous European actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (who also appears in Francois Ozon's Le Temps Qui Reste).

Un Couple Parfait tells the story of a disintegrating relationship, but one which hangs precariously on the edge of almost broken, and almost salvageable. Brought to Paris by the wedding of friends (they also met at such an event 15 years ago), our couple (the man is played by Bruno Todeschini)come face to face with who they have always been perceived to be - the perfect couple. There are no clear villains here, just the inevitable human cycle of failed expectations. It is a very realistic model of how painfully unpredictable such times are.

Most of the film occurs in a lamplit darkness, symbolizing the sadness in the characters. As contrast, two long sequences take place in the brightly sunlit Rodin Museum in Paris, where the Bruni-Tedeschi character goes during the day to reckon her heart. Two sculptures there, one by Rodin and by Rodin's muse and lover, Camille Claudel, capture her obssessive attention. The long takes of her considering it allow us a chance to see a panorama of subtle emotion play out on her face as she sees her own life in the forms of the sculpture. In a very simple way, Suwa has embodied the beauty inherent in decay, and the eternally repeated cycles of love. Even idealised love can fail. (Rodin eventually allowed Claudel's brother to have her committed as 'insane' and she spent 50 years of her life in institution.)

The film's style is one of statically wide-framed extended shots - and one shot often covers an entire scene. In this way, it is really just 10 or 11 scenes, each covered in one shot, gorgeously framed. In the post-screening Q and A, Suwa explained that much of the film was improvised and so the choice to play out scenes in real time allowed actors room to progress naturally from one emotion to another. The framing also gave room to move within a frame, a freedom that usually marks the single greatest difference for a performer between acting for screen and for stage.

Like Haneke's Cache, the result is one of feeling like an intruder, or an uninvited observer. This is deceptively paradoxical, since when scenes play out in real time, an audience is actually allowed to feel more as well, and they do not rely on anticipating the next emotion or story element. Having a few films like this placed late in the festival, is a welcome balm.

Some of the hoopla that comes out of the Cannes Festival feels like overblown hyperbole when you actually see the film. Palme D'Or winner L'Enfant, by the Dardenne brothers is a great example. The film tells the story of a young man trying to break a cycle of theft and conmanship in order to support the woman he loves and their new baby. Also like Un Couple Parfait, much of the film plays out in real time. A harrowing sequence takes us painfully through the man's attempt to sell his child for money. When the child's mother finds out, she collapses and the man now tries to get the baby back. There is no clear moment of transcendence or realisation or culpability (which would have been nice, only so we could come to care for the character), just a fast need to rescue his relationship. The extent he must go to get the child back is longer and darker than selling the baby and hard to get worked up about since the return of the child to his world hardly solves it's problems! He has a compulsive thief for a father, and an underaged poverty stricken mother. You almost hope he doesn't succeed.

L'Enfant also makes use of the long-held static wide shots, but in this case there is too much action to keep track of to enjoy the kind of emotional investment inherent in Cache or Un Couple Parfait. The film ends on an emotional highpoint, cutting out right in its middle. This choice, after so much detached wide observation feels like a betrayal of the film's style and robs us of one of the few chances to feel. As one disgruntled industry delegate mumbled as he stumbled out of the theatre, "That won the Palme D'or?" The wine must have been freely flowing in that jury room on the Croisette!
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