Monday, September 12, 2011

elles sont belles

Midway in the festival. How is that already possible? And yet I know this much time has passed because I cannot believe how much I miss my puppy hana. Teaching, participating in a class on film and faith and other work will prevent me from getting home to see her til the weekend. I try not to think about it. But I swear there are dogs in every film I've seen.

It is getting to the point where I am willing to see anything at the Lightbox, because it means not being at the Scotiabank. I can't abide it there any more and Sunday it was plagued by technical problems. The staff there are very nice but it is just not the right venue for Industry screenings. There is nothing about the space (despite their best efforts) to make it comfortable, accessible or appropriate for meetings, for conversation, or for even just hearing yourself. On Sunday, a long delay in the start for The Last Winter meant I got to enjoy conversations with interesting people, mostly programmers for other festivals. By the fourth day, we cut right to what we like and don't like, what we're still thinking about - what we now won't bother with seeing because of what we've heard. Despite the differences in taste and personal experience, there seems to be a common thread of understanding and witness - movies we know are good because we've heard that and enough people have said so are confirmed when one of us says "it's really good". Of course not everyone is on that vibe. Late on Saturday I had a frightening conversation with a sales rep in the women's room, whose personal assessment of Elles included adjectives and adverbs that made me wonder if I wasn't in the men's room of a race track.

And she was wrong about Elles. I have been thinking much about it and the two younger actresses who turn in fine performances have since crossed my path in other films. Malgoska Szumowska doesn't just turn her camera on the women in question, she invests in them. It is hard to describe this kind of loving intimacy in direction while retaining a clear, unromanticized view of the subject: women university students who sell their body, happily, to support their education. To say it is unromanticized is right, but Elles does walk the line between truth and a hazy self-imposed illusion carefully. The magazine writer played by Juliette Binoche doesn't quite know what to make of it: her questions are gentle and probing, unremitting and hard sometimes, but also gracious. They like her, sometimes a lot, and they unlock in her a reserve that we sense has built up through many years in a good but routine marriage. The more she gets to know them, the more her own caring is delicately evolved - so that her inquiries become gently laced with genuine wonder. It is a performance only she could pull off, and I say this aware of being the unabashed fan I am. Binoche isn't always well cast - and what I have come to understand is that the measure of her performance is a direct reflection of the quality of direction. Anthony Minghella once said that she needs to be given the truest elements, the truest environment and then she is the very best at what she does. I watch Binoche's face, her body, her choices, and I know immediately the quality of the director she is working with. I hesitate to say this because it sounds as if I am saying her performances require a director to be good. Not in the sense it may seem. She can always be very good. But her finer performances require a director who has conveyed the truth of the film to her and then she soars.

Szumowska seems to be that kind of director. (She is pictured above with Binoche on set of Elles.) Binoche is best in the early part of the film, as she wades through her own memory of the interviews (in which intimacies may have occurred that we never fully have confirmed) while juggling the demands of a husband and two boys. The family life is good and average in its conflicts and challenges. Everybody is trying here: no one's a cad. But she has happened into something that is unhinging her just a little. Even turning up the classical radio (exquisitely used in this film), the music seems to call out of her face a million thoughts and unexpressed feelings which we will see hinted at later in a smile, a laugh and a look of appreciation with one of the girls. Her playfulness is not just that, but joy, an unleashing of the heart. She is drawn to one of her subjects without much awareness of it, though in the rest of her Paris life we seem to be living out the natural consequences of her memory of it. In the specific moment where she may have crossed the line, Szumowska turns her camera deeply out of focus and hangs us there, with our subjects in the deep background, leaving us completely uncertain what has transpired. This is not Chloe, not a film about occasional dalliances. It works like lace and we stand in the small holes observing the world being woven around us.

Much later in the film, when Anne begins to break down, Binoche's performance falls a bit afoul of a screenplay that makes one or two small choices that don't work well. I said small, and they are small. The problem is that when you have an actress who is giving you truth in that kind of rarefied way, a bad choice reads larger than it normally would. The truth cracks a little and the character eventually behaves in ways that for me betrayed the delicacy of what we had seen.

Nonetheless, Elles survives in tact and is quietly breathtaking. Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig (who also appears in Woman in the Fifth and is quite possibly the film discovery of the year) give gorgeous performances as the two women Anne is most focussed on. Coming from very different worlds, their choices are the same, for much the same reasons. They live out the sensuous and the sexual with ease and comfort, conveying their enjoyment of having control of their lives which is the reason they have given Anne as to why they do it. But here is where Szumowska shows her deep instinct for craft. Having accepted the world of these women, we are set up to be surprised by it.

The sexuality in this film is quite unusual and will make many uncomfortable - not because it is too much or too little, too graphic or too frank, but because it just is what it is - all of the above and also believably compelling. It makes clear why someone would choose the work, and also why someone might become hooked on obtaining pleasure that way. Although the women remain largely unharmed, there is always an element of danger there. The one moment when we see it realized is like a shattering of glass. Control vanishes and perhaps was never completely there in the first place. The world changes suddenly, is awful and harrowing for moments, and then changes back again (which is how most trauma occurs perhaps). In a similar way, but not in any way related to this event, Anne tries to break or shatter her own routine and we saw that coming. This shattering is not about real danger though - and Szumowska is careful to show us the difference between the safe bourgeois world of Anne and the more hazy realities of the young women she has interviewed. The movie makes clear that the structure of her life can handle a brief shattering moment. The women she writes about may or may not be so lucky.


Catherine said...

Wow! So beautifully written about a must see film. Thank you!

Moze said...

I'd like to second that comment. Sherry is one of the best undiscovered writers on film in this city. She puts those poseurs at the major daily newspapers to shame. Let's just say she is the hidden bottle of Malbec in a crate filled with with Baby Duck.

Sherry Coman said...

I just saw these lovely comments now! Thank you both so much.