Tuesday, 29 July 2014

faces in the crowd [valeria luiselli]

Faces in the Crowd is a sly, engaging short novel. It’s set in at least three timelines, possibly more. In one, the narrator relates how, working for a small NY press, she convinced her editor to publish the poems of obscure Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen. Mainly by deceiving him as to the origin of the translations. In another timeline, the same narrator, writing the book we are reading, offers details of a marriage which appears to be falling apart, in spite of the fact the couple have two young children. In the third timeline, we step into the world of Owen himself, as he hangs out in a New York of speakeasies and deluded foreign poets.

The three timelines snuggle up alongside one another in a neat, poetic fashion. Images flip from one timeline to another (an orange tree in a pot plays an important narrative role in all three strands). The book has a staccato quality, frequently constructed from tiny fragments of life whose potency comes from their juxtaposition with other tiny fragments of another life. There’s a reference to Bolaño at one point, with the narrator’s editor asking her if she knew him. She feigns disinterest, but her novel, with its quest to discover and corporealise a lost Latin poet is eminently Bolañesque, whilst at the same time being all its own thing. Luiselli’s voice rings through, if not loud and clear, then dextrously. This feels like a book which has been woven as much as written, a patchwork quilt which wraps its readers up, sheltering them from their cold, Southern Hemisphere nights. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

the door (w&d istván szabó, w. andrea vészits)

Szabó's film is a curio. It seems to be keeping with Cinemateca's penchant for screening the new films of old masters, preferably with a famous name attached. This may reflect a laudable ethos or it may be slightly cynical. What it does ensure is a succession of strangely off-key offerings which have the faintly tarnished feel of visiting an elderly relation whose best days are clearly behind them. There may be flashes of what once might have been, but on the whole it makes for an unsatisfactory experience, like being offered stale biscuits and weak coffee. 

Szabó's film is constructed around an engaging story, as Hungarian writer, Magda, befriends the curmudgeonly Emerenc, played with full frontal acerbicness by Helen Mirren. Emerenc has secrets. Her waspishness appeals to Magda, and there's the suggestion that it helps the younger woman come to terms with herself, as wife, woman and writer. However, there's no real sense of dramatic tension. The film is set in 60s Budapest but all the characters speak a clearly-dubbed English. The camera work is conservative, straight out of a TV drama. Perhaps most gallingly of all, given the director's former achievements, we don't really get any sense of the world of 60s Budapest. Everything feels so tightly budgeted that it's reduced to relative anonymity. A chamber piece which lacks the intensity required to make a chamber piece feel either relevant or compelling.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

1599 [james shapiro]

Shapiro's text achieves several objectives.

It reveals how the writer's work was shaped by his interaction with society. Thereby revealing a figure fully engaged with the complications, complicities and dangers of his age. A political figure, with a small p. It sets out to demystify the reputation of the writer as a romantic, mysterious figure and to a certain extent succeeds. At the very least it  contextualises him.

It also offers a telling vision of Elizabethan society. Just as in today's Britain, it shows a political body which had few qualms in manipulating its people with scare stories. Apocalypse was always around the corner. The intrigues of power like something out of House of Cards. With Shakespeare participating in the debate through his plays. 

This book, which is not a biography, rather a portrait of an era seen through the lens of four of the writer's plays, is already considered a classic and with good reason. The writer, according to Shapiro's vision, becomes a weather vane or tuning fork, plugged in to the nuances of his society's agenda, an agenda which will always possess its metaphysical or spiritual values, alongside base ambition and earthly glory. 

One finishes the book longing for him to write the sequel, and the sequel that comes after that, and those that would follow. 1066 and all that. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

blue is the warmest colour/ la vie d'adele 1&2 (w&d abdellatif kechiche, w. ghalia lacroix)

Klimt and Schiele

In the party scene, there's a brief, insubstantial discussion of the difference between Klimt and Schiele. Adele, perhaps surprisingly, claims not to know who they are, something that annoys Emma. However, one might say that in this day and age, when the two Austrian artists have been co-opted and cannibalised by a graphic design world, why should you want to know much about them? Fifty years ago, their art might still have retained a transgressive air. Now, it has been absorbed by the mainstream. Which is not to say that someone couldn't come along and liberate them, but Kechiche is not your man for this. Rather, they are located within Emma's banal, bourgeois art world: both the gallery scene she hangs out with and the art itself. It's always a risk portraying "fictional" art in a work of fiction. Because the values of the art represented reflect something or other. In this case the art tells us that Emma is a minor talent making work for what would appear to be a bourgeois market. There's nothing radical about her work and the struggle to define herself she tells Adele about on the park bench (cf Sartre) doesn't appear to have affected her evolution as an artist. One of the clunkiest exchanges happens when Adele is asked her opinion of Emma's art. She mutters some platitudes. It seems as though living with Emma has neither generated any enthusiasm for art nor any discernible capacity to evolve her own opinions. 


The first half of the film has a clear journey and conveys this journey with charm and humour. Adele, still at school, begins to realise she's gay. We follow her journey as she comes to terms with this and begins her affair with the seemingly dangerous, blue-haired Emma. At one point, Emma starts talking to Adele about Sartre. There's a trope throughout the film that Adele doesn't know all that much about anything intellectual. She's Dionysius to Emma's more considered Apollo. (Although her interest in literature at the film's opening seems like a genuine engagement, so much so that the shoe is on the other foot as her would-be lover reads up on Marivaux). Emma tells Adele how reading Sartre helped her to understand who she was as a person, implicitly suggesting that his work assisted her in the process of coming to terms with her sexuality. The exchange is in keeping with much of the film's dialogue: airy conversations which are given space to breathe. There's more than Sartre at play here, but all the same the script succeeds in paying homage to the king of the existentialists whilst developing its narrative at the same time. Later, in the same park, Adele will kiss Emma, initiating the relationship. Adele makes contact with her existentialist soul. For a while she's a kind of stepsister to Sandrine Bonnaire's character in Varda's Vagabonde. Prepared to put everything at stake for the development of that soul. A true Romantic, which is also to say a true conservative, because this is exactly the message young people are repeatedly encouraged to confront now: you have a duty to "find" yourself, to "become" yourself. Do it whilst you are young, before you settle down. Adele accepts the challenge and her life stands on the brink of vast, inspirational change.


Only it doesn't change. Time passes. The two women are living together. They don't know each other's friends or anything much about each other's lives. Adele is Emma's "muse". She cooks and cleans for Emma in Emma's spacious flat. In some ways she's become little more than a drudge. But she doesn't mind. Although Emma does. Unsurprisingly she wants Adele to want more from her life. In short, this is a terrible, flawed relationship, only Adele is young and naive and has no way of knowing. The romantic dream has turned into a mundane bourgeois marking of the days. The jump forward in time takes us almost immediately to the point where the two women break up. We don't see the slow calcification of their relationship. We don't discover how this has affected their sex life. The nitty gritty of the story is not something which interests the filmmaker. Which, given the fact that Blue has made its reputation on the basis of Exarchopoulos's snot and Seydoux's tears might seem like a ridiculous thing to say. But at the end of the day this is the showtime part of the break-up. The fireworks. Which is well enough told, if somewhat deceitful. Because the real pain is elsewhere, hidden, unrevealed. And the real damage caused to Adele is not through the fact she and Emma split up, something they clearly need to do, but through the fact that rather than expanding Adele's horizons, the relationship appears to have curtailed them.


The film opens with a long sequence which discusses Pierre de Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne. Adele's boyfriend also talks about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. As with the discussion of art, there's something almost cheeky about Kechiche's conceit. We know we're in for a three hour movie, which is about as long as cinema can get away with. However, we also know that even the longest movie doesn't offer its creator(s) the space or scope which a novel offers its author to expound on themes and generate a sense of development over time. Kechiche almost seems to be saying: I'm aware of this, but let's give it a bash anyway. Blue is the Warmest Colour could be said to have a lot in common with Madame Bovray, for example. A woman follows her instincts in the face of society's unease, embarking on a journey which ends in tears. The result is constantly fascinating as well as being inevitably flawed. Kechiche's ambition in his storytelling repeatedly comes up against the limitations the medium imposes on the type of story he wants to tell. 

Apollo & Dionysius

In spite of encountering a certain resistance to Kechiche's film, I wouldn't disagree with anyone who suggested it's a terrific piece of filmmaking. You could argue that it's deceitful in its suggestion of being transgressive, when in fact, like Emma's art, it's safe and stoutly bourgeois in its outlook. You could further argue that its use of lesbianism could well be said to be exploitative, not so much for the sex scenes (which reminded me of Andrew Haigh's Weekend) but because the characters' sexuality is presented as being transgressive or dangerous when in fact this is a tale about relatively conservative youth and/or bohemia. The scene in front of the school when Adele is confronted by her schoolmates implies an outsider status for the characters, which the narrative then backs away from. It's a great scene, typical of the way in which Kechiche skilfully inveighs his film with a trenchant naturalism. But having set itself up as an investigation of how an Apollonian world appropriates and subsumes our Dionysian instincts, Blue seems to shy away from the complexity of this set-up, veering towards something more banal, more soapy. 

Bar Room Brawl

No matter the caveats, the chutzpah and flair of Blue, its capacity to capture the fiddly details of life and conversation and turn them into something compelling, is sometimes breathtaking. Kechiche's willingness to let his camera linger, as though it too is part of this relationship, waiting with a lover's anticipation for a secret sign that everything is going to be alright, (either when it will be or when it palpably will not), makes for some of the most vibrant, unconstructed scenes you could come across. His film offers a polished sheen to the guerrilla ethic, appropriating the strengths of low-budget filmmaking (basic set-ups, no stunts, no extravagant camerawork, insistent naturalism) in order to create a film that follows in the footsteps of Zola or Flaubert.