Monthly Archives: June 2001

Signs & Wonders

Director Jonathan Nossiter and screenwriter James Lasdun, who collaborated on the very promising Sunday (1997), reunite for this ambitious and ambiguous thriller (2000) involving an Americanized businessman in Athens (Stellan Skarsgard) who has twice left his Greek-American wife (Charlotte Rampling at her best) for another woman (Deborah Kara Unger) but still hasn’t given up on their marriage. Shot in digital video as if it were a documentary, the film at separate junctures evokes Nicolas Roeg, Graham Greene, and Richard Lester’s Petulia, even as it takes up multinational corporations, political amnesia, the mixed blessing of American idealism, and some of the monstrous ways love can turn sour. Clearly it bites off more than it can possibly chew, and ultimately it winds up in a pretentious heap. (Some may feel it starts off that way as well.) But Nossiter, an American who grew up in Europe, and Lasdun, an Englishman who currently lives in the U.S., share a sense of cultural displacement that allows them to create something original and provocative. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Fourth Dimension

This essay film about contemporary Japan is the most visually pleasing work to date by writer Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose films often approach foreign cultures through a series of contrasting and layered perspectives. Trinh shot it herself in digital video, an exploration that may account for its distinct look, though her aphoristic narration fails to provide the degree of unity found in most of her films. (Its method recalls her 1991 documentary about China, Shoot for the Contents, more than her earlier African documentaries, Reassemblage and Naked SpacesLiving Is Round.) When she isn’t shooting landscapes from bullet trains and reflecting on what this mode of transport suggests about the country, a good deal of what she shows falls under the category of public spectacle. But like most of her work, this is provocative, intelligent, poetic, and certainly worth a look. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Circle

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Mirror) takes a giant step forward with his third feature (2000), shifting his focus from little girls to grown women and presenting such a scorching look at what they put up with in their daily lives that it’s no surprise the film was banned in his native country. This masterpiece is radical in form as well: it begins one morning in a hospital and ends that evening in a jail cell, the camera revolving 360 degrees in each space, and its narrative passes from one character to the next as in Luis Bu… Read more »

Journeys From Berlin/1971

Yvonne Rainer’s 1980 experimental feature links the experience of a woman undergoing psychoanalysis (played by film theorist Annette Michelson) with German political terrorism, forging an equation of personal and social oppression. This is one of Rainer’s densest and most ambitious films, though for political lucidity, I tend to prefer her features that come afterwardsuch as Privilege, made ten years later (see separate listing). 125 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ecstasy

A gripping, stylish, unpredictable, and provocative thriller from Spain (1995) by Mariano Barroso. Javier Bardem stars as an ambitious petty criminal who insinuates himself into the theater world of Madrid by convincing a celebrated film director that he’s his illegitimate and long-abandoned son, meanwhile planning with his two roommates to rob him blind; with Frederico Lupi and Silvia Munt. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

La Belle Noiseuse

Winner of Cannes’ grand prix in 1991, Jacques Rivette’s absorbing if leering four-hour free adaptation of Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece concerns the work of a painter (Michel Piccoli) with his beautiful and mainly nude model (Emmanuelle Beart), plus the input and pressures of the painter’s wife and former model (Jane Birkin), the model’s boyfriend, and an art dealer who used to be involved with the painter’s wife. The complex forces that produce art are the film’s obsessive focus, and rarely has Rivette’s use of duration to look at process been so spellbinding; hardly a moment is wasted. Rivette’s superb sense of rhythm and mise en scene never falters, and the plot has plenty of twists. With exquisite cinematography by William Lubtchansky, beautiful location work in the south of France (mainly at an 18th-century chateau), and drawings and paintings executed by Bernard Dufour. The title translates roughly as the beautiful nutty woman; it’s also the title of the masterpiece the painter is bent on finishing. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Bread and Roses

Who wants to think about Mexican janitors–illegal aliens, working in the buildings where movie stars do business with their agents, who decide to unionize to end their exploitation? Ken Loach–an unreconciled, unreconstructed Marxist–that’s who. And thanks to this stirring piece of agitprop, I do too. I’ve been hearing a lot of negative things about this picture from colleagues, but it seems like the principal crime Loach can be charged with–and it’s pretty serious–is being politically provocative and melodramatic. For me, that’s what makes Bread and Roses (2000) pretty exciting in spots. Gerald Peary, for instance, says the film “suffers from clumsy acting (mainly Hispanic amateurs), an obvious screenplay by Paul Laverty, and a simplistic view of the characters.” But I was struck by how compelling and believable many of those amateurs are (I especially enjoyed watching a black pro teach the heroine how to vacuum), and by the moral ambivalence and complexity of the heroine (Pilar Padilla). The screenplay is regrettably reluctant to offer certain details–such as management’s viewpoint of the labor dispute’s resolution–and it could have provided a more balanced and analytical view of the labor organizer’s tactics. That the movie aims at the gut bothered me less: that’s what many of the best political dramas do–such as Salt of the Earth, which this frequently brings to mind.… Read more »