Saturday, April 30, 2016

#578: The Mother and the Whore

Directed by: JEAN EUSTACHE
1973, TSPDT Rank #114

This is probably one of the more elusive films on the 1,000 Greatest Films, so when presented with the opportunity to catch a one-time screening of a 35mm print, I snatched up the chance. I was prepared for a long, dialogue-heavy French film about sex, relationships, love triangles, and pseudo-intellectualism, but what I was not prepared for was how truly unsettling and draining the film would be. The film's protagonist, Alexandre, is a pretentious and hypocritical young bohemian who is the embodiment of the emptiness that he sees in the society that surrounds him. He talks endlessly, but has nothing to say. He attempts to maintain simultaneous relationships with two different women - taking advantage of them physically, emotionally, and financially - while offering nothing but misery to either of them. In fact, Alexandre is such an extreme type of character that viewers of the film could be separated into distinct two categories: those who identify with him and those who find him absolutely contemptible. Most viewers, myself included, would probably fall into the latter category, but it's easy to see how those who identify with Alexandre could come away with a completely different interpretation of the film - seeing Alexandre as a hapless victim instead of as a destructive parasite framed as a criticism of a larger social disease. Still, regardless of your perspective, this film - which was Jean Eustache's debut feature, amazingly enough - is designed to take Alexandre's self-inflicted predicament to its limits, showing both the causes and effects of the damage which he sets in motion with a startling emotional honesty that takes a while to sink in, but is hard to shake once it does.

As with many films which go beyond the three-hour mark despite having a relatively small-scale narrative, the length of the film is a key component of the experience, and I'm sure that watching the film in one sitting makes for a much different experience than watching it in two or three (as most people watching at home seem to do). The first couple hours of the film are relatively light, with an unnamed friend of Alexandre's (who is even more aimless and ridiculous than Alexandre is) coming in at regular intervals for comic relief, as Alexandre's relentless self-absorption and movement between love interests continue on seemingly without consequence. Around the two-hour mark, however, the tone begins to shift very noticeably, as does the nature of the viewing experience. The friction between the three main characters continues to increase, as does the number of long, tortured monologues and lurching transitions from scenes of stifling boredom to frenzied emotional outbursts. Eustache takes each scene all the way to its breaking point before fading to black and immediately launching into the next one. This repetitive raising and lowering of tension, along with the increasingly brutal honesty of the subject matter, becomes almost unbearable as the final hour of the film progresses and the tension continues to rise, eventually culminating in an intense final scene which serves as a frightening mirror image of the opening sequence.

Eustache's technique is merciless but effective, which, along with his use of grainy, documentary-style cinematography, has earned him much-deserved comparisons to John Cassavetes from critics such as Pauline Kael. However, while it's often a less than pleasant viewing experience, The Mother and the Whore is certainly in a class of its own - a singular work which is often as interesting as it is grating, exposing the emptiness and self-destructiveness of its unsavory protagonists in stark, uncompromising detail. It's a film that's worth seeing at least once if the chance arises, if only for those of a certain temperament.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

#577: Late Spring

Directed by: YASUJIRO OZU
1949, TSPDT Rank #65

This film struck me as being relatively light and humorous compared to other family dramas from the latter half of Ozu's career - although I admit that I am not even close to having seen all of them. The story involves a daughter's unwillingness to leave her widowed father in order to get married - a simple plot which Ozu presented numerous variations on over the course of his career. However, Ozu's distinctive low-angle visual style is as humbling and intimate here as it ever was, with some of his best visual poetry also on display - especially in exterior scenes which place the titular season in the foreground. Ozu named many of his films after seasons, and he never assigned his titles arbitrarily. In this case, "late spring" refers to the daughter's state of full bloom, being in her late 20s and almost past the prime marrying age - a point which, from the perspective of the film's characters, makes her marriage a matter of utmost importance. Much of the film assumes a semi-comic tone which keeps it from feeling emotionally overwrought, but the climactic scene between father and daughter, soon before the daughter's impending marriage, must rank among the most powerful moments in Ozu's filmography. It may not pack the same overall emotional punch as Tokyo Story, but nevertheless, Late Spring still displays Ozu's meditative and sensitive approach in full force - making for a feeling of intimacy which few other filmmakers have ever been able to achieve.