Movie Review: “Stories We Tell” (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012)

This is not an easy film to figure out. In theory, it’s a documentary about actress/director/generally-awesome-person Sarah Polley’s journey to discovering that her birth was in fact the result of an affair between her mother and a film producer whom Sarah had never known. However, Polley hired actors to make “home movies” of past events in order to reconstruct the story, which is not exactly the way documentaries are typically made and in fact is somewhat antithetical to the basic concept of a documentary.

Within the film, Polley herself discusses the fact that she’s filming a “project” about her discovery and using it to show how people tell stories and warp their memories to their own purposes. She openly says that she isn’t sure whether the project is for herself or the family or an audience. But if that’s what she’s doing, including discussions about that being the point and “recreating” the past with enacted scenes works against the idea that she’s showing how reality and memory are not the same doesn’t really make sense.

So what is it?

In the end, after discussing what she’s trying to do, she ends up revealing the truth while everyone else discusses the ideas of truth, storytelling, and memory: it’s simply a woman trying to connect with a mother she lost before she was old enough to know her by reconstructing her out of the memories of others and what tangible evidence she can find. In that way, it is a very personal project and one whose ability to affect an audience should, by all rights, be limited.

Instead, it is one of the most moving, affecting, fascinating pieces of filmmaking a person can see, and I hardly even know how to say what makes it so special.

There are moments, like watching characters riding a bus in shots that essentially match those beautiful shots of Sarah herself in The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, Canada 1997) and the shots of her reactions to her father reading his own written account of this entire situation, that are effective because of the restraint that they show and the way they pretend not to manipulate the audience at all.

There are other moments like some of the descriptions of Joanna Polley’s desires for a film career and deep-seated independence that hold resonance simply because we, as an audience, already know her daughter and can see how she came out of this background.

So many moments in the film work so well for so many different reasons that it’s tempting to think that the film is actually a camel, built out of disparate parts thrown against a wall and only somewhat fitting together. However, it most definitely is not. Everything in the film is carefully chosen to deepen its picture of Joanna Polley while we accompany her daughter on this journey of discovery. Even the sequence of discussion about this “project” being a rumination on storytelling and memory is really there to say, “I don’t have the memories to tell the story of my mother. The best I can do is construct her out of others’ memories and story.” Polley’s focus on her point is admirable and the fact that she could stay so focused in such an unusual film highlights just how silly it is how so many filmmakers cannot do it in fictional narratives over which they have complete control.

Ultimately, Stories We Tell is a difficult phenomenon to explain. It’s a brilliant and deeply affecting film, but it is so unlike anything else that you will ever see that it’s difficult to explain its greatness. It won’t be winning the major awards that it should win because of its singularity, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I have rarely been happier to have seen a film than I was with this one.

Movie Review: “Amour” (Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria 2012)

Amour won the National Society of Film Critics Best Picture award and seemingly every foreign-language film award there was for 2012. While Michael Haneke’s last film, Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (Germany/Austria/France/Italy 2009) was a pretentious, lackluster effort, his Cache (France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005) was a truly excellent film. As a result, I went into Amour expecting the best film of the year. Sure, 2012 was not a phenomenal year—I still see Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012), an excellent film that would not rank in the top 20 of the last decade, as the clear best film of the year—but it still had a number of strong films, and I was expecting that Amour could be the masterpiece that the year was sorely missing.

I think Haneke came up a bit short, but he did provide quite a good film that was simply missing some special piece of originality to put it over the top.

Amour is about the inherent selfishness of love, a point which it makes through the tale of an elderly married couple dealing with the wife’s strokes and subsequent illness by retreating into a wretched, disgusting existence that they hide from the outside world until eventually the husband commits an ultimate act of both love and selfishness. It’s a powerful, evocative plot and well-constructed as a narrative, and it makes the point quite clearly. Haneke is a bit too interested in telling his story and allows some meanderings away from his point, but he stays focused well enough that it’s not a major problem.

We watch Anne deteriorate and Georges respond by trying to take care of her but as a result retreating from the rest of the world, as much because of his own desires as because of hers. She becomes physically and psychologically destroyed, left bedridden and delirious and with no will to live. George is willing to accede to her wishes that she not go to the hospital and play the music she wants, but he cannot accept her desire to die and selfishly keeps her alive until he cannot stand it any longer and then smothers her as she fights against him what little she can. It’s a painful story, and Haneke does not hide just how horrendous her deterioration is or how much Georges is affected by it, highlighted by a painful scene as Georges uses his wife’s unwillingness to return to the hospital to try to force her to eat when she is refusing in order to hasten her own demise. It’s a tragic and pained love story, the type of love story Hollywood is generally not interested in telling.

Visually, Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji provide a film that is rather basic in its style but still effective in what it seeks to do. The couple’s apartment is a bare space with simple dark woods, white walls, and clean, high-key lighting. They don’t play around with any high contrasts or particularly interesting color choices, keeping the backdrop antiseptic in a way that accentuates the emotional power of what is going on between the couple but also does not draw attention to itself. It’s not the most interesting or even the most effective of techniques, but it works well enough that the film can hold up. The problem is that Haneke and Khondji just don’t do anything that makes the film stand out visually, through movement, color, or anything else. It’s oddly dull in that way even though the basic techniques enhance the emotional tone of the film.

As far as the acting, we have a tale of two leads. Emmanuelle Riva is truly riveting as Anne, the wife of our lead couple. As she declines, she loses her ability to express herself clearly, and yet Riva’s performance makes her feelings and situation clear at all times. It’s a triumphant performance, the type that should get far more attention than it did. Meanwhile, the real lead of the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not effective at all as her husband. He’s flat and wooden with no real emotion appearing on his face from start to finish, and it seems all the worse for Riva’s presence. The only supporting role with any kind of substance is Isabelle Huppert’s turn as the couple’s musician daughter. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time or much complexity to play, but she does what she’s given as well as anyone could. Her pained, almost disgusted reaction at Georges locking Anne away during the day adds real pathos to a moment that could easily have been laughably over the top, and she is similarly believable in a restrained fashion in every moment on screen. Not being a lead performance limits what she’s allowed to do a bit but she wrings everything out of what she gets.

All told, this is a very well-made film that has two significant problems: a lack of anything terribly interesting visually and simply being a tough watch. It’s not as much that it’s depressing as that it’s physically and psychologically painful. It’s definitely worth a watch, but it’s not the masterpiece that I was hoping for and it’s a bit of a difficult journey to go through. Looper remains the king of 2012.

Movie Review: “Chicken with Plums” (Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi, France/Germany/Belgium 2011)

Paronnaud and Satrapi came into the public consciousness through an acclaimed animated film in Persepolis (France/USA 2007), something I had no interest in watching because I generally have no interest in animation. However, they followed up that success by surprisingly moving into live action with a strange and inventive dark comedy that did not meet with the same acclaim but got enough that it sounded at least vaguely promising.

However, it turns out that, while the film is far from bad, its empty pretensions overtake the playful inventiveness of the narrative. Those pretensions are the part of the film that received the most attention, and resulted in the decidedly mixed response, with some considering them ingenious while others, like myself, concluded that they were, as I said, empty pretensions.

The film tells a convoluted story in an interesting, unusual way. It tells the tale of the life of Nasser-Ali Kahn, the world’s greatest violinist, whose music is fueled by his lost love, Iran, even as he marries and has children with another woman. The film opens as he attempts to find a new violin, his previous violin having been broken, though he will not say by whom. He is unable to find a new violin that he is pleased with, even after a special trip to a foreign city to buy a Stradivarius from a strange, seemingly magical, opium-filled shop owner. After that, he determines that he must die, and so we get first a scene of his funeral and then daily flashbacks of his life story as well as a bizarre sequence where Death comes to meet with him, telling him a strange story and what to expect for the future. The narrative is actually rather interesting and compelling, and it’s a shame that Paronnaud and Satrapi undo their own script work with their work as directors.

The problem is that there is no real meaning to this story, which leaves us with an empty story, and anyone who knows how I think about film knows that I consider pointless storytelling to be a cardinal sin in filmmaking. It’s a sin of which this film is eminently guilty, as there is no unifying theme that ties together even the majority of the film, let alone nearly all of it, as it should be. One could argue that the film is about the connection between pain and art, but then the entire sequence about his death becomes irrelevant and useless. One could say that it’s a simple film about the pain of a lost love, but then everything involving Kahn’s wife is irrelevant and useless. There are a number of themes that tie together a few parts of the film, but nothing unifies everything, which leaves the film as an empty narrative, something a film simply cannot be.

Visually, the film is filled with a mixture of traditional film, animation, and CGI, often using blank black backgrounds combined with brightly-lit foregrounds. However, the animation is rather silly-looking and looks so much like South Park as to seem wholly unoriginal and the extreme overuse of CGI and special effects really turns the film into a cartoonish caricature of filmmaking. While the film certainly has a unique look, it’s difficult to figure out the reason for that look or see how it enhances anything about the film. In addition, the look is unique but not particularly interesting. The directors and cinematographer Christophe Beaucame seem interested in a look with nothing behind it, another example of empty pretension just like the film’s somewhat interesting narrative structure.

The acting in the film was overall rather uneven. Mathieu Amalric is rather comically over-the-top in his lead performance as the titular violinist, and I find it difficult to tell whether it was intentional for a film that moves between comedy and very serious, dark material. Maria de Medeiros, playing his put-upon wife, is also over-the-top at times, but it’s more obvious that she is only over-the-top for certain comedic scenes and the rest of the time is very credible and powerful. The intention of her performance is more clear than Amalric’s, and so it appears totally credible. Nobody else gets enough screen time or characterization to have a really noticeable performance one way or another.

Overall, this film is not very good. It’s an empty narrative with pretentious but not particularly interesting visuals wasting an interesting narrative structure. It’s not really worth the time it takes to watch, and it’s a shame because the filmmakers clearly have a nice narrative sense that could be put to good use somewhere. Let’s hope that they rein themselves in next time, because then it might work.