Friday, September 9, 2011

Better ways forward, and back

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film featuring a subjective close-up of tears falling on a crumpled love letter, and, despite my at best nodding acquaintance with modern cinema, I’ll bet it’s been a while for all of us.

But that’s one of the good things about pan-European popular cinema: it’s still doing what it’s always done, more or less, following a template in which only the incidentals have changed, never the story-telling mechanics, in some fifty-odd years of reverse progress.
While British cinema continues to wildly oscillate between a crazed hubris that expects the world to assume it’s the coolest, cutest place on earth and an equally hysteric self-loathing that sees itself somewhere beneath Iran on the social justice scale (at the moment it’s in one of the latter troughs, so it’s all movies about heroin addicts on council estates again, almost but not quite a relief after the faux-sophisticate horrors of the Richard Curtis years), and while Hollywood digs itself deeper and deeper into a self-made pit of festering cow manure, it's nice to remember that the rest of the west has never basically given up on the confident, unpretentious notion that it can tell us stories we’ll enjoy using the basic tools of George Cukor.

This confidence is especially marked when it has a truly exportable star to centre the action around, as France has in Audrey Tautou, to an extent not really seen since Bardot.
True, France has always taken the lead in the almost casual discovery of iconic actresses, but they are for the most part darlings of the art house, even simmering glamourpusses like Beart don't actually make the kind of films that get shown nationwide.
But thanks to Amelie, however many years ago that was now, an Audrey Tautou movie is still a small event, which is why she is able to work so much more infrequently than her peers, and is so rarely required to stretch herself. Indeed, within its somewhat eccentric, or at least cultural-specific, self-set parameters, cinema doesn’t want her to stray too far from the reassuring - which is why in The Da Vinci Code, notwithstanding the laugh riot that was the film itself, her presence made even less sense than usual when Hollywood tries to make French screen goddesses walk two paces behind cultural midgets like Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise.

Of course, she is not required to actually be Amelie every time – though I imagine a return visit to that character would bring out the queues – and provided she is playing against rather than merely ignoring that character’s heritage she can, in fact, get away with quite a lot (even insanity, in the excellent A la Folie Pas Du Tout). But a certain pixieish cuteness is always demanded, and even when not foregrounded, is still being acknowledged and celebrated, even in the gesture of its being withheld.
Indeed, in her two films for director Pierre Salvadori (2006's Priceless, and now in Beautiful Lies), between them her most comfortably successful star vehicles, she is actually brattish and unlikeable for most of the time, but never in such a way that we might actually believe it, only in a manner that makes us look forward to the transition, back into cute lovable Audrey, that the films never let us doubt is a foregone conclusion. The fun is in waiting for it (for us) and making us wait for it (for them).
This tacit acknowledgement and reassurance of the audience’s expectations is the mark of true star presence; what boring actors mistake for typecasting and fear like manual labour, but which the old stars knew was the holy grail of stardom. (And it's fickle: Nathalie Baye, in second lead as Audrey’s mother, might well have watched the cameras circling around the star and remembered wryly how times had changed since Venus Beauty Institute, in which Baye was the star and Tautou the newcomer, just as Judith Chemla, in an equivalent role as as nervous hairdresser Paulette, might have been doing likewise, readying herself to steal all her scenes just as Audrey had snatched hers in Venus.)

Beautiful Lies is a romantic comedy of confusion, of the sort built around anticipation of the moment when the characters reveal their true feelings for each other. It’s also one of those films that delays the lead characters’ discovery of each other’s true motives: when will a know the truth about b’s feelings for a, and when will b realise that a has done so… As a big tease and reveal tactic this rarely fails, and might be termed the Baxter-Kubelik resolution, after its most perfect cinematic demonstration. I thought 'when will a realise the truth about b' was handled rather better than 'when will b realise that a has realised' this time around, the latter moment being somewhat thrown away in a rush of last-minute plotting.
It's a little long, and on the whole I preferred Priceless, but this is not the kind of film one is supposed to judge on the grounds by which we all tend to judge movies in the home entertainment age, ie: how will it stand up on the 275th viewing?
This is a film like a fifties Bardot comedy, to be watched and enjoyed, perhaps just once, and then forgotten about even, but with no hard feelings on either side. Just a movie. Bring on the next. The only difference is that they don’t bring on the next anything like as swiftly and easily as they used to, which is why each new trifle has to be sold as if it were a main course, and on those grounds alone Beautiful Lies might disappoint. But it shouldn’t, and the more people go to see things like this – instead of Batman and instead of Ken Loach – the more of it they’ll make for you. I can think of no higher praise for the film than to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly, and have already forgotten most of it.
My wife was unsure of the merits of Audrey’s audaciously short hairdo, however, which is a far more important reservation to have about a film of this sort than any trifling concerns about narrative structure or film technique. I was happy enough with the barnet but we both agreed that she was far too thin.
She spends the whole film in trousers until a very short scene at the end, and her legs are like breadsticks.

From France to Italy. My excitement at the prospect of Salt of Life was so great that to wiser heads disappointment might have seemed as inevitable as it was unthinkable to mine.
In the end, I won the bet: it’s not the film that Mid-August Lunch was (what is?) but it was still the best time I’ve had at the movies since Ghost World.
A semi-sequel to Lunch, the film could easily be enjoyed by anyone who had never seen or heard of the first film, indeed many, I’ll wager, would enjoy it even more on those grounds, mistaking the film’s assumption of audience familiarity for the elliptical meandering of Sofia Coppola or Jim Jarmusch, with which it shares a non-architectural structure and loosely connected, minimalist episodes. The resemblance is superficial, though, because the brush strokes are deeper and surer: Di Gregorio is a John Singer Sargent of cinema, not a Picasso.

The film lacks the tightness of structure that was part of what made Mid August so impressive, and it plays more plainly for laughs, but that’s perfectly fine in context, since the film's focus is on a more obviously comic subject: Gianni's flailing attempts to rationalise the prospect of no longer being considered a romantic prospect by the women he meets in the course of his day. The structure mirrors his metal state, not least in a wonderful sequence, simultaneously moving and hilarious, in which he wanders Rome all night with his neighbour’s enormous pet dog after accidentally ingesting an hallucinogenic at a party, playing like a child in the city fountains while the dog looks on unimpressed. Later, when he and the dog are sat in the street, there is a moment where he tries to get the dog’s attention by tapping it on its shoulder, the implication being that he either wants to tell it something or point something out to it, and when the dog ignores him he gives up with a look of bemused resignation. I fear it is impossible to convey why this is so hilarious, but it's one of the funniest, truest bit of comic-improvisational playing I’ve ever seen in a movie. And the ending is so perfect I wanted to stand and cheer.

It’s very different in tone from Mid-August, which also had a perfect ending but one which was perfect in a very different way, and is best viewed, I think, as a kind of reward for those of us who came out for the the first film, and cherished it, and told our friends, and made it the modest but future-bankable international hit that it was.
There is an element of crowd-pleasing contrivance here – Valeria De Franciscis is back as Gianni’s mother, and at times the film sweats to keep her relevant to the story, her appearances often seeming like guest turns. But that's fine. She's just as good as she was last time, and the narrative set-up of the climactic, aborted family meal, in which the two halves of his life come together, is superb.

In Italy, apparently, they’re calling Di Gregorio he Italian Woody Allen, a nice indicator of worthiness, though while Allen is seen by many as an increasingly spent force, Di Greogorio, a relative whippersnapper at 61, seems hardly in need of the comparison. Neither does he share Allen’s tics and inconsistencies and blind spots. His refreshing acknowledgement that his stories and performance are drawn 99% from his real life stands in marked contrast to Allen’s habitual, often petulant reluctance to cede autobiographical relevance to even his most blatantly self-inspired works.
In Gianni De Gregorio the Italian cinema has found its finest, most idiosyncratic, lovable, charming and cherishable creative voice since you know who.