Friday, October 05, 2007

Notes from NYFF - Part I

The Romance of Astree and Celadon

The chief virtue of Eric Rohmer's new film The Romance of Astree and Celadon is how faithful it is to its seventeenth century roots. This means that instead of a modern Hollywood-ised version of Honore d'Urfe's novel, we get a production of the book in all its pastoral and amateur splendor, complete with overblown romanticism, wooden 'dialog' delivered by characters who are little more than mouthpieces and a set of inexperienced actors (Andy Gillet and Cecile Cassel as Celadon and Leonide respectively are fairly competent, but Stephanie Crayencour as Astree set my teeth on edge and Rodolphe Pauly as Hylas could have filled an entire butcher's shop with his hamming) who would do any village theatrical troupe proud. It's all very amusing and droll, and the story manages to hold your attention, despite (or perhaps because of) the juvenility of the plot, but you can't help thinking that you would have hoped for more from someone of Rohmer's caliber. To think that the man who gave us such classics as My Night at Maud's and La Collectionuese has been reduced to making a film that looks like it could have been put together by a group of first year film students is depressing indeed. I went to watch this film because it was billed as being Rohmer's last film. Having seen it, I'm not sure this is such a bad thing.

Hamlet (1920)

By contrast, Asta Nielsen's 1920 silent version of Hamlet is a real pleasure to watch. The central conceit of this film is that Hamlet was a woman - Gertrude gave birth to a girl but had her (him?) proclaimed a boy in order to maintain the royal succession. It's a fascinating idea, and one that doesn't get played out as much as it should. What the movie does do is use this gender change to cleverly reinterpret the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (as well as the bond between Hamlet and Horatio, who now becomes the object of Hamlet's secret love). What it (surprisingly in my opinion) doesn't do is provide an alternate explanation for Hamlet's famous inaction. The existential torpor that grips Hamlet is the same here as it is in the play, so that except for his (her) reasons for spurning Ophelia, the switch in gender doesn't actually alter the logic of the play in any meaningful way.

Still, it's fascinating to watch the action of the play work itself out on screen. There's plenty to complain about, of course - it is a film from the 1920's after all. Everyone overacts outrageously (at least by contemporary standards), gestures are exaggerated, action scenes seem somewhat clownish. There's an added section in the beginning which traces Hamlet's college days, before his (her) father is killed, which is entirely unnecessary; and the finale changes the plot in ways that, even putting aside my purist hat for a minute (you DO NOT MESS with Shakespeare) seem illogical and pointless.

For all that, Asta Nielsen is a commanding and captivating presence, so that it's not hard to see, even almost a century later, just why she commanded the superstar status that she did. A number of the scenes, especially the ones around Hamlet's death, have a timeless and almost operatic quality, so that you feel the power of the moment come through. There's one in particular, where Hamlet comes stomping indignantly into the Great Hall where Gertrude and Claudius are celebrating their marriage, that has all the force of a great painting - a mournful and bitter Hamlet, dressed all in flowing back, advancing down a hall filled with drunk and carousing courtiers like an Angel of Death trailing destruction behind him. Most of all though, the movie manages, especially in its final scenes, to capture the power and spirit of Shakespeare's great tragedy, so that you have only to see a disheveled Ophelia handing a fistful of tangled herbs to a grief stricken Gertrude to hear the "Here's Rosemary, that's for remembrance" line chiming in your head.

It's obviously unfair to judge a movie from a different era by modern production values, so the best I can do is compare this film to the few films of a similar vintage that I've seen. Those would consist largely of F.W. Murnau classics like Faust and Nosferatu, and compared to those I'd say Nielsen's Hamlet more than holds its own.

I also need to give a special shout out to pianist Donald Sosin, who provided live accompaniment for the film. It's always hard to judge the quality of an original score for a silent film, because part of what makes such a score successful is that you don't notice it. But one of the most fun moments of the festival for me was a point when the projectionist was experiencing difficulties in getting the film started. Sosin filled in the time by doing a "Who's Line is it Anyway" style performance on the piano - asking for a genre of film, a setting (time and place) and four composers whose styles to imitate, and proceeding to dash off the score to a 1920 film noir in the style of Berlioz, Bartok, Ravel and Wagner. Hilarious stuff.

The Orphanage

The third film I watched last Saturday as part of the NYFF was The Orphanage. Before I actually say anything about the film, let me acknowledge that a) I'm NOT a fan of horror films and b) I can't properly claim to have watched the film since I pretty much dozed through the second half. Still, from what I did see, The Orphanage struck me as pure hokum - a half-baked mish-mash of familiar horror tropes, patched together into a storyline so predictable you could actually sit in the theater and pinpoint exactly which scene in the first half would come back with added significance in the second. It's bad enough if a horror film puts you to sleep, it's even worse if when you wake up ten minutes later the storyline is exactly where you thought it would be ("Oh, a loud scream! This probably means she's found the bodies of the five dead children. Let me open my eyes and see. Yes, she has. Yawn.") The speaker who introduced the film claimed it was an exciting new attempt to take a genre film in new directions, but aside from a contrived twist that got added in the last five minutes I didn't see (or hear) anything that struck me as remotely original about this film. If anything, it seemed to diligently follow the standard horror formula of old haunted house + dead children + viscerally loud music = scary movie. There's even the obligatory psycho caretaker person and the classic 'scary scene with medium who visits the house'. Tchah!

To be fair, some of the acting is fairly good, and the movie is scary, in a will-the-ghost-be-behind-this-door-or-the-next-one kind of way. You experience your fair share of terrifying shock watching this film, but there's nothing creative about its scary moments - it all comes down to the time-worn trick of setting up a scene where your audience knows something bad is going to happen, but don't know exactly when it'll happen or where it'll come from, and so they sit there, feeling the tension build inside them, until SUDDENLY (usually with a long bang) the bad thing finally happens. You're startled by this not because what happens is unexpected in any real sense, but because you've been sitting there, on the edge of your seat, waiting for it to happen, and not knowing exactly when. This is the oldest cliche in the book - an almost Pavlovian chestnut that you can see any day of the week in practically any horror film on television - you hardly need to attend NYFF to see it. If you like genre horror flicks, The Orphanage is probably not a bad watch, but if you go into it expecting anything remotely new or ingenious, you, like me, may find yourself falling asleep.

1 comment:

Cheshire Cat said...

Are there existentialist women? I thought that was a male disease...