Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes.
“NOSFERATU. Does this word not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight?” The rhetorical question of this introductory title card in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu would seem a heavy-handed addendum to Bram Stoker’s classic. And yet, few films of the silent era can lay claim to a more nuanced treatment of gothic gloom than Murnau’s. Film Forum offers up this hymn to the night just in time for Halloween, along with a 1979 homage by Werner Herzog. With outsized ears, rat-like teeth, and two sets of hideously long nails, Herzog’s eponymous count—played by the controversial Klaus Kinski—rivals Max Schreck’s famously creepy incarnation in his longstanding monopoly on the School of Dracula. The terror of Schreck’s performance was abetted by the film’s compulsory silence, made as it was on the far side of the talkie era. Murnau made haunting use of the actor’s hunched form and fearsome face, setting it into sets no less uncanny which—along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)—have long stood as touchstones of Expressionist cinema.
Still, Kinski exploits gesture and movement as nimbly as his slithering dialogue, making the most of his turns on screen. “The children of the night make their music,” he remarks, as wolves howl at the Carpathian moon. The chill of Kinski’s glower and shadowy castle are duly offset by the charisma of a dashing young Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, and Isabelle Adjani in her wide-eyed guise as his vulnerable wife. Herzog maintains a striking fidelity not only to his cinematic predecessor, but also the literary original. Some of the narrative unfurls through Harker’s anxious letters home, maintaining something of the novel’s intimate, epistolary format. So, too, does Herzog turn to painting—like Murnau before him—in conjuring up a particularly gothic stimmung. A shot of Adjani from behind, seated in a cemetery by the sea, brings one of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic scenes to melancholy life. But the director also uses the power of his own medium to full effect, as when he cuts between shots of Lucy Harker in bed plagued by nightmares and Nosferatu hovering over a terrified Bruno Ganz.
Nosferatu and Nosferatu the Vampyre are now playing through Thursday, November 7 at Film Forum in New York.
Jehane Noujaim, The Square, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 104 minutes. Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan.
IN THE TEN MONTHS since it won the audience award at Sundance, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, about the political upheavals that have been convulsing through Cairo for nearly three years now, has proved almost as unpredictable and unwieldy as its subject. The version that screened in Park City, Utah, began with the protests on Tahrir Square, which were initially organized, at the outset of 2011, as a response to police brutality and the case of Khaled Saeed, a young man who had been beaten to death six months earlier by the Egyptian security services in Alexandria, and then escalated so intently that the country’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned after thirty years in power.
The version of The Square that opens at Film Forum on Friday, which won a second audience award in Toronto, begins exactly the same way but ends in a very different place. The Sundance edition, retroactively defined as an unfinished cut, concluded in the summer of 2012, with the rise of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the long-suffering Muslim Brotherhood. Now the film ends a year later, in the summer of 2013, with Morsi’s arrest by the Egyptian military. Not yet folded into the drama of an already highly dramatic film are the shocking eruptions of violence that followed, burned through the summer, and left thousands dead and thousands more tortured and traumatized.
This raises one obvious question: Will Noujaim’s documentary ever really be done? It also hints at several others: What does a director do with a subject that refuses to settle down? How do audiences respond to a story that is clearly still searching for an ending? Does the need to convey a coherent narrative mean that any film about the tumult in Egypt is bound to betray the realities on the ground? At what point does a filmmaker cede the complexity of a situation to the clarity of an argument? And what do we do if the clarity of that argument cuts through the complexity of that situation, and still finds meaning elusive and the moral to the story false?
The Square is Noujaim’s fifth feature-length documentary. As the director of Startup.com (2001), about the boom and bust of young Internet ventures, and Control Room (2004), about Al Jazeera, the military, and media bias in relation to the war in Iraq, she is no stranger to difficult subjects that demand ambiguity and ambivalence on screen. As an Egyptian-American filmmaker, she is also quite palpably torn by the path her country has taken. It should be said from the start that The Square is complicated, argumentative, and incongruously beautiful to behold, thanks to the astonishing camerawork of Mohammad Hamdy, Noujaim’s director of photography. Hamdy’s tilt-shift style gives the film a striking and peculiar sense of depth, accentuating Noujaim’s obvious affection for the architecture and urban texture of Cairo while continually refocusing our attention on her three main characters: Ahmed, the working-class secular rebel; Khalid, the incredulous expat, also a relatively famous actor; and Magdy, conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is emboldened by independent thinking but in the end shuts it down.
Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy—men in their twenties, thirties, and forties, respectively—become friends on Tahrir. They disagree but they can sustain a dialogue, trading ideas about rights and possible structures for a new regime built on justice, dignity, and respect. That is the wonder and promise of a revolution that turns out to be elusive, possibly fictive, and by now a cruel mirage. As revolution descends into counterrevolution, corruption, and coup d’etat, the rapport among Noujaim’s characters falls apart. Ahmed tells Magdy he loves him but hates the Muslim Brotherhood. From one scene to the next, Ahmed lurches from precocious young man and natural-born leader to a tantrum-throwing teenager who, not unjustifiably, goes in for some rock throwing and, almost immediately, gets struck in the head by a rubber bullet.
Magdy, meanwhile, absorbs all manner of Tahrir-style truth-out critique. Weakly, he offers up his scars in return, his body marked by years of arrest, abuse, and imprisonment under the Mubarak regime. The liberal camp is unconvinced, his son swings over to the hard-core religious side, and he is set adrift in emotional, intellectually uncertain seas. Throughout, Khalid tries to keep his hopes for a better future alive despite a barrage of bad news and crass politicking by Morsi, the military, and the Muslim Brothers. At one point, he shakes his head in disbelief, noting that a standing president has just called for the slaughter of his own people on television. Khalid’s father, a former dissident, Skypes in from London to tell him, sagely: “The rich don’t want freedom because they already have it,” a trenchant reminder of the economic roots of the Arab world’s current malaise.
The Square threads a number of possible arguments about sacrifice and civil rights through the tangle of recent events in Egypt, ultimately settling on the somewhat bland notion that what the revolution needs now is a conscience. True enough, but as for conviction, it is tentative at best. A raft of other characters, most of them women, fall by the wayside—including the tough-talking human rights lawyer Ragia Omran and the actress Aida El-Kashef, one of the tender young founders of the consequential video collective Mosireen—like material left over for another film (or for when the time comes, once again but always too late, to wrestle with the gender question).
As early as the fall of 2011, in the New York Review of Books, the writers Hussein Agha and Robert Malley predicted many of the sorrows that have followed the so-called Arab spring:
Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.
In a way, one watches The Square hoping Noujaim’s characters will escape that fate, while already knowing they won’t.
Jehane Noujaim’s The Square opens on October 25 at Film Forum in New York.
Alain Resnais, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.
THIS IS TO ANNOUNCE that Alain Resnais is not having a retrospective in New York at the moment. What we have instead is a window of opportunity to enjoy a brief Resnaissance of sorts (pardon, but the pun wrote itself). Currently on view is an exhibition titled “Last Year at Marienbad Redux” at EFA Project Space; its titular inspiration, Resnais’s masterwork Last Year at Marienbad (1961), is screening at Film Forum; and his most recent release, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012), is having a weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives. Neither exhaustive (nor exhausting), this convergence invites an audience to play a looser, simpler game of connect-the-thoughts regarding Resnais and his achievements in this, the year he turned ninety-one and completed his fiftieth film.
When it first screened, Last Year at Marienbad was both lauded and loathed by critics and audiences, an unsurprisingly polarized response to a film that remains by turns scrupulously refined and comically oblique. “You hardly seem to remember me,” Giorgio Albertazzi (as X) tells Delphine Seyrig (as A), “Try to remember.” So begins the cat-and-mouse game of memory and refusal, storytelling and seduction, as X tries to prove to the doubting A that they met the year before, became lovers, and made a plan to run away together. Much ink has been spilled about Marienbad and its lavish austerity, the intoxicating agency of its architecture, and the seemingly evaporated consciousness of its characters (the latter is often attributed to the influence of its screenwriter, author/theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet). The film is, among many things, a model for cinema as pure concoction. Even the rambling grand chateau in which the story unfolds is, in fact, a fabrication, constructed in the editing room from footage shot at three different locations (a sneaky aide-mémoire that suggests how in the spaces of film things are only ever what they appear to be).
None of the fourteen works on display in the exhibition “Last Year at Marienbad Redux” engage with Resnais’s film directly, even if the title denotes that the show will perform some sort of hybrid form of film criticism. Instead, curator James Voorhies invokes Marienbad to brand a curatorial query that marks certain points of interest along the fact/fiction continuum, and explores the ways in which visual artists use cinematic devices to produce “memory, meaning and, ultimately, an understanding of reality.” Reflective panels hang throughout the gallery, surely an homage to the “hall of mirrors” in which Resnais’s characters are captured; other than that, the film is disappointingly immaterial to the conversation at hand, except in the broadest sense. Nonetheless, there are gems in the show that bend both time and attention to the desired effect.
Tacita Dean’s Washington Cathedral, 2002, is easy enough to breeze by and believe you’ve got it in a single glance; closer study—better yet, a collector’s eye—reveals that the 130 postcards of the gothic cathedral that make up this work are not images of the actual landmark, but of the projected vision of the building that took decades to complete. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Blast from the Past, 1970–72, presents us with a small handful of litter including cigarette butts, screws, and stones as well as a photograph documenting the way in which it was strewn on his studio floor. “All the parts necessary to recreate this compelling scene from history of my floor,” Matta-Clark writes to instruct the debris’s new owner, a delightful dig at the ease with which history may repeat itself, while Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s Reagan Tape, 1984, a ham-fisted mash up of Ronald Reagan’s first State of the Union address with clips from his Hollywood films, rouses a worrisome nostalgia in a contemporary viewer for 1980s-era Republicanism.
If the exhibition does illuminate one thing about Marienbad, it is that the film has become a shorthand invocation of certain productions of cinema, and that it is a touchstone for popular conversations around the subjects of narrative, memory, and film’s complex constructions of realities. Which brings us to Resnais’s latest: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s plays Eurydice (1941) and Dear Antoine: Or, The Love That Failed (1969). Here, a deceased playwright named Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès) posthumously invites a group of actor friends (played by an ensemble that includes Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric, Sabine Azéma, and Anne Consigny) to gather at his chateau to attend the reading of his will. Once together, the group watches a video made by d’Anthac before his death, asking them to act as the executors of his estate and approve (or not) a taped rehearsal of a young theater troupe that has asked permission to perform his adaptation of Eurydice. As the play unfolds on the screen before them, the guests—all actors who have performed the playwright’s Eurydice at one time or another—slowly begin to take on their roles, first speaking the lines in sync with the young troupe in the video until they finally (re)create an entirely new production.
Resnais further complicates the story’s playing spaces: The actors in the video begin to interact with the actors gathered to watch (and vice versa) as the film’s audience watch all of their performances converge across time, space, and media. The director also employs some rather goofy and graceless CG effects—a door appears just as an actor’s hand reaches for the knob; a hotel room appears so acid-warped and eye-wrenching that one can only hope it was a choice made in post-production. At its core, the film remains true to the story of Eurydice: Death looms over our lovers—here and now, then as always—once upon a time because of a deal with the underworld, now a little closer for our actors mourning the loss of their playwright. If the film’s final coup de théâtre feels a bit of a cheat, it’s not a surprise; after all, Resnais has always been a director with more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
If one is in a mood to be wistful, there are echoes of Last Year at Marienbad in the new film, so much so that at times, it seems as though You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet could be read as a kind of final bow for the auteur. Both films begin with its actors in the role of audience members; both tell a story of doomed lovers (Orpheus tries to retrieve Eurydice from Hades, while X struggles to return A to her memory); both stage their dramas inside an imposing, shifting architecture. Though many parallels are certainly present, there is no need for nostalgia. With a new film currently in post-production—and as Resnais’s title suggests—there is still more to come.
THE BEST THING about the enthralling, super-smart Kill Your Darlings is director John Krokidas’s ability to capture the excitement of young men’s minds on fire, a delirium fueled, in this case, by literary ambition, hormones, bennies and weed, freedom from parental restraints, and the perversion of the closet. Set at Columbia University in 1943–44, Kill Your Darlings is the first film about the origins of the Beat movement that gets many things right.
The story, largely told through the romantic imagination of the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), is styled as something of a 1940s film noir sieved through a 1960s Claude Chabrol New Wave murder mystery, with occasional hits of contemporary pop (TV on the Radio) mixed with bebop, blues, and the Andrews Sisters. This is Krokidas’s first feature, and it’s astonishing that he, with the aid of cowriter Austin Bunn and cinematographer Reed Morano, pulls off a seamless fusion of periods while smoothly uniting his own POV with that of his protagonist, all without ever suggesting anything as banal as universality. Killer Films, which nursed Kill Your Darlings through its long development, also deserves credit for supporting Krokidas with its own expertise in movies based on real-life incidents involving queerness and murder, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) being notable examples.
Leaving his troubled, working-class home in New Jersey, seventeen-year-old Ginsberg arrives at Columbia and promptly falls into some heady company. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a poor little rich boy who Ginsberg first encounters defying the sanctity of the rare (or, more excitingly, banned) books library by leaping onto a table and declaiming passages of Henry Miller, takes scruffy Allen under his gilded but, as it turns out, all too fragile wing. “Lu” introduces Allen to Village jazz clubs and to the salon of his much older lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who trashed his academic career to follow Lu to New York. Kammerer writes Lu’s papers in exchange for sex, but their symbiotic relationship is deeper and more twisted. Through Lu, Allen also meets William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and the foursome undertakes, in somewhat desultory fashion, upgrading the poetics of Yeats’s “Vision” to “the New Vision.”
Allen falls into unrequited love with Lu, who exudes the glamour and charisma of a badly wounded narcissist. The plot hinges on the Carr/Kammerer affair as observed and eventually imaginatively reconstructed by Ginsberg, who is forced to make a moral choice after Carr murders Kammerer and asks Ginsberg to ghostwrite his statement to the judge, in which he wants to claim that he was acting in self-defense as a heterosexual warding off Kammerer’s unwanted homosexual advances. The grisly murder, which climaxes the movie’s second act, is depicted as part of a montage which also includes Burroughs shooting up alone, Kerouac going nuts after learning that a buddy has been killed in the war, and Ginsberg finally losing his virginity in a one-night stand. That none of this seems overwrought is again a testament to Krokidas’s tonal control, and also to the first-rate performances of all the actors.
The burden of the film rests on Radcliffe, and although many will buy tickets in order to see Harry Potter butt-fucked, no one should look lightly on the subtlety and solidity of the now twenty-four-year-old actor’s performance. Radcliffe is more comely than Ginsberg ever was, but more important, he is thoroughly convincing as a budding poet who will become an enduring leader of the counterculture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. DeHaan rightfully claims unwavering attention whenever he’s on screen—not by sheer panache and beauty, but because of the desperation beneath his cool surface. Still, it’s Foster who gives the most revelatory performance. Not only does he have Burroughs’s voice, with its strangled inflections and percussive rhythms, down cold, but he also has a moment in which he reveals, through almost invisible body language, an aspect of Burroughs that certainly this writer never before considered. It occurs in a scene where Burroughs’s extremely proper and very annoyed father comes to take his junky son home. Beneath the insectlike protective carapace of “Willy’s” barely adult body, we sense an uncontrollable cringing and a barely choked-back rage. Without being simplistic, we might now add this humiliation of the son by the father—which Foster and Krokidas pinpointed—to the psychic cauldron from which the sardonic, unrelenting fury of Burroughs’s prose will emerge.
Kill Your Darlings is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
THE EMPHASIS ON BODIES IN EXTREMIS in Steve McQueen’s first two features, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), continues unchecked in his third, 12 Years a Slave. In a roundtable discussion recently published in the New York Times about the movie—which is based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was lured to Washington, DC, under false pretenses and sold as human chattel in Louisiana—the director forthrightly discussed the impetus behind the project: “I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.”
That McQueen, who began his career as a visual artist, winning the Turner Prize in 1999, has created searing images of barbarity in 12 Years a Slave is indisputable; these scenes certainly stand as a corrective to the sentimentalization of the “peculiar institution” found in films like Gone with the Wind (1939). But how laudable—or dubious—is this achievement? In other words, what does it mean to be a spectator to McQueen’s successful execution of this project? Do these depictions of cruelty really serve as a didactic tool, as Henry Louis Gates Jr., a consultant on the film, insists in a lengthy essay included in the press notes (complete with suggestions for further reading), extolling “this magnificent artistic achievement…by a Black British director”? Or does showing the bloody latticework of suppurating wounds on a young woman’s back after she’s been whipped by two different men, or a long take of Solomon, gasping for breath with a noose around his neck and excruciatingly balancing on tiptoes to avoid asphyxiation, simply lead to a kind of stupor? What kind of reparative, illuminating “reflection” could these impeccably staged, horrific tableaux possibly engender? (Apparently, assessments that include superlatives like this one from the New Yorker’s David Denby, words strung together with staggering dissonance: “ ‘12 Years a Slave’ is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery.”)
To even praise the acting in the film feels a bit obscene: How does one single out, particularly among those who toil on the same plantation as Solomon (and, yes, Ejiofor is formidable), who does the best “job” of being despised, degraded, broken, or dead? Is it instructive if I compare and contrast the debauchery of the slaver played by Michael Fassbender, in his third film with McQueen, with that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s cartoon antebellum revenger Django Unchained (2012) or with that of the crazed crackers in Richard Fleischer’s swampy miscegenation melodrama Mandingo (1975)?
If these rhetorical questions—my non-review of 12 Years a Slave, a film that I can neither recommend nor dismiss—serve any purpose, it is to ask whether it is even conceivable to graphically represent the unimaginable without further cheapening the lives one sets out to honor or diminishing the horrors of a monstrous epoch (a query that Claude Lanzmann answers directly, of course, by not including archival footage of concentration camps and other atrocities of the Holocaust in 1985’s Shoah). In a typically piercing essay written for the exhibition catalogue Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), Hilton Als writes, “All of this is painful and American. Language makes it trite, somehow.” Sometimes films do, too.
12 Years a Slave opens in limited release October 18.
A SUPERFICIALLY AUSTERE biopic that nevertheless indulges in garishness, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 marks the first time that the writer-director, who often casts nonprofessionals in his films, has collaborated with a major star: Juliette Binoche. In contrast with Camille Claudel (1988), the Isabelle Adjani passion project in which she plays the tragic sculptor and Rodin muse and mistress, Camille Claudel 1915 forgoes epic sweep and bloat. Picking up where the earlier film left off, Dumont’s movie traces, during the year that the artist turned fifty-one, just three days of her grim life at the Montdevergues mental asylum near Avignon, where she had been committed by her family. (In a letter to a friend, Claudel refers to the “day I was taken via window.”)
Dumont’s film opens promisingly: Binoche wordlessly yet potently conveys her abject state, sitting vigilantly by a pot in which an egg and potato are being boiled; as a nurse explains to a physician, Claudel has been granted dispensation to prepare her own spartan repasts owing to her fear of being poisoned. But our hope that Camille Claudel 1915 will be a subtle, sober biopic quickly dissipates when it becomes clear that the writer-director has populated his docudrama with actual asylum patients, women with significant physical and mental deficiencies who are deployed not as background extras, but as “characters” with important minor roles.
The purpose of this act of bad faith, apparently, is to highlight Claudel’s comparative lucidity and intelligence, to emphasize the fact that her own family is keeping her incarcerated against her will. This specious authenticity, however, succeeds only in making the seams of the film visible. Like Charcot documenting his patients at the Salpêtrière, Dumont lingers long on these mentally ill women, particularly on the inmate played by Alexandra Lucas, whose horribly malformed teeth seem to have a special appeal for the director.
Rather than underscore Claudel’s helplessness and anguish, Dumont’s casting of real sufferers brings out his lead’s worst tics. In her scenes with other Montdevergues patients, Binoche, whose maximalist acting style makes Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) nearly unendurable, cannot resist emoting “big”—whether in a gesture as seemingly small as a nostril flair or a too-long glower, or an action as outsize as gleefully shouting Mlle Lucas’s garbled cry of “Hallelujah.” The internationally feted performer seems to be operating on the fear that she will be upstaged by her novice costars.
Adding to the discordance is the abrupt shift, at roughly the film’s midpoint, to Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), Camille’s younger brother and a renowned—and highly devout—poet. Dumont, once lauded as the artistic heir of Robert Bresson, has frequently been drawn to investigations of the spiritual (successfully in 2009’s Hadewijch, disastrously in 2011’s Outside Satan); here, Paul serves as a stock figure of piousness and hypocrisy. “We expect saintliness of you,” a priest says to Claudel frère after the latter’s long disquisition on Rimbaud’s effect on his deepening conviction—a telegraphed irony, considering Paul’s coldness and condescension during his visit with his sister a few scenes later. “Everything is a parable, Camille,” Paul patronizingly sniffs as his sibling grows more agitated. If there is an instructive lesson to be found in Dumont’s film, it may be that Adjani’s version of the sculptor’s life, despite its prestige-picture trappings, is the more courageous and profound one.
Camille Claudel 1915 plays at Film Forum in New York October 16–29.