Aug 17, 2009

The trials of auteurdom: On The Headless Woman, Inglourious Basterds

Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman is built to confound. Its filmmaker is in complete control and clearly never quite wants it to add up, but be wary of its enforced peculiarity. If its defense is its stubborn formal originality, it can’t quite be billed as building cinema from the group up; it most closely resembles the bourgeois women goes all wonky because of class guilt/environmental insanity genre (I’m thinking Safe and Red Desert right at the top here, but there are other entries) and I don’t think it’s a particularly distinguished entry.

I can’t wholeheartedly hold its willful flirtation with boredom against the film – that’s part of the raison d’etre of exercises like this, to fool the citizens of Cannesistan into thinking they’re seeing something profound by making them stare at it a long time. Sometimes it actually works. Boring isn’t a pejorative in all cases and yes, the underlying argument of these films, which all dabble in the metaphysical and the formally disorienting, is that satisfaction can, in fact, be quite boring. Or at least, to have all the trappings of satisfaction can. Fuckable, relatively unburdening husbands (even if they philander), nice shit everywhere; a particularly fetching woman foisted into these circumstances probably won’t have to work (Martel shows us so off handedly that Vera's a dentist, that I didn't catch it until glancing at the press notes). So one must find something to go crazy about for these films to begin their larger ruminations on completely untenable social and technological arrangements. In this case, it can all be traced back to hitting a dog on a sunny country road and being unwilling to look back. Industrial pollution and empty Eros (poor Monica Vitti) or late eighties LA dread and suburban excess (poor Julianne Moore) seemed to grip me more.

The Headless Woman’s intentions and execution don’t entirely make up for it’s at times needless and shopworn affectation. I’ll admit it right up front; this is a eight-seven minute film that made me want to check my blackberry to see how much longer I had in its chamber of existential malaise, which, as frequent readers may know, isn’t something I’m inclined to shy away from. Rendered with a great deal of skill and thoughtfulness by Martel, who stormed onto the largest stages of international Art cinema with her 2001 feature La Cienaga and the 2004 sophomore effort The Holy Girl, the film is less than the sum of its parts. Despite Maria Onetto’s fascinating performance and the obliquely pleasant artistry on display here (Ms. Martel is sure handed and inventive with every frame, she has an instinct for visual poetry and unnerving editing), the film’s fragile, overly implicit critique of contemporary Argentina’s very visible caste system and its gentle patriarchy never takes off.

Everything I wanted it to be and not a thing I didn’t. Although its burlesque (and very slimmed down) alternative history vision of the Great War was presaged somewhat by Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, also about a European (and European looking) Jewish girl who survives a massacre, changes her identity and stumbles into a plot for some small measure of comeuppance against the genocidal Huns, this week brings us perhaps the most broadly irreverent, almost but clearly not serious World War II film on record. With inventiveness to spare, Quentin Tarantino hasn’t quite made a masterpiece again, but its easily his best film in over a decade. If there were any haters left who aren’t sure Tarantino is a real auteur (you know you’re out there), all you have to do is watch Inglorious Bastards and think alittle.

Even in the most grim and maudlin of circumstances, he’ll make a comedy out of the bloodiest details. He’ll quote genres and celebrate the plasticity of cinema whenever he can. At his best, the words are almost always some kind of rhythmic, darting poetry and he creates tension without even trying. Smart, efficient film syntax is evident everywhere in this, his fourth episodic feature to cross the two hour twenty minute threshold and perhaps his most briskly paced. If anything, and perhaps like all good movies, Inglorious Bastards, which abounds with the most gruesome deaths, is filled with what come to feel like living, breathing beings whose experiences encourage you to see the world afresh. Bob Richardson’s rich, contrast heavy photography has a nimble quality here, but the often classical restraint on display in his second collaboration with the director makes it a much more visually pleasing experience then Kill Bill and of a piece with his best work (he’s an auteur too).

What Tarantino has given us is revenge porn for the descendents of European Jewry and anyone else willing to get in on the fun (Samuel L. Jackson for instance). Of course it was bound to be our most famous scholar of blaxploitation that had the toolbox to pull it off with panache, but revenge porn is a tricky thing. Especially when you also have the burdens of being a serious filmmaker who makes unserious movies, as the Cannes laureate surely does as he settles into the middle of his career. He allows us to watch a version of history in which Goebbels and Hitler get a Tommie gun to the dome courtesy of Hostel director Eli Roth (the cast’s weakest link, as he was in Deathproof), in which cinema is the key to ending the most epic of wars, but leavens the proceedings with an internal logic that never fails and dramatizations that both ramble and soar.

Despite being placed on enough magazines to clear the forests of the Amazon, Brad Pitt somehow doesn’t get credit for how consistently good of an actor he is --- he’s got echoes of John Wayne and Patton and a few of his other crazies here, but this is bravura comedic work that never feels false despite the rampant absurdity or derivative despite its moviedom forbearers. Nothing short of sublime, perhaps the real reason to see the movie, Cannes best actor winner Christoph Waltz won’t leave your head for a while. This is one Nazi I couldn’t help but want to like, even while I didn’t mind watching him (spoiler ahead) get a swastika cut into his head. Mission accomplished.