Friday, February 21, 2014

Short Take: Stranger by the Lake (2013, France)

dir. Alain Guiraudie

With precision and rigor, Guiraudie cultivates suspense by appropriating the mores and behavior patterns of a secluded gay society. The act of cruising/looking here, for instance, initially connotes lust but after the community learns of the murder, registers caution. While it universalizes sexual desire and thereby treats the homosexual experience as a banal subject, the movie is also an intriguing fictionalization of the routinely invoked Freudian conflict between Eros and death instinct. A sequence of the same structure repeats 10 times with a measured rhythm, but as the protagonist Franck lets himself fall further into murderous Michel's hands, the tension only escalates until the aforementioned distinction seems to completely blur. And what a fitting end to the story, wherein Franck at first tries to escape from Michel's grasp, but ends up looking for his lover, calling out his name desperately.

Also: The long take where Franck watches Michel drowning his lover with utter silence engulfing the entire landscape literally sent chills down my spine -- from which point on Franck becomes more drawn to Michel, setting off that whole battle between sexual and death drives. And how about that shot where, the day after Franck witnessed the murder, Michel emerges out of the lake and his beautiful but menacing face looms in close-up right in front of Franck.

Further musings: Given the changing political, social and legal landscape for LGBT rights, I started wondering how much that'll affect the future of LGBT-themed films. Because, as much as Stranger by the Lake uses a specifically gay culture as a foundation for its genre trappings, it's not at all about making a political statement, treats the gay experience as mundane and part of everyday, and deliberately blurs the genre distinctions. Anyway, all in all, a very good picture. Hopefully will check the rest of Guiraudie's oeuvre out soon.

Friday, February 14, 2014

For Valentine's Day: Blue Valentine (2010, USA)

dir. Derek Cianfrance

Google’s search results for Valentine’s Day movies will most likely include much-cherished romantic comedies, some Richard Curtis, and a string of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Among those is The Notebook (2004), which catapulted the Canadian darlings Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling to stardom, as well as to a highly staged Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards. Though it might have topped some Valentine’s Day movie lists, I’m singling this out to introduce a better love story starring Gosling. After having added a couple of critically successful indies like Half Nelson (2006) to his resume in the intervening years, Gosling returned with Blue Valentine (2010), Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore feature.

This time, he partners up with Michelle Williams, and their portrayal of a gradually disintegrating relationship as Dean and Cindy feels exhaustingly real. Like Gosling’s previous affair with Adams spanning decades, this falling-out-of-love story also traverses different time frames, but Cianfrance’s more purposeful plotting does more than merely allow the characters a nostalgic revisit to the bittersweet old days or clue viewers in on some long-buried secrets. In Blue Valentine, it all starts with the death of the couple’s pet, which is but one of the many potential triggers. The opening scene presents a deceptively peaceful morning in a loving home, but as the dog’s death leads to an impulsive getaway to a love motel, we notice those familiar, seemingly insignificant signs of a relationship in trouble – misinterpreted words, alcoholism, or fading passion. The more they dwell on their miserable now, their beginnings filled with laughs, tears, and promises seem increasingly distant. Cianfrance repeats the calculated juxtaposition of past and present, building towards the film’s emotional peak, where the pair’s tearful wedding vows segue into the dusk-toned image of them parting ways. This marriage between the film’s formal gambit and its delicate, convincing depiction of a waning love sets Blue Valentine apart from other romantic dramas. Admittedly it’s a downer, but witnessing Gosling and Williams redefine authentic acting alone is worth it.