Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Morning After: Tea, Sympathy, and Less Sympathy

Years from now—when you talk about this—and you will—be kind. Right outta the mouth of Deborah Kerr, six-time Oscar bridesmaid. Were she speaking today, and specifically this morning, or perhaps already by the middle of last night, Kerr might have said, Years from now—if you talk about this—and you might—make fair distinctions.

I'm keeping mum about my thoughts on the telecast, since I'm hoping to be able to join Nathaniel and the gang for a wrap-up podcast, travel plans permitting. "Discombobulated" is the fairest adjective I've heard in relation to the show, which was occasionally better and frequently worse than that.

As for the prize-giving, it occurred to me this morning to attempt a long-view prognostication and assess how these actual winners will be collectively remembered in terms of individual merit, respective standing against their nomination fields, and dramatic impact at the moment of opening the envelope—a moment which only got more dramatic, given how many presenters plainly had difficulty extracting the card with the winner's name. I realized as I starting working this out that I might have been subconsciously steered to this sort of morning-after post by those fun commentaries that Joe Reid and The Critical Condition have been writing about the hindsight longevity of Oscar's nominations and anointees in 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2005.

Of course, the whole point of their exercise is that our feelings change as years pass and artistic stocks rise and fall. But I'm feeling pretty Oda Mae this morning, so I'm going to try to channel the future anyway. Collectively, what will be the mood in the house when we gaze backward onto this roster of champs—again, mindful of quality, nominated competition, expansion or retrenchment of "AMPAS taste," and value-added for sheer suspense? (Funny how much this wound up looking like my own personal taste, projected onto everyone in the world, from now till forever. I wonder if anyone's considered how blogging can make you narcissistic? Anyone?)

Original Score: From virtually the moment The Social Network opened (somewhat belatedly inspiring me to these thoughts and these sequel thoughts), Oscar watchers awaited the Music Branch's disqualification of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's insinuating, unconventional music. Jonny Greenwood's unnerving, instant-classic There Will Be Blood tracks were only the most recent emblem of how difficult it is for a) untested film composers with b) rock-world pedigrees who c) insist on strange melodies, arrangements, and instrumentation, often favoring d) ambient electronic elements to be included in the voting, much less to secure a nod or a win. As hard as it is out here for a pimp, it's even harder for Trent Reznor to win an Oscar. Or, you'd have thought so. Yet here we are. The exciting oddity of the Hurt Locker mention last year, which could have come down to sheer enthusiasm for the film in a weak field of nominees, comes to full and bristling flower with this thrilling win in a fully competitive five-way race. That Reznor and Ross beat Alexandre Desplat, a universally admired and thus-far winless composer who furnished the melodies to the year's currently beloved Best Picture champion makes their good fortune all the more tremendous, and astonishing.

Film Editing: Less boundary-pushing but no less intricate than the artistry of the composers, and with an admittedly greater competitive edge coming into the night, Kirk Baxter's and Angus Wall's editing on Social Network might be the key ingredient in keeping such a talky and multi-stranded drama barreling ahead, with all that complex but cleanly handled toggling among unfolding actions and future, multiple depositions. An aspect of the film well worth studying; a loss for Baxter and Wall would have been even more mystifying to later Oscar nuts than Fincher's upset is likely to be.

Documentary Feature: Partly because Charles Ferguson made the only attempt at a political statement the entire evening (and bravo to him, and to the statement), and partly because the pair of them managed to cover that base and be context-appropriate and palpably grateful all in less than a minute, and because Inside Job will survive as a compressed, teachable digest of how the financial collapse came to pass. Any of its fellow nominees would have been plausible winners, so last spring's prohibitive early favorite managed to feel like a hard-charging racer to the finish line. Very gratifying, even if Gift Shop would have been better TV and the Restrepo guys comparably sobering.

Supporting Actor: One of two embarrassingly rich acting categories, both of which managed to reward a very familiar face with established mall-crowd credentials and formidable arthouse bragging rights. Bale has confessed to the loudness of his performance, which may seem a little overcooked as years pass, but I doubt it. After Ledger in '08 and Waltz in '09 (and many would add Bardem in '07), we're looking at quite a glory run in this frequently doldrumy derby.

Adapted Screenplay: The legacy of Aaron Sorkin's script and its Oscar triumph ought to fall even more closely in line with Network's than he realizes, which will probably delight him. That is, its detractors will become even more vociferous, finding ever more persuasive evidence of compromise and jerry-rigging, but its champions won't get weary, either. I expect we're due for many years of benchmarking praise ("Film X has the best, most literate script since The Social Network"). However boldly Granik and Rosellini preserved Daniel Woodrell's "Ozark" conceits and the Coen brothers did right by Charles Portis, a loss in this category would have been pretty asinine. Please note that I am not a 100% Social Network devotee, even though the article thus far would imply otherwise.

Supporting Actress: To my taste, Leo's "accidental" F-bomb was more nakedly tactical and dubiously tasteful than her Consider... ads. Just check how quickly she goes from mugged embarrassment to gauging the crowd's reaction, as high up as the rafters. People will forget the ad controversy; the disjointed, increasingly awkward speech, which started out nicely with some game engaging of Kirk Douglas, will follow her a lot longer. The excesses of her persona "as herself" are likely to draw even more skeptical eyes to the excesses of her performance as Alice Ward, which plenty of people already find too showboaty. But this is the kind of not-quite-famous, billed-below-the-title, cult-following actor whom it's gratifying to see at the winner's podium, and I'm sure she's not done surprising us with what else she can do. I'm glad she's eschewing a stylist (in fact, I thought she looked unconventional and marv, which is a great combo), and I believe every account that she's a charming, earnest person. One evening with Emily Post wouldn't kill her, though. Or maybe just a week shadowing Annette Bening. (After Mo'Nique and Leo, what PR porcupine will emerge in next year's race? Has Megan Fox got a disability drama in the hopper?)

Animated Feature: The win for the lousy song will drag this trophy down more than overall adoration for the movie will benefit Randy Newman. Victories for the spectacular co-nominees, How to Train Your Dragon and The Illusionist, would have looked discerning, refreshingly against the grain, yet fully justifiable. And a sense of Pixar fatigue is growing palpable, especially when the directors always act "surprised" to have won, and the full passel of major creative masterminds (Lasseter, Stanton, Bird, Docter, Unkrich) has his own statuette to dress up. Lots of reasons why Pixar will need a real hum-dinger of a universal love object to stay as high-flying adored in the 10s as they were through the 00s. All of that said, Toy Story 3 is probably not as sublime as we devotees have wagered nor as flawed as its more nonplussed critics try to maintain. A drama-free moment of the telecast, but hard to begrudge too much, even for a lot of the people who'd have voted otherwise.

Actor: Similarly, I think dyspepsia about the even bigger prizes for The King's Speech will spread to Firth through a principle of contagion, more than the other way around. Which I'm more or less okay with, since several principles of contagion sure served him well this season: good will stirred up last year, good will seeping across 20 entire years before that, and heightened perceptions of complexity in his George VI because people simply love the film. But no one seems capable of holding anything against Firth, even more than against The King's Speech. I expect some Foxx/Mirren-style incredulity to start swirling around him, which he admirably tried to get out ahead of in his first line at the daïs ("I have a feeling my career has just peaked"). To read the internet these days, you'd never know how Streep or Dench or Cruz or DiCaprio or Eastwood lost in years when everyone alive remembers that they never had a chance. Eisenberg, Franco, and Bardem can hope for that kind of retrospective adulation, but Firth's performance, if not quite equal to present euphoria, is better than an eventual pushback will admit. Maybe he'll be a Forest Whitaker, a certain, landslide victor whom, already, almost nobody brings up, but when someone does, everyone remains glowingly complimentary of actor and execution alike.

Sound Mixing: BRRRRAHHHMMMMMM!!!!!!! has stayed in the cultural vocabulary slightly even more than the folding-city image, and it's much more recurrent within the actual film. Also, an easier punchline to reproduce in two seconds or less, as our merry band of podcasters has repeatedly rediscovered. I think people will remember how Inception sounded even more than how it looked, and since voting on Best Sound goes bizarrely astray more often than it does in Visual Effects (It's a musical, so it must have great sound! It's winning Best Picture, so it must have great sound!), AMPAS deserves a half-point of extra credit here. Though anyone who loved the mixing of Salt or Social Network or True Grit—who is now looking at the Nolan vehicle's victory and sniping It's loud, so it must have great sound!—is not completely failing to make a point.

Visual Effects: Over and against those who cited Firth or Portman, I'd name this prize as neck-and-neck with the Screenplay prizes as the night's most fore-ordained. Who wouldn't have voted for it, especially against the weak sauce of Alice's incoherent visual proportions, Hereafter's half-wonky tsunami, and, according to the telecast, a CGI python in Harry Potter and the same old suit of armor in Iron Man 2. Not the best coming-out party for a five-wide field, especially given that the telecast featured so many recyclings of the least convincing F/X spectacle in the movie, when the Parisian café explodes. This won't look nearly so au courant in five or ten years as T2 and Jurassic Park still do at nearly 20. But it's also an indisputable choice.

Actress: I know, I know: I'm unmoved by this performance, so I'm deciding everyone else will eventually agree with me. But, seriously: how long before Portman hits a similar wall to Paltrow's, where the blithe gliding-over of her limitations swerves suddenly and mercilessly into a refusal to acknowledge any of her gifts? Pink dress=baby bump. If the Firth backlash seems likely, the Portman one could get truly scary, mediated only by the fact that she seems like she'd be just as happy taking her trophy, her friends, and her family with her and doing something else. Does she wish she'd stuck with dancing full time? I'm not sure, but the question reminds me: almost every year generates one acting victor who is remembered as winning on a PR narrative more than on his or her actual performance. Leo did her best to lose on a PR narrative, and Firth and Bale handled their public appearances like maestri without looking like they were working at it. By contrast, whereas every single stat about hours in dance prep, pounds sacrificed, and years lingering in pre-production probably helped Portman win, they could quickly turn into sandbags on the reputation of her victory, especially against a field that's not only aesthetically strong but rhetorically imposing: Bening's fourth foiling, Lawrence's out-of-nowhere arrival, Kidman's comeback, and Williams's subdued integrity, limelight shunning, and genuine indie-friendliness, the same qualities for which Portman, beguiling and impressive as I find her, seems like a more debatable emblem.

Cinematography: Probably the night's biggest surprise, particularly since it suggested early kinks in overall predictability that soon subsided into the lockstep consensus we'd all suspected. Pfister has been a ceaseless and cordial also-ran on his three previous outings, and it's not his fault that victory finally came calling at the expense of someone who's now lost three times as often as he has (and for work in a much broader range of styles, compared to Pfister's hip-join to a single director). It's not even the best-looking film in the Pfister-Nolan corpus, and unlikely to appease those who still bemoan Inception's omission in Best Director. I like the win, but I forecast it as one I'll misattribute to other films until I go back to look it up, in the manner of Memoirs of a Geisha and Pan's Labyrinth... both of which scored in years when Pfister's work would have made for a preferable choice.

Sound Effects Editing: You can feel Oscartrackers' weariness at the way a single film tends to sweep Sound Mixing, Sound Effects, and Visual Effects in a fell swoop, which should be just as irritating as that habit which finally broke this year of treating the nomination fields in all three categories as more or less identical. Inception, I think, had the least fair claim on this prize of its four, and it's the lowest-profile of four low-profile races. As a way to finally Oscar Skip Lievsay (for True Grit), or to anoint the conspicuous squeaking and zooming of Unstoppable or Tron, or to throw an extra statuette in the Pixar coffer, Sound Effects Editing would have been a nice get. The reflexive giving of the prize to the Sound and Visual Effects champ makes the category feel redundant in a way it didn't at the nominating stage. (Liked the touch, though, of one of the three effects editors—two men and a woman—thanking "all three of our wives." Sapphic sisters in the sound booth! Get it, Lora Hirschberg!)

Original Screenplay: A perfect instance of a well-wrought line in a charming speech ("My father always said I'd be a late bloomer...") coating a questionable win with a Teflon coat of sentimental appeal. I still believe The King's Speech will track the way Rain Man has, not because stuttering is at all like autism, but because what it's got in its corner is feeling, not craft, and deft manipulation, not sturdy conviction. Not that I see a lot of sturdy conviction in many of this year's nominated movies, even ones that I like a lot. The 4/12 haul suggests somewhat thinner appreciation already than many had forecast, and when the momentary buoy starts sinking, Seidler's script will feel the chill and the wet pretty fast. But, because it's easier to tolerate mediocre winners the further down the prestige ladder you go, and because the basic arc of a story that has affected people so much can at least be credited to Seidler's initial inspiration (however opportunistic or dishonest his framing), he won't bear the brunt of the critique. Plus, I thought Leigh's writing was unusually hit-or-miss in Another Year, Inception's constant exposition rather hard to take, and the Fighter and Kids scripts alarmingly perfunctory in passages, no matter how strong in others, or how well saved by acting, editing, and direction. So, it's harder to find better alternatives here than in Picture or Director.

Art Direction: Tim Burton's movies, when nominated, have never lost in this category, which is exactly the sort of narrative that turns from an august tradition to an irritating axiom as soon as it alights on a really perplexing winner. I'm not going to lie: I thought some of the geometries, palettes, and architectures of Alice were sort of fun, though many of them, especially in the Wonderland exteriors, were as aggressively gaudy as I'd heard. And I didn't see it in 3-D, so I didn't have that extra bit of desperate pandering to deal with. So, I don't hate this win so, so, so much (maybe only "much" or "so much," if we must speak of "muchness"), and I can see why people who liked it liked it. But this can't go on forever, and the sea of naysayers is pretty much a minor ocean already. Also, since I can't resist picking a fight, are we all clocking that winning Art Director Robert Stromberg also won last year for Avatar? And can I still get no one on my side in believing that Avatar's Pandora is only a hair less garish than Alice's Wonderland?

Costume Design: I feel a bit bad for Atwood, because I think the costume designing in Alice pips the art direction for median quality, though both are subject to some very low lows—particularly around Alice herself, when it comes to the threads. That shapeless rust, black, and white diagonal-ruffle affair would get you booted off Runway in no time at all, especially with Georgina Chapman or Anne Slowey on guest-judge duty. Still, part of the sting of Alice's frequent awfulness comes, for me, in how fully it fails to live up to the scary-kooky promise of the basic character designs on the teaser posters, which involve some really fun costuming of the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. But, setting aside the unexpected I Am Love mention and the unfairly compulsory-feeling inclusion of Mary Zophres, at long last nominated for True Grit, Costume Design offered a less inspiring field than the Art Direction race. Worse, Atwood's reading-from-a-printout speech, featuring virtually no eye contact with the camera until the very end, is exactly what people who hate Oscar speeches hate about them, timed at that precise midpoint in a long telecast when anything you're bored or put off by suddenly comes across as the worst thing ever. Maybe people won't remember this, but they do still recall Sandy Powell being indivisibly bolshy and bitchy when stumping a year ago for the never-celebrated designers of non-period films, who have, by her own memory, three fewer Oscars than she has. So the right or wrong gesture in a tech-award speech can have surprising traction, and in Atwood's case, it could easily mean Never Again.

Picture: A lot of adherents are unlikely ever to waver, and I'm sure The King's Speech will survive as more than a few people's favorite film. But the background chorus of "Don't you think we'll regret this?" has been even more audible during the run-up to Oscar than it was in the years of Dances with Wolves, Forrest Gump, and A Beautiful Mind. That kind of naysaying never diminishes and only increases as years go by. And if the telecast is obitted, as seems likely, as a gruesomely failed attempt to make the Oscars seem "young and hip," the anointing of a stagy, essentially stodgy royalty drama as Best Picture provides an irresistible nail in that coffin. Spielberg might have had the night's best line in reassuring the other nine nominees that they were joining the ranks of The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, and Raging Bull. (It's funny how he forgot Chocolat and The Barretts of Wimpole Street.) But the juxtaposition of that barely-veiled apologia with the Tacky McTacky gesture of scoring the entire nominee montage to Bertie's speech only made the little "Vote from your heart!" movie seem like a crusty, instantly antiquated Goliath. (And let's please note that if the movie didn't already desaturate all political import from The Speech, lulling its audience into not listening to what Bertie is actually reading, it would be impossible even for the most stupid telecast producer to marshal that clip for the purposes of bland awards-show background pablum. The movie got there first.)

Director: I only got as far back as 25 years in asking myself, has any director ever copped this prize despite exhibiting less of a native knack for "getting" the cinema as an art form? I think Costner's best sequences trounce Hooper's, and Howard's populism and Minghella's swoony pictorialism connect to key valences of the medium. Mel Gibson's sadism at least feels alive on the screen if rabid and overdone. Sam Mendes, whose post-American Beauty struggles on screen have been sad to witness, at least had a lot of ideas in his Oscar-winning vehicle. Risks were taken. Who could say that of Hooper's work on The King's Speech? He's good with actors. So was Scott Cooper last year. He makes you feel. So did everyone whose movie got a Picture nomination, much less a Documentary or an Animated Feature nomination. So does the script by itself, and so does the historical incident that inspired the script. I simply don't get this win, and with divisive but fervently championed artists like Fincher, Aronofsky, Russell, and the Coens in the losing circle, it'll be even harder to validate. Hooper sure didn't help matters with the awkward "triangle of man-love" comment at the mic, apologizing immediately if rather wanly to a justifiably miffed-looking Helena Bonham Carter. Placing myself in Hollywood in 2016, I have a much easier time imagining actors at lunch saying, "Oh, I love The King's Speech!" than I do imagining them saying, "I really want to work with the guy who directed The King's Speech!" The guy who directed John Adams, maybe. On TV, absolutely. But the burden of proof is on, Hooper. I'd be thrilled to be proven wrong.

Song: The Music Branch giveth and taketh away. Everything I said above about incipient Pixar fatigue, distilled. Everything I said about underdog narratives turning into pre-stacked entitlements, distilled. Even Randy Newman doesn't look like he thought he deserved to win on either occasion that he has. Granted, the category didn't give the voters any strong options this year. But the croaky, rushed performance only made the song seem worse—and worse in a careless, tossed-off way, which is finally more off-putting than the failed but earnest kitsch of the Tangled bit, the alien object of "If I Rise," or the genuine attempt at selling a song that Gwyneth put out there. Those performers all thought they were really doing something, or trying to do something, however much we might have disagreed. Not so with Newman, though you can't really blame him as much as the Music Branch, and AMPAS in general, for persisting with a category that has no clear mandate whatsoever. Obama's "As Time Goes By" shout-out makes the case perfectly that the songs that win our hearts at the movies aren't necessarily songs written for those movies. This is the sort of outcome that not only prompts fantasies of recalling a trophy but of rescinding a category.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

You've Got Unfinished Business, Sweetie

If I were a paid blogger, Smurf would have had to take a hit on me weeks ago. So much unfinished business. I know the Best of 2010 blog entries stalled out three weeks ago with Lourdes and Greenberg, and I don't see when I'll be able to write eight more, so with a profound sense of anticlimax, I'm posting my whole, unannotated Top Ten of 2010. What you'll see if you click the link is the Top Ten among U.S. commercial releases, but another link in the same frame will reveal a Top Ten among world premieres, with very little overlap given how many of my favorite releases last year were holdovers from festivals in 2008 and 2009.

Thanks to everyone who responded to the Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence pieces. I'm nearly done with a Natalie Portman retrospective, so I'm not nervous about encouraging you to keep your eyes open for that. I also got caught up on the back catalogs of Michelle Williams and of current Supporting nominees Helena Bonham Carter and Melissa Leo, who have been Actress nominees in the past. When I'll generate those write-ups I can't quite say. There's also, of course, Nicole Kidman, whose back catalog I basically already knew, though I did investigate her first Globe-nominated turn in Billy Bathgate. When I'll look into Practical Magic, The Peacemaker, and The Invasion's even harder to say.

On the subject of Oscar commentary and predictions, I've been popping up at everyone's party except my own: this article I wrote with Nathaniel R. for Fandor's Keyframe Blog about the current Best Picture race, and Nathaniel's own Oscar-obsessed podcasts with Joe Reid of Low Resolution and Katey Rich of Cinema Blend. If you haven't read, please read! If you haven't listened, please listen!

As for proper predictions, I feel disinclined, but not for the reasons of profound annoyance I experienced last year. This time, I feel as though a lot of the winners seem pretty strongly fore-ordained: King's Speech, Firth, Portman, Deakins, Seidler, Sorkin, Wall & Baxter, Toy Story 3, and the Inception teams in Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, and despite a weaker case made by the actual film, Sound Editing. Other races feel nearly as sealed up for Fincher, Bale, and Atwood—although, just for shits and giggles, and because Winter's Bone (unlike, say, Animal Kingdom) is not a screener that I think AMPAS voters can feel okay about ignoring, and everyone seems to love John Hawkes, I'm going out on a limb to predict him over Bale, whose persona and performance are a bit more divisive, or Rush, who's already won. Please know that I'm as aware as you are that I'm probably wrong. But I like being wrong.

In the only categories left, I truly have no idea who will win, and for me personally, the least joyous aspect of current Oscar seasons is having so many Guild prizes, precursors, and voter interviews available, by which one could try to see the future. I miss the sense of joy I used to feel in predicting, but I miss the sense of surprise on Oscar night even more, and I'm not the sort of person who reads the end of novels before I finish the middle. So it's with a gleeful lack of credibility or information that I posit the following:

Supporting Actress: Leo, unless Weaver, unless Bonham Carter
Supporting Actor: Hawkes, unless Bale, unless Rush
Art Direction: King's Speech, unless Alice
Original Score: King's Speech, unless Social Network, unless Inception
Foreign Film: In a Better World, unless Biutiful, unless Outside the Law
Documentary Feature: Waste Land, unless Inside Job, unless Restrepo, unless Exit
Makeup: Way Back, unless Wolf Man, unless Barney's Version
Original Song: "I See the Light," unless "We Belong Together," unless "If I Rise"

I'll have one more bit of catch-up work to rush through this weekend, naming my favorites in the Oscar categories, but you'll need to give me a day on that. Otherwise, happy Oscaring, I hope you've had as much fun as I have cruising various cocktail recipes called "the Black Swan" online, and if you live in Chicago, go see Poetry at the Music Box this weekend! Based on Oasis and Secret Sunshine, and Cannes, and friend reports, it seems like it can't miss.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Actress Profiles: Jennifer Lawrence

Since the Annette Bening piece was a hit, and since I gather that the X-Men: First Class trailer just dropped, here's another Who's Who profile of a current nominee. At present, there's a lot less to watch from Jennifer Lawrence than there is from her fellow Best Actress contenders, but in a short span she's already given us plenty to react to and even more to hope for. And the degree of the accomplishment, not just in the work but as manifested by the nomination, is a lot more remarkable than people are acknowledging; I think Hailee Steinfeld has essentially swiped Lawrence's media hook as the youngster with fearsome talent. And Hailee's a much easier interview, though for that very reason, I'd rather listen to Lawrence. Hope she has a great time on February 27, albeit from her seat. My thoughts on her career so far are here.

And yes, I'm working on Portman. Stay tuned!

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Actress Profiles: The Bening

Annette Bening isn't as frequently a subject of discussion at this site as she is at Nathaniel's; much less is she an occasional guest columnist, as she has been for him. (For at least a short time, you can brush up on her cameos at the pre-redesign Film Experience blog here.) She is, however, an increasingly intriguing actress to me. There's usually stuff in her best performances I would change, there are always things in my less-favorite performances that I enjoy and admire, and she certainly keeps me surprised from role to role. I also seem to get most attached to the work she's done in parts where she didn't get enough credit, or the movie got unfortunately cold-shouldered, or both. And I agree with a lot of people that she's been on an incredible roll these last few years, which is only winning me over more strongly. Plus, she herself comes across in interviews as the bee's knees. Using her recent Oscar nod for The Kids Are All Right as an excuse, in part because it's easily my favorite of her Academy-tipped performances, I've brushed up on more of her filmography and selected her as my newest entry in the Who's Who Profiles at the Best Actress Special Section at my website. What do I think about when I think about The Bening? I think about this.

Also, I'm sure I'm wrong... but I'm starting to wonder, might she win?

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

#9 of 2010: Lourdes

There are plenty of reasons why so many recent movies made about religion are studies in zealous extremism or, as we witnessed in the just-wrapped Sundance Film Festival, narratives about the ambivalent or downright scary pull of charismatic believers, marginal practices, creepy cults. Lourdes, despite resolutely avoiding the track of vilifying faith, may seem in its opening shot or in a roughly synopsized premise to be headed along the equally easy road of facetious send-up. Our first impression, from a camera somewhere in the high rafters of a dubious, marble-floored hotel restaurant, is of timid, hunched, variously incapacitated pilgrims gradually entering and taking their seats, before the head nun/chaperone runs dispassionately through the group itinerary for their visit to Lourdes, the legendary healing site. As the shot fills with people and the camera zooms closer, the kitschiest accoutrements of this trip (an end-of-week prize for Best Pilgrim!) stand in uncertain relation to the soft, sympathetic sincerity with which this nun, uncannily played by Elina Löwensohn, promises to her temporary wards a respite from their acute loneliness. The mutedness of the sound design, plus writer-director Jessica Hausner's gift for capturing the hush and austerity even in commercialized spaces, lend the scene an unexpected dignity; the Crayola shades of the costumes and the architectural pastiche of banquet hall and ski chalet encourage winking skepticism. The camera's refusal to cut, like the unfussy inscrutability of the performers, refuses to break this inchoate first impression into more revealing tonal clues. Nothing contextualizes the overlaid rendition of "Ave Maria," which will reprise later in the film, as a devout musical invocation or as a smirk at the commodified canning of spiritual expression. Is this pilgrimage for real or not, on the whole or in parts? And if so, which parts?

The withholding of judgment persists across Lourdes, which is comic, haunting, sweet, pious, unsettling, agnostic, and wholly deadpan at various moments. The scene structures, story arc, and style are so unusual that they ironically emit a strong sense of directorial point of view even as they inventively resist any sense of pinpointable editorial intervention. Our focal character, played by the charming, heroically opaque Sylvie Testud, is a young, wheelchair-bound woman who, early on, comments on the plastic, "touristy" aspects of this trip to Lourdes, where the minuscule possibility of a miracle is sold like a visit to Epcot Center, a Carnival Cruise, a steady engine for gift-shop apparel: I Prayed To Be Able To Walk, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt. But Testud's Christine makes this comment gently, in docile appreciation of the chance to get out, and the framing of spaces as well as ensuing events conspire to imply that something miraculous is happening, almost happens, or at least potentially could happen to Christine while at Lourdes. And why Christine? Löwensohn's chaperone, whether outraged at her unrewarded devotion or guilty about a private waver in her faith, seems incensed that Christine, not she, is the object of divine contact. The indolent, boy-crazy escort played by Léa Seydoux and the more intensely afflicted visitor played by Orsolya Tóth alternately stress the wry vulgarity and the humbling stakes of this place, this spell, whether of time or of magic.

Hausner, working in brilliantly cool cahoots with up-and-coming cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, keeps finding new locations, angles, and movements for her camera that simultaneously imply the very apex of capitalist banalization and the lurking potential of Spirit, of something ineffable. Embracing neither belief nor renunciation, Lourdes produces astonishing, dispassionate fusions of the two and an incredible range of gradations between them. What does it mean, either as the disabled pilgrim or the chaperoning nun, to visit Lourdes and imagine, much less expect, a touch from God's finger? What does it mean to come to Lourdes and not entertain that possibility? Is it holy or ridiculous, a joke or Very Much The Point, that the Spirit insinuates itself not in objects or intervals of sublime ecstasy but on drab day-trips, in restless queues, between the trapezoidal cafeteria trays? What finally happens in Lourdes and the questions or answers that the movie thereby prompts are generously, uncynically open to interpretation. But this is not a foggy, uncommitted exercise in run-of-the-mill ambiguity, nor does it turn on a brazen sensationalizing of body, society, and spirituality in the manner of Breaking the Waves. The exquisite, oblique manipulation of images, sounds, rhythms, and performance by which Lourdes evolves from scene to scene and by which it arrives at its finale offer its own grounds for an ardent belief in cinema—if not as a higher power then at least as a profound one.

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