Dreamers, The (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw a movie at the Cinémathèque Française I thought, “Only the French… Only the French would house a cinema inside a palace.” The movie was Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” Its images were so powerful, it was like being hypnotized. I was 20 years old. It was the late ‘60s and I’d come to Paris for a year to study French.
But it was here that I got my real education. I became a member of what in those days was kind of a free masonry. A free masonry of cinephiles… what we’d call “film buffs.” I was one of the insatiables… the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen.
Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us, before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator until worn-out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen really was a screen. It screened us… from the world.
And so it began, my love for films, during the summer just after junior year of high school had come to a welcome close. Bernardo Bertolocci’s “The Dreamers” was a like a thunder shock to my spine that upon seeing it, I sat on the couch, silent and still, Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing as the end credits started to creep down, convinced that I had not seen anything like it—and I wanted more. Right then I knew that I had just seen a film that I would carry with me so long as I lived.
The opening credits makes known that it is going to be a physical picture. As names appear on the screen, the background demands that we admire the infrastructure of the Eiffel Tower, the metallic support mostly in black while others are, curiously, in red. The color red usually represents passion and violence. There is violence in the film but it isn’t until the very end. For the most part, it focuses on several kinds of passion, physical and intimate, among three cinephiles—an American from sunny California and two French fraternal twins.
Its physicality is not only defined in terms of sex, nudity, and carnality. It is reflected in how Matthew (Michael Pitt) wears his suits and hair, how Isabelle (Eva Green) finds it a challenge to exist on her own for very long when her brother is not only an arm’s length away, how the posture of Theo (Louis Garrel) is blasé every time his father, a published and successful poet, speaks at the dinner table and yet Theo’s eyes are sharp, just waiting to pick out a ripe moment of hypocrisy. Matthew notices how the length, width, and depth of Isabelle’s cigarette lighter tends to fit in any of the patterns of a table cloth.
One of the picture’s themes is its depiction of Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo as children—that although they talk of politics, they remain cocooned. The trio runs through the Louvre Museum in an attempt to beat the record set by the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à part.” Isabelle refers to the American as “my little Matthew” as if she were his big sister. They explore one another’s bodies up close and afar. Notice the innocent appearance of Isabelle’s room. A fort is built in the salon. Listen closely as to how Theo and Matthew try to persuade one another of the merits of either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.
Like children, they even play games. When inspiration erupts, either Theo or Isabelle reenact a specific scene in a movie. The other two must try to guess the film. Failure to do so will result in a punishment. And like children, punishments must involve a level of humiliation. Matthew finds the game sadistic and is repelled by it initially. But Isabelle and Theo’s friendship is one he yearns for. He feels as though he has found his soulmate. Only there happens to be two of them. Their relationships are subtle, elegant, and complex.
But all games must come to an end eventually. The film mostly taking place inside an apartment, we see glimpses of the reality—a revolution taking shape—on television, by looking at a massive pile of rubbish in the streets, and observing protestors marching outside. There are blockades and behind them are police. There is a beautiful scene where Matthew takes out Isabelle on a date. It is the only moment in the film that comes closest to a typical love story but it is most welcome because it is earned. It is a glimpse of a future they might have had if they were born and had met a decade before or after. But, alas, it is May 1968.
Based on the screenplay and novel by Gilbert Adair, “The Dreamers” is beautifully photographed, each location—whether it be a room, a restaurant, or a movie theater—is vivid in detail, and wonderfully—and bravely—performed by the three leads. Some viewers may look and dismiss it to be pornographic because of the amount of flesh shown on screen. But others may look and recognize a story of awakening. In a number of ways, it had awoken me.
In retrospect, if it weren’t for this film, I probably would not have been inspired—and continuing to be inspired—to watch whatever movie I could get my hands on. Though my pursuit of knowledge is in science, it is likely that tough times would have gotten the best of me if the movies had not been there constantly to provide a delicate balance between reality and dreams.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tommy (Matt Smith) and Rebecca (Eva Green) met when they were children while the latter is temporarily staying at his grandfather’s house. Her family has plans of immigrating to Tokyo, Japan. Twelve years later, Rebecca visits Tommy with hopes of continuing their special friendship–one that might lead to romance. The reunion proves to be a breath of fresh air for both of them. On the way to cause mass hysteria in the city involving cockroaches, Rebecca tells Tommy she needs to urinate. Tommy pulls over next to a field. As Rebecca walks away, she hears Tommy getting out of the vehicle, the accompanying sudden halt of another vehicle, and a deafening thud of a lifeless body hitting the pavement.
Written and directed by Benedek Fliegauf, “Womb” is surprising in that it avoids hyperbole considering its subject matter. After Tommy’s funeral, Rebecca decides to clone her deceased lover, carry the child in her womb, and raise him as if she were his own. There is a pool of questions worth bringing up and answering, like how the cloned Tommy would be different given the disparities in the environment where original Tommy was raised, but it focuses on one issue: Can romantic love be turned into love for one’s “child”? And if so, as an audience, do we consider it acceptable or morally repugnant? How about when the child turns into an adult? Is it still distasteful? Let us not forget that Rebecca and the clone do not share the same DNA. Is it considered incest?
The film is shot in a way that inspires us to turn inwards. There are plenty of scenes that take place indoors and the howling of fierce winds can be heard from within. We get the impression that there is something ominous brewing outside. And perhaps there is. We get a taste of regular folks’ discrimination toward “copies.” As many of us know, discrimination can lead to hate and hate can lead to violence.
Colors are drained of their vibrancy. Rebecca’s world feels like a never-ending winter. The snow can symbolize her grief. Though she is able to, in a way, being her lover back to life, the clone is not the same person. The clone loves her… but as a mother, not a partner in life. Green is quite good in evoking the need to love the child emotionally while struggling to keep the physical aspect out of it. We watch closely as her character is enticed to cross that line. Through the quiet and slow unspooling of the screenplay, we are mesmerized and fascinated about what goes on in Rebecca’s mind. If she can clone her lover, carry him to term, and raiser her as her own, what line is she not willing to cross?
“Womb” gets some interesting critiques. More than a few have expressed feeling disturbed that the camera shows nakedness of children. (No private frontal part is shown, just one shot of buttocks, a boy who is shirtless and at times wearing nothing but underwear.) I did not feel wrong about it because I think it ties into the story.
For example, in the latter half, when Rebecca looks at her “son” who may or may not be wearing much, we wonder what she might be thinking. Is she thinking about her time as a girl when she and Tommy innocently slept in the same bed? Is she thinking about something that could put her in jail? With the former half, I chalk it up to the writer-director’s intention of creating a world that feels realistic despite the fact that human cloning is very possible. When I was a kid, I would just be in my underwear at home sometimes. It doesn’t feel exploitative. It certainly is not pornographic.
A better question is not whether the film leans toward pedophilia from a technical standpoint, but how come none of the residents around the small town recognizes that Rebecca’s “son” looks exactly like the original Tommy as a child? That bothered me a lot more, if you ask me.
Dark Shadows (2012)
★ / ★★★★
In the eighteenth century, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Deep) is cursed by a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) to become a blood-sucking creature of the night because he chooses to love Josette (Bella Heathcote) over her. To further demonstrate her hatred toward him, the scorned sorceress then unveils to the townspeople that a vampire lives among them. She benefits from their fear after a mob captures Barnabas and buries him in a coffin to rot for eternity. Two hundred years later, however, a group of construction workers come across the vampire’s tomb and decide to open it.
If “Dark Shadows” had not been advertised as directed by Tim Burton, I would have assumed that it been under the helm of a young filmmaker who wanted to prove himself and had been given the opportunity to direct his first commercial Hollywood picture because every square inch of the material reeks of potentially good ideas but lacking in narrative focus to give the bland recipe some much needed seasoning.
The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is an exercise of mediocrity. What exactly is the story about? Have you ever played the 1985 Super Mario Bros. game where if Mario or Luigi stays on one platform for too long it collapses? The player then must control the avatar as quickly as possible toward stable ground without falling into the depths. That is the same approach taken here. In its attempt to cover up the plethora of weaknesses in the film, it gives the illusion that it’s about a lot of things and moves through them with nervous energy.
In the end, it’s all subplot and no central story. Although there is talk about the importance of family prior to the opening credits, once Barnabas is let out of his cage and joins his distant family members who are living in his castle, not one scene is constructed with dramatic heft or flow to make us believe that he genuinely cares for his clan, at least on an emotional level. Instead of focusing on developing the story and exploring the characters that inhabit it, the performances take center stage.
Depp sports his now usual weirdness and proves once again that he’s a master technician, from his range of intonations depending on the level of threat his character faces to the way he looks at someone with just enough menace as to not appear as a complete monster. Green, on the other hand, amps up the sensuality by giving intense glares that are perfect for high fashion editorials. They share one funny scene rolling around in a loft and breaking expensive furniture in the process, cheekily suggesting sexual intercourse.
But what about the family? As the head of the Collins clan, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not given enough scenes to show that she is a capable leader of her family as well as the cannery business. Most of the time we see her looking stern, almost constipated, like she’s having a bad day and wanting a strong drink. What is done with Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s hormonal daughter, is depressing throughout because she is only allowed to play two emotions: sexy and stoned. Moretz is a thespian capable of exuding a balance of sensitivity and strength so watching her reduce herself to a would-be sex kitten is embarrassing. I would personally like to ask her what she saw in the role while reading the script because she does not look like she is being challenged here.
The visuals are outstanding especially during the final confrontation between Barnabas and Angelique. I liked watching the transformation of inanimate objects suddenly having a will of their own. Still, it was difficult to care how it would all turn out because we had no understanding of the characters. We have epidermal information about what the winner might gain and the loser might lose but there hovers a deafening emptiness in the squabbles.
★★ / ★★★★
Miss G (Eva Green) was the diving coach in a British boarding school and idolized by Di (Juno Temple), the team’s leader. Miss G was different from the other more traditional teachers. She wasn’t afraid to talk about sexuality, literatures banned by the school, and the importance of reckless abandon. But when Fiamma (María Valverde), a girl from Spain who was accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, enrolled in the school, Miss G had a new favorite student. Based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, “Cracks” heavily relied on mood and beautiful imagery to keep the rather thin storyline afloat. We saw the girls in poetic lens while running all over campus, diving in the nude at midnight, and hanging out in their dormitories. Jordan Scott, the director, insisted on delivering the best aesthetics, sometimes punctuated in slow motion, to contrast the ugliness of jealousy that Di and her friends felt toward the new girl. While I appreciated the director’s technique, I felt as though the material could have been much darker. Di was obviously sexually attracted to Miss G. Unfortunately, the picture held back from digging into the passion between the student and teacher and I was left wondering why. I almost would have enjoyed it more if it had straddled the line between tasteful sensuality and unabashed exploitation. The camera spent too much time contemplating on how Di must have felt when a more exciting girl was introduced into the school and how Fiamma must have felt when her classmates wanted to send her back to her country. However, I found myself more interested in Miss G: her volatile personality and state of mind. I wanted to see more of Miss G’s struggles to keep her dark secrets strictly private. We saw her break down in the halls, a relatively public space, but what did she do while she was in her room, when she believed she was alone? Green did the best with what she was given. I enjoyed the scenes when she delivered inspiring messages to her students as they perfected their diving skills. She used a lot of words, undoubtedly delicious to the ears, but ultimately signifying nothing. But the most disappointing unexplored detail of all was Miss G’s history with the school when she was a young girl. Did she fit in like Di or was she an outcast like Fiamma? Throughout the picture, she was torn between the two girls. If we were more knowledgeable about her history, specific details could have been more resonant. Instead, some of her decisions felt frustratingly one-dimensional. “Cracks” remained tasteful when it shouldn’t have been. I desired to see the monster that lived in all the girls, the kind of monsters seen only in the dark. Instead, the film somewhat worked better as a pretty picture of the fragility of friendships.