by Walter Chaw
BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956)
starring Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, Roger Duchesne, Guy Decomble
screenplay by Jean-Pierre Melville, dialogue by Auguste Le Breton
directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
With every minute of Henri Decaё's cinematography looking like a Eugène Atget photograph, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur is a visually stunning film from a director who influenced filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard (who quotes Bob Le Flambeur at least twice in Breathless) and John Woo (whose The Killer takes its basic plot from Melville's Le Samourai). It is film noir of the highest order, reminding in its ensemble intricacy of Kubrick's The Killing (released a year later in 1956) and evoking the kind of chiaroscuro, gin-joint, smoke-drenched milieu where every ashtray has a name. It's a love letter to the grim American gangster drama of the Forties that subverts the genre even as it reinvents it as a lyrical ballad to gamblers, losers, hoods, and wayward dames--a snapshot of the Montmarte district of Paris 47 years before Jean-Pierre Jeunet's reinvention of the same.
Bob (Roger Duchesne) is an aging gambler addicted to the game while walking the straight and narrow for the decades following a prison stint. A friend to a police lieutenant (Guy Decomble) he once saved from an assassin's bullet, Bob operates by a dying code of underground conduct that guides his shepherding of a wayward lass Anne (Isabelle Corey), his mentorship of a pal's son, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), and his refusal to aid pimp Marc (Gérard Buhr) for his unsavoury avocation. A long losing streak tempts Bob back into the fold for one last big heist to settle all debts.
Watching Bob Le Flambeur in its newly restored 35mm print is a little of the old religion. Tongue-and-cheek and aching with cool, Melville's film is the headwaters for the professional crime films to follow. It is a wellspring that, along with Jules Dassin's Rififi (taken from Bob Le Flambeur co-writer Auguste Le Breton's novel), is the very definition of sensual fashion and mod style. Duchesne (himself something of a criminal) provides a pleasingly conflicted noir hero who finds the rhythm in a wry conclusion as poetic as it is satisfying. Bob Le Flambeur is essential cinema from one of the most important directors of the modern era; what an amazing gift that it's never looked better.
THE INDEPENDENT (2000)
starring Jerry Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Max Perlich, Ted Demme
written by Mike Wilkins & Stephen Kessler
directed by Stephen Kessler
Stephen Kessler's The Independent is a scattershot love letter to the exploitation cinema of Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman that plays out like something of an overlong sketch comedy. A "Mr. Show" or a "Ben Stiller Show" riff stretched to an unwise 90 minutes with a confused "mockumentary" framing device that fails to respect its own premise, The Independent shoots for This Is Spinal Tap but ends up with something considerably south of that mark. The final and best joke of the film might be that a movie ostensibly spoofing a blowhard of an untalented hulk of a filmmaker is itself the product of the same.
Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller) is a magnificently untalented producer who happens to make extraordinarily memorable bad films. After the resounding failure of his latest magnum opus "Ms. Kevorkian" hurries Fineman into unrecoverable debt, Morty tries desperately to get a lifetime award from any film festival while securing funding for his latest project about the life of a convicted mad-dog murderer (Larry Hankin). With his laconic hangdog daughter in tow (Janeane Garofalo), Morty is offered a berth at the prostitution-sponsored fest in the middle of some Nevadan desert.
The Independent abandons its mockumentary format so consistently that it's something of a mystery why it wasn't elided altogether. (Not so much of a mystery, I guess, as it's the only way to include as many star cameos with so little effort.) It seems to mistake slapstick for satire and features a series of ridiculous movie parodies that don't work because the movies parodied are already goofing on themselves. Stiller's patented "enraged hobbit" shtick smells embarrassedly like one-note desperation, a too-late attempt to salvage material that fails completely to not only transcend its premise but also honour it. The target isn't promising to being with, but the execution is somehow more feckless and disinteresting. The Independent is a low budget Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; if that prospect doesn't strike fear in your heart, have I got a movie for you.
starring Kôji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Anna Nakagawa
written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho) and his psychiatrist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) stumble upon a series of murders unrelated but for an "X" carved in the throats of the victims and the fact that the murderers each recall neither malice nor the details of their crime. As a witness to many of the atrocities of the piece, the audience can confirm both the dispassion of the perpetrators and the violence of the crimes. In time, the pair discovers that a drifter Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who appears to not remember any details of his past, might have talked each of the murderers into doing what they did.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 1997 film Cure (unreleased in the U.S. until 2001) is important cinema from a generation of Japanese filmmakers that includes the excessive Takashi Miike, Tsukamoto Shinya, and Sogo Ishii while also incorporating the careful, contemplative rhythms of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. The brilliance of the piece lies in its ability to find its heartbeat in a series of absurdist conversations and still tableaux rather than in its sudden flashes of violence and grue. It reminds of the Wallace Stevens poem "The Snowman" in that it understands the weight of silence as it punctuates irretrievable moments. Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) appreciates that ultimate questions such as "Who are you?" and "Which of your personas is your true self?" are as terrifying as any fiend or betrayal by a loved one when posed by someone interested in the answer.
Beautiful and fascinating, Kurosawa's Cure is an existentialist serial killer film that plays a good deal like what Larry Cohen's God Told Me To might look like if it were written and directed by "Beat" Takeshi. Its visual compositions as stunning as its casual way with graphic violence and Zen-like philosophical complexities, Cure weighs the nature of identity and the weight of original sin against the backdrop of an unusual police procedural that owes as much to Kitano's instant classic Hana-bi (also from 1997) as it does to David Fincher's Se7en (1995). It is breathtaking and thorny in equal measure, an exploration of the possibilities of filmmaking as a mythmaking medium and an exhilarating expansion of a staid genre in equal measure. Cure is a balm for the brow of the weary cineaste, and Kurosawa joins Kitano as the best directors in the world of whom you've most likely never heard.
LITTLE OTIK (2000)
starring Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl, Jaroslava Kretschmerová, Pavel Nový
written and directed by Jan Svankmajer
Perverse, queasy, and fascinatingly unwatchable, surrealist Czech puppeteer Jan Svankmajer's Otesánek (a.k.a. Little Otik, or Greedy Guts) is a disquieting amalgam of Little Shop of Horrors, Dead Alive, and Raising Arizona, with a splash of the Brothers Quay to push it right over the edge. Based on a grotesque Czech fairy tale about a barren couple's adoption of a carnivorous tree stump, Otesánek eroticizes the consumption of food to the greatest extent since Frenzy, finding in the mindless consumption of its voracious wooden monster the base animal logic at the lizard heart of all human ambition and greed. At least 30 minutes too long, Otesánek manages a surreal dreamscape of nightmare infertility, unchecked consumerism, and unnatural creation. It is Frankenstein's monster distilled down to its quintessential components: hubris, frustrated biology, and unfettered appetite. Otesánek's brilliance is located squarely in its dissection of mythology as the product of loin rather than pen--a comedy of manners that tackles so many primitive topics that the civilized mind is left naked and raw.
Bespectacled Karel (Jan Hartl) and his drawn wife Bozena (Veronika Zilkova) are haunted by their inability to spawn. Babies appear everywhere after their bad-news trip to the obstetrician: fished from the fishmonger's tank and wrapped in a newspaper while Karel's double waits behind a throng of expectant women. The bald audacity of Svankmajer's vision is emotionally shattering and viscerally uncomfortable, no more so than in the grief-fuelled hallucinations of a childless couple eternally so. When Karel digs up a tree stump that looks vaguely like a child (see also: the Chinese myth of the mandrake root), Bozena lavishes all of her feverish maternal attention upon it until, one psychosomatic pregnancy later, the stump "Otik" develops lips with which to suckle in a tableau of which Giotto would be proud.
Otesánek is cringe-worthy and deeply unpleasant. A precocious little girl, Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), alternates sexual dysfunction texts with fairy tales (tomato/to-mah-to) while fending off the Cronenbergian advances of a decrepit pederast. For all appearances, Alzbetka is the protagonist of another fairy tale (that with a different variety of voracious antagonist as the girl goes skippingly into a dark wood), yet both the "Red Riding Hood" story and "Otesánek" are cautionary tales about unnatural sexuality--one premature, the other manufactured--and such illicit creation mythology's attendant hunger. Sadly, Otesánek is too efficient in making its point and does so too often, softening its impact as well by diffusing its focus with such things as an attack of capitalism and the endlessly needy middle class. Instead of surgical, Otesánek is torturous: Svankmajer the expert inquisitor of the intimate violations of our boudoir dreads. It's mesmerizing, no question, but those last few turns of the screw prove excessive and mortal.
VIOLET PERFUME: NO ONE IS LISTENING (2001)
Nadie te oye: Perfume de violetas
starring Ximena Ayala, Nancy Gutiérrez, Arcelia Ramírez, María Rojo
screenplay by José Buil and Marysa Sistach
directed by Marysa Sistach
If Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También is a Jules and Jim for Mexico's Nouvelle Vague and Alejandro González Iňárritu's Amores Perros its Week End, Marisa Sistach's grim Nadie te Oye: Perfume de Violetas (Violet Perfume: No One is Listening) could be read as a grimier and more adolescent version of Claude Chabrol's Les Biches. Yessica (Ximena Ayala) is the whore (unwillingly here), a troubled daughter of the poverty caste who somehow gains admittance into a private school after being expelled from her last for punching her principal. Making fast friends with child of the working class Miriam (Nancy Gutiérrez) by smelling her hair, Yessica finds the possibility for friendship and happiness fatally undermined by her family's economic situation and its attendant social retardation.
Sistach's directorial style is loose and intimate, presenting a vision of Mexican street life long on grit and short on romance. Her screenplay is similarly coarse in its evocation of the shorthand of juvenile discourse, vacillating as it does between poles of dreamy ecstasy and dire bullying. Sexuality is tested with ambiguity before finally being perverted for a pair of imported sneakers, while the commencement of the menstrual cycle is treated in a way seldom seen since Brian DePalma's Carrie. Despite its expert use of a telephone ringing as a harbinger of devastation, Perfume de Violetas is a pubescent horror show of a different kind, one revolving around Yessica's increasingly desperate attempts to hijack first a scent (the titular violet) and finally another's identity however briefly in her need to escape her inescapable fate. Her hunger for betterment is animal and newcomer Ayala's performance is terrifyingly feral.
Perfume de Violetas wears its agenda on its sleeve and much of its second act seems redundant as a result. The pacing sags when the outcomes of its mini-apocalypses are telegraphed (the fate of a nest egg is never in doubt), and one can't help but feel as though the point has been made long before its magnificently nihilistic finale. Still, Perfume de Violetas announces documentary director Sistach (a graduate of Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica) as an important figure at the fore of the Mexican new wave with this, only her second feature film. Part post-feminist scream and part untamed socio-political fable, Perfume de Violetas has teeth--and it's not afraid to use them.