Reviews

New York Film Festival 2011: The Skin I Live In + The Artist + The Descendents

The Skin I Live In

The many characters in The Descendants create a complex Venn diagram of Matt King’s community and a larger rumination on their interlocking pain, anger, and love.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-12 (New York Film Festival)
UK date: 2011-07-27 (General release)
Website
Trailer

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dugardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Rated: NR
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-14 (New York Film Festival)
Website
Trailer

The Descendents

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-10-16 (New York Film Festival)
UK date: 2012-01-27 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Among the most anticipated titles at this year's New York Film Festival were Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), the French silent film The Artist, and Alexander Payne’s closing night feature, The Descendants. These were also among the most accessible films at the Festival, and as I enjoyed myself without feeling pushed by form and content, I had mixed feelings about what this said about the Festival as a whole.

Almodóvar tackles a psychological science fiction/horror story reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Eyes Without A Face, using the classical Hitchcock framing he often favors, as well as the cool gray-blue color palette of North by Northwest and Vertigo (whose story is another reference point). Here the mad scientist is a suave surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), working on an artificial skin that will be impervious to burns and insect bites. His primary test subject is Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps locked in his villa outside Toledo, and who moves about in a series of sleek bodysuits (designed by Jean Paul Gaultier).

I haven’t always cared for Almodóvar’s thrillers, in particular his last movie Broken Embraces. Here he seems newly reenergized; the cold matter-of-factness of the storytelling is contrasted with the gradual psychological awakening of Vera and a surprisingly poignant ending. Almodóvar balances a knowing and entertaining grasp of genre with explorations of sexual, spiritual, and corporeal identities. I found myself admiring the darkness at the movie’s core and also Banderas simmering in a good role once again, Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s protective housekeeper and Almodóvar’s always incredible cinematography and art direction.

The Artist also features fussy, detailed visual pleasures. It is a slight, mostly appealing movie that goes far on the performances of its lead actors. Michel Hazanavicius, a hitherto unknown director of broad French entertainments, has made a black and white silent comedy for an international market. In some ways it was a genius, if risky career move. The novelty of the concept attracts press, the silence makes it easily accessible to a global audience, who may appreciate the mix of American and French actors. The content also flatters film critics, appealing to their love of movies and their esoteric knowledge of old Hollywood with its layers of hidden references.

The movie shows admirable fidelity to his concept, presented in the square-ish aspect ratio of the silents and shooting at 22 frames per second, recreating their appearance of slightly sped up action. Hazanavicius says the story was partly inspired by the relationship between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, but it’s really the oldest story in Hollywood: one star falls and another is born. In this case, it’s the dashing Douglas Fairbanks-like George Valentin (Jean Dugardin) who must make way for the introduction of sound and the romantic comedy star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo).

The Artist

In one of The Artist's most interesting and sometimes annoying conceits, the world of the movie that we are watching closely mirrors the types of movies the lead characters create. Each scene is constructed as a dramatic short with a clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end. Individuals dance and mug for each other. (One particularly great comic set-up has a young Peppy half-wearing Valentin’s coat and acting out a flirtation from both sides.) Valentin’s dog is just as trick-prone on screen as off, and rescues his master from a fire in a manner that recalls the movie, “A Russian Affair,” that opens this film. The tinkling musical accompaniment emulates the sort that would play in silent movie theaters. Hazanavicius uses the absence of all other sound to provoke moments of odd magic, as when a movie audience bursts into applause that we cannot hear, and to emphasize Valentin’s frustrating inability to express himself.

The movie offers an intriguing idea (but never fully explores it), that the characters are trapped in a kind of Toontown fantasy world of perpetual “Golden Age” Hollywood entertainment, fated to act out the demands of genre. At times Hazanavicius’ approach is too rinky-dink and strained to be charming. Oddly, the movie essentially pays homage to a silent classics here reduced to a second-rate knock-off of the most maudlin Chaplin comedy.

If The Artist embraces Hollywood’s love of the hoariest concepts. The Descendants shows how the hoariest of concepts can be renewed with a sensitive telling. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I wasn’t pleased to be certain that I knew where it was heading. I was right, but was also moved by how it got there. It opens with a brief shot of a woman standing in a boat, a smile on her face and the wind whipping her hair. We subsequently learn from Matt King (George Clooney), that woman’s husband, that she subsequently fell off the boat and is now deep in a coma.

The Descendents

King is a lawyer on the island of Oahu. He’s juggling the messy sale of a large tract of land owned by his family in Kauai and is an admittedly uninvolved father of two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). In short order he learns that his wife is not coming out of the coma and they will need to unhook her life support, and also that she’s been having an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). King confronts his many problems and tries to reconcile with his daughters during the days leading to his wife’s death.

The Descendants refers directly to the, ahem, King family’s land dealing (their ancestors stretch back to a white settler and the last Hawaiian royalty), and Matt’s wrestling with his responsibilities towards their stewardship of their land. The many characters expand this idea of "descendants," creating a complex Venn diagram of King’s community and a larger rumination on their interlocking pain, anger, and love. This is accomplished through a series of dramatic monologues worked into the story: they struck me at first as cloying, but they became more layered as they accumulated.

The Descendants is adapted from the same-titled book by Kaui Hart Hemming, and like Alexander Payne's other adaptations, it constructs a low-key, yet deeply satisfying appeal, aimed at adults looking for an exploration of the problems they deal with every day, leavened with humor and a dash of sentimentality. He makes the most of a Hawaiian setting that mixes upper middle-class Americana with epic backdrops and a deceptively casual beach bum vibe. In his narration, King says he is annoyed at people who assume that living in Hawaii is nothing but good times, surfing, and luaus. He asks, “Are we immune to life?” As the movie poses that question, it also offers multiple answers.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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