Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

09 January 2007

Formal Exercises

Last night I saw Little Children, the new film from In the Bedroom director Todd Field. I loved In the Bedroom, as you might recall, but Little Children I found difficult, distanced, overly formal, and nowhere near as good as John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore. The actors are wonderful, particularly Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson and Phyllis Somerville. Actually, I loved the entire cast, with the exception of Mary B. McCann's ridiculously played one-note performance as a suburban mother. The film exercises a formal device, namely voice over intended (I assume) to distance the film's viewers from the action of the film, as though the entire thing were an elaborate case study—some kind of microcosm of Americana. The device works if this is the intended effect, but it also put me off the film entirely. I felt far removed from the characters, their petty, suburban problems, and I felt ridicule rise in my gut whenever they expressed any kind of pain. The voice over, by distancing me from the characters' lives, made me think their lives ridiculous. When the final horrifying reveal occurred at the end (a Caché moment like nothing else this year) the whole thing seemed even clearer to me: how dare these happy, gorgeous suburbanites complain about anything when there are people with real problems, real pain, living just next door.

Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle uses an even larger number of formal devices in its exploration of marital unhappiness at the turn of the twentieth century, but this film I responded positively to. Chéreau (whose work I almost always admire) uses black-and-white as well as color photography throughout the picture as well as the astonishing convention of title cards in key emotional moments. It's an incredibly intriguing choice with the resulting creation of very real intimacy with the characters. The film, which is based on The Return, a short story by Joseph Conrad, mines the depths of a relationship's failure after a woman leaves her husband and then returns, incapable of her act, four hours later. Isabelle Huppert (always brilliant) and Pascal Greggory are fantastic as the couple in question and the film is painful, beautiful and, at times, truly disturbing. The score, by Fabio Vacchi, which sounds more than anything like Igor Stravinsky, is passionate, enormous and unquestionably modern. It's a fascinating film.