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Cannes 2013. Passing Shots: Satyajit Ray, Joel & Ethan Coen, Alex van Warmerdam

Satyajit Ray's pure cinema, the Coen Bros. half-hearted _Llewyn Davis_, and van Warmerdam's oddball _Borgman_.

CHARULATA (SATYAJIT RAY, INDIA)
CANNES CLASSICS

There are few things more valuable at a film festival than catching a retrospective screening that puts it in perspective, resets your cinephilic enthusiasm, and reminds you what movies can be. Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) served just that purpose as Cannes neared its halfway mark. Beginning with a beautiful sequence of pure cinema, for the first time I saw the link between Ray and Martin Scorsese (who holds the Indian filmmaker in the highest regard). Alone in a room in her home, the title character wanders to a window with her binoculars, opens the shutters and watches people outside. To track them, she moves from window to window, opening each shutter and observing their movement. It's hard not to think of the young Henry Hill looking out his window in Goodfellas, and even more recently, Hugo peering from behind the clock in the train station, watching everyday narratives unfold. This unusual story, adapted from a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, follows Charulata (or "Charu") on a journey of personal awakening, provoked by her visiting brother-in-law, Amal, an aspiring writer, who drives her to create. Meanwhile, her husband, Bhupati, distracted by the political newspaper he runs, fails to notice his wife's growing attraction for Amal. With fluid camera movement, Ray explores the space in which Charu has been trapped as a lonely wife, but as the film progresses (and Charu goes outside, writes), the melodrama darkens as her demeanor brightens, until a climactic sequence leaves her marriage in uncertain territory. Nevertheless, the film is most keen on articulating Charu's independence and pursuit of self-actualization, a tribute to writing, creating, and becoming—that doesn't shy away from pain.

***

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (JOEL & ETHAN COEN, USA)
OFFICIAL COMPETITION

The shrewdly calculating Coen brothers (whose spiritual third sibling surely must be Michael Haneke) strike again, turning a story about the struggles of a low-rent folk musician in the early 60s into another cynical portrayal of a world populated with hateful caricatures put there just to make the protagonist's life a living hell. However, for once it actually works, at least partly, as the cynicism, born out of the usual Coen philosophy though it may be, is justified by the film's sober look at the relative impossibility of succeeding as an artist. Llewyn Davis is a loser. He couch surfs, barely finds gigs, and hasn't a penny to his name. His one-time lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) tells him to quit and get a real job, but this isn't the underdog story that will see Davis rise as a star. Contrasted with the cold, unwelcoming environment that surrounds him are Davis' performances, which seem to transcend both the film and the world in which they take place. Lovingly shot by the Coens, who clearly revere this part of America's musical past, these moments are the film's most redeeming quality, even as the film regrettably gives way to an already beaten (to death) path that the Coens have built narratives around before. Inside Llewyn Davis is not unlike A Serious Man with a man and a guitar instead of a neurotic Jew, with its futile, anti-existential journey and sledgehammered symbolism. Lit with a nostalgic glow and shot with a subtle rigor, it's one of their "nicest" looking films, and as usual, is paced nearly to perfection (it can't be denied that the brothers know how to assemble a film), but it's hard to be too celebratory of a result so obvious: that a Coen Bros. tribute to something they love would express itself so hatefully.

***

BORGMAN (ALEX VAN WARMERDAM, NETHERLANDS)
OFFICIAL COMPETITION

Alex van Warmerdam's peculiar Borgman is hard to describe, but the closest I can come is it's as if Aki Kaurismäki directed Teorema, though that surely oversells it. It's a cryptically told fairy tale about a man who lives underground in the woods (he's not alone, there a few of his "kind" around) driven out by three arms-bearing men—including a shotgun wielding priest ("all you need for a film is a man of God and a gun"). Completely unexplained, this opening provokes all sorts of intrigue that the film fails to deliver on, as the more it reveals of itself, the less fun it becomes. After fleeing the forest that was his home, Borgman comes upon a middle class household that he targets and infiltrates for motivations unknown to the viewer. Living in the house are a husband, wife, three children, and a nanny. Borgman befriends the wife behind the husband's back, convincing her to let him shower and live in their guest house in the backyard. What ensues is a series of increasingly strange sequences as we approach Borgman's end game. Along the way, van Warmerdam punctuates the film with alternately tense and funny moments. Aesthetically, the film know how to establish its tone through visual means. The house's modern sheen and generous size as well as the backyard's sprawling emptiness give the film a perpetual sense of negative space, while the actors within it subtly convey a sense of "something's-not-quite-right" without verging on the cartoonish quality this material threatens to approach. Still, its heavy-handed, allegorical third act runs parallel with its declining sense of humor, causing one to question whether or not Borgman should've ever left the woods to begin with.

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