Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Nobuhiro Suwa's The Lion Sleeps Tonight (2017), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 28 – June 26, 2019 in MUBI's Luminaries strand.
From the charged realism of his first feature, the raw, bristling relationship drama 2/Duo (1997), to his most recent, the tender ode to lost love and bygone youth, The Lion Sleeps Tonight (2017), the sublimely understated work of Nobuhiro Suwa comprises a rich, but mostly unexposed pocket of contemporary Japanese cinema. Between the filmmaker’s formal command and his direction of beautifully organic, often improvised performances, Suwa’s films have enjoyed critical acclaim, but only of the amnesiac variety—praised and then summarily forgotten. Despite the accessibility promised by digital platforms, most of us today will find the bulk of his work is entirely unattainable through traditional means, a seemingly arbitrary punishment for an auteur well-worth discovering.
Suwa has been called the “most French” of the contemporary Japanese filmmakers. As gimmicky as this might sound, it’s not a terrible way of framing his work, which overtly engages with the cinematic modernity of the New Wave generation of filmmakers and those adjacent to it. 2/Duo and M/Other (1999), his two shoestring budget couple-in-crisis features produced fully in Japan, were followed by two French co-productions: H Story (2001) and A Perfect Couple (2005), the first a docudrama deconstruction of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima,mon amour starring Béatrice Dalle, and the second an homage to Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy.
Situated firmly in Paris by this point, Suwa directed Juliette Binoche and Willem Dafoe as a grieving mother and cowboy fantasy figure, respectively, in the segment titled “Place des Victoires” of the anthology film Paris je t’aime (2006). And in a co-director role alongside the French actor and filmmaker Hippolyte Girardot, Suwa went on to make the delicate divorce drama, Yuki & Nina (2009), which takes as its focus the emotional toll on a pair of children who are good friends as separation threatens the relocation of one of the young girls from Paris to Japan. Here, as in “Place des Victoires,” Suwa combines childlike vulnerability with the emotional weight of hard truths—death and loss—and massages these traumas into manageable forms with a hint of nostalgic coding and a dash of magic.
In The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Suwa’s interest in blinkering childhood Neverlands resurfaces, colliding head-on with aging French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud and his self-elegiac agenda. Jean (Léaud) is an actor, barely one step removed from the identity of the actor who plays him. Suwa suggests a comparable prestige and legacy between character and performer, but the details are zipped tight behind Léaud’s goblin smile. In the opening scene, the crisp blue skies and luminous verdure of the south of France hang in the backdrop while Jean, a greying dinosaur of a man, performs his death for the camera, which pulls back revealing the bric-à-brac of a film set, effectively transporting us from one plane of reality into another. Suwa will return to this same lush patio vista in the film’s final shot, and Jean will slip back into form nearly indistinguishable from his normal behavior, a testament to an existence lived so consciously and comfortably within movies.
For Film Comment, Jonathan Romney observes the recurring use of Léaud in these latter years as “a walking metaphor for mortality and film history.” He writes: “[Léaud is an] embodiment —perhaps the embodiment—of the glories and perils of a life lived in front of the camera.” In Albert Serra’s languorous The Death of Louis XIV (2017), Léaud as the ailing, blanched monarch is a tangible reminder of the mortality of seemingly immortal figures, of kings and superstars alike. Between the camera-roll bookends of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, the bulk of the film consequently acts as a pause and a moment of reflection before Jean returns to the routine of movie-making that has come to define his life, as it has Léaud’s.
In this instance, the interruption is caused by Jean’s co-star, declared incapable of working as she nurses a broken heart, leaving Jean to his own devices till he’s summoned back to resume shooting. After visiting a nearby friend, and an encounter with a slightly older Yuki (from Yuki & Nina) that teases the fantasy to come, Jean clandestinely settles into a derelict mansion, the former home of the love of his life. Here, Juliette (Pauline Etienne), immaculately preserved in youth just as Jean remembers from their last encounter in the early ‘70s, appears to him as a phantom. Meanwhile, a rowdy crew of children stumble upon the magnificently eerie old home and decide it’s the ideal place to shoot their movie. Though their project lacks a script at this point, the draw of such fantastic elements—a veritable haunted home inhabited by a bizarre, but magnetic old man—has the kiddies begging for Jean’s partnership. After some heckling and not-so-sneaky stalking, the boys and girls convince the tolerant and sage-like Jean to act in their film—he claims to be an actor after all, though the youths show no sign of familiarity with his stardom.
Sentimental, perhaps idealistic in his appreciation of a bond between old and young, Suwa is nevertheless skillful in drawing out a frenzied realism from his adolescent actors, who range from six or seven to early teens, by encouraging the sort of improvisational approach that defined the off-kilter dramatics of the director’s early relationship films. One can imagine how such a premise—of children developing love of cinema by the guidance of a grumpy, but lovable old shepherd—could veer into wincingly precious territory, but allowing the kids a certain nonsensical, even pestering inhibition bars fetishization. One gangly blonde-haired ringleader is given a slim backstory that vaguely resembles the shaky homelife of an Antoine Doinel type, and as a collective the children—often shouting over one another like a disorderly band—display an energizing lack of restraint. This same feeling will materialize in the form of their film. Itself a ghost story riffing off Jean’s supposed encounters with his long-lost Juliette, their movie devolves from a Clouzot copycat to a mess of fake gun standoffs. Nevertheless, Jean praises the youngster’s film, calling it the product of pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for cinema.
At the crossroads of life and death, fantasy and reality, Suwa stages an encounter between a fictional Léaud and the legacy of French cinema that Léaud epitomizes. Despite warning signs posted at the entrance (“Danger de Mort!”), Jean wanders into an old home that will recall the uncanny domiciles of Jacques Rivette, and therein reexamines a painful, once passionate, but abandoned romance likely not too different from the sorts of dramas about eccentric couples under duress that Léaud helped popularize in his youthful collaborations with Truffaut, Eustache, and Godard. In discussions with his director, who prefers Jean perform death as a gentle sleep slipping into no-return, the actor insists his death must be portrayed with the heft of a philosophical “encounter.” Léaud, who turns 75 this year, has such a confrontation in The Lion Sleeps Tonight; but because he is Jean-Pierre Léaud, the texture of his recollection is no ordinary thing, but one suffused with the inscrutable magic of a life formed by fictional layers, projection, invention, and nostalgia. Is this dream-stuff the product of genuine imagination and fantasy or the memories of a delusional, faltering old man? This distinction might not be all too important. The Lion Sleeps Tonight, in any case, marks another Léaudian interpretation of the ways in which cinema can inform death, and vice versa.