Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Nature of the Struggle

A tumble, a tussle, the cinematic couplet brought to me by the Dardenne Brothers (and my gross inertia toward all things anxiety-ridden) left me trudging through the night with a fair few bruises and a serious case of blurred vision. L'Enfant (2005) and Rosetta (1999) mark my official introduction to the Belgian duo, though I've had the repeated displeasure of reading "Dardenne-esque"--or a similar phrase of reference--stand in for analysis of movies that I like a lot. (Displeasure because I didn't know the referent and found that endlessly frustrating and just wished people would say what they mean. Now I know what they mean but still really wish people would just say what they mean.)

When I call this doubleheader a tumble and a tussle, I'm not working in metaphor: I really was inside a fight. L'Enfant follows Sonia and Bruno, a pair of very young, very new parents who are, to varying degrees, trying to march through life at the same speed and with the same levity and self-serving impulses, even though they've got this little blue package, who happens to be a nine-day-old person named Jimmy. Things get hectic when Dad sells Jimmy for cash, leaving Mom astonished and torn apart by the fact that Dad doesn't feel the connection to this baby, let alone the meaning and the weight of that connection, in the same way that even she--another child--does. And then there's Rosetta, a temper tantrum of a movie about a young lady who is just trying to fucking hold it all together: her trailer park home, her drunk and desperate mother, her jobs, her dinner, her shoes, her conviction to lead a "normal life." It's a constant war she's waging in which the stuff of the everyday--eating, working, sleeping--prove menacing, threatening and beckoning from some seriously dark places.

Even from this not-so-sensitive narrative summation you might see these films' potential to carry some harsh blows, to portray a battle ground of sorts. But these two films' physicality worked to spell out another dimension; this battle ground was brought all around us, pushing an innocent bystander onto that uncertain dirt and into the center of the brawl, whether she liked it or not. L'Enfant had more love built into the narrative and Rosetta more abstraction and grit, but both films---I am having a hard time thinking of them good of an idea are doubleheaders, really?---had both characters and cameras pulling and pushing and running and biting. Indeed, the camera trails it's unbridled subjects with the same ferocity exhibited by them, experiences the same conniptions of desperation they do. This is more than a commitment to a "hand-held look," it's a cinematographic (and philosophical?) choice to prioritize sensation over information. With every whip of a tree branch across "our eye" (the camera lens), with every door shut in "our" face, with every blurred sprint upstairs or across traffic, with every confused scuffle and surprise swipe at the head, with every shadow and jerk and jolt of vision, we feel like we're in the fight...or at least certainly not at the movies, where cameras and narratives are supposed to grant us special vision into things unseen, to illuminate hidden emotional and physical worlds and, through their illusions, bring us closer to things like "truth" and "reality." The camera is that thing that allows us to see and the process by which its images reach us is one perfected toward clarity--it's 24 frames per second, not 25, and there are focus options and multitudes of lenses and light meters and filters and editors to help eliminate any visual noise that might confuse the point. But here, with these Dardenne movies, the cinematographer's tools of clarity are used toward the opposite means, their mission inverted and pushed, at times, to the point of abstraction (...and sometimes distraction). The most straightforward example: the close-up, obviously used to give us a clearer, closer look at the details of emotion, is pushed too close here and used in abundance, so that a face can never fully be captured because with every little movement part of it leaves the frame--we're so close but can never get a good look. Fragmentation, blurs, smears, trails, assaulting sounds--all of it creates an abstraction of violence and anxiety, of struggle. And what is at the nature of this struggle? We search through these shaky cinematic pictures and can't find many deeper clues than the immediate circumstances, and sometimes even those are in the business of obfuscation: there's something terribly wrong with a stomach, but all we see is its smooth brown surface--one of the calmest images of the film; the stroller is often empty; a blue snowsuit stays firmly between us and the baby, the instigator; two big rocks shelter a hidden pair of boots. But even if we could see through the fog, as we do for a few brief, often tender moments in these films, even if we could see through the fragmentation and the abstraction and see things as their whole, still selves, even when we do see exactly what the situation is and even a way out of it--there's a forceful potential in this life for suffocation, in the face of which, redemption and hope tremble and hesitate. The dark pull is very dark. It beckons. Things are not going right. In both films' climaxes of action and anxiety, the metaphor for this potential appears as water, surrounding us, taking every crevice for its own, attempting to fill, suffocate and drown our most innoncent, or the most innocent parts of ourselves. These snarling characters struggle against this natural force; the nature of their struggle is a struggle against nature. They are battling themselves. And their redemption, however incomplete it comes, is sweet.


Ryland Walker Knight said...

I'm not entirely sold on these freres, as you know, but I'm sold on the struggle of that fat graf.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Also, yes, I hate that they are short hand for hand held camera work, too. As many have joked, and some have praised, The Wrestler is kinda-sorta, in one light (!), a genius parody of the Dardennes style.

--How would you compare what these bros are doing to what somebody like Lance Hammer is doing? (I still need to see Ballast.)