Emily Watson in Trixie; The Astonishing Humanite

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Humanite
directed by
Bruno Dumont



When Trixie
opens on June 30, everyone will have the chance to see Emily Watson’s amazing
title performance. An introverted security guard who stumbles upon some great
American secrets, Watson’s Trixie tests casual notions of what it means
to be a social person. She’s an individual among a community of other isolates;
that is, a fascinating but totally unexpected American movie archetype. I give
you this heads-up about the astonishing Trixie because the challenge
its director Alan Rudolph poses to American audiences is similar to what French
director Bruno Dumont’s challenge does in the also-astonishing Humanite
(now showing at Film Forum).


Both Rudolph
and Dumont are superb moviemakers–world-class even though the characters
and milieu of their films are marked by American and French particulars. Because
these films’ regional details don’t flatter habitues of urbane film
culture (they eschew bourgeois platitudes) critics have discouraged most filmgoers
from partaking of their sincere, serious content. When Humanite won the
most prizes at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, many American journalists
grumbled that crowd-pleasing, less venturesome films (like Almodovar’s
sentimental All About My Mother) were passed over. The complaints seemed
suspiciously class-bound and trite given that Dumont’s only previous film,
La Vie de Jesus, was an uncommonly blunt yet mysterious foray into working-class
skinhead alienation. Humanite’s leads Emmanuel Schotte and Severine
Caneele, who took home the Cannes acting prizes, offended dull festival mavens
only because they were not glamorous sorts likely to be headed for Hollywood
or to appear in mainstream entertainments. Fact is, these were honorable, if
controversial, choices (spearheaded by David Cronenberg, president of the Cannes
Jury). Let it be known: Humanite, like Trixie, perpetuates
the essence of great cinema.


To sheepish
viewers, both Trixie and Humanite might seem oddball. But it would
be ideal if audiences took time to relate Rudolph’s obvious wonderment
to Dumont’s near-clinical realism (and vice-versa) because each artist
looks at human experience in ways that are correspondingly enthralling and exacting.
Humanite watches as police detective Pharaon DeWinter (Schotte) investigates
the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. In the small northern town of Bailleul,
every one of DeWinter’s depressed familiars seems suspect. But Dumont transcends
the whodunit suspense of most police procedurals; his meticulous, unsparing
observation searches out a collective guilt–even the possibility of collective
innocence. The identity of the murderer is anticlimactic. The climax is Dumont’s
great understanding, empathy, pity.


Dumont’s
revelations are hard-won. His lean style (bracingly photographed by Yves Cape)
makes atmosphere and environment distinct. Harsh sunlight; rough, vast fields;
empty, echoing streets make one sensitive to DeWinter’s anxious reactions
and dutiful search. The slashing noise of an overhead jet or speeding train
disturbs the eerie, placid spaces. DeWinter’s discovery of a hideous befoulment–seen
briefly, shockingly–so shatters one’s senses that the universe seems
deranged. Dumont makes one look at DeWinter and his mother, and his obsession
with his factory-worker neighbor Domino (Coneele) and her boyfriend Joseph (Philippe
Tullier), with steady curiosity and apprehension. This clear-eyed approach is
so nearly ascetic that it can only be highly artistic–a considered moral
approach to storytelling and character presentation. This isn’t pious verite
as faked on Barry Levinson tv shows like Homicide. Dumont favors blank,
almost Bressonian performances so that the personalities on view have a spiritual
candor–even when they seem unrelievedly earthbound, grungy. His approach
is as dry as Bresson’s but more vigorous and, in its way, sensuous and
expansive.


DeWinter’s
the opposite of heroic-looking–he’s got a large nose and inquisitive
eyes, keeping his head down as if a past trauma had never abated. Every relationship
and encounter demands touching and smelling, even with Domino, a hefty girl
who appears slatternly despite her strong back. Since we only see people this
rough-hewn and closed-off in documentary (for instance the not-always-honest
films of the Maysles Brothers), Dumont’s combination of glum faces and
classical framing surprises our esthetic expectations while redeeming cinema’s
capacity for surprising pathos.


As Trixie,
Watson has some of the gravitas of Dumont’s Bailleul denizens yet she performs


with the lightness of commedia dell’arte. She has the most benevolent face
of this era–quizzical, yearning, optimistic. Meeting Alan Rudolph was the
luckiest thing that could have happened to her career because he redeems that
face. After Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie, Cradle Will
Rock
and Angela’s Ashes Watson was in danger of becoming an
hysterical caricature of sturm und drang. Here she’s all big-eyed, girl-baby
wonderment but with a serious, adult sensibility. Trixie goes through her Northwestern
American locale seeming as displaced as Schotte’s DeWinter but Rudolph
has given her a special loquaciousness–a tendency toward malapropisms–that
situates and buoys her in modern American hullabaloo. Watson does an American
accent that is strangely proper and perky–like Julie Harris in one of her
50s quixotic ragamuffin roles. A perpetual outsider, Trixie happens to be deep
inside the well-kept secret of modern American dissatisfaction. It bubbles up
and overflows in mixed-up homilies and catchphrases that aren’t exactly
self-deceiving yet are deliberate verbal facades, camouflaging insecurity with
the will to appear expert, witty, sanguine. (Sample exchange: "I’m
Red Rafferty. This is my boat." "I know it’s your boat. You’re
Red Rafferty.") Rudolph’s manic characters complement Dumont’s
depressives. I can see a similar desperation and poignancy in each.


We shouldn’t
think that Trixie’s humor means it is not serious. Having dealt
with apposite Americana themes in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions,
Rudolph populates his own tale with a new surge of ingenuity while keeping intimate
with American tragedy. Trixie herself recalls those Altman women who are so
out-there some American viewers doubted their credibility and foolishly charged
cynicism–as with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s great performance in Kansas
City
, which precisely captured the Depression era’s pop anxiety (see
any pre-Code urban movie to verify it). Rudolph probes a spiritual crisis every
bit as genuine as Altman’s or Dumont’s.


Being ultracontemporary,
Rudolph ruminates on politics as Trixie uncovers a murder plot involving Sen.
Avery (Nick Nolte), businessman Red Rafferty (Will Patton) and showgirl Dawn
Sloane (Lesley Ann Warren). Seeing politics as show business gives Rudolph a
glitzier perspective than Dumont but he’s still tracking humanity. Trixie,
Sen. Avery and others (including a nightclub MC played by Nathan Lane) consciously
seek sexual and romantic answers to their sorrow–new illusions to replace
their disillusionment. It’s a way of understanding the whole American social
circus. Press conferences, songs, comedy acts, media (a Police Insight
magazine featuring "the Furman verdict")–all funhouse
mirrors of postmodern denial. In one of Rudolph’s best scenes Trixie and
Dawn commiserate over female trouble: "God doesn’t love me anymore!"
Dawn shrieks; she and Trixie are shown together before a large mirror while
bravura cameraman Jan Kiesser pulls back revealing each of them, singly, in
a cluster of smaller mirrors. Sexual and spiritual panic bounces between the
images.


In Humanite
sexual panic ricochets onto the audience. First, at the murder site, then when
DeWinter spies on Domino and Joseph’s intimacies. It’s loud, skin-flapping,
antierotic–animal sex. Dumont and Cape adopt Lucian Freud lighting, exposing
human flesh at its most vulnerable and recognizable. Frank about sex and death,
Humanite shames the misanthropy in Fargo or I Stand Alone
(films that presumed to push the limits of violence and sexuality). Dumont’s
most bravura scene would be Domino’s lonely panic–a closeup of her
vagina heaving and shaking as she sobs. For Dumont, this blunt naturalism–facing
the human gate–is better than typical romantic depictions of sadness usually
cluttered with movieish emotional rhetoric. Like Rudolph’s mirror scene,
Dumont insists upon complex, unremitting self-reflection.


To that end,
each character in Trixie speaks cleverly, in verbal mazes that a correspondent
must lean forward to negotiate and understand. Cowritten with John Binder (the
native wit behind 1986’s wonderful UFOria), Rudolph presents a cornucopia
of the quirks and richness in American speech. ("The sword of Damocles
is hanging over Pandora’s box." "Do I have an ace up my hole?"
"What cake you pop out of?") Evoking Travis Bickle’s befuddlement
over the phrase "moonlighting" in Taxi Driver, this is a profound
conceit. Trixie’s misstatements ("I’m a private defective")
show her individual dislocation but as her blunders resound, you realize the
extent of your own social, verbal indoctrination. Her blurted retort, "I
don’t have to believe what I think," is key to how one struggles through
social situations, among trustworthy or deceitful acquaintances, between comforting
or disturbing ideologies. Through dialogue, Rudolph and Binder show how common
ideas affect private needs, how shared slang, patois, argot, jargon and assorted
lingo can also abstract experience. Nathan Lane’s nightclub patter (which
is also the film’s narration) makes all this a linguist’s delight.
Even a simple straight line like Sen. Avery saying, "Just ask Newt,"
takes on Lewis Carrollian absurdity.


Determined
not to be lost in this madness, Trixie searches for truth. Her language shows
courage and resilience rooted in optimism displayed through Watson’s delicate
facial fugues. Her extraordinary performance is nearly matched by Nolte (as
in Breakfast of Champions and The Thin Red Line, these are the
boldly nuanced masculine performances on the American screen). They represent
opposite kinds of moral stumbling, as do the characters in Humanite.
When Dumont’s tale eventually levitates to another plane, it isn’t
merely fanciful but is existentially real, just like the all-too-human convolutions
in Trixie.


If viewers
can put Humanite in context with Trixie it may help them to recognize
the various ways artists can deal with moral truth. Dumont’s sobriety is
a virtue, but so is Rudolph’s verbal and visual wit, which saves him from
filming a single sanctimonious or sentimental moment. Dumont uses DeWinter to
pursue fundamental accord with an unpredictable world. That’s also what
Rudolph does through Trixie, who eventually resolves and articulates a way to
love. Each trailblazer proves there’s more than one path to understanding
loneliness.



Time Regained
directed by
Raul Ruiz



Let John Singleton
adapt Shaft. Raul Ruiz is concerned with examining the varied forms of
human desire and regret and so adapts Proust. Time Regained successfully
visualizes Proust’s deployment of time and esthetics and memory. Putting
a surrealist spin on the visual and musical condensation of Proust’s haute
bourgeois characters, Ruiz–with his punning title–salutes the work
Americans only recently came to know as In Search of Lost Time. It shouldn’t
be a surprise that Proust and Ruiz are technically a good match (better than
even Alain Resnais or Terence Davies might have been). The shock and great pleasure
of Time Regained comes from seeing Proust’s ideas on love and social
structure given clear dramatic shape–and feeling his ruminations in the
library and on the beach soar.


Ruiz graduates
from being a coloring book Buñuel to a non-stodgy purveyor of great literature
(suggesting what Visconti might have envisioned for the brothel sequence). And
it’s fitting that Ruiz’s most accessible (and watchable) filmmaking
is accomplished with a cast doing justice to their Proustian heritage. Catherine
Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Marie-France Pisier, Vincent Perez and Pascal Greggory
all carry their own high-modernist legacies but each actor inhabits Proust’s
creations with mesmerizing glamour and intensity. (Time Regained celebrates
French film history as well as Proust.) Marcello Mazzarella is more than picture
perfect as Proust; he looks born-old/sadly wise with the right diffidence and
command. (John Malkovich as Baron de Charlus is a bit de trop; he’s
no match for Alain Delon’s Baron in Volker Schlondorff’s Proust botch
Swann in Love.) Time Regained is a major event in cinema and literature’s
century-long effort to make high art as irresistible as pop art. Otherwise,
you have to put Humanite and Trixie together to get a comparable
movie achievement. Ruiz’s high/low approach is perfect because by now so
much of Proust has become fabled without losing profundity. Don’t fear
that he’s made Time Regained kitschy; it’s all great stuff.


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