Only Clouds Move the Stars
directed by Torun Lian
Passing off a canard as insight, Vincent Canby in the March 25 New York Times slapped Steven Spielberg with this backhanded compliment: “He has a child’s-eye view of the universe. He demonstrates an uncanny appreciation for children’s fears and fantasies… To hail him as an Eisenstein is to mislead him and the public.” This insistence on regarding Hollywood’s most accomplished filmmaker on an innocuous, childish (rather than seriously artistic) level is part of the non-thinking that denies legitimacy to movies. Canby’s suggestion that a film about children cannot pertain to the fears and fantasies adults hold (or that the best Hollywood craftsmanship has no purchase on intellectual ideas) derives from the hoariest, anti-intellectual condescension. But rather than argue Spielberg’s case once again before a court of fools, I offer Only Clouds Move the Stars, showing April 7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Norwegian Film Festival–a film about children that is alsoa serious work of art.
Rusten, a serious-seeming redhead, resembles a prepubescent Julianne Moore shifting between awkwardness and grace while Kristoffersen, a latchkey jester who jokes about his own isolation (“Don’t I look like Eddie Murphy?”), exhibits the most prepossessing boyish charm since Anton Glanzelius in My Life as a Dog. Lian follows this pair through an absolutely limpid countryside and quiet streets. Lian isn’t quite the nature poet Jan Troell is (Troell’s monumental Hamsun starring Max Von Sydow–one of the decade’s highpoints–was featured in the 1997 Norwegian film program), but she’s much interested in depicting harmony between the emotions of the characters and the landscape–the earthly experience–they inhabit. Her storybook compositions pare each scene to existential essentials. The mood isn’t Bergmanesque but the implications suggest a springtime Wild Strawberries. Through Maria and Jakob, Lian searches for the meaning of both suffering and living.
Lian’s title offers a practical moral, but like Spielberg her faith in the significance of childhood experience emphasizes the hard work involved in human understanding. Maria’s agony is no different from her parents’ but Lian trusts that the little girl’s perspective distills a universal dilemma. When Maria and her father watch Jakob sleep in the bedroom Pee Wee left behind, their uneasiness recalls the finest movie depictions of complex emotions: Satyajit Ray’s, Vittorio DeSica’s, Robert Bresson’s and Spielberg’s. Lian achieves a childlike fearlessness about facing the world; that makes Only Clouds Moves the Stars a revelation.
The Dreamlife of Angels
directed by Erick Zonca
Elodie Bouchez is a movie star but she makes you think of a real girl in The Dreamlife of Angels. As the drifter Isa who lucks into a job at a garment factory in Lille, France, her brunette helmet of hair, wide-eyed, direct stare and crimpled lips are so striking you don’t dismiss her as one of the lumpenprole. Bouchez’s full-headlights iconography suggests luminousprole–she vivifies Isa’s personality. The backpacking girl has a casual, enigmatic manner; she’s a little weird but she also seems to have a dignified reserve. Fulfilling the strategy of director Erick Zonca, Bouchez ennobles an anonymous girl by imparting her own peculiarities.
There at the sewing bench, not sure how to stitch, Isa fails workplace submission and condoned behavior. She hooks up with another sweatshop malcontent, the sullen blonde Marie (Natacha Regnier); they sense each other’s discontent with conventional drudgery. Marie is apartment-sitting for a family friend who, along with her teenage daughter, was hurt in a car accident; both now lie comatose in a hospital. Isa moves in and their temporary rooming situation becomes regular, forcing the communication Marie has cut off even from her own mother.
Zonca uses those mostly offscreen relationships as parallels to his main interest in a fragile, fraught symbiosis. Isa and Marie’s bond is soon tested by their reactions to several men in their lives. They taunt, then date a couple of disco bouncers, Fredo (Jo Prestia) and Charlie (Patrick Mercado)–scrubs like themselves. The match with these rough and horny opposites reveals everyone’s vulnerabilities–their dissatisfactions, too. Zonca’s found a way to lift romantic fiction into a realm of social critique. These girls and boys struggle with their own sense of worth while seeking to relate (most poignantly to be of interest) to each other. The most modern, empathetic element in Zonca’s concept shows that it’s the women who act on their unease. Taking burly Charlie’s attention for granted Marie drifts toward club-owner Chris (Gregoire Colin). In what seems like an equally benighted turn, Isa becomes captivated by her unseen landlords; she peeps into the comatose daughter’s diary, then on an increasingly psychotic hospital vigil steals into the girl’s mute consciousness.
Odd behavior doesn’t scare Zonca: He pursues its source from psychology and society to its inevitably damaged social and psychological effect. His naturalist style offers a credible context (when Isa and Marie lose their sewing jobs, they’re seen in the town square trying menial work passing fliers at evocative, darkening dusk). But Bouchez and Regnier supply emotional vibrancy. Hollywood actresses are sometimes praised for not holding back emotion, for outstripping the profession’s bourgeois propriety, but as Isa and Marie, Bouchez and Regnier just slip into the “normal” pathos that movies frequently falsify. The tension in these roles, the endangered friendship, shames nonsense like Set It Off. It’s the most remarkable such relationship since Eric Rohmer’s Four Adventures of Mirabelle and Reinette. Achingly swift and believable, Isa and Marie’s split is as palpable as their need for each other.
Usually it’s pop stars who demonstrate this emotional generosity: On their new album Fan Mail, TLC exquisitely bond with (presumably other female) listeners by insisting they are “just like you.” Each song dramatizes situations that turn girls into women (sex, workplace and social responsibility). The reason Fan Mail has been the number-one selling album in the country for the past two weeks is the same that distinguishes The Dreamlife of Angels: Both works of art get inside the emotional rationales of contemporary living through often ignored female experience–not the petulance of middle-class progressive women but those ladies who need a social hand-up most: those whose routines are limited to jobs and sexual recreation. T-Boz’s screen debut in Belly (as a hiphop hausfrau) didn’t allow her to express impudence or sincerity like the Fan Mail tracks “Dear Lie,” “Unpretty” or “I’m Good at Being Bad” where her strength and sensitivity shine. These songs could accompany the scenes in Dreamlife where Isa and Marie wander around, arm-in-arm, smirking at their whole indifferent environment–a mirage of friendship in a political desert.
Fan Mail and Dreamlife advance sisterhood, achieving the parallel to personal relations and public circumstance that Mike Leigh demonstrated in Career Girls. Like Leigh and Babyface (who conceptualized the landmark Waiting to Exhale album and had a hand in Fan Mail), Zonca is to be credited (and amazed at) for rescuing the significance in mundane working-class experience customarily left to the minutiae of women’s magazine fiction. When Isa and Marie romp through an airport, kicking out the back light of a showoff’s car or Isa confronts Chris and matches his temerity with an impertinent slap, Zonca gets a portion of the subversive sass that TLC keep in their hip pockets. By ironically titling his naturalistic, humanist pursuit The Dreamlife of Angels, Zonca calls attention to the private aspirations that pop art usually sensationalizes (as in the egregious Thelma and Louise) or colors gray.
Zola’s realism in 1919 couldn’t have been more bracing than Zonca’s straightforward tale of two girls’ struggle to survive. It also has a Swiss movie legacy: Zonca follows the political paths of Alain Tanner and John Berger’s La Salamandre featuring Bulle Ogier as Rosamunde, a wily young woman bored to distraction by dead-end work, and Godard’s Passion where Isabelle Huppert toiled in misery. Tanner and Berger scrupulously examined the condition of workplace alienation in a precise, observant style. Passion worked more dynamically on the esthetic principle of repulsion and contrast: bouncing modern cinema’s depiction of life off classical art. In between Huppert’s travails, Godard reproduced the light, shadow and figures of Renaissance painting, reexamining them to investigate how truthfully art relays human experience. Like Zonca, Godard was particularly interested in conveying, without condescension, the phenomenon of modern ennui as an eternal, work-related condition. More importantly, Passion probed artists’ (filmmakers) moral and esthetic responsibility in remaking life into art.
That question comes alive in the excitement of Elodie Bouchez’s face–the wiliness she brings to Isa, enlarging the character from lone freakishness to concern for a new friend and deep compassion about an endangered stranger. Best known to filmgoers from Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds and Gael Morel’s Full Speed, Bouchez brings to Isa an attentiveness that observes others’ misfortunes while persevering through her own. Her face reflects the intelligence and feeling of conscientious filmmaking. She transforms the soap-opera cliche of shopgirls’ romantic catastrophe into recognizable class tragedy.
In Dreamlife’s script (cowritten by Zonca and Roger Bohbot), Isa’s arrival in Lille introduces a distinct class analysis that recalls Mike Leigh’s in Naked. Marie’s attraction to selfish, malevolent Chris (Colin’s tight features affect a perfect sneering attitude) suggests a self-destructive compulsion learned from class envy; she flips out from her own confused attempt to protect against social deprivation. Although she lacks Isa’s instinct for rolling with
life’s punches, Marie’s heartache provokes startling empathy. It should hit audiences as powerfully as that shellshocked moment in Naked when
the tenants stood paralyzed before the domineering arrogance of their class superior.
Zonca’s heroines add charm and sexual allure to what is essentially a chronicle of class tyranny. Its romantic appeal is paradoxical since it will probably attract those who are prone to miss the point of the film’s hypnotic and crushing final tableau. Scanned among a line of workers, Bouchez’s open, determined, inward suffering connects us to their anomie; she gives this movie the spark of a personal story and the scale of a social epic. What’s this Gwyneth Paltrow foolishness! To find another actress who made Everywoman as piquant as Bouchez, you’d have to go back to the silent era.