Have I mentioned before that Criterion is planning to ruin me financially? As a matter of fact, I have my suspicions that the company was created entirely for that purpose. This guy’s version of a honeytrap? A life-long subscription to Criterion. I just haven’t figured out yet what the incriminating pictures would look like – although now that I’ve brought it up, I sort of wish I hadn’t…
The thing about Criterion (often in combination with the A.V. Club or with DVD Verdict) is this: it gets me to watch stuff I wouldn’t even have heard of otherwise, like A Night To Remember (discussed here). Or…
Make Way For Tomorrow
… a film that, if I’d read a plot synopsis beforehand, I would probably have avoided, because it sounds like sheer melodrama (even more so in black and white): an elderly couple losing their house and ending up separated, each staying with another one of their less than understanding children, and their final day together before they’re split up permanently. Yet it’s turned out one of the most poignant and sad films I’ve seen in a while, and the sadness of its last half hour doesn’t bear a trace of melodrama. Don’t let the text panel at the beginning fool you into expecting a moralising story about how children should honour their parents – the film is astute about the difficult relationship between parents, especially of the elderly kind, and their grown children, and it doesn’t ignore that its two protagonists aren’t the easiest of people to be with. What elevates the film from a good, though probably not special film to something great is the final act, which doesn’t make any concessions to an audience expecting a happy ending – or at least a clear denunciation of the children and an easily understood lesson in morality along the lines of “Thou shalt…” and “Thou shalt not…”. Instead what we get is an emotional honesty that hurts by being entirely unvarnished.
“Cary Fukunaga… Didn’t he do that film about gang brutality in Mexico, Sin Nombre or something? Sounds like just the right guy for that Jane Eyre flick we’re doing!” I don’t know what the producers were thinking when they hired Fukunaga for their adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic – but they were absolutely right to do so, as the result proves. Jane Eyre is difficult to do right, as there’s a major temptation to streamline it into a generic historical romance, Jane Austen with less humour and more madwoman in the attic. The casting of two misfits who supposedly aren’t conventionally attractive with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wachowski would have suggested an audience-pleasing approach, but Fukunaga, his cast and his crew, while cutting their source down to the essentials (you can’t afford not to, unless you’re doing a BBC-style miniseries) get to the heart of Brontë’s novel. The casting and acting work wonderfully, the script is respectful of the original novel without being beholden to it, and the cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous at times. I’ve sometimes described films as the moving equivalents of paintings – you’d want to frame them and put them on the wall, but you don’t necessarily want to pay attention and listen to them. Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is the sort of film you want your eyes to feast on but there’s plenty to listen and pay attention to as well. And for all its beauty, it’s not your conventional pretty costume drama, thank god.
I know that at least one occasional reader of this blog hated this film with a vengeance when she saw it years and years ago. Myself, I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of Haneke’s, but I’ve found all of his films intriguing. It’s easy to get pissed off at what the films often do at a first glance: there’s something both didactic and smug about their themes and tendencies, as if Haneke judges you for watching, say, Funny Games and dares you to switch it off, while at the same time wanting you to continue watching to validate its thesis. At the same time, there’s usually more going on underneath the surface, and Benny’s Video is a good example of this. Going in, I expected a film about a young man desensitised to violence by the videos he watches, and there is some of that – but at the same time the videos are partly a red herring, as especially his parents prove at least as compromised as him, and they don’t have the convenient excuse of “Slasher flicks made me do it!” The film has some rough edges and some of the director’s decisions are questionable – at times the characters and their actions are sketched too cursorily, turning ambiguity into muddledness – but even at this early point in his career Haneke is masterful at staging scenes clinical yet uncomfortable without pushing any gratuitous viscera in your face. Even when I end up angry at Haneke’s manipulations, he makes me think more than most directors do… so perhaps he’s not doing such a bad job at being didactic after all.