Friday, November 12, 2010

BIFF Capsules: Any Films I Choose

Medal of Hono(u)r: One of the reasons I go to the movies is for that big moment of emotional catharsis that happens right before the end. The scenario is common: our protagonist has a secret; or has been pummelled emotionally; or can't tell him that she loves him, and than finally she bursts. For better or for worse she lets it all out and is either healed or broken, accepted or rejected. It's a seductive moment, all the more so for me because I'm an emotionally private person who could never dream of bearing the kinds of raw emotions that these people put on display.

Medal of Hono(u)r is a film that never provides that moment - its protagonist is someone less like the ultimately heroic figures at the center of so many films and someone more like me. Someone who can't bear to give up the small boosts -  in self esteem, in respect - that the lie gives him. And neither does this lie become inflated to the point where it must explode. It just sits inside our protagonist and gnaws away at him. And the permanently delayed gratification is both suspenseful and ultimately heartbreaking.

Marwencol: A fascinating documentary about a man (Mark) who, after being so badly beaten that he loses his memory and is forced to relearn the basics of daily life, creates a model town as his own personal therapy. It's a moving, intimate portrait but it's also an unsettling exploration of the boundaries between make believe and real life. The town created by Mark has him as its central character and his workmates and friends as supporting characters and the stories he plays out interact with his real life in ways that are by turns moving amusing and unsettling.

When Mark talks about the town in an analytical mode, explaining why he built it and what it does for him, he's very careful to describe his stand-in as an alter ego and make it clear that the joy of the town is that he can make things happen that couldn't otherwise occur. However when talking about the stories he has built around his town he slips and talks about his alter ego in the first person and his favourite fictional doll as his wife. When we discover he takes this dole inside, sits it by his bed and says goodnight to it is apparent that the boundaries he carefully elucidates are not as firm as he suggests. The town is more than either therapy or art (which is the dichotomy the documentary sets up)  - it's a highly personal alternate reality into which  he can escape - it's a sanctuary. And nothing makes this clearer than a final, recursive act that is simply astonishing.

We Are What We Are: The most disappointing film of the festival is sadly, despite what many reviewers have claimed, not on the level of Let the Right One In. Unlike that the film the monsters here evince no reflexivity. They "must" kill to fulfil their ritual but any discomfort they may feel about doing so has nothing to do with the morality of their actions. Granted there's no reason why We Are What We Are should have the same internal conflicts as its predecessor but the social commentary that fills in for the potent subtext of that earlier horror masterpiece is nothing more than "the strong feed on the weak" made literal. That it is ritual that compels them to do so makes this subtext useless - rather than elucidating the motivations that set social classes against one another it reduces a complex interaction to the fulfilment of an arbitrary obligation.

Its other claim to high mindedness is its family drama. To a certain extent it is successful, writer-director Jorge Grau shows a keen understanding of the tension and power struggles that set in when the head of a social unit is dispatched. Unfortunately the characters are too thinly built to make this fully satisfactory - we have a sensitive one, a hothead and a thinker and they all play out their predetermined roles in a fairly predictable manner. There's a somewhat unusual incest plot line but the relationship comes from nowhere, means very little to the characters and absolutely nothing to the plot. If anything it's to underscore just how depraved this family really is, something which needs little doing.

Aside from these two underlying problems too much of the rest of the film creaks for it to be called a mild success. There's a stab at profundity in the middle in which the sound of a woman singing on a train about the awfulness of life is used to tie together a montage of the family at its lowest but the oddity of the source and the banality of the lyrics make the moment feel strained and manipulative - a feeling that is only enhanced by the sub-fortune cookie wisdom she hands out and which the film treats with utmost sincerity. The poetic justice in another character's sticky end is similarly forced as it requires traumatised prostitutes to hang around a veritable shooting gallery.

While it doesn't achieve the impact it's looking for what can be said about most of the film is that it does have ambition. It is straining to have something to say and it is trying to deliver a tense family drama. Unfortunately the ending abandons ambition altogether and resorts to the same finale as every second horror movie from the last thirty years. It's a sticky end for an entertainment that promised so much more.

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