This weekend I had the pleasure of going to visit New York City for my birthday, and in addition to attending four of the New York Times' Arts and Leisure weekend interviews (which were fantastic; Natalie Portman answered my question!), and striking out on Broadway ("Rock of Ages" and the overpraised "God of Carnage"), I had the good fortune to see two films which have yet to arrive in Houston (even though it's the fourth largest city in the USA): Tom Ford's A Single Man and Michael Haneke's Cannes champion The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band). After seeing both, I realize that I should have stayed away the B'way stage, and stuck with the dim movie theaters (by the way, the next time you're in NYC, try and catch a film at the Paris Theater; it's lovely).
I saw A Single Man first, and after being unsure of what to expect, despite generally positive reviews, I left quite satisfied. Despite its narrative limitations, Ford's film, which he co-wrote, never lets those limitations become visible. You'll want to know what comes next, even though no real "action" ever occurs. Set in October 1962, professor George Falconer (Colin Firth, hopefully on his way to his first Oscar nomination) is still coping with the loss of his lover (Matthew Goode). Ford's film, adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood, follows George throughout a single day, with a few flashbacks spliced in every now and then. The result is a sensitive, gorgeous exploration of life, aging, love, and loss. Ford, something of a superstar in the fashion world (which I, erm, don't really care about...at all) has made a ridiculously beautiful film without getting lost in the visuals. The way the strength or weakness of color is used as a representation of George's happiness is a lovely little touch, with my favorite usage being early in the film: George talks to his secretary, and tells her that she looks beautiful, and as she breaks into a surprised smile, the camera cuts to a close-up of her mouth. As her smile finally dawns, the screen bursts with color, most notably in the secretary's deep red lips. The moment, without being superfluous, is so beautifully wrought and surprisingly purposeful, that it's enough to almost make one catch one's breath in cinematic ecstasy. Such ecstasy is only aided by the impeccable production design (courtesy of the team behind TV's "Mad Men") and Abel Korzeniowski's unbelievable gorgeous, string-laden score, so beautifully complimenting Ford's images and emotions it seems to flow off of the screen and slide across you like a sheet of velvet. But let's not forget the performances, or at least, THE performance, since this is basically the Colin Firth show. Quiet but never dull, Firth is solemnly magnificent in the role, with each shift between feigned exuberance/liveliness and hidden pain done so gently as to appear effortless. In the supporting cast, the closest to a standout is Julianne Moore as George's boozing friend Charlotte. Moore is good in the role, and the laugh she uses is absolutely delightful to listen to, but given the character's own limitations as far as screen time, there's not too much for her to do, physically or emotionally. Matthew Goode does his job as George's lover, and Lee Pace is well, wasted as a co-worker (was he on screen for more than 20 seconds?). Then there's Nicholas Hoult, as a student who may or may not be romantically interested in George (maybe just intellectually?). Here's the one part of the equation I'm not sure of. The role is certainly an interesting one, and the way the character is written leaves a lot up for debate regarding his intentions/interests, but there's something about Hoult that leaves me unaffected. I'm still having trouble pinning it down; I didn't strongly dislike him, but every so often I couldn't help wish he would vanish so George could go talk to Charlotte again. That said, the film is a marvelous little debut, with nice direction, a wonderful lead performance, and stunning artistic aspects; the phrase "less is more" has never felt so applicable.
Next is Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or winner The White Ribbon. I didn't know too much about the film except that it has some ties to "the generation who would grow up to commit the Holocaust". Set in a small Protestant (Lutheran? not that it matters...) village in Germany in 1913, strange (and not terribly good) things begin to occur, and no one can quite figure out why. Despite its length (2 hrs 20 min), Haneke's direction and screenplay keep one on edge, never certain as to what little detail in this pious-on-the-surface village is going to be revealed next, or what it will mean in the grand scheme of things. The stark black and white photography, as well as the near total absence of music carefully add to the quiet mystery and tension, as well as establish the no-nonsense demeanor of the town and its citizens. The only thing really unsatisfying about Haneke's effort is that after all of the build up, there's still quite a bit left unanswered. Now, I have no problems with films that don't spell out everything, quite the opposite, but there's a limit, and the by the time Haneke's film ends, he's straddling a frustrating line between leaving one with a sense of artistic bewilderment, and withholding too much. That said, it's hard to fault just about everything else in the film, which is so sparsely done yet so richly affecting, often in eerie ways, made eerier by Haneke's ability to stage the film like a straight drama/mystery, instead of a psychological horror film. Complex, daring, and almost guaranteed to leave you talking (albeit about almost too much), Haneke's film stands as an unsettling portrait of a generation that would grow up to commit one of the worst crimes in human history, as well as the people who raised them. It's also one of the best damn films of the year (well...last year), foreign or otherwise.