Three Great Movies to Get You Through Hollywood's Winter Dead Zone -- at Home
Le Pont du Nord, now on Blu-ray.
BY MICHAEL ATKINSON
In the olden days, what month it was never mattered to movies. But today the late winter months are well-known as a weedy boneyard of mouth-breathing Hollywood castoffs, and we explore it at the cost of our patience, time, shekels and optimism. For the love of everything holy, stay home — warm, high, popcorned, in pajamas, in chosen company, and with an infinity of choices at your disposal. If you don't, Jupiter Ascending 2 will be your fault.
For instance, Jacques Rivette. In many ways the French New Wave's phantom outlaw, Rivette has remained a recalcitrant global giant despite the fact that many of his films — for reasons of extraordinary length and/or distributors' befuddlement — have never been released in the U.S. It took Le Pont du Nord (1981) 32 years to get a full play on an American screen (in a 2013 tour of the country's nerviest arthouses), and now it's here, on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, not a minute too soon. Rivettians, for whom holy grails are a way of life, can rejoice, still knowing that the wait for L'Amour Fou (1969), Out 1 (1971), and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), among other behemoths, goes on.
Le Pont du Nord is center-cut Rivette — a Parisian odyssey of jigsaw logic and amiably haunted intrigue. From the very beginning, Rivette's films occupy a dream-time parallel reality, an inexplicit, vaporous republic chockablock with free-associative consciousnesses, unreadable connections, causes without effects, irrational but contagious suspicions, metaphoric ghosts, characters matter-of-factly existing outside the flow of "real" life, searches for unarticulated goals, social orchestrations centered on illusions, and anxieties about unseen phenomena. Which is all to say, Rivette's movies are movies at their moviest — to understand him as an artist is to grasp his notion of movies as an alternate universe that mirrors our own, but which in the mirroring disconnects experience from our complacent knowledge of life. The films are seductions in which we are lured into ideas of authentic otherness, of experiences cleaved from our beliefs in autonomy and omniscience. In ordinary movies we know everything we need to know, like gods; in Rivette's oeuvre, we're lost ones, repeating questions, wondering what's underneath everything, waiting for rumored salvation.
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Here, two neurotic women meet in the streets: Bulle Ogier is a claustrophobic romantic just out of prison and embroiled in her lover's unintelligible criminal mishigas; Pascale Ogier (Bulle's daughter, tragically dead of an OD three years later) is a strutting punkette on a motorbike provoked by inanimate gazes, whether offered by faces on street posters or by the city's many stone lions. It's a time in Paris of rampaging crime, kidnappings, paranoia, and political skulduggery. Complementing each other in their loathing of modern society's confinement and surveillance, the two Ogiers wander through the city's fringe regions, bonding, debating free will, and eventually trying to decipher a coded map of Paris and figure out who exactly are the shady men, all named Max, following them.
Like many Rivettes, the movie is a Bechdel Test champion, saturated with relaxed, self-possessed and undefensive womanhood. But most of all it has us dallying with these fabulous women on an almost childlike dream journey to nowhere — a form of play, and playacting — as though there were nothing better to do in the world. There may not be, frankly. Rivette's idea of movies and life is as Zen as any filmmaker's. It's the now — stretched in some films to four hours or more, but only two-plus here — that matters. Where we're going, or how the stories he never quite tells are resolved, never does. The pleasure of the mysteries is both why we watch film, and how we should live.
How we should live: That's a messier question on the homefront of an aggressor nation during wartime. The new box set from Criterion, “Kinoshita and World War II,” delivers a juicy historical gobsmack no amount of the Nippo-auteur fetishization over Ozu, Kurosawa, Suzuki, Oshima, etc., would ever provide. Namely, the EKG of Japanese culture and life as it was molded and polluted by nationalistic war-making, during the largest, most ethically crystalline and most well-documented war ever fought. Keisuke Kinoshita began his career two years after Pearl Harbor (he did a year of military service, in China, before being discharged for medical reasons), and became one of the nation's most prolific (50 films in 45 years) and popular filmmakers, happily working in scores of different genres, and never bound by a single style agenda.
His flexible eclecticism makes him an ideal subject for study, in how average Japanese families — and filmmakers — rationalized their quotidian lives even as the country's imperialist narcissism left a carpet of corpses from Manchuria to Hawaii. You can see, seeping through the cracks, the forgotten anti-monolithic nature of every nationalist society. The set has Kinoshita's first five films, the first four of which, made during the war, are unabashed pro-Japanese, anti-American war agitprop, and were of course never released here. His debut, Port of Flowers (1943), is a Local Hero–ish comedy about two con men descending on an idyllic port town to gather investment cash for a bogus shipbuilding enterprise — which, with the advent of war, they become guiltily inspired to make real. The militaristic jingoism Kinoshita was compelled to peddle got more manifest with The Living Magoroku (1943) and Army (1944), both of which pivot on families torn between ancient samurai pride and the sacrifices to be made in the present; the latter film, especially, oozes with Kinoshita's ambivalent view of parents traumatized by their son going off to a war they may not completely believe in.
Jubilation Street (1944) is the package's most melodic piece, worthy of Naruse and Shimizu. A close-knit Tokyo neighborhood of a half-dozen or so families — complete with star-crossed lovers, errant husbands, aging financial resentments, and stubborn neighborliness — must relocate so the wartime government can co-opt the buildings, and Kinoshita buries the obligatory patriotism under layers of vivid heartbreak and melancholy. The camera movements alone, gently and ruefully roaming around the single soon-to-be-lost location, declaim the damage done to Japanese society by its warmongering better than any dialogue might. The single postwar film, Morning for the Osone Family (1946), filmed after surrender, allowed Kinoshita to cut loose, focusing his redoubtable powers of delicacy and dramatic punch on the sort of liberal pacifist family that suffered domestically during Japan's headlong kamikaze campaign, and how they are almost entirely ruined by the war.
Another lost movie: Jean-Paul Civeyrac's Through the Forest (2005), a New York Film Festival selectee no distributor here could handle for theatrical or video, but which can be found in the weeds of Hulu Plus. Only 65 shadowy minutes long, and comprising only 10 shots, the film economically plunges into the subjective world of a willowy young woman (Camille Berthomier) who is grieving her dead lover and is convinced his ghost returns to her bed at night; her family struggles to help her (the one-shot scene visiting a logorrheic clairvoyant is riveting), she meets a boy who could be the dead man's double, and time, space and sanity all prove to be slippery qualities. Strangely addictive, the film is simultaneously so French it smokes a Gitane for you, and so dreamy you're never sure if anything "happened" at all. Jump on it now, before it vanishes again.
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