Archive for category France
A dreary, dreamy dip into the sad lot of a true (maybe) believer.
I know I am going to sound like a real Pleb, but sometimes I find Robert Bresson’s Hypnagogiac film-making to be really, really frustrating. Robert Bresson’s opaque dialogue is cryptic enough on its own. Uttered by sleepwalking existential French zombies, and it is downright maddening. Such it is with “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,” a dreary drama about the angsty adventures of a neophyte priest that I confess I had trouble engaging with. I suppose there is a compelling meditation on faith in here for those with the patience for it, but that certainly wasn’t me.
That may make me sound like a lazy philistine who wants his movies to force feed him their ideas, but really I just want a reason to engage intellectually and emotionally. Bresson gives reasons to not engage intellectually and emotionally. He works hard so that we also have to work hard. He is notorious for making his actors do take after take after take, until exhausted and psychologically drained, any ability or inclination to emote or act like a human is beyond their capacity. It is a bold choice, certainly, but often a tedious one. I loved it in Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” but found it extremely problematic in “Pickpocket.” With “Diary of a Country Priest” veering in the “Pickpocket” direction and lacking the cinematic flare of other angsty “Does God exist?/What does suffering exist?’ films from say an Ingmar Bergman, I was left as alienated and isolated as the film’s title character.
Claude Laydu plays the titular priest, who indeed has a diary which frames the narrative. Referred to only as “Priest,” he begins working with his first Parish in a small French town called Ambricourt. He takes to his job with an incredible stoicism, dreaming of feeding his flock Spiritual morsels divined from his close relationship with God. Everybody else in town just seems to find this amusing. He teaches a catechism of girls who spend their class time giggling and snickering at private jokes at his expense. Chantel, (Nicole Ladmiral) the obstinate daughter of a wealthy Count says deliberately inflammatory things in the hope of shocking the Priest. His advisers in the priesthood are more concerned with his diet and amount of prayer than resolving the moral crises that he encounters among the fair people of Ambricourt, responding to his complaints and questions with the French version of “just take it easy buddy.”
Despite the fog of indifference and shaky health, the Priest stays resolute in his determination to tend to the souls living in this country village. His greatest triumph involves reigniting the faith of a mother who had long since forsaken God after her son died. The Countess (Rachel Berendt,) and mother of Chantel finds herself cowed back into her faith after a feisty and challenging conversation with the Priest ends with her throwing a locket belonging to her son in a fire and taking a long-needed Communion. It is the one moment of self-actualization for the Priest, and his crowning professional achievement.
Yet this one good deed does not go unpunished. The Countess dies the next day, and Chantel unhelpfully starts spreading rumors that it was the admonishments of the Priest which did her in. The controversy puts a damper on his already weak standing with the community and a further strain on his frail body. He is given every reason to rail against God, yet by the end of the film, The Priest still proclaims, “God is Grace.”
One of the tricks of this film is figuring out the extent to which The Priest’s belief in God is fueled by a quiet egotism. Is his vision for the universe one in which he is the arbiter for the faith of everyone in this village? Does his passion bury a chasm of doubt buried deep inside his soul? The ambiguity was compelling for a time, but the film isn’t as cynical as that. It tips its cap at the very end, transforming the narrative into an anecdote about the divinity of suffering . Not that I was paying that close of attention. As “The Priest” was wrestling with his faith, I was wrestling with boredom.
A tour-de-force of in-your-face sappiness and most of Britain’s finest actors.
In my years of watching films, I’ve somehow almost completely avoided the films of Richard Curtis. Not including his work as a writer and producer on the film “Bean,” I’ve steered clear of his eye-watering canon of saccharine romantic comedies. While the schmaltz his films generate is legendary, I was still unprepared to witness their emotion-churning effects for myself. In watching “Love Actually” with my wife over the holidays, well, I was gobsmacked by its ability to hijack the human nervous system and generate tears like some sort of fast-replicating sadness/happiness virus, but you know what? I liked it. Kind of. If one is going to make a film as aggressively sentimental as this, better Richard Curtis than just about anybody else.
The trouble with a film like “Love Actually,” which consists of several highly-contrived narrative vignettes filled with lots of warm and sticky feelings which are generally recognized as love, is that it is impossible to care equally about all of it plot strands. Some of these stories do worm their way into your heart, but the film constantly jumps from story to story, some of which are not uninteresting, but actively irritating. The result is a well-meaning film with highly-inconsistent returns that is nevertheless hard to hate.
On the good side we have Bill Nighy as aged rocker Billy Mack, my personal favorite on this smorgasbord menu of holiday cuteness. Mack is forced to transform some of his long-expired hits into bad Christmas music by his manager, a task which Mack approaches with a full-on DGAF (look it up if you don’t get know what this acronym is Grandpa) attitude. While promoting his admittedly awful music on the British media circuit, he raises all kinds of Hell by mostly being brutally honest about just how awful that music is and the shameless drive to resurrect his defunct career which inspired it. I also enjoyed John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) as a couple of stand-ins for sex scenes that slowly fall in love over the course of the movie they are shooting.
Including the previous two, I count nine stories in all, from the silly to the starkly serious. We have: 1) Alan Rickman as middle-aged man that is considering cheating on his wife, played by Emma Thompson, with his perpetually-clad-in-red secretary, played by Heike Makatsch,) 2) Laura Linney as one of Rickman’s love-stricken employees whose dreams of getting with her long-time crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) are ruined by her brother’s rare mental disorder which compels him to call her while she is trying to have sex, 3) Kris Marshall as a down-on-his-luck-romantically Brit who travels to America to impress the local women with his accent, 4) Hugh Grant as Britain’s Prime Minister who falls for a member of his household staff, played by Martine McCutcheon, who is mercilessly and inexplicably called fat at several points in the film, 5) Andrew Lincoln as a man hopelessly in love with his best friend’s new wife, played by Keira Knightley, 6) Colin Firth as a writer who falls for his Portuguese maid, played by Seinna Guillory, and 7) Liam Neeson as a recently widowed husband who must contend with his lovesick (and decidedly non-grieving stepson,) played by Thomas Sangster. These narratives are even more ridiculous than that quick synopsis makes them sound.
“It is what it is” isn’t much of a criticism, but it feels very apt here. Whatever else can be said about “Love Actually,” it is at least honest about what it offers. (In starting out with home movies of friends and families reuniting in airports, the film couldn’t make it more clear about what you can expect the rest of the way.) The value of what this film offers depends on your desire for cheap but well-constructed and viciously-efficient emotional manipulation by an enormous cast of British talent. Bearish as I am about such films, “Love Actually” kinda sorta won be over.
Sexual chemistry between a middle-aged voyeur and a young exhibitionist is the best kind of sexual chemistry.
Nobody does odd romance quite like Patrice Laconte, whose authentically idiosyncratic lovers manage to find their perfect match in a world of busted and disingenuous relationships, despite the odds. The rub, of course, is that rather than the end of their problems, meeting each other usually is the start of the them. “Monsieur Hire” plays much the same, with the creepy voyeurism of the titular character meeting the wry exhibitionsim of his young neighbor, with tumultuous results. As for what does this nutty relationship means, I’m baffled.
Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is one of those absurdly French creations, a man who is exceedingly odd but utterly contented in his oddness. No matter how people perceive him, he carries himself with the air of a man steeped in self-importance and dignity. A reclusive bald, portly middle-aged tailor living on his own, Hire does inscrutable things which I’m sure are wrought with some kind of meaning which is lost on me. More specifically, he has a collection of pet mice, of which he periodically picks one, kills it, and chucks into a river. Why? I dunno. Probably some kind of visceral metaphor for the futility of existence.
His female counterpart is Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire,) a young country girl living in a flat with wide open windows which curiously lack anything resembling blinds. Hire sees literally everything that goes on at her apartment, because when he isn’t working or killing mice, he just stands next to the window and stares at her, or follows her when she goes out with her dubious boyfriend/fiance Emile (Luc Thuilier.) If this sounds horrifying, it isn’t for Alice. After seeing Hire’s face in the window thanks to a timely lightning bolt on a stormy night, Alice realizes that she gets a sexual thrill from being watched by Hire. Knowing this, she begins tantalizing him in various ways, from dropping tomatoes in the hallway to having wild sex with Emile with Hire gazing at them from afar.
This “romance” plays out amidst a murder investigation in which Monsieur Hire is the chief suspect, largely because of his serial-killer vibe and lack of an alibi. Hire is too obvious a culprit to have actually done it, but the detective suspects Hire knows more than he lets on, a la “Rear Window.” Plus, like everybody else, the detective seems to genuinely dislike Monsieur Hire, and the investigation gives him a chance to harass Hire and otherwise pry into his, voyeurism and creepiness aside, rather dull personal life.
Most of this film is a mystery to me, probably because I lack the cultural and cinematic language skills to decipher it. I spent most of “Monsieur Hire” wondering what I was supposed to get out of this quasi-love triangle between a middle-aged voyeur, a young exhibitionist and her rapscallion of a fiance. These aren’t exactly relatable characters, and it isn’t as if this is a film in which you root for the “lovers” to end up together. So, mostly I just watched the film in stupor, while occasionally scratching my head. Don’t mistake me, however. This film’s strangeness is commendable, and the film oozes style and sexual energy, even if it is unseemly. Hire and Alice’s relationship is ultimately unsustainable. This is likely true for all passionate romances, but the acuity of their fetishes makes it more explicit that sexuality alone isn’t enough form the basis of a long-term partnership. Nevermind the romantic impulses which drive them towards poor decisions. Sometimes love don’t feel like it should, I guess.
On the less glamorous side of romance.
“Amour” is one of the most romantic films I have ever seen, which is a roundabout way of saying that it is unlike almost every mainstream film that purports to be a romance. There are no meet-cutes here, no quirky personalities, no convening with a cohort of a same-sex friends to deconstruct an opaque series of flirtatious exchanges, and no dramatic confrontations in which the romantic gauntlet is laid down. In fact, you won’t find much else in this film aside from an elderly couple experiencing a lot of suffering, resentment, frustration, and sadness. Yet this film is romantic all the same, because it looks unrepentingly passed a long and happy marriage to its bleak and bitter final days.
Directed by the masterful miserist (a word I made-up for a filmmaker whose work frequently explores human suffering) Michael Haneke far from the watchful eyes of studio executives, “Amour” is a simple exercise in futility fueled by the most romantic of impulses. In their 80s, lovers Anne (Emmanuel Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant) are retired piano teachers enjoying a quiet life which is cruelly interrupted when abruptly Anne suffers a stroke. An operation fails to cure her, but it does cause half of her body to be paralyzed, resulting in the slow deterioration of her health and mental state. Promising not to take her back to the hospital, Georges is forced to take care of her 24/7.
While this setup is fairly straightforward, the emotions involved in this film are anything but. There is bitterness, humiliation, despair, disgust, dread, and rage, sprinkled across the faces of the increasingly helpless Anne and the increasingly taxed Georges, both whom are experiencing very different, but very real kinds of pain. There are moments of gentle tenderness, violent outbursts, silent recognition, and pity. It is a complicated situation. Almost all of these emotions are expressed through the performances of Riva and Trintigant, who are both so astoundingly brilliant that Haneke hardly need do anything else but capture them
That isn’t to suggest that this is all that Haneke does. The man absolutely knows how to construct a film. What dialogue exists is packed with meaning, and Haneke includes metaphoric scenes which are literal diversions from the narrative, but which a current of thematic resonance underneath waiting to be discovered. In particular there are a couple of moments involving a pigeon which lingered long after the film was over. Haneke does not shy away from the horror of the situation or any of the negative emotions involved nor indeed try to make anyone feel better about what is happening. The question of assisted suicide over the film, along with issues of elder abuse and conflict with Anne and Georges’ daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who wants to put Anne into a care facility of some kind. The whole experience is contentious and miserable for everyone involved.
America would have the world, or at least Americans, believe that love is about being young, living in New York or L.A. and finding somebody gorgeous to have sex with regularly. As nice as that sounds, though, does anybody envision an eighty-year-old Matthew McConaughey helping an eighty-year-old Kate Hudson go to the bathroom when they watch “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?” The reality is something much more unfair and terrifying. It is trite to talk about truth in film, but with this film, it absolutely applies. This is one of the most honest films you’ll see. It looks at aging, decrepitude, suffering, mortality, and yes love with such unflinching eyes that watching it leaves you emotionally raw. If you believe that film should make you feel good, this might not be the film for you. I, for one, found it to be horribly romantic.
There is a dissociative quality to French films that I struggle to articulate. It is as though they contain two distinctive psychological components, which run concurrently but never seem to interact directly. One is a deep sense of romantic, moody aloofness, in which life is celebrated as a series of disconnected moments to be seized or discarded based on one’s unexamined whims. The other is a profound sense of the absurdity inherent in existence as a sentient being, including and especially being French. “The Story of a Cheat” manages to use the latter to mock the former, ridiculing the outlandish twists of fate that constitute and shape human life and learning, while reveling in the joyful insanity of it all.
Told in flashback, a man in his 50s, referred to straight-forwardly as Cheat (Sacha Guitry, who also directed and wrote the film and the book upon which it is based), reflects on the seminal events that led him to writing about his experiences in a cafe in Paris. Despite a rather eventful life filled with dramatic turns and surprising revelations, Cheat describes his adventure with the disinterested tone of someone reading a grocery list. At twelve he is caught stealing from the coffers of his parent’s grocery store and is sent to bed without any supper. As it turned out, the main course for dinner was poisonous mushrooms. Cheat’s entire family dies that night, save Cheat, who views the event as proof that dishonesty is rewarded in a sort of cosmic way. Cheat reflects on the death of his entire family with a matter-of-fact calmness that one might hear on “This American Life.”
The next forty years are filled with work at a hum-drum series of jobs, first as a doorman at several different hotels, then getting a gig as a croupier in a casino in Monte Carlo. Time also sees him involved in a series of more extravagant endeavors, including a plot to assassinate a Russian czar, fighting and nearly dying in World War I, helping a blond lover steal jewelry, secretly trying to rig roulette with a woman he married to ensure his half of the stake, and eventually making oodles of money as card shark before giving it all up to go straight.
All of this might add up to a film about the beautiful coincidences that make up life and transforms us into who we are, and to a certain extent, I suppose it is that. Cheat’s life is filled with extraordinary events and coincidences, but he doesn’t imbue his memories with much nostalgia and reverence. Cheat seems mostly amused by the bizarre series of events which led him to the cafe in which he finds himself writing about his life. It is this humor in which the film is wrapped that makes whatever romantic notions it has about the wondrous chaotic calamity that is life easier to swallow. Without it, the film might be a rather dreary drama, instead of an (at times) black comedy.
I’m not sure “The Story of a Cheat” resides in the pantheon of great films. There are moments in which the film is so aloof that it seems indifferent to what is happening on screen. It is hard to love a film with such a little emotional hook. However, the film has playful fun toying with the structure and substance of biographies as well as the possible downside of believing in karma as a means of learning good behavior (and the idea of fate in general), while satirizing French superciliousness and celebrating its lunacy in the process.
Even whilst watching it, “Vampyr” was a difficult film to follow. While it has a semi-narrative that probably makes linear sense if you stop and think about it, the dreamy march of surreal images makes the film’s logic go all fuzzy. Looking back on it, the film felt almost like a fever dream generated by drinking too much cough syrup and watching a vampire movie marathon.
In its first intertitle, “Vampyr” warns that its protagonist Allan Gray (Nicolas Gunzburg) is fixated with the occult and struggles distinguishing the world as it is from the fantastical nightmares he obsessively reads about. Hitting the ground running with this ambivalence between reality and perception, the film leads Gray into a hellacious world of dancing shadows, creepy hotel patrons, and demonic old ladies. Gray stumbles into the midst of a festering Vampyr problem in an unnamed village, staying at an ancient inn.
There is nothing savory about this inn, from its decaying wood to zombie-like staff wandering the halls late at night. In the middle of the night, an old man enters Gray’s room, whispering a cryptic message and handing him a small package marked “To be opened in the event of my death.” Later, seeing disembodied shadows prancing through a forest, Gray follows them to a large manor. Inside is the old man from the previous night, with a daughter named Leone (Sybille Schmitz), whose life appears to be slowly ebbing away from a mysterious bite on her neck.
The shadows, aside from merely evoking terror (which they do, particularly the shadow carrying the scythe), are capable of interacting with the material world. Gray witness them killing the old man. Opening the package he was given, which turns out to be a book, on Vampyrs no less. The book is filled with all kinds of useful information, the most crucial of which indicates that the Leone is slowly turning into a vampire and will soon seek out loved ones to infect. Also, no big deal, many of the locals are themselves thralls of the vampire that infected Leone, especially the bushy-eyebrowed town doctor (Jan Hieronimko), who frequently gives out bad medical advice in favor of making more vampires.
If that plot synopsis seems fairly straightforward to you, it really isn’t. The film exist almost entirely as asatmosphere. The tropes drift together in a jet-stream of eeriness. A deathly old looking woman lying in a coffin. Inscrutable exchanges between the local citizenry. A surreal dream sequence in which Gray sees himself lying dead in a coffin. A horrific sequence in which a man is buried alive by flour. There is indeed a stake going through a heart at some point, but all of it bleeds together, making it hard to determine who is doing what, and why.
Carl Theodor Dreyer is most well known for his silent masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” but he applies all of his cinematic skill into making one hell of a horror film. While it is probably not fair to compare this film to the enduring classic “Nosferatu,” such a comparison is inevitable. “Vampyr” is not “Nosferatu,” but in terms of sheer horror, I found “Vampyr” more consistently frightening. Dreyer’s fixation on how the film looks and feels at the expense of any narrative cohesion pays dividends. The visual effects are as good as anything I’ve seen from the early sound era and better than many modern CGI-infested bores. The disturbing imagery mixes danger, decay, and eroticism, while bypassing the frontal lobes of the brain and going straight to the Amygdala, leaving that lingering sense of doom and misery.
One could criticize this film for its colossally-slow pace if it wasn’t so compelling. Instead words like “contemplative” or “reflective” are more appropriate. Much like the tired old monks at the heart of the narrative, the film has the courage of its convictions to take its time, savoring quiet moments of meditation, lingering on faces deep in thought, while wrestling with a frightening decision which challenges faith, ethics, and mortality
The central question of the film is best summed up in the words of The Kinks: “Should I Stay or Should I go?” Based on real events occurring in 1996, staying or going is the choice in front of a small group of French Trappist monks living in a monastery near a largely Muslim village in Algeria. Despite their differing religious beliefs, the monks live harmoniously with the villagers, providing free and desperately needed medical care and a warm, fatherly presence. With Algeria in the midst of a civil war, there is a group of rebels/terrorists whose appearance threatens to end this symbiotic relationship. With the possibility looming that this group might capture or kill them at any moment, each monk must elect whether to leave the monastery for somewhere safer, or to stay and continue to help the villagers in whatever way they can.
For some, this decision is simpler than others, as age and infirmities have made travel more difficult and death much nearer. It is not coincidental that the youngest monk is the most insistent on leaving. Yet none of the men reach their decision lightly. While there is some discussion amongst the monks, most of the film plays out on their individual faces, as they pray and ruminate on what they should do. There are considerations of God’s will and the merits and meaningfulness of martyrdom, along with what it means to be a child of God. All this is aside from the more troubling question of their faith itself. With the prospect of their demise lingering close by, the existence of God might seem less a certainty than it once did.
Aside from Lambert Wilson, whom some may recall from the “Matrix” sequels, and Michael Lonsdale, the bad guy in “Moonraker,” the cast consists of unfamiliar French actors. With little dialogue, all the actors use their bodies and the creases of their face to communicate a lifetime of charity and poverty, whilst hinting at vast pools of anxieties, fears, love, and compassion underneath. The absence of non-diagetic sound lets these unexpressed emotions permeate and mix in the air, offering up no interpretations for the psychological slushie swirling within each monk.
Whatever metaphysical beliefs one brings to the film, its status as a shining beacon of humanist optimism is difficult to deny. The film’s most powerful scene involves no more then a slow pan, the music of “Swan Lake,” and a bottle of wine, yet is one of the most evocative and affective moments in film. It firmly believes in the triumphant force of the human spirit, and with such an interesting and moving collection of characters, it is not hard to see why.
Michael Haneke truly is the maestro of misery. “The White Ribbon” is dread incarnate. Not quite horror, suspense, or anxiety, but containing bits of all three, this film never relents in the pervasive malcontentedness it stirs within us from its frame. The film begins with a man on horseback “accident” in which the horse trips over a nearly invisible wire stretched across two posts, and proceeds, slowly, on that note of suffering without the slightest respite or resolution. This is a highly unpleasant film, and it is not for the faint of heart, but there is a brilliance in the way Haneke delves into desecration of the human spirit.
Shot in a stark black-and-white which is as chilling as it is beautiful, “The White Ribbon” is set in what initially seems an idyllic country village in 1913 Germany, two years before the start of World War I. Life in this little village is off. A bizarre and unexplained series of pranks opens old wounds within the town, exposing long-dormant tensions and a deep sickness which has been festering for decades. This is a town that is decaying from the inside out.
At the forefront of this decay is a group of disturbed children, who may be responsible for the strange pranks in town, which includes the horse-tripping incident along with sexually abusing and torturing two other children, one of whom is the son of the local Baron and the other a sweet little boy with Down’s Syndrome. While these children exude a very ominous “Village of the Damned/Children of the Corn” vibe, their warped sensibilities may not be entirely their fault. Raised by a community of morally bankrupt, hypocritical and violent group of adults, empathy and reasonable behavior are not surprisingly in short supply.
While never explicitly stated, it looms large in the film that these children will eventually grow up to become Nazis. It is a not stretch then to view the film as an allegory for the conditions leading to the rise of the national socialist party. The essentials are there. Frustrations with the aristocracy and economic elite manifested by the struggles between the Baron and the townspeople that are forced to work for him. A young citizenry with time on their hands and a penchant for cruelty in the form of the Aryan children. Finally an authoritarian slice of Christianity which mixes bits of sexual repression, shame, and sadistic punishments, even including the ritualized wearing of a White Ribbon as a symbol of “purity and innocence.”
Haneke isn’t interested in making any of the dour material in this film more palatable for the viewer. A professional provocateur, he means to oppress and antagonize us with his film, and so he does. With suicide, incest, physical abuse, and a whole lot of people treating each other terribly there is precious little joy to be found in this film. Even a romantic relationship between two of the few likable characters isn’t enough to penetrate the wall of woe. I cannot say I have ever felt such potent and inescapable wretchedness from a film ever before, which ranks as no small feat. So it goes with Haneke, who makes films that are gorgeous, terrifying, bleak, disturbing, captivating, and nauseating, all of which apply to “The White Ribbon.” Add excellent to that list.
What starts out as a goofy humanist farce ends as something wholly different. The comedy turns out to be a cover for deep cynicism and sharp criticism, which is slowly unmasked as the film shifts directions partway through. Taking one turn after another, the film gradually replaces laughs and optimism with a numbing and disturbing silence. We are left with the lingering realization that what we have seen is profoundly troubling.
“No Man’s Land” refers to both the ravished portion of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina afflicted by the territorial disputes causing the Bosnian war and the forsaken stretch of land between two trenches held by opposing forces during war, in which neither side dares to move for fear of destruction by the other. It also applies to the vast psychological space that exists between the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosniaks, who fighting over territory have become bitter enemies. Whatever the facts of the actual conflict are, the film isn’t interested in them. These are simply two groups of people that are hating and hurting each other because they are taught to.
Initially, there is hope for the formation of a small bridge between these two groups. Ciki (Branko Duric), a Bosniak, and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a Bosnian Serb find themselves together in a dire situation. They are trapped in a trench between their respective sides, with a wounded man lying on a land mine not far away. They cannot leave during the day for fear they will be shot. While tensions are high initially, the duo starts to, if not bond, then converse in a mutually respective manner. They even stand together and wave white flags in their boxers in an attempt to explicate themselves from the situation. This succeeds to a point, as both sides agree to a temporary cease fire so that United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) can remove the stranded soldiers back to their respective sides.
It is telling that everything starts to go wrong when the UN gets involved. Operating against orders, French sergeant Marchand (Georges Siatidis) drives a sort of tank to the rescue, before being ordered to leave by his bureaucratic and P.R.-minded C.O. Marchand offers to take the two soldiers with him, but Ciki can’t leave his wounded friend alone on top of a mine. Niko has no such qualms. Afraid that he will be fired upon by the Bosnian Serbs if Niko leaves, Ciki shoots Niko in the leg. It is at that precise moment when it is obvious we are not watching one of those nice films where two adversaries unite under the threat of mutual destruction. The situation, and the U.N.’s involvement in it, only becomes more complicated from there.
In using humor to subvert our genre expectations, the film evinces a criticism that digs deeper then it might otherwise. We might be braced for a cynical indictment of the U.N. if the film were more forthright, but by dangling a positive and uplifting film about transcending differences in front of us before pulling a bait-and-switch, we are gobsmacked by the depth of the film’s nihilism and anger. That is what makes the film’s political critiques so devastating and so meaningful. We want to laugh, if only it weren’t so damn disturbing.
On principle alone, this film seems like a bad idea. It is, after all, a MTJ (Mandatory Tear Jerker) cobbled together from snippets of the final phone calls made by victims of a hijacking just before the plane crashed. It seems kitschy at the same time it seems exploitative and almost predatory in the way it intends to manipulate our emotions. Yet none of that matters for the sheer craftsmanship and sense of authenticity evoked in every scene and the careful respect it pays to both our intelligence and our emotions.
Forget character, forget narrative, forget mise-en-scene. “United 93” does something to me that no bit of news footage has ever been able to do: generate within me the exact same feelings I felt on the morning September 11th, 2001 as a Junior in high school. The shock, the horror, the sheer sense of the unreal that I experienced when my teacher brought a television into the classroom to show us those planes hitting the World Trade Center. It does this not through histrionics, triumphant music, or the grandiose speech of a movie star. “United 93” does not deign to overstate the heroism on display, and it makes the film so much more the heart-wrenching and moving.
That heroism comes from a small group of ordinary people thrust into an impossible situation. Held hostage on a plane hijacked by a man with a bomb strapped to his chest and his three knife-wielding allies, phone calls to and from loved one lets the passengers know that the terrorists in control of the plane have no intention of landing it. Word spreads. Other planes have crashed into the twin towers. Speculation. Is the bomb real? Does it matter? A plan forms. The terrorists are outnumbered. They can’t subdue everyone. A bum rush should be enough to overcome them.
We cannot be certain that this is exactly how flight United 93 actually went down, but it doesn’t take much of an optimist to see that this is as precise an estimation of what went on inside that flight as we will ever know. We know, for instance, that the passengers on board were planning to retake the plane, and that ultimately it crashed before reaching its targets. This is how I would like to remember the people aboard the flight that day, whatever creative license was taken with the film. Brave men and women, taking the only course of action left to them. (And the film takes great pains to construct them as actual people, not characters.)
Accentuating their bravery is just how defenseless the United States was on September 11th. The film crosscuts between the realish time actions aboard United 93 and the group of military and air traffic controllers desperately trying to grasp the complexities of the terrible situation. What begins as a normal morning quickly spirals out of control. No one is quite sure which planes have been hijacked and which planes have hit the twin towers. It takes too long to get military aircraft into the air, and when they do, they cannot fire because they might hit a non-hijacked plane. Despite the hardworking and intelligent men and women in charge on that day, we simply were not prepared as a country for anything like 9/11
9/11 is the most seminal event of the 21st century for the United States. “United 93” understands that it does not have to tell us this and that it doesn’t need to waste time with large gestures and loud declarations for us to understand that 9/11 is still shaping U.S. history. In fact, this is an impressively quiet film, with a minimalist verite-style use of handheld cameras and virtually no stars or recognizable actors to speak of (with the exception of 30 Rock’s Cheyenne Jackson.) When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, we here not screams, but gasps of terror and shock. It was at that moment when those eleven-year-old emotions came rushing back and I knew that whatever my preconceptions about the film, it was working on the most basic and rudimentary level a film can work. It made me feel something.