Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Aura (2005)

The most basic convention of noir film is to place an average, basically good man in the midst of evil, then sit back and see what happens. In the Argentinean film “El Aura,” the protagonist is less than average; he is almost non-existent. Esteban Espinosa (Argentina’s prized Ricardo Darin) is a socially withdrawn near-recluse who allows his marriage to deteriorate while he focuses on his work as a taxidermist. He seems to almost be a ghost, barely interacting with those around him, but actually observing everything with the artist’s keen eye for detail. His hobby is planning robberies, and he is convinced that he is so observant that he could pull off the perfect crime. There are a couple of barriers to Esteban’s career as a heist man. One is that he is barely assertive enough to collect his paycheck, let alone demand money at gunpoint. The other is that he has epilepsy, which manifests as grand mal seizures occurring at random times. These leave him temporarily helpless, and are preceded by a beatific moment of clarity and transcendence which is the “aura” for which the film is named.

When Esteban’s wife leaves him, he barely seems surprised, but it does shake him up just enough to make him accept a last-minute hunting invitation from an acquaintance. Alone in the woods, Esteban has a seizure, then, slightly disoriented, he fatally shoots another hunter. This is the first real emotion we see from Esteban, who is understandably shaken to his core by the event. This is clearly the kind of mistake that could ruin a man, driving him mad with regret, even if he avoided jail. Unsure of what to do, the taxidermist silently returns to camp with the dead man’s wallet and cellphone. These objects draw him into the dead man’s world, which turns out to be pretty shady and peopled with characters straight out of a Richard Stark crime novel. It turns out that Dietrich (the dead guy) was planning a robbery, and Esteban gradually worms his way into the plot as Dietrich’s replacement. It is his chance to live out his fantasy, but the reality of a robbery turns out to be messier than any of his carefully laid plans.

“El Aura” is the second and last film by the late Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky, who became famous for another crime film, “Nueve Reinas” (Nine Queens). His death is a major loss for the world of film, as “El Aura” is a masterpiece. The film is slowly paced, yet I never left the edge of my seat. Ricardo Darin is not much to look at, but he has an insidious screen presence that makes it impossible to look away after a while. His portrayal of Esteban is minimalist but powerful. This film also features a bravura performance by one of the best canine actors I have ever seen, credited as Eva. The character Dietrich has a dog, and this wolf-like specter interacts with the reticent Esteban as if she knows and accepts his every secret. These two actors have something bordering on chemistry!

As for the “aura” itself, there is a great scene in which Esteban describes the feeling. Even though his auras precede seizures, which are obviously a problem in his life, one gets the impression that Esteban would feel incomplete without them.

It’s a shame that we won’t be getting any more films by Fabian Bielinsky, but Ricardo Darin is still making films. I plan to check out some of his other work and obviously watch Bielinsky’s other film, “Nueve Reinas.”

4.5 stars

Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Moustache (2005)

A few years ago I saw a movie at the Sundance Film Festival called “November,” starring Courtney Cox. Her character started to notice a sense of déjà vu that made her think she was living the month of November over and over, but with slight differences each time. Finally, we see her lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched robbery, and we are supposed to realize that everything that we had just seen was a hallucination she had while dying. The filmmaker was present for the showing, and during the question and answer session the sense of anger emanating from the crowd was palpable. We were angry with the filmmaker because he had taken us on a ride. He made us care about characters and plot points, only to pull the rug out from under us at the end with his “And it was all a dream!” trick. Plenty of other films have relied on this lazy storytelling device (“Jacob’s Ladder” and “Vanilla Sky” come to mind), and when I was younger and easily impressed, I thought these movies were clever. Now I think they are just a pathetic attempt on the part of a filmmaker to show us how clever he is.

This is not a condemnation of all non-literal fiction. I love absurdist literature like Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” and bizarro films like Orson Welles’s stunning “The Trial.” I am perfectly happy to have a storyteller take me on a thrilling ride with bizarre twists and turns, as long as the ride ends up somewhere worthwhile. It’s a question of trust. Sitting down to watch a movie or read a book is an act of faith that your time and energy will not be wasted. When your time IS wasted by a storyteller who strings you along with bizarre plot twists and intrigue, only to throw his hands up at the end and say, “Gotcha!,” that is a betrayal of trust.

It is difficult to define the line between artistry and audience manipulation. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. In “Vanilla Sky,” for example, the ending pretty much negates most of the rest of the film. You just end up feeling kind of dumb for investing so much effort following the story and trying to understand it. Same with “November” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” In a film like “The Sixth Sense,” on the other hand, the surprise ending doesn’t negate what came before. The ending reframes and adds new meaning to the previous scenes. In “The Trial” there is no ultimate explanation (you have to figure it out for yourself), but throughout the bizarre twists and turns of the story, the characters are presented in such a way that it is clear they are allegorical.

I still haven’t decided where “La Moustache” falls in this continuum. This French film by Emmanuel Carrere, based on his novel by the same name, definitely dips into skullfuck-the-audience territory. It is done with such skill and style, however, that I cannot completely condemn it. The story is that a guy named Marc (Vincent Lindon) impetuously shaves off the mustache he has had for years. His wife, friends, and co-workers don’t even notice the change, however. When he points it out to them, they insist that he has never had a mustache. This causes Marc to doubt his sanity, then his wife’s sanity, and then to really begin going insane when other aspects of the life he lived with his mustache begin to be denied as well. At its best, this film forces the viewer to consider essential questions about identity and the relatively small things that we allow to define us. Perhaps the whole story is just an imagined worst-case-scenario conjured up by Marc as he holds the razor up to his lip and reconsiders. On the other hand, the little things really do matter, especially in relationships, and this film may make you think about that. This story also comments on how our grasp of the past and present are so dependent upon other people’s affirmations. Our certainty that what happened as recently as five minutes ago really happened is based upon two rather flimsy foundations. One is the conviction that the present moment must have arisen from some logical source, and that source is the past as we remember it. The other foundation is that other people’s versions of the past agree with ours. In the absence of physical proof, how long could you continue to believe something had happened if everyone you knew denied it?

My complaint about “La Moustache” is that while it takes us on this wonderfully acted philosophical journey, it clings a little too tightly to realism. The earnest, very human portrayals of Marc’s wife and the other people in his life made it impossible for me to enjoy this surrealist ride. For too much of the film I thought that there must be some explanation for what was going on. By the time I surrendered to the fact that the whole thing was some kind of metaphor, I was too exhausted to care and just a little pissed off. Some plot points are infuriating, as well. For example, Marc has photos of himself with a mustache; why does he never show them to his wife?

Whether you think this makes “La Moustache” good or bad art depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing, I suppose. I admit to being divided on the subject. I guess I have to give a thumbs up to any movie that makes me think this hard, whatever faults it may have.

3 stars out of 5.