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.

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