The Last of the Unjust / Le Dernier des Injustes 2013
The Last of the Unjust is one of Claude Lanzmann’s most exceptional documentaries. He uses the same three structuring devices found in Shoah – that is: shots of landscape, a moving camera (usually in a forward or panning direction), and talking heads. With these three simple devices, Lanzmann unfolds an extremely complex story, that of Benjamin Murmelstein, one of the Jewish elders who acted as internal directors, as ordered by the Nazis, of the concentration camp (promoted by the Nazis as a town), Theresienstadt. Many of these elders have been accused of collaborating with the Germans but the truth of the accusations has been debated for decades and is still in question. Murmelstein was the last of these men still alive when he was interviewed in the seventies, in Rome, where he was living. The film is composed of these interviews interspersed with Lanzmann, in the 2000s, walking through various locations in Vienna and in the Czech Republic, talking to camera about historical information. Through these devices, Lanzmann opens up a much discussed, much obscured, much exposed, much contradicted piece of history: World War II. Even with such a background, this film, in 2013, is able to add to our perception of the war in ways that rival most other documentaries.
By juxtaposing the eras and the two people speaking, the locations and the first person accounts and impressions, the film leaves the viewer with a sense of the realness of the complexity of this situation during the war and with the rife and difficult feelings all parties have carried since. Lanzmann has the ability to place the viewer inside “facts” as they are lived in the flesh and blood moment, almost entirely through interview and people’s recollections of events that have happened years before. Lanzmann uses their words, which often pull feelings up out of a raw, even unspeakable, past and then presents that past as raw again. Words carry emotion that memory itself often has repressed into silence.
Through almost four hours, the film allows viewers to judge for themselves. The film is not a polemic yet Lanzmann is always polemical. He lets his interviewees tell the story. He presents rather than explicates and, as such, his presentation is polemical, being entirely composed of “point of view.” Yet this method is so staunch in maintaining that “history” is a told story that Lanzmann creates a film that is also, adamantly, without opinion. This is a documentary of great originality, great complexity, great simplicity, and great power. A must see film.
The Abuse of Weakness / Abus de Faiblesse 2013
The Abuse of Weakness is Breillat’s autobiographical account of her debilitating stroke and her experience with a lover who abused her and hustled large sums of money from her. Breuillat, a director whose films have a strong visual architecture, often composed of color as a structuring device, uses pastels in The Abuse of Weakness to punctuate the sense of power and helplessness. She pales the screen in these low hues, which bath the story in a weak light. The exception is in the scenes in the bedroom, the place where Isabelle Huppert, as the lead character, is trapped often by her illness. Here the color hardens and become solid and contrasting. Breuillat described, in interview, her screen as a “blank page” where her people “squirm.” The Abuse of Weakness is a like a kaleidoscope where “blank” is thematically about the unknown or ignorance or deception, a condition in which people reveal themselves and suffer. Breillat’s film repeats this juxtaposition, in all aspects, as a part of the larger play of strength and frailty. A unique film - one of Breillat’s best.
Bastards / Les Saluds 2013
In Bastards, Denis creates a film that works as a puzzle in both structure and plot. The film’s plot points (for good viewing suspense these are better left unstated) are based on a recent French crime and are built almost in blocks, pieces of a story that is revealed so minimally it is understood only in its last scenes. Her characters, who are difficult to know or to like and to identify with, become part of the look of the film and its movement. The dialogue is nominal. Denis, in interview, stated that she felt that “dialogue is like a jail.” It confines and “breaks the scene.” She wished she could use monologue exclusively as it allowed her to “go deep.” This kind of economy that drives deep is Bressonian and Denis’s work has always been an inheritor of Bresson’s. Here Denis uses an unusual structure and a deft minimalism to approach telling the story of a common and sickening crime, leaving the viewer with a mystery that ends in blunt, ordinary reality. This is a fascinating film, both as an indictment of society and as a complex use of film’s techniques to estrange the audience and draw it close.
Stranger by the Lake / L'inconnu du Lac 2013
This film has a small scope – it is simply a psychopath/murder story set by the seaside – yet its effect is lasting. Stranger by the Lake takes place at a gay beach in small cove in France. An affair begins between two regulars and continues though one man realizes that the other is a killer. The story is almost that basic yet Guiraudie’s clean, focused shots, his almost wordless script and his strong actors, create a fable-like horror story that nevertheless has a feel of real malice. Side bits of the French police detective or the visiting straight bather add little but remain a peculiar frame of nonsense that heightens the tension of the core story. A sharp, tight film.
Tim's Vemeer 2013
In Tim’s Vermeer, magician Teller (of Penn and Teller) explores the ideas of techno- inventor Tim Jenison who posits that the painting techniques that produced images of light and space by artists such as Johannes Vermeer were augmented by the use of lens. Having no painting or drawing skills, Jenison experimented with reflection and magnification to discover that he could copy an image exactly and duplicate, with great similitude, a Vermeer picture. The result is an amazing likeness. The film proposes that Vermeer used a similar technique and even David Hockney is persuaded to rethink this as a possibility. Mind-blowing, the film is nevertheless easy going and conversational in its way of unfolding this theory. Utterly remarkable and delightful.
Only Lovers Left Alive 2013
UK / Germany
A charming take on the vampire story as a laid back romance, Only Lovers Left Alive has Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton bring to life the intimacy of a couple who have been together a long time (in this case centuries) with all its casual humor, comfort, attraction and peace. Jarmusch fills the screen with visuals from road trips through Detroit nights, personal hipster living rooms, bopping dance clubs and Tangier bohemian squalor and sets up history as a constant presence to make an offbeat love story. A languid, entertaining vampire love film.