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April 03, 2003

Moviegoing: "The Man Without a Past" and "Irreversible"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Made it to a couple of art movies the other day in the company of the God of the Machine himself (or Himself, I suppose), Aaron Haspel, an affable crank and brainiac if ever there was one. (And one who's been doing some especially entertaining blogging in the last week, here.)

The first was the new Aki Kaurismaki film, The Man Without a Past. Do you know Kaurismaki's movies? He's a Finn, which I imagine says something, though I'm not sure what. I've only seen a few of his movies, and while I'm not about to urge anyone to devote a lifetime of study to Kaurismaki, he's a distinctive talent. If you can picture Jim Jarmusch doing one of his deapan-hipster shaggy-dog numbers but with characters out of Brueghel at the center, you've more or less got Kaurismaki. Droll, offbeat, and supercool, but with elements of the misshapen and grotesque, and not shy on the pathos, either. But he's skillful and sly at stretching this rather skimpy recipe out. (This interview here with Danny Leigh in The Guardian gives the flavor of Kaurismaki.)

In this film, a guy is rolled by some thugs; when he wakes up, he can't remember who he is. He knocks around the underclass, takes a liking to a gal who works for the Salvation Army, discovers an aptitude for welding ... There's an out-of-nowhere, absurdist (but enjoyable) musical interlude, where the Salvation Army's band learns how to get some dance rhythms going. Kaurismaki (who sometimes shoots his films in b&w) uses color very deliberately: early-morning light, lots of blue-greens and red-oranges. Lots of focusing on how hard things are for the poor, and on shiney-nosed, high-cheekboned Finnish faces. What an odd people, not that I know anything about them other than what I've seen in Kaurismaki movies. Still: that language, which looks like it was invented by Navajo code-talkers; and those faces, which seem Hungarian, or even Tartar. A strange outpost of something or other.

"The Man Without a Past"? Well, it's something, but not necessarily something worthy hurrying to. Aaron seemed irked by the corniness of the amnesia premise. I wasn't, taking it, probably mistakenly, to be a self-conscious hipster's attempt to face emotionality (ie., corniness) head-on.

irreversible 01.jpg
Bellucci and Vincent Cassel in a rare peaceful moment in "Irreversible"

Then it was on to Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, infamous already for three things: two scenes of loathesome ultraviolence (one involving a man's skull being crushed, the other a 9-minute long anal-rape scene), and the fact that Noe runs the movie's chronology backwards. I'd never recommend the movie -- which is way over the top, intense, turbulent, possibly offensive and certainly excessive. But Noe's talented, the film is upsetting in a way I rather enjoy, and it showcases the divine Monica Bellucci, who for my money is the most beautiful woman in movies today. So I'm glad I saw it. Like Wong Kar-Wai's "Fallen Angels," which I wrote about here, "Irreversible" gave me the feeling that I was watching film history in action: what film is becoming, and where it's probably going too. Ie., graphics, rhythm, aggression, dreaminess -- seductive trance/techno sex-horror videogamishness, roughly speaking. Not that I'm real pleased about this.

Noe's vision -- he has one, and it's valid and brilliant, if arguably immensely distasteful -- reminds me of David Fincher's, though where Fincher uses the studios and big budgets, Noe is working very small-scale and with relatively few effects. But they're seeing and presenting many of the same things: a chaotic world where people have to fight to remain people, where feelings are elusive, sexuality has come unmoored, and men thrash out, not knowing how else to behave. (Very "Fight Club.")

People seem to love "Irreversible" or hate it, judging from the online reviews. Should you go see it? Hmm. I'll just say that the movie's a pretentious vigilante picture, and its central metaphor is anal rape, and let you make the decision. (In an interview with the British Film Institute here, Noe is rather smart and charming.)

The Poetry that is Bellucci

And Monica Bellucci! Well, I'll try to spare you the rhapsodizing. But I do think she's an amazing and eloquent beauty. She's only adequate as an actress, but she's adequate enough, if you know what I mean -- hey, Loren, Cardinale and Lollabridgida weren't great actresses either. Bellucci has an exquisite, heart-shaped head; a refined, turned-up and pushed-back Isabelle Adjani-style mouth; and a plate-of-spaghetti, shiver-me-timbers, you got some fries with that shake? body. Gad: Quite a combination. I haven't yet seen a movie in which she's been fabulous (although she delivers more than what's called for in "Brotherhood of the Wolf"), and who knows, she may never get lucky in that way, although she's been a big star in Europe for years.

She began as a model and so far, IMHO, has delivered more in her modeling than in her movie appearances. She's a fascinating camera subject. She seems to take modeling -- including very sexual modeling -- as a solemn and poetic vocation. Beauty seems to be the subject of her work, and if the beauty in question happens to belong to her, well, then it's her role to deliver it forth. She seems to treat the making of these images -- many of them basically chic cheesecake -- as a form of legitimate, even high, art. I'm delighted, and persuaded. Check out a few of the many websites devoted to still images of her (here and here, for instance), and tell me what you think. I may simply be deranged with lust and admiration, but I don't think you'll regret taking the time to eyeball a few of her pix.

How was she in "Irreversible"? Not bad -- touching, sweet, beautiful. To her credit, she gives over completely in the rape scene, which is horrifying and distressing, as well as distressingly intense and repulsive (as well as, I'll admit, pretty hot).

Then Aaron and I stopped at the Knickerbocker, ordered Scotch and sodas, and talked for a while about vigilante movies and our shared love for "Straw Dogs." I wonder why that movie came up?



posted by Michael at April 3, 2003


Actually there's a reason why those Finnish people look, as you describe it, "Hungarian or even Tartar", namely that the Finns and the Hungarians apparently come from the same ethnic and linguistic stock somewhere in central Asia. As languages, both Finnish and Hungarian are a lot closer to each other than they are to either the Germanic or Slavic language groups that surround them. Odd, but apparently that's the way of it...

Posted by: James Russell on April 3, 2003 1:45 AM

It's actually even weirder than that. According to Professor Samuel Noah Kramer in his book, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character: " is highly probably that the Sumerians themselves did not arrive in Sumer until sometime in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C. Just where their original home was is still quite uncertain. To judge from a cycle of epic tales revolving about Enmerkar and Lugalbanda, the early Sumerian rulers seem to have had an unusually close and intimate relationship with a city-state known as Aratta, probably situated somewhere in the region of the Caspian Sea. The Sumerian language is an agglutinative tongue, reminiscent to some extent of the Ural-Altaic languages, and this fact may point to the same general area as Aratta." The Ural-Altaic languages include Finnish, Hungarian, Mongolian, and Turkish languages, among others. So the Finns are related to what was probably the most culturally significant people in history, the ancient Sumerians ("inventors" of the city-state, written law, place notation in mathematics, the wheel, the sailboat, the arch, monumental sculpture, etc.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 3, 2003 2:13 AM

Wow, who knew? Thanks to both of you. Sumerian ... Akkadian -- that would certainly seem to help explain all those double-Ks...

But I want further details. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, where are you when we need you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 3, 2003 10:50 AM

Monica Bellucci--what can I say but thank you Michael for those photos. Molto grazie! Molto molto grazie!

Posted by: Mike Kelly on April 3, 2003 10:09 PM

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