Archive for August, 2016

Seven years after his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), and only two after the international success of Whiplash (2014), Chazelle writes and directs yet another story where film and music are indissolubly tied together, and sets it in a colourful Los Angeles, the city of stars filled with people who dream of becoming someone they are not.

Sebastian (Gosling) is a thirty-something-year-old piano bar player obsessed with jazz, but forced to play the same repetitive tunes before crowds of vaguely interested customers. Mia (Stone) a girl about the same age who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. We meet both in a scene that mimics the beginning of Fellini’s 8 and ½. It’s Los Angeles, it’s rush hour, and cars are stuck in traffic. The only way people can escape the jam is dreaming, and dream they do: a jammed bridge turns into a carnival where drivers leave their seats, jump, dance and play around their vehicles. It’s a brilliant choreography, and a faithful summary of what the rest of the movie will be: explosive, vibrant and delightful. The camera follows the drivers-turned-dancers and the whole take feels like a wave of energy and colours that lingers long after the dream ends and people return to their seats.

Stuck amongst them are Sebastian and Amy. They meet when she fails to start her car, they honk and insult each other, then they meet again, they flirt, begin to go out, fall in love. It’s a standard love story, and yet it isn’t: Chazelle divides it into four seasons, and the love unfolds like the weather: it sprouts, blossoms, grows old, fades away. But the director seems to fall in love with them as much as they do with each other, and this is what gives to La La Land the sense of delicacy and empathy which makes it stand out as a love story that not only works – it sticks with you.

Amy and Sebastian’s romance is scattered with moments of sadness, joy, explosive choreographies and tip-tap moves. They are both romantic, and try to find their place in worlds where being so is almost looked down upon. We see Amy coming in and out of auditions where she gets repeatedly humiliated, and there is a scene where Sebastian is told jazz is dying because of nostalgic people like him are killing it.

Chazelle is, implicitly, just as romantic as the two of them. He chose to direct a movie that speaks of an art form which its own performers claim to be decaying, jazz, and did it through a medium which hardly many people would have used, a musical. Yet the experiment works. La La Land is as a film that is danced just as much as it is sung, and the choreographies, as well as the duo’s contagious energy and chemistry, add rhythm to the film as if crescendos in a musical piece.

In a sea where everyone plays the same thing, Chazelle has managed to sing his own melody, the same way Sebastian and Amy tried to create their own. The warm applause La La Land received at the end of his premiere at Venice’s 73rd Film Festival is a deserved prelude to the awards the film will hopefully receive in the days and months to come.

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In a memorable interview given to George Plimpton, Ernest Hemingway coined the “theory of the iceberg”: a writer can only show a very small part of a story – the rest must necessarily remain hidden, unwritten, and it will be up to the reader’s imagination to try to unveil and make sense of it.

Michel Franco, in Chronic, uses the very same trick, and the result is a cinematic gem. David (Tim Roth) is a fifty-something year-old in-home nurse. He works with terminally ill patients: he lives with them, washes them, feeds them and keeps them company. He performs all the above with a dedication which stands in contrast with the cold relationships they have with their own families. The people David takes care of have been left alone, their relatives do not seem able or willing to deal with their forthcoming deaths, and David ends up filling their absence, turning into the patients’ parent, friend, sibling.

But David too has a heart-breaking story of his own. We know he is hiding a terrible past, but we do not know just how terrible it is. We know he has lost the love of his life, but do not know how. We are told a child of his died very young, but do not know why. We know just as much as the strangers he confesses bits of his life to, only to then question what we are told when he talks to other people and the version changes altogether.

Franco hides the full extent of David’s pain under the drama’s surface, as if part of Hemingway’s iceberg. David’s persona is quite literally built before the audience, but only slowly and partially revealed in its full complexity, so that we are forced to question what is shown on screen and fill David’s silences with our own intuitions. We do not just watch the story unfold, we are called upon to take part in the process.

Tim Roth’s performance is outstanding. There is a memorable scene in which David catches up with his daughter (Sarah Sutherland) over coffee, and she asks him about his late partner. It’s a quasi-silent scene: both are filled with stories to share, but she is way too nervous to begin and he is still too hurt to open up, so they communicate with silences and small gestures, and David’s pauses speak louder than the words he mutters with a broken voice.

In some fundamental sense, Franco wants to do more than just showing David’s suffering – he requires our direct involvement in shaping and crafting the extent of his pain. Chronic’s drama (and David’s) is not merely what gets to be shown on the screen, but what does not, and which we can only picture in our heads.

Cannes chose to award Franco the 2015 prize for best screenplay. And for many good reasons. There are films which are happy simply showing a story on a screen without requiring much from the audience. Chronic does much more than that: it asks us to understand, imagine and shape David’s story. This is why the beauty of Franco’s latest work lingers long after the ending credits.

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