Millenial Madness

The following five films were originally commissioned as part of a series of one-hour long films for French TV to "celebrate" the upcoming turn of the century. I skipped both Life on Earth and Tamas and Juli because I hadn't heard anything good about Ildiko Enyedi's film and Life on Earth didn't sound like my kind of flick. (Besides, I didn't want to miss the Oscars. Shallow, I know.)

The Hole - B-
Viewed March 14.

Deadpan comedy of millenial collapse set in an ugly apartment complex where it's constantly raining and a weird Kafkaesque plague that makes people behave like cockroaches is sweeping the land. A bit too successful at capturing the emotional isolation and tedium of its characters' lives, but whenever ennui threatens to overwhelm, out comes some wondrous musical interludes where Tsai Ming-liang uses the same drab building of flats as the backdrop to the fantasies of the man and woman. Wonderful ending when the two threads of the film, the reality and the fancy, finally combine.

The First Night of My Life - B+
Viewed March 14.

Thouroughly enjoyable, if slight, ensemble comedy about assorted Spaniards meeting each other on the deserted outskirts of Madrid. There's nothing particularly original here (the whole thing feels highly Linklaterian) but it has a wondrous genorisity and humanity toward its characters, and rare for this type of film, all are fun to watch. Funniest of all are a trio of clueless German tourists who apparently wandered off the set of Sprockets -- cheesy fake German accents are just inherently amusing. (See also Campbell Scott in The Impostors or Heimlich in A Bug's Life for further proof of this comedic rule.)

The Wall - B
Viewed March 14.

Endearing, despite a ton of flaws, allegorical tale. On the eve of 2000, a wall is constructed along the linguistic border between the Flemish and French speaking areas of Belgium, leaving Albert, a Walloon fry guy who's proud to call himself Belgian, stranded on the wrong side. The Wall has the same combination of seriousness and surrealism of Berliner's previous film Ma Vie en Rose, but it's not quite as successful here. Berliner overdoses on the whimsy (Did we really need to have our hero hectored by the ghost of his father?), and as allegory, it makes Pleasantville seem subtle. The whole thing is anchored by an appealing turn by Daniel Hanssens (I think -- the information at IMDB was rather scanty) as Albert. A great final shot of Albert and his Flemish girlfriend dancing on top of the wall lifts this up from a B-.

The Book of Life - B+
Viewed March 21.

Hal Hartley does Wong Kar-Wai -- and it's an absolute blast. Shot with a digital camera, the pixellation effects and smearing that the cinematographer achieves gives spontaneity and life to a filmmaker who even at his best is so intensely mannered that his films feel like they've been developed in a vat of Lysol. (Great sound work, as well.) The script is Hartley's best -- combining utter flippancy about religion (the lawyers are the Old Testament Father's avatars on Earth!) and a playful theology which purees several strains of metaphysical thought into an intriguing whole. (A wee bit of Gnosticism there. God being created by Man here.) With the exception of PJ Harvey as a punked-up Mary Magdalene, all the players here are Hartley regulars (including Thomas Jay Ryan doing a great oily turn as the Devil) so they handle his stylized dialogue with grace. Bonus points to Hartley for having Yo La Tengo (America's greatest rock band not named R.E.M.) pop up in a cameo as a Salvation Army band.

Les Sanguinaires - B-
Viewed March 21.

Francois, a travel agent disgusted with the upcoming millennial madness, convinces a group of friends and their families to spend a holiday on the title isles. Once at their site, Francois' pigheadedness causes tensions to mount ... and Les Sanguinaires becomes one of the rare films which zags when I expected a zig. Given the title (It's apparently the name of the islands offshore Corsica where the film takes place, but it also brings up connotations of blood) and the general mounting tension through the film's first half I expected the film to have a rather violent ending. Instead, Francois begins to realize what an ass he's been. (Don't expect hugs of forgiveness either, though.) Finely acted and it's a pleasure to see a film that goes somewhere else than one expects, but the film is simply either 20 minutes too long or 20 minutes too short -- there's a love triangle subplot involving the group's teenage members that goes nowhere, and apart from Francois, his wife, and the island's caretaker, the rest of the group is barely fleshed out.