Alternate Alliterative Title:
"Philip's Failure to Find Five Minutes to Fashion (and Finish) a Fitting Tribute to Two Fine DVDs"
It's been a lousy coupla weeks for me to keep up with a blog that, as much as I (sometimes) enjoy writing, doesn't pay a bloody penny (or generate comments). That said, I need to clear the decks and do an unfortunately brief run-down of two fantastic releases by (who else?) The Criterion Collection: THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO and Chang-dong Lee's SECRET SUNSHINE. So I'll bang these out and clear my to-do list (and conscience) so as to enjoy a weekend getaway with my bride.
It's nearly impossible to talk about Jean Vigo (pictured above in a little deus ex machina moment for A PROPOS DE NICE) without bringing up his untimely death. At 29, Vigo succumbed to tuberculosis and the "what-if?s" of his scuttled potential have followed him around ever since. Film Comment placed Vigo second in their "Best Directors Who Died Young" inventory, just after F.W. Murnau. But Murnau was able to leave at least three masterpieces behind (NOSFERATU, FAUST, and SUNRISE, by my estimation). Vigo was only allowed one fully formed masterpiece, that being, of course, 1934's L'ATALANTE.
WHEN YOUNG FOLKS SET OUT ON A BARGE was possibly one of the alternate titles L'ATALANTE was stamped with when it enjoyed a hasty, studio-chopped theatrical run following Vigo's death. The film was mostly forgotten until Truffaut and the Cahiers gang stumbled upon it in postwar rerelease and began trumpeting praises.
I admit that the first two times I saw L'ATALANTE, I was nonplussed. Maybe its canonical status set my hopes too high. Maybe I wasn't in the mood. Or I was just too dumb to "get it."
It must be this third option because L'ATALANTE is close to perfect. (I’m wrong like this very often; it took several viewings of VAMPYR, BLUE VELVET, HUNGER, and even RULES OF THE GAME before I realized just how great those films were. I guess I’m a bit slow.)
The film takes a simple enough premise -- newlyweds stuck on the husband’s barge for an indeterminate period of time -- and milks it for all of its possibilities, relational and formal. It's ultimately about the bumpy road (or, more accurately, the choppy waters) of marriage, particularly in its nascent state. It’s a microcosm of a relationship: blissful beginnings, wrought second-guessing, outright antipathy, passionate reconciliation… and repeat.
The nature of the couple’s relationship is best summed up by outsider Pere Jules (Michael Simon, as perfect an amiable manchild as was ever committed to screen):
L’ATALANTE is as perfect a film about marriage as I’ve ever seen. Maybe I needed to be married a little longer before I could fully appreciate it. In a supplemental interview on the Criterion disc, Francois Truffaut points to a particular moment in the film (when Juliet, the bride, is wooed by a traveling salesman) as the point where the film could have dipped into silly caricature. I think that, initially, this is where I did find the film slipped up. But that was because, initially, I was more interested in the road trip schema of the plot and wasn’t as invested in the film’s portrait of the couple’s relationship.
Whatever my foolish reasons, I’d previously scribbled a “65” as my score for L’ATALANTE. I’ve since revised that to a 92, a big jump but totally justified.
Briefly, Criterion’s disc also features three other Vigo efforts. These play more like b-sides or demos. There’s a feverish creativity to all three but none of the films match L’ATALANTE for cohesion.
The first, A PROPOS DE NICE is a “city symphony” film of sorts that Vigo financed with his wife’s dowry.
Vigo’s film explores Nice as the playground of a decadent upperclass. A staunch anarchist, Vigo is clearly having a go at French society and, with eerie hindsight, there’s a sense of a collapsing civilization. Parades of freaks …
… dancing nymphs …
… and stoic, disapproving statuary…
… all commingle to lend NICE an air of apocalyptic bacchanalia. Empire is ending and Vigo’s only too happy to see it go. He couldn’t have anticipated just how far the whole thing would fall. As a bonus, there’s also vintage footage of a UFO skipping through the sky over the Riviera.
Next is Vigo’s brief paean to the human body, TARIS. The film was a commission and is a fun, if slight, look at Vigo’s creative impulses, even under constraints.
Finally is the film that I was most looking forward to, Vigo’s very personal ZERO DE CONDUIT. It’s a 45-minute riff on boarding school life, culminating in the boys’ anarchic overthrow of their oppressive schoolmasters. ZERO is extremely wild and wooly, feeling more like an exorcism of creative impulses than any coherent social satire or commentary. It plays as a series of minor sketches and even the climax, the famous slow-motion pillowfight, feels disconnected. I expected more. Perhaps, like L’ATALANTE, I’ll come around to after repeat viewings.
The Criterion “boxed set” (two standard discs, one Blu) of Vigo’s work is appointed with about three and a half hours of supplements, which means that the extras rival the running time of Vigo’s whole filmography. I’ve only dipped into a few of the featurettes but, so far, all nicely accent and annotate the work of a filmmaker who managed to leave quite a mark with so little time. I imagine this will make many cinefolk lists as the release of the year.
Now, if I may suggest another COMPLETE JEAN to add to the Criterion Collection, how about Epstein?
“I made this film thinking it wasn’t a religious film. Although it deals with the question of religion, it’s a story about the person who raises those questions. It’s not a story about religion itself. But some people may see this as a film about God.” – Lee Chang-dong on his 2007 film SECRET SUNSHINE, which came out last week via the Criterion Collection.
I’d never presume to tell an artist that he’s a wrong about his own work, but I would say that SUNSHINE is primarily about religion and, very specifically, the born-again Christian experience as seen from a skeptical (but respectful) outsider. It’s true that the film focuses all of its attention on Shin-ae – played by Jeon Do-yeon, who acts the hell out of the role (pun intended) – and that she is the “person who raises” the question of God after her life is devastated by an event I’m going to try my best to write around. But the religious conversion that she undergoes, and its effect on all of her relationships, is the meat of the story.
The Event That I Won’t Divulge actually doesn’t occur until about 45 minutes into SUNSHINE’s 142-minute running time. Until then, Lee allows us a deep look into Shin-ae’s life. Before coming to filmmaking, Lee was a novelist and SUNSHINE’s leisurely structure bears this out. We get to know Shin-ae and her situation before any Screenwriting 101 Plot Points force us in a certain emotional direction.
Shin-ae and her young son Jun (Seon Jung-yeob) move from the metropolis of Seoul to the village of Miryang (Chinese for “Secret Sunshine”; apparently Lee ‘s screenplay was more or less inspired by this evocative two-word phrase). The motivation for the move is vague: she wants to honor her late husband’s memory by returning to his city of birth and raising Jun to “walk real earth.” Subtle clues give us the sense that she’s also leaving behind a disappointing life and has fallen for the notion that changing one’s geography will somehow rebaptize one’s life and allow for a baggage-free fresh start.
A broken down car introduces them to Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a goofy puppy dog of a man who immediately becomes infactuated with Shin-ae and spends the rest of the film trying to insinuate himself into her life with comic, tragic, and – eventually – poignant results.
I feel bad not getting into the deeper aspects of this film but I’m running long already and don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice to say that, like Malick’s TREE OF LIFE, SECRET SUNSHINE is a sustained howl for help aimed squarely at God. However, Malick is unambiguously transcendental, clearly expecting an answer and Lee fixes his feet on the ground, observing the seeker and the consequences of her seeking. Their mise-en-scenes are also complete opposites; Lee’s style (or complete lack thereof) fails to ring any of my formal bells and, normally, I’d count this against him. However, the material he’s dealing with goes so soul-deep that it doesn’t matter. Pitch-perfect performances and a script that mines the motivations and effects of the religious experience are enough to make SECRET SUNSHINE one of the best spiritually focused films made by an apparent non-believer.