(or, _Two Films Recently Enjoyed_)
Though they appear to have gotten themselves somewhat of a reputation for being, for lack of a better term, _boring_, my own response to the two (very different) films I’ve had the opportunity to see at the IFC this week has been the exact opposite. I would not hesitate to say that both Être et Avoir and Dolls are two of the most exceptional films I’ve seen in quite some time.
Être et Avoir is a document of one year at a single-room elementary school in rural France. Now with that basic description out of the way, chuck away any preconceptions of what such a film might be. Because Être et Avoir is nothing short of brilliant. Lovingly crafted from hundreds of hours of footage by Nicolas Philibert, a filmmaker with an unmistakably human eye for detail, this is no Broomfield-esque expose of modern educational standards — it is rather a non-invasive, purely observational record of those early school days that we all wish we could remember that bit better.
If that sounds flimsy, well I suppose it is in a way, however Être et Avoir is much greater than the sum of its parts. So saying ‘it’s a film about kids at school’ doesn’t do it any justice, even though that’s exactly what it is. Frankly, there’s something really charming in watching an hour and a half of kids just being kids. There is no necessity for any frills, like exposition or in-depth probing. We don’t need, for example, to personally identify with the cheeky Jojo to fall in love with his antics, or to study Monsieur Lopez’s lesson plans in order to respect him as a teacher and a role model for his charges. Just in observing the class, they convey all of this and more.
Maybe it’s the subtlety that has rubbed so many people the wrong way. The lingering shots of swaying trees, deserted roads and empty driveways, the moments where nothing in particular happens, and the act-less structure have been points of criticism for many, but these merely reflected how I myself would experience such moments and events, as if I had been there; rather than boring, I found the aforementioned, and in particular an opening scene of two pet turtles crawling across the classroom floor, truly mesmerising.
And don’t worry, if you’re French isn’t up to scratch, it’s subtitled _en Anglais_, as is Dolls, the latest masterpiece from Takeshi Kitano (or ‘Beat’ Takeshi, as he’s better known). Remaining behind the camera this time out, Kitano has written and directed a trio of tragic tales of eternal love, based on the traditions of _bunraku_ puppetry.
In the first (the film’s main thread, as it were) a young salaryman flees his expedient wedding to the company president’s daughter to be with the lover he had spurned, when he learns of her attempted suicide and subsequent mental breakdown. They run away together, and become the ‘bound beggars’, traversing the countryside by foot through the changing seasons, searching for something… maybe what has been lost, maybe nothing at all…
In the second, and old Yakuza boss recalls a time in his youth, when he used to meet his love at the same park bench every Saturday afternoon. He remembers leaving her to find a new life, make a success of himself. And he remembers her declaring that she will wait for him, every week at the same spot, until he returns. Something inside urges him to revisit this place, to fill a void in his heart, to regain the happiness once lost…
The third and final tale concerns the meeting of a reclusive pop star — physically disfigued in a car accident and emotionally scarred by its consequences — and one of her most loyal fans, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to be close to his idol…
Dolls is steeped in a culture and tradition that is still very alien to the western world, much more so than Kitano’s more recent work, and as a result is not as immediately accessible as the likes of Hana-Bi or Kikujiro. The prevaling realism of those films gives way to a more loose version of reality here, an abstraction writ large in the boldest and brightest of colours — their boldness contrasting with Joe Hisaishi‘s charmingly appropriate, though a little unmemorable, score (not a patch on his music for Kikujiro). Kitano also takes artistic liberties with the laws of physics and perspective, just to telegraph for those who aren’t getting it. It is indeed a strange mixture at times, of grand gestures folded with small moments of great significance, switching sometimes unsettlingly from bold theatricality to harrowingly real, human emotion. The three stories appear on the surface merely ciphers, when they are really Trojan horses concealing the tragedies within; three stories with ostensibly very different but thematically woven tightly, like the red chord that ties the bound beggars together.
With this film it seems that Kitano shares with Philibert a love for shots that linger, maybe a little too much for the impatient to bear; maybe this is what has elicticed the complains of boredom that have been levelled against it. Personally, I found Dolls to be anything _but_ boring. In fact I was so touched by it — particularly during the coda, the tragic end of the rope — that I had to fight back the tears more than once. Yes, a big strong manly man like me, _crying at a movie!!_ Maybe this means that I’m a total emotional wimp who’s heart strings can be tugged just as easily as the strings of a _bunraku_ puppet. Or maybe I’m just not as cynical as I had thought, as cynical as the rest of you. Maybe there truly is such a thing as eternal love. And maybe the pain, the grief, the tragedy, maybe they all come with the territory.