Considering the bleakness of Bruno Dumont's worldview, it's a bit of a surprise that it took him four movies to reach the battlefield. Then again, there's no rush to his neurasthenic existentialism: It's off to war (off to War, rather) for the Paleolithic blobs of Flanders, but not before a slow tractor drive through the Flemish countryside, rabbit traps being set up, the spectacle of logs burning in the bonfire. Dumont prefers his characters ugly, brutish, and stupid, and here he boasts his ugliest, most brutish and stupid yet -- the main barnyard dweller (Samuel Boidin) is a thick peasant trudging in the mud under overcast skies, tending to pig shit, occasionally mounting the local girl (Adélaïde Leroux) he's sort of seeing. Leroux cozies up with another guy (Henri Cretel), but any triangulation is put on hold as the fellas are sent to a vague yet unmistakable Middle East war; stranded in a battered desert prone to sudden shelling, their platoon shuffles from dune to dune, pausing for a gang rape. A hail of bullets receives them at a village, where insurgents are barely in their teens -- Dumont cuts from the blood on a young rebel's head to the blood bubbling between the thighs of a farm slag back home, moments before she gets doggied in the barn by some Gallic Joe Dirt. Having just discovered parallel editing, the director presses on. While Leroux is sent to the psychiatric yard, Boidin and Cretel dodge explosions in the sand, until they're captured and sent to an enemy camp, where the rape victim gets revenge by castrating the only grunt who didn't actually rape her earlier on. D'oh!
Flanders proves how "Bressonian" is even more of a red flag than "Tarantinoesque." Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket can't be reduced to slowed-down rhythms and glaring nonprofessionals -- there's a mystery to Bresson that can never be reproduced, a curiosity about the world that escapes Dumont's fastidiously intellectualized view of life and film, which remains trapped in a stasis of grief. With characters this beastly, the filmmaker excuses himself from having to examine their faces, instead maneuvering them through a dingy road where the climactic dab of emotion is squeezed like a miser's coin onto a collection plate. Dumont's cinema, indeed, is like a forbidding temple, the kind that makes one want to fart in the middle of mass: When he put bloodied cooches and fruit upchuck on the screen and called it L'Humanité, Humanity should have sued for defamation of character. Oddly enough, his "worst" film is the one that came closest to something profound. Bricks were hurled at Twentynine Palms, yet, whether due to the change of scenery or to characters that were maybe a notch or so higher in the evolutionary line, Dumont's drive through wasteland America engaged him into a more exploratory approach to the world. Back in his turf, he's content to choreograph flabby bellies and grimy humping. Flanders, with its battleground-as-extension-of-life and inescapable topical links, could have given Dumont a perfect stage to take stock and expand; instead, it's his most unnecessary work, an entirely gratuitous project, a congealed shrug.
Along with Adrienne Shelly's Waitress, Away From Her is the second movie in so many weeks helmed by a Hal Hartley alumna. Sarah Polley, not yet 30, acted for Hartley in No Such Thing, and took her co-star, Julie Christie, along for a gentle adaptation of Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (glad something came out of that flick, anyway). Deeply felt as it is, there is a whiff of autumnal-star-showcase about the whole project, like last year's Venus for Peter O'Toole, though where O'Toole's character there was physically decrepit but still razory in wit, Christie's character here is lost in the smog of Alzheimer's (she feels she's "beginning to disappear") that contrasts with her beauty. Inevitably but sublimely wrinkled, Christie still yields what Dan Callahan dubbed "the most frankly carnal lower lip in film history" in a terrific The House Next Door piece, but the modish agitation that made her such an eye-grabbing vacuum in Billy Liar and Darling has been shed, with a profound stillness having taken its place; her humor and leonine sensuality flow from this ease, complemented by a twilight feeling for adventure that can see even oblivion as "something delicious." Polley has worked with Cronenberg, Winterbottom, and Egoyan (and, uh, Zack Snyder), but her filmmaking is wintry, overcast, and actor-centered, embodied nicely by Gordon Pinsent's wry courtliness as the tranquilly befuddled husband who, forced to see his beloved anew, both loses and finds her again. Away From Her is too content with its own "maturity" and "restraint," yet it invaluably offers Christie for audiences in delicate contemplation, and chaste consummation.
Omnibus collaborations make for the most uneven of films, though I dig their variety and brevity. Don't like a particular segment? Just wait -- there's another one coming up. In Paris, Je T'aime, Walter Salles's characteristically insipid episode about a poor, angelic nanny (note to Catalina Sandino Moreno: go play a killer or something) segues into a wacky bit of mock-orientalism by Christopher Doyle, with Barbet Schroeder and Li Xin in a blessedly pointless romp through Asian beauty salons, gyms, and bowling alleys. Assorted sketches come from sixteen other directors, each taking a chunk of the City of Lights and offering a slender strand, built around a homily ("know your history," "acting like a man in love, he became a man in love"), a vision (Willem Dafoe materializing on horseback to comfort a distraught Juliette Binoche), a trope (Alfonso Cuarón's unbroken stroll with Nick Nolte sadly confirms what my second viewing of Children of Men revealed -- tracking shots to him are merely elaborate party tricks). The Coen brothers whip up a passable reel for Steve Buscemi, though five minutes is just about all I can take from them; better are the segments by Gus Van Sant (droll cruising capped by "Blue Boy" rockabilly) and Olivier Assayas (Maggie Gyllenhaal whirling in a hashish-fueled smear), but my favorite is Tom Tykwer's anecdote with Melchior Beslon and Natalie Portman, cinema as a rush of emotion. Elsewhere, Wes Craven stages a throwaway rom-com by Oscar Wilde's grave, Sylvain Chomet's deplorable mime-fest cannot touch Shakes the Clown, Gérard Depardieu gracioulsy accommodates a reunion between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara; Alexander Payne closes the door with a pudgy Yankee tourist in monumentally derisive close-ups. Alluring, all in all, and unfulfilling.
The summer of diabolical sequels rages on. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End would have been much more pleasurable to sit through as a quick Paris, Je T'aime bit, maybe Johnny Depp and Keith Richards looking for blow at the Disneyland Paris Resort, preferably directed by Terry Gilliam. Unfortunately, at the helm is Gore Verbinski, who fits the Michael Eisner definition of the perfect Disney auteur as a coin in a machine, and, at 168 minutes, even Depp's late-period Brando sashaying sprouts cobwebs. The huge sets still look like the stalled amusement-park rides they are, but this is another piddling blockbuster with delusions of "darkness," opening with a wee Oliver Twist chirruping at the gallows and going for hacked limbs, CGI crabs, and the obligatory half a dozen climaxes. Depp's Jack Sparrow is joined by the rest of the gang (Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa, Bill Nighy's Davy Jones, Naomi Harris's Tia Dalma and the disposable ingénue pairing of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley) for what is hopefully the franchise's last hurrah, rushing to bring together a traffic-jam of alliances and betrayals. Once in a while the camera steadies itself long enough to snatch an image (starry night reflected on the ocean, until a Chinese junk sails the horizon low in the frame), but the giant whirlpool on which the characters have their showdown is the biggest "meh" since Darth Vader was fitted into his armor. It is only fair to let Jack Sparrow have the final word -- "Close your eyes and pretend it's all a bad dream."
Reviewed May 31, 2007.