The Wild Child (1970) and Truffaut’s Empathy

Wild_child23.jpgThe Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage in French) is based on “authentic events,” as it says because Francois Truffaut became fascinated by a historical case from the 1700s. A feral boy was discovered out in the forests and then taken under the tutelage of a benevolent doctor.

Although he had initially wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn got to it first and released the rendition of Helen Keller’s story to much acclaim. Instead, Truffaut pored over the medical observations of one Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard relating to the curious case of the aforementioned Victor of Aveyron. Somehow this effort follows in the same vein of The Miracle Worker but feels entirely organic and indigenous to Truffaut’s roots.

There are several immediately striking elements about The Wild Child that become immediately apparent. At first, I wasn’t expecting the black & white cinematography, but somehow it makes so much sense. It’s an intuitive expression of the world and frequent Truffaut collaborator, Néstor Almendros, shoots the world with a stark, no-frills tintype aesthetic proving quite extraordinary.  The pictorial simplicity is impeccable. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is equally spare, all but scoreless, aside from interludes of Vivaldi when appropriate.

The second notable aspect was the opening dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud. This only makes sense if you consider the lineage of Truffaut and where he has come from. Certainly his first and greatest achievement was The 400 Blows, which starred Leaud as a wayward youth — not far removed from Truffaut’s childhood or Leaud’s own.

Their relationship remained closely intertwined even as it charted the course of the Nouvelle Vague with the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the resurgence of the Antoine Doinel character in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the still forthcoming Bed and Board.

Of course, in following the historical discovery of a feral boy in the woods of 18th century France, the environment and context could not be farther removed. The opening moments are a striking wilderness chase scene with the naked boy living off the land and fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs, looking to smoke him out and earn the good graces of their masters.

It’s the story of civilization impinging on the natural world even if it is under unusual circumstances. The narrative isn’t an altogether novel one if you remember any historical examples of Native Americans who were shamelessly paraded through so-called “enlightened” western society, like sideshow attractions, only to be decimated by their diseases.

Still, Truffaut films are nothing if not personal, and The Wild Child fits into this personal collage. Each one of his films, individually and together, is sculpted by his ideas into vessels of art and creativity — ways in which to see the world and make sense of it.

If nothing else, somehow he seems to empathize with the circumstances. First, from the child’s perspective, to be left for dead, without parents until the age of 1,1 and then thrown into a world you cannot comprehend. But he has also evolved into the adult — in this case Dr. Itard — who, in a show of sympathy, makes the boy his charge, if not a pet project.

Truffaut is so invested in this role he throws off all pretense of merely being behind the camera and takes on a role in front of it. Both cinematically and practically, he is the boy’s mentor and guide without an intermediary of any kind.

You can see how deeply he empathizes with other human beings and somehow the good doctor seems like a fitting stand-in for Truffaut himself, on multiple accounts. In a society that looks down at this boy, seeing him merely as an outcast, an idiot, a pariah, Truffaut/Dr. Itard sees someone worth salvaging. He won’t give up on the creature’s intelligence nor his primal urge toward morality  — some latent iteration of the noble savage.

And yet he can still be an exacting, obsessive taskmaster. All for the creature’s own good mind you, but there you are. Whether it be the acquisition of language, intelligence, or cinema, you can easily see how any of the three could overlap. He has the end goal in mind, and he’s so unswervingly devoted to the success of his pupil, even to the point of feeling callous at times.

Was this the way it would have been with a wayward, youthful Leaud? Was this Truffaut with his mentor and father-figure Andre Bazin? All seem to be hinted at and as an audience, we can only surmise. Because you have this complicated tie between teacher, antagonist, and friend underlying this film, regardless of its period context.

Someone who opens up the world to you in their infinite wisdom, but no doubt causes you to want to rebel at other times. This is integral to our nature, not only as children but when we grow up too. Only when we’re older are we granted the full lucidity to see everything clearly with the benefit of hindsight. To see the motives behind discipline, tough love, and the implementation of rules.

If I’m to search my own heart, it is not always noble. It is not inclined toward good and has a predilection toward selfish and petty ideas. It takes some framework, some discipline to rein in, but not with the dismissiveness of the civilized elite from Paris and the learned academics. The honest to goodness humanity of Dr. Izard/Truffaut and the maternal affections of Madame Guerin are a fine place to start for reference.

Victor isn’t a miraculous case study during his time in their home by any means. He’s a work in progress. But isn’t he a far cry from where they found him — naked, wild, and living in a hole — self-sufficient though he may have been? As children, we are often content making mud pies in the sand when he could have something far better.

As someone who has dabbled often unsuccessfully in the field of education, you realize it’s the little victories that feel like moving mountains. Thus, when Victor begins to retain information, return home of his own accord, and spell at the word “LAIT” when he wants milk, these are miraculous in themselves.

Still, it takes the adult to have the foresight to know what will be in the child’s best interest. Things get more convoluted when the dynamics change. That, folks, is what we call the teenage years. Because it’s true sometimes, what people think is in their best interest differs greatly.

4/5 Stars

 

Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

The Lives of Others (2006)

This is a moral tale that could only be told in the context of the GDR. A loyal member of the Stasi is given the task of bugging the home of an influential playwright and he spends countless hours listening in on The Lives of Others. In what would have been a very uncommon occurrence this loyal comrade sees another side of the nation he lives in. It is a place full of corrupt officials, double crossing girlfriends, repression, little free speech, and above all suicides.

In an act that proves detrimental to his own career and even his way of life, Wiesler caves to his emotions to do what is ultimately good and right. After the wall crumbles he and others like him seemingly fade into oblivion. However, the one man who was unknowingly saved finally learns of his savior and resolves to write his next great work. The Sonata for a Good Man. 

I think there is certainly a universal quality to this film because although it is German language and focuses on a subject that is distinctly German, the quality of the characters translates into any language because they are human. The struggle of Wiesler is the same for many of us and we can empathize with his evolution and ultimate resolve. We can only hope that people are not put in these same positions in the future and we must also constantly question our own government so they are never reach this degree.

4.5/5 Stars

The Imitation Game (2014)

09cf1-the_imitation_game_posterWhen you think of decisive moments in WWII the conversation leads often to D-Day, The Battle of Midway, The Russian Front and The Battle for the Atlantic. If Britain had been cut off from U.S. supplies the case could be made that The Allies would have undoubtedly lost the war. That’s where the Enigma cipher comes into play and along with it Alan Turing.

Alan Turing is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and in many ways the father of modern computers. He’s a big deal and it’s hard to make that point enough. That’s what makes it exciting that he finally got the biopic treatment and with a portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch no less. It does not get much better than that!

As far as biopics go The Imitation Game is a polished period piece set in War-torn Britain spanning the years of WWII into the early 1950s. Visually beautiful, scored nicely, and generally uplifting, it feels as wonderfully English as a cup of tea and the English countryside. Although the film at times may trod the typical path of other troubled-genius type films,  it often rises above the usual based-on-a-true-story fray. A primary reason for this is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Turing not with dramatic outbursts, bravado, and bluster, but quite the opposite.
In the year 1939 Turing, a professor at the time, attempted to join the top secret project at Bletchley Park to crack the German’s Enigma code. He seems like an odd candidate for the job since he has only an affinity for puzzles and no knowledge of the German language, but that proves to be unimportant.
He has the right amount of vision paired with the obsession to come at the problem like no one before him. He does not just want to crack one of the tedious strings, he wishes to crack them all using a machine. It was absolutely unheard of and his colleagues discount him, understandably, because he is not much of a team player and far from a social butterfly. However, he discovers a worthy ally in Susan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who proves to be indispensable in his work as well as repairing his rapport with the team.
With the prospect of all his work with the machine being wasted and terminated, his colleagues back him up in front of his superiors. Turing has one last chance to succeed and someway, somehow he does. But success does not come without great responsibility. Once they have the weapon to counter the Germans they must use it cautiously only taking the most necessary steps. It becomes clear that there is a fine line between playing God with human lives and winning a war.
The war is won in the end, however, and the top secret endeavor is disbanded. Alan Turing is far from a war hero because few know what he did. His only label is indecency and he is given the option of imprisonment or hormones in response to his charges of same-sex attraction. A year later he committed suicide at the age of 41.
Cumberbatch is seemingly the perfect Turing with all the quirks you would expect. Except there are also traces of sensitivity and he so adeptly shows subtle emotions on his face. He was an oft-tortured man inside and out, spanning from his boarding school years to his post-war existence. Keira Knightley on her part is enjoyable as a counterpoint, remaining true to Turing no matter the circumstances.
Obviously you can always call into question the accuracy of these types of films and no doubt artistic liberties were taken, but all in all The Imitation Game did a commendable job of painting a picture of a man’s life in a very different age. Alan Turing finally got the credit he was due, and it was done with a great deal of sensitivity, heart, and even humor which mostly overshadowed any saccharine moments.
4/5 Stars

Amadeus (1984)

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A common film would content itself with developing a biopic on one of the greatest composers of all time reaching the heights of the musical field in the musical capital of the world in Vienna. A typical film might paint on a canvas paying homage to a legend who revolutionized music with his genius.

This story opens as the long-forgotten composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) attempts to kill himself. He gets laid up in a Psych ward where a man of the cloth visits him wishing to hear his story and so the old man obliges. It’s a story that makes light and lacks reverence thanks to its title character.

Salieri was a court composer of prestige and great admiration, but even he knew Mozart was the true master and the first day they met was forever ingrained in his mind. For being such a genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a jerk, to put it bluntly. Spoiled, conceited, dirty-minded and armed with a cackling laugh, he is hardly the image of a musical mastermind. How could God bless this man with such talent? How could God taunt Salieri using such a man? He makes a mockery of art and yet he is the best there ever was. Salieri must have some kind of justice.

But all that lies under the surface. Mozart is brought on by his Majesty to develop a German libretto. Salieri’s tolerance for God is lost and he turns his back, beginning his passive attack. He shames Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Beridge) and sends her off as he is looking to undermine his rival as discreetly as possible.

Mozart himself has little desire to take on pupils he deems a waste of time and instead busies himself with his most ambitious piece yet. His father comes to town and is not amused with his son’s conduct or his antics at a masquerade ball. He has none of the sensibilities of a man like Salieri, but what he does have are the talent and brilliance.

Always one to push the boundaries, Mozart’s latest piece is based on the Marriage of Figaro which was expressly forbidden by His Majesty. But due to his skill, Mozart is able to get by with bending the rules. Salieri acknowledges his genius. He knows brilliance when he sees it, but he becomes even more resolved to bring about the death of his nemesis.

After the death of his father, Mozart slowly spirals down into drunkenness and poverty. Salieri manipulates the situation even further to play on the man’s emotions and the desperate Mozart becomes mad composing a funeral requiem requested by a specter of a man. The mysterious figure is, of course, a moonlighting Salieri who no longer sees his actions as justice against Mozart but against God himself and he wants to win.

In a horrible condition, the bedridden Mozart constructs his last great piece with the help of an incredulous Salieri. But Constanze will have none of it and the manuscript remains unfinished because she distrusts Salieri. Just like that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suddenly passes away. He’s dead and Salieri can have no satisfaction, no piece of Mozart’s brilliance. God would not give him the satisfaction, resigning him to be the so-called patron saint of mediocrity. God supposedly got the last laugh.

This is a film that makes me want to revise the noted statement to “only the great die young” as the mediocre slowly fade into oblivion. Salieri faced a cruel demise of his own as Mozart instantly became solidified as a legend. That is the irony of life that is made clear no matter how accurate the facts are. Because in Amadeus, the facts are not the most important. Milos Forman gives us a spectacle that is as grand as Mozart’s greatest masterpieces. But this is perhaps, more importantly, a film about human nature. Salieri is a man so ingrained with internal desires.

He wants to play God. He wants all things to play out as he sees fit. His malevolence is focused on others. It is even focused on God. But, in reality, it reflects the pain of his own heart. Humanity has a desire for excellence to be fully actualized. That is a lofty goal and an impossible target. Because ultimately there will always be a hole left within us. It was so with Salieri

Mozart was one of the greatest and most well-known composers of a generation if not ever. He was not a good man (few are), and he met with death early. Salieri seemed moral and yet he himself was undermined by deep-seated avarice and covetousness. Despite still having life, the world was essentially dead to him. He thought God was laughing at him. Neither man won.

4.5/5 Stars

Love and Death (1975)

3e061-loveanddeath2Most every Tom, Dick and Harry has heard of the great Russian epic War and Peace. Love and Death is Woody Allen’s companion piece. It has nods to Tolstoy, Dostoevysky and channels a bit of the Marx Brothers. As one would expect, Boris aka Woody Allen comes from your typical Russian family where he is atypical in his stereotypical, bookish and misanthropic way. He was not made for 19th century Russia trading in valor and facial hair for his glasses and nihilistic philosophy. But he winds up going to war anyway watching his beloved second cousin (Diane Keaton) marry herself off to a run of the mill fishmonger.

Eventually, Boris is able to get his true love back and they are wed. It’s a union full of philosophical debates as only Woody Allen could have. But the invasion of Napoleon puts all this on hold as Sonja resolves to go and assassinate the Little Corporal. Boris hesitantly agrees to accompany her. In an ending fit for a Woody Allen film  parodying Bergman, Sonja goes through a life altering conversation while the recently executed Boris skips off with The Grim Reaper. It’s hard to beat Annie Hall but this still fairly early Allen piece has its quintessentially Woody Allen moments that are quirky and fun poke at Russian culture.

3.5/5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The farthest Eastern boundary of the European continent makes the perfect landscape for a new addition to the quirky Wes Anderson canon. But more on that later. First our story.

It gains inspiration from the writings of forgotten Viennese author of the 30s and 40s Stefan Zweig. In fact, the author’s own plot device is used in this story of friendship, love, and murder. An inquisitive writer (Jude Law) from the 1960s becomes intrigued by the aging proprietor of the Grand Budapest Hotel Zero Moustaffa (F. Murray Abraham).

The rather mysterious figure is glad to tell his story and how he came to acquire the iconic hotel. And that’s where our real story begins, back in 1932, with concierge and small time celebrity M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He is a dying breed of a man, full of culture, a bit effeminate, and known to wine and dine older patrons. He also has an immense affinity for poetry.

It was under his leadership that the young, stoic bellboy Zero got his start. What an exciting beginning it was.  One of Gustave’s most faithful patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and he is bequeathed the priceless painting Boy with Apple.

The family of the deceased is in an uproar led by belligerent son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Soon Gustave has become the strangest of fugitives as he is wanted for the murder of the old lady.

During that time, young love springs up and Zero meets the love of his life Agatha (Saoirse Roman), a spunky baker who returns his affection.

Now the imprisoned Gustave takes part in an escape attempt a la Le Trou except this rendition is successful to a degree. Faithful Zero meets up with his mentor, and Gustave turns to the only ones he can. The concierges from all the surrounding area. They oblige, getting the two fugitives away, but soon Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is on their tails at a local monastery.

War is imminent and back at the Grand Budapest things do not look promising.  The ever fearless Agatha agrees to go fetch Boy with Apple, but she is soon spotted and pursued by the ever brutish Dmitri who tries to use his gun. That’s not a smart thing when all the rooms are full of quartered soldiers and a chaotic gunfight ensues.

In the aftermath, a second will is uncovered that makes M. Gustave the sole owner of the Grand Budapest and many other possessions that Madame D owned. In a Deja Vu moment, Gustave and Zero ride the train once again before getting boarded and questioned. Always the gentlemen, Gustave defends Zero who is targeted for his immigration status. It was in that way the story ends and returns to the young author and elderly Zero Moustaffa.

He never could bear to give up the Grand Budapest despite the toll of Communism. It’s not because of Gustave, but his dear Agatha who died only two years after. It’s his only link to the happiest times of his life.

What The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being is an odd mix of black comedy and romantic sentiment all wrapped up in an Anderson world.

His shots are often framed symmetrically and muted pastels abound as well as scaled miniatures, creating his always distinctive mise-en-scene. He is also a fan of a smooth moving camera often involving zooms.

Anderson is obviously a student of cinema and his film at times are reminiscent to 30s fair such as Grand Hotel and The Rules of the Game. He also channels another famed Viennese Ernst Lubitsch who was a master of highbrow romantic comedies.

Hotel also boast a superb cast comprising most of Anderson’s stock company. If there’s anyone who has been in more than one of his movies, they are probably in this one, even for just an instant.

So given the normal Wes Anderson flair or eccentricities, this film is visually pleasing and quite entertaining. It is a worthy follow up to Moonrise Kingdom, darling.

4/5 stars

The Heiress (1949)

fa57e-heiress_wylerStarring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift with director William Wyler, the film takes place in New York in the 1840s. Catherine is a shy and awkward young woman who lives with her domineering father who is a prominent widowed doctor. At a party a young man introduces himself and begins seeing Catherine frequently. Quickly their plans turn to marriage but her father will not approve. Since her lover is not rich, he sees him as a fortune hunter. Catherine decides to elope with her love, but he never returns leaving her feeling rejected and forlorn. soon the doctor gets ill and dies, but the relationship does not end will since Catherine blames her father. And in the process she has grown cold. Clift’s character finally returns and after some reluctance Catherine seems to agree to get married. he leaves to gather some belongings only to return to a bolted door. Catherine gives him some rejection of his own after what she endured. This films becomes interesting because you do not know who was truly in the right. First Clift seems to be the heel and then de Havilland evolves so much the audience turns on her.

4/5 Stars