Emily Watson in Trixie; The Astonishing Humanite

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Humanite directed by Bruno Dumont

    When Trixie opens on June 30, everyone will have the chance to see Emily Watson's amazing title performance. An introverted security guard who stumbles upon some great American secrets, Watson's Trixie tests casual notions of what it means to be a social person. She's an individual among a community of other isolates; that is, a fascinating but totally unexpected American movie archetype. I give you this heads-up about the astonishing Trixie because the challenge its director Alan Rudolph poses to American audiences is similar to what French director Bruno Dumont's challenge does in the also-astonishing Humanite (now showing at Film Forum).

    Both Rudolph and Dumont are superb moviemakers?world-class even though the characters and milieu of their films are marked by American and French particulars. Because these films' regional details don't flatter habitues of urbane film culture (they eschew bourgeois platitudes) critics have discouraged most filmgoers from partaking of their sincere, serious content. When Humanite won the most prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival, many American journalists grumbled that crowd-pleasing, less venturesome films (like Almodovar's sentimental All About My Mother) were passed over. The complaints seemed suspiciously class-bound and trite given that Dumont's only previous film, La Vie de Jesus, was an uncommonly blunt yet mysterious foray into working-class skinhead alienation. Humanite's leads Emmanuel Schotte and Severine Caneele, who took home the Cannes acting prizes, offended dull festival mavens only because they were not glamorous sorts likely to be headed for Hollywood or to appear in mainstream entertainments. Fact is, these were honorable, if controversial, choices (spearheaded by David Cronenberg, president of the Cannes Jury). Let it be known: Humanite, like Trixie, perpetuates the essence of great cinema.

    To sheepish viewers, both Trixie and Humanite might seem oddball. But it would be ideal if audiences took time to relate Rudolph's obvious wonderment to Dumont's near-clinical realism (and vice-versa) because each artist looks at human experience in ways that are correspondingly enthralling and exacting. Humanite watches as police detective Pharaon DeWinter (Schotte) investigates the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. In the small northern town of Bailleul, every one of DeWinter's depressed familiars seems suspect. But Dumont transcends the whodunit suspense of most police procedurals; his meticulous, unsparing observation searches out a collective guilt?even the possibility of collective innocence. The identity of the murderer is anticlimactic. The climax is Dumont's great understanding, empathy, pity.

    Dumont's revelations are hard-won. His lean style (bracingly photographed by Yves Cape) makes atmosphere and environment distinct. Harsh sunlight; rough, vast fields; empty, echoing streets make one sensitive to DeWinter's anxious reactions and dutiful search. The slashing noise of an overhead jet or speeding train disturbs the eerie, placid spaces. DeWinter's discovery of a hideous befoulment?seen briefly, shockingly?so shatters one's senses that the universe seems deranged. Dumont makes one look at DeWinter and his mother, and his obsession with his factory-worker neighbor Domino (Coneele) and her boyfriend Joseph (Philippe Tullier), with steady curiosity and apprehension. This clear-eyed approach is so nearly ascetic that it can only be highly artistic?a considered moral approach to storytelling and character presentation. This isn't pious verite as faked on Barry Levinson tv shows like Homicide. Dumont favors blank, almost Bressonian performances so that the personalities on view have a spiritual candor?even when they seem unrelievedly earthbound, grungy. His approach is as dry as Bresson's but more vigorous and, in its way, sensuous and expansive.

    DeWinter's the opposite of heroic-looking?he's got a large nose and inquisitive eyes, keeping his head down as if a past trauma had never abated. Every relationship and encounter demands touching and smelling, even with Domino, a hefty girl who appears slatternly despite her strong back. Since we only see people this rough-hewn and closed-off in documentary (for instance the not-always-honest films of the Maysles Brothers), Dumont's combination of glum faces and classical framing surprises our esthetic expectations while redeeming cinema's capacity for surprising pathos.

    As Trixie, Watson has some of the gravitas of Dumont's Bailleul denizens yet she performs with the lightness of commedia dell'arte. She has the most benevolent face of this era?quizzical, yearning, optimistic. Meeting Alan Rudolph was the luckiest thing that could have happened to her career because he redeems that face. After Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie, Cradle Will Rock and Angela's Ashes Watson was in danger of becoming an hysterical caricature of sturm und drang. Here she's all big-eyed, girl-baby wonderment but with a serious, adult sensibility. Trixie goes through her Northwestern American locale seeming as displaced as Schotte's DeWinter but Rudolph has given her a special loquaciousness?a tendency toward malapropisms?that situates and buoys her in modern American hullabaloo. Watson does an American accent that is strangely proper and perky?like Julie Harris in one of her 50s quixotic ragamuffin roles. A perpetual outsider, Trixie happens to be deep inside the well-kept secret of modern American dissatisfaction. It bubbles up and overflows in mixed-up homilies and catchphrases that aren't exactly self-deceiving yet are deliberate verbal facades, camouflaging insecurity with the will to appear expert, witty, sanguine. (Sample exchange: "I'm Red Rafferty. This is my boat." "I know it's your boat. You're Red Rafferty.") Rudolph's manic characters complement Dumont's depressives. I can see a similar desperation and poignancy in each. We shouldn't think that Trixie's humor means it is not serious. Having dealt with apposite Americana themes in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, Rudolph populates his own tale with a new surge of ingenuity while keeping intimate with American tragedy. Trixie herself recalls those Altman women who are so out-there some American viewers doubted their credibility and foolishly charged cynicism?as with Jennifer Jason Leigh's great performance in Kansas City, which precisely captured the Depression era's pop anxiety (see any pre-Code urban movie to verify it). Rudolph probes a spiritual crisis every bit as genuine as Altman's or Dumont's.

    Being ultracontemporary, Rudolph ruminates on politics as Trixie uncovers a murder plot involving Sen. Avery (Nick Nolte), businessman Red Rafferty (Will Patton) and showgirl Dawn Sloane (Lesley Ann Warren). Seeing politics as show business gives Rudolph a glitzier perspective than Dumont but he's still tracking humanity. Trixie, Sen. Avery and others (including a nightclub MC played by Nathan Lane) consciously seek sexual and romantic answers to their sorrow?new illusions to replace their disillusionment. It's a way of understanding the whole American social circus. Press conferences, songs, comedy acts, media (a Police Insight magazine featuring "the Furman verdict")?all funhouse mirrors of postmodern denial. In one of Rudolph's best scenes Trixie and Dawn commiserate over female trouble: "God doesn't love me anymore!" Dawn shrieks; she and Trixie are shown together before a large mirror while bravura cameraman Jan Kiesser pulls back revealing each of them, singly, in a cluster of smaller mirrors. Sexual and spiritual panic bounces between the images.

    In Humanite sexual panic ricochets onto the audience. First, at the murder site, then when DeWinter spies on Domino and Joseph's intimacies. It's loud, skin-flapping, antierotic?animal sex. Dumont and Cape adopt Lucian Freud lighting, exposing human flesh at its most vulnerable and recognizable. Frank about sex and death, Humanite shames the misanthropy in Fargo or I Stand Alone (films that presumed to push the limits of violence and sexuality). Dumont's most bravura scene would be Domino's lonely panic?a closeup of her vagina heaving and shaking as she sobs. For Dumont, this blunt naturalism?facing the human gate?is better than typical romantic depictions of sadness usually cluttered with movieish emotional rhetoric. Like Rudolph's mirror scene, Dumont insists upon complex, unremitting self-reflection.

    To that end, each character in Trixie speaks cleverly, in verbal mazes that a correspondent must lean forward to negotiate and understand. Cowritten with John Binder (the native wit behind 1986's wonderful UFOria), Rudolph presents a cornucopia of the quirks and richness in American speech. ("The sword of Damocles is hanging over Pandora's box." "Do I have an ace up my hole?" "What cake you pop out of?") Evoking Travis Bickle's befuddlement over the phrase "moonlighting" in Taxi Driver, this is a profound conceit. Trixie's misstatements ("I'm a private defective") show her individual dislocation but as her blunders resound, you realize the extent of your own social, verbal indoctrination. Her blurted retort, "I don't have to believe what I think," is key to how one struggles through social situations, among trustworthy or deceitful acquaintances, between comforting or disturbing ideologies. Through dialogue, Rudolph and Binder show how common ideas affect private needs, how shared slang, patois, argot, jargon and assorted lingo can also abstract experience. Nathan Lane's nightclub patter (which is also the film's narration) makes all this a linguist's delight. Even a simple straight line like Sen. Avery saying, "Just ask Newt," takes on Lewis Carrollian absurdity.

    Determined not to be lost in this madness, Trixie searches for truth. Her language shows courage and resilience rooted in optimism displayed through Watson's delicate facial fugues. Her extraordinary performance is nearly matched by Nolte (as in Breakfast of Champions and The Thin Red Line, these are the boldly nuanced masculine performances on the American screen). They represent opposite kinds of moral stumbling, as do the characters in Humanite. When Dumont's tale eventually levitates to another plane, it isn't merely fanciful but is existentially real, just like the all-too-human convolutions in Trixie.

    If viewers can put Humanite in context with Trixie it may help them to recognize the various ways artists can deal with moral truth. Dumont's sobriety is a virtue, but so is Rudolph's verbal and visual wit, which saves him from filming a single sanctimonious or sentimental moment. Dumont uses DeWinter to pursue fundamental accord with an unpredictable world. That's also what Rudolph does through Trixie, who eventually resolves and articulates a way to love. Each trailblazer proves there's more than one path to understanding loneliness.

    Time Regained directed by Raul Ruiz

    Let John Singleton adapt Shaft. Raul Ruiz is concerned with examining the varied forms of human desire and regret and so adapts Proust. Time Regained successfully visualizes Proust's deployment of time and esthetics and memory. Putting a surrealist spin on the visual and musical condensation of Proust's haute bourgeois characters, Ruiz?with his punning title?salutes the work Americans only recently came to know as In Search of Lost Time. It shouldn't be a surprise that Proust and Ruiz are technically a good match (better than even Alain Resnais or Terence Davies might have been). The shock and great pleasure of Time Regained comes from seeing Proust's ideas on love and social structure given clear dramatic shape?and feeling his ruminations in the library and on the beach soar.

    Ruiz graduates from being a coloring book Buñuel to a non-stodgy purveyor of great literature (suggesting what Visconti might have envisioned for the brothel sequence). And it's fitting that Ruiz's most accessible (and watchable) filmmaking is accomplished with a cast doing justice to their Proustian heritage. Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Marie-France Pisier, Vincent Perez and Pascal Greggory all carry their own high-modernist legacies but each actor inhabits Proust's creations with mesmerizing glamour and intensity. (Time Regained celebrates French film history as well as Proust.) Marcello Mazzarella is more than picture perfect as Proust; he looks born-old/sadly wise with the right diffidence and command. (John Malkovich as Baron de Charlus is a bit de trop; he's no match for Alain Delon's Baron in Volker Schlondorff's Proust botch Swann in Love.) Time Regained is a major event in cinema and literature's century-long effort to make high art as irresistible as pop art. Otherwise, you have to put Humanite and Trixie together to get a comparable movie achievement. Ruiz's high/low approach is perfect because by now so much of Proust has become fabled without losing profundity. Don't fear that he's made Time Regained kitschy; it's all great stuff.