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The Reeler Blog

The Girl Can't Help It

By Vadim Rizov

The opening shot of A Girl Cut In Two nicely summarizes the cinema of frustration that Claude Chabrol has been peddling for this entire millennium (give or take): A bravura POV shot from a car's dashboard goes through tunnels and country roads, eventually ending at a driveway, a finger poised above the CD player's stop button as an aria comes to its close. The singer hits her final note, and the finger cuts off the orchestra in its closing notes, denying true closure; just then, the "Un film de Claude Chabrol" title appears.

Francois Berléand and Ludivine Sagnier in Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two (Photo: Wild Bunch)

Terminating his films before their conventional end points is the 40-year veteran Chabrol's specialty of late: 2005's The Bridesmaid concluded just before a character was just about to be arrested for the central crime motivating the entire damn movie. 2006's Comedy of Power went even further, ending in the middle of a criminal investigation that was the film's ostensible raison d'etre. Both were plagued with lukewarm reviews; A Girl Cut In Two is being treated more tolerantly because it has a conventional ending, e.g. it's Chabrol's first film in a while to have the closing credits roll over a human face rather than a statue or empty hallway.

Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) is a weathergirl at a Paris TV station; Charles St. Denis (François Berléand) is the faithfully married author who quickly becomes infatuated with her, and Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel) is her other suitor, an unstable trust fund brat. Sagnier's indisputable blonde looks win over both without trying, but she's mutually infatuated with Charles -- perhaps because, as her mom (Marie Bunel) suggests, she's always been one of those girls looking for a father figure as lover. Whatever the reason, her affair leads to sexual indiscretion (off-screen naturally; Chabrol remains as dedicated to frustrating viewers' libidos as ever). Tragedy ensues -- filmed, as usual, with a chilly reserve suggesting the whole thing is one morbid joke.

Traditional wisdom holds Chabrol's constant theme to be withering critiques of the hypocritical, mendacious bourgeoisie, yet Chabrol's obviously been one for a while (Charles is a self-professed gourmand, as is Chabrol himself), and Girl hedges its bets. The first hour is as conventional and sharp as any of Chabrol's early work; hardly a scene goes by without awkward sexual tension -- cut in two, Gabrielle also receives awkward advances hinging on sexual advancement from boss Gérard (Jean-Marie Winling) -- and Chabrol pushes things along speedily. It's like a mean-spirited screwball comedy. The second hour slacks back into Chabrol's recent passive-aggressive house style, and the merger isn't entirely satisfying. But Girl picks up steam in its finale, meaning it's an awkward merger of Chabrol's old and new styles that won't alienate as many viewers as his recent work, but not as formally unified either.

Few members of the press corps stuck around for the afternoon's avant-garde sampling. A shame; I'm little schooled in avant-garde film (and have nothing productive to say about Robert Beavers' Pitcher of Colored Light, which was also screened), but Peter Hutton's At Sea is too gorgeous a film to be completely inaccessible.

A still from Peter Hutton's At Sea, screening in the NYFF's avant-garde sidebar
(Photo: Peter Hutton)

A restrained Hutton explained onstage that -- having spent 10 years as a merchant marine in his youth -- he initially wanted to make a film about ship-breaking, the messy and dangerous process by which rusting hulks are broken down into their component elements in cash-starved countries like Bangladesh. After three hours of shooting in one of these ship-breaking yards, he was kicked out, but the usable footage prompted him to construct a trilogy of sorts: the building, voyage and dismantling of a ship.

The prompt is the weakest part; Michael Glawogger's underseen Workingman's Death covered the same subject (albeit in Pakistan) with sound, which makes all the difference. "The film is silent, of course," said Hutton -- which may be normal for his work, but the deafening crack of a whole ship's wall falling over is sorely missing. Here, presumably due to the time constraints of those three hours, we never even see that. The first third is stronger; the disconnected parts of the ship attain the strangeness of individual Gaudi arches, deforming the space around them and dwarfing the puny humans below. "A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea," states the opening Joseph Conrad quote, and the scenes of monstrous curves and towering parts attain the clarity of a fever vision.

It's the middle third that really deserve attention though. Hutton finds visual patterns in waves and ocean rain that no one let alone James Cameron seems to have thought of before. Two shots in particular stand out: One is of the boat's deck red-painted awning repeatedly swinging over and covering the sea, red and blue battling it out for on-screen color supremacy. The other is an astounding, desaturated shot of black-and-white waves forming patterns so dense and shimmery it seems like if you stared long enough, a secret 3D image might pop out. At Sea isn't consistent from beginning to end, but at least a portion of it is some of the festival's must-see viewing.

Posted at September 21, 2007 6:40 AM

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