Here are the latest results and post-mortems. All in all, it was a great week.
The Girl On The Train (2009) (La Fille Du Rer)
Director: André Téchiné
A beautiful girl named Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) seems to be drifting in life without a clear purpose. Her mother tries to get her a job at the office of a lawyer she was romantically connected to many years ago. The interview doesn’t go very well and Jeanne then falls in with a wrestler named Franck who claims to be going places. But her association with him ends badly, too, when he is arrested for being part of a a crime ring. The wrestler, overcome by shame and disgust, rejects her harshly.
At this point Jeanne does something that makes sense to her own fuzzy thought processes, but which rational viewers will be angered by. Desperate for attention of any kind, Jeanne invents a story that she was “assaulted” on a train by a gang of “anti-Semitic” thugs; the story sounds fishy from the beginning but no one wants to believe the worst. I vaguely remember hearing about a real-life incident along these lines in France; apparently the plot is loosely based on real events. This is one of those films that is good enough to recommend watching, but not quite able to reach its full potential.
The director spends too much time on subplots and never really probes into the motivations or thought processes of the main characters. What could have been a powerful psychological drama about obsession, neuroses, and the banality of evil instead never becomes more than an entertaining drama. This film raises serious themes that deserve serious treatment. The theme of “false accusations” of crimes is one that looms large (or should loom large) in our society these days, and it needs to be talked about far more than it has been. We need to understand the thought processes, the motivations, and the secret dreams of the false accuser. But the director never really delivers on this. If the title character is an incurable airhead, so are all the other characters and, perhaps, the director as well. Worth watching, but a little too detached from the subject matter for my taste.
Train To Pusan (2016)
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Wow. This is South Korea’s first (we are told) foray into the zombie genre and is an unqualified success. The plot (do we even need one?): a collection of stock characters gets on a high-speed train bound from Seoul to Pusan. Along the way, a zombie outbreak causes the entire country to plunge into chaos. Some of the undead get on the train, and a grim battle for survival ensues. The train stops along the way, only to have to fight more freaks.
South Korean movies have come a long way since the early 1990s. I remember seeing tons of movies in theaters there that were rendered almost unwatchable by inept censorship, weepy family melodrama, and cringeworthy social commentary. When I first saw Pulp Fiction in Korea in 1995, I couldn’t even make heads or tails of it, the censorship was so brutal. But those days are gone, thank God. While I’m at it, I should also say that Japanese cinema has also made a huge turnaround since the days when the stodgy old executives who ran Toho studios–comfortable in their monopolies–had no idea how to make movies that people would actually want to watch. All over Asia, the film culture has made incredible strides since the 1980s and 1990s. (Hong Kong is the exception: it has always been a center of cinematic innovation).
In any case, Train to Pusan is a welcome addition to the zombie genre. It’s a bit long for a horror film, but you don’t really notice this, as the film is paced so well that you feel like you’re flying right along with the rest of the trapped characters. There are some requisite Korean touches here (some family melodrama, some social commentary, etc.) but nothing that takes away from the thrill ride. A fantastic movie that horror film aficionados will love.
Director: Denis Villenueve
This is a complex, well-composed meditation on various current social themes: creeping totalitarian encroachment on human affairs, the darkness of human personalities, and duplicity and betrayal. It probably deserves a separate article in its own right. Director Denis Villenueve has made a name for himself as one of the best directors of his generation. I have loved all his previous films, especially Incendies (2010) and Sicario (2015). His hallmarks are meticulous attention to detail, compelling story lines, and a willingness to tackle the most challenging philosophical obstacles.
The plot: Toronto history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives a dull and routine life. He doesn’t really like to do much besides lecture students on dictatorships, have sex with his girlfriend, and stare at his shoelaces. The drudgery of his existence is apparent when a co-worker asks him about some movie, and his reply is: “I don’t really like movies.” On someone’s recommendation, however, he rents a movie called Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way (a title vaguely evoking Triumph of the Will). In this movie, Bell sees an actor who looks exactly like him. It turns out the guy’s real name is Anthony Claire; he himself also works in Toronto and has a pregnant wife.
Bell becomes fixated on meeting Claire, and finally does so. It turns out that they are exactly alike in every physical way; they are true doppelgangers. But Claire is more of an assertive, aggressive, “alpha” personality. And it turns out that Claire has his own agenda, which is anything but normal or routine. To say more would reveal too much of the plot, but I should point out that there are artistic hints all through the movie that point towards the themes of mind control (spiders, spider-webs) and the “evil twin” concept. The idea of the evil doppelganger is an old and unsettling one: Poe made use of it in his novella William Wilson, as did many other writers. The final scene has provoked a lot of discussion in film critic circles, and I encourage viewers to draw their own well-reasoned conclusions. What cannot be denied is that Enemy is a beautiful and important film, one that will be talked about for many years to come. When we ask ourselves whether it is possible to be living in a totalitarian system without really being “aware” of it, the answer must be yes.