While for most cinephiles January and February are the pits of the film year, for this one they constitute prime time -- no guilt over spending beautiful days indoors watching flickering images in a darkened room, no distracting baseball season, no annoying festival gossip and "Didya see?" proddings. The following are short takes on recent viewings that RS and many others have inexplicably left by the wayside. Perhaps Cinematic Seasonal Affective Disorder is to blame for the oversight. Here's the remedy.
The Good Shepherd
Released at the end of 2006 to little to no fanfare, Robert De Niro's sophomore directorial effort (thirteen years after A Bronx Tale) is a fascinating, confusing conspiratorial tragedy that, if anything, puts the auteur theory to the test. Scripted by Eric Roth, Tony Kushner's counterforce in the writing of Munich, the film follows Edward Wilson (based on James Jesus Angleton and convincingly played by a contained Matt Damon), a quiet, privileged WASP who joins Skull and Bones and through his connections there becomes a vital component of the Office of Strategic Services and eventually the founding of the CIA. As in Munich, The Good Shepherd puts emphasis on the personal sacrifices of a high-level government servant even as his faith in the righteousness of his cause is profoundly shaken. Damon continually compromises moral principles and family integrity (though the film's supposition that anyone would abandon and mistreat a wife who looks like Angelina Jolie is patently absurd) as the Cold War counterintelligence battles he wages become more and more poisoned by distrust and suspicion within his own ranks. Unlike Munich, however, The Good Shepherd is well-directed and refuses to resort to emotional manipulation -- is this then the doing of an improved Roth or a superior-to-Spielberg De Niro? At times one wishes The Good Shepherd would take a page from JFK (coincidentally, frequent Stone collaborator Robert Richardson serves as Bobby D.'s D.P.) and detonate as full- and far-out hallucinogenic American paranoia (running the risk of making its plot all the more perplexing and in need of serious footnotes -- my father had to fill me in on some of the real-life parallels, and I'm still itching to read Norman Mailer's epic Harlot's Ghost), but both Roth and De Niro's commitment to portraying the human, political, class and ethnic factors driving governmental exclusivity and secrecy is thoughtful and accomplished with impressive classicism.
The Comedy of Power
Claude Chabrol's 8,459 film also takes real events as its starting point, but in exploring private-sector-exploiting-public-sector corruption takes a far more cynical line and a slightly wrier approach than The Good Shepherd regarding the individual's helplessness in avoiding subsumption by the machine. The Village Voice's Jim Ridley gets it right when he notes Chabrol is fairly uninterested in the workings of the "Enron of France" scandal on which The Comedy of Power is based, but he fails to see Chabrol's real concern. It's clear Isabelle Huppert's Jeanne Charmont-Killman is the film's subject, although Chabrol's angle is, to put it bluntly, odd: The Comedy of Power empowers its female judge protagonist to the point where she can resist her investigated enemies' misogynist terror tactics (including bribing her boss to pair her with another female judge because "women devour their own" -- Huppert and her new partner together become even more formidable) and overshadow her emasculated husband (who can't even prevent his own nephew from moving in on her), but not so much that she can take down the undeveloped corporate baddies. Where Wilson discretely wrestles with his conscience, Charmont-Killman does just fine for herself, thank you very much, until her cold, workaholic persistence hits smack up against the oligarchic wall. Indeed, Huppert ultimately ends up provoking the rotten system's regeneration -- Chabrol never gets really nasty, but this is so far the feel-bad film of the year. While other films come and go Chabrol's bitter drama currently has me puzzling over its conflicting thematic machinations.
The Pied Piper
The friends with whom I saw Jacques Demy's 1972 adaptation of the legend of the Pied Piper didn't dig it, and it seems like this unearthed quasi-counterculture artifact hasn't made a terrific impression upon its revival this past week (and through Thursday, see it before it's gone) at Anthology Film Archives. But I found a lot to admire in The Pied Piper, and it's my favorite of what I've seen from Demy, who I otherwise don't care much for (and that includes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg -- gasp! blasphemy!) Though it harbors a sputtering plot, the film expands outward from the bare facts of the legend and encompasses the intertwining relations between religion, economics, class, disease, and war as they existed (or might have -- Demy quotes Robert Browning as his source at film's end) during the Middle Ages. Demy displaces the fabled tragedy -- the Piper's musical seducing of the children out of the town of Hamelin and toward their doom is depicted as an ambiguous event, while plague-ridden Germany is rendered in grimy, dingy, dank detail. There's no respite from the disgusting conditions, not even in the songs of the Piper (a sympathetic Donovan), who offers to rid the town of Black Death-carrying rats and is stiffed by the greedy town authorities who are more interested in building a needless, gaudy church (which the Pope, occupied with expensive crusades, won't help build) than in aiding the people. This corruption is metaphorically visualized in a terrifically brazen shot -- during the ceremony to celebrate the strictly power-consolidating marriage between the burgermeister's pubescent daughter and the Baron's son (John Hurt), tons of rats bust out of a beautiful white church wedding cake. Don't let the film's original trip-promising tagline ("Come children of the universe, let Donovan take you away, far far away") or its predecessor, Demy's frivolous Donkey Skin, mislead you like the Piper -- this is an unrelentingly bleak film not meant for children (although there were several at the showing I attended). One of its final images is of the remains of the burning at the stake of a persecuted Jew. It's an allusion to the Holocaust bordering on the unnecessary, but nonetheless a shattering blow to those expecting Demy to soften tragedy with whimsy.