Everyone is someone's child. As a narrative device, I think it's fairly obvious that the relationship between parents and their children has served as one of cinema's most sturdy tropes; From serving as a gauge of changing times and a platform for the political divide among generations (Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, say) to the basic unit of big-stakes melodramas (Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas) and their more muscular counterpart, the family-in-jeopardy thriller (Firewall, Panic Room) all the way to broad comedies (Parenthood) and family films (Freaky Friday), there is probably nothing more tried and true, dyed-in the-wool red white and blue than the cinematic representation of the American family. There is no denying that, in this case, the cinema is more a mirror than an inspiration; This country is positively cult-like in its worship and adoration of kids, so much so that we impose deep social and cultural restrictions on adult intellectual freedoms in order to preserve the perceived innocence of our children. Books are banned from libraries, battles are waged over access to information and the world seems to stop when a child goes missing ; Culturally, we are romantic idealists about children and their lives, and while we constantly overlook the paucity of education in our public system and the growth of poverty and hunger among families in our nation, we prefer our imaginations to maintain dewy-eyed, gauzy images of children picking daisies in golden fields, symbols of our own desire to return to the fantasy of an innocence that never was.
Thank god for the rest of the world. While few American films have the courage to take on the imperfections and perils of parenting (Lodge Kerrigan's Keane is, for me, a masterpiece for its nightmarish vision of parental anxiety), cinema in the rest of the world seems more interested in exploring the adult conflicts inherent in reproduction than in merely venerating children (shhhh... don't tell the Academy...). Whereas parental mistakes and sacrifices in America are seen through a judgmental cultural gaze that wouldn't be out of place in a Hawthorne novel, artists elsewhere seem more interested in empathy and grace, the meaninglessness of propriety and the possibility of redemption. Last week's New York Film Festival screening schedule featured several films that explored the idea of human imperfection in the form of women who take diverse routes on the way to fulfilling their maternal roles, and the breadth and power of these stories was palpable for me; As a man on the verge of starting my own family, I breathe easier knowing that my own fears, doubts and concerns are not an isolated response.
For me, the most powerful of film the bunch was Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, this year's Palme D'Or winner at Cannes. The film details an illegal abortion (the title describes the moment in gestation when the procedure is performed) in Bucharest in 1987 during the dying days of the Ceausescu regime; Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is a college student whose roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Determined to terminate, Gabita makes some confused, half-hearted arrangements with a back-alley abortion provider and soon, she and Otilia find themselves in a dimly lit hotel room with the man hired to do the deed. After some blackmail and horrible compromises, the procedure is performed and suddenly, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is transformed from something out of the Dardenne Brothers into a film that would not be out of place in a late-period Hitchcock movie. Mungiu brilliantly sets the table for all types of terrible violence and tragedy; Otilia discovers a pocket knife among the abortion provider's personal effects (filling the entire film with dread), we hear the man describe the possible (and seemingly inevitable) complications that could arise from the procedure itself (hemorrhaging, hours and days of potential suffering) and we soon discover that he left his identification behind, throwing his identity into doubt while simultaneously worrying us that he may actually return to collect his identification. And then, Otilia leaves for a rendezvous with her boyfriend and his snobby parents, closing the door on the hotel room and leaving our imaginations to run wild as the clock ticks behind the locked door.
What Remains: Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days
It is no surprise at all that the tensions of a Dardenne-style social realism and the MacGuffins and unseen horrors of Hitchcock's brand of thriller would work so well together, but Mungiu makes certain by leaving no anxiety unexposed, no outrage unspoken. What heightens the life and death stakes of the film into the cinematic stratosphere is, of course, the outrageousness of the situation from the get-go; Without access to benefits of reproductive freedoms, an operation that should be performed safely and cleanly by a medical professional becomes a horror show. Anxiety is bad enough, but coupled with the outrage and anger at the situation (an anger that Mungiu clearly expresses through Otilia's point of view), the tension is at times unbearably brilliant. The women in the film make some costly mistakes (Gabita's casual approach to the details of her agreement proves especially frustrating), but one can't help wondering why they should have had to experience this at all. As the right to choose an abortion is continually evaluated in the political context of a world where feminism's hard-won victories seem commonplace, the film provides a painful reminder of the indignities suffered when politics and morality are imposed on the private decisions of individuals. Gabita's decision to not become a mother, as late as it arrives in the process, is as difficult and painful a choice as could be made, but it is Otilia's experience, that of a woman forced into the role of a criminal for facilitating that choice, that allows the film to escape the clichés of a cautionary tale and transcend as great drama.
Equally brilliant but antithetical in tone, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight Of The Red Balloon is a moving re-imagining of Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon as the story of a collective maternal experience of sorts. While Lamorisse's film is a simple tale of a boy and the titular balloon as they traverse Paris, Hou's film combines the experience of Simon (Simon Iteanu) and his babysitter, a film student named Song (played by Fang Song) as they explore the City Of Lights. In this lovely re-telliing, the red balloon follows both Song and Simon through their daily routines, showing itself above Parisian rooftops, dancing against Simon's window, appearing as the subject of one of Song's short films and reminding both characters of the beauty of life outside the cramped apartment they share while waiting for Simon's mother, a frazzled puppeteer named Suzanne (Juliette Binoche as the epitome of a Parisian mother), to come home.
Imagine: Song (Fang Song) and Simon (Simon Iteanu) in Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight Of The Red Balloon
As such, Song and Suzanne become a sort of bifurcated figure of maternity for Simon; While the patient, soft-spoken Song spends plenty of time allowing Simon to explore his interests on the streets of Paris, Suzanne is a harried single mom struggling to balance her creative career (which she obviously loves) with her maternal obligations. As both women are kind and generous toward Simon and one another, Hou's vision of single motherhood as community seems to line-up directly with his established concerns; In films like A Time To Live, A Time To Die and My Summer At Grandpa's, the collective sense of responsibility for the children in the film is expressed as a sort of poetic reality of life in the provinces (one Hou himself is said to have experienced personally). For me, The Flight Of The Red Balloon fits perfectly among Hou's earlier 'coming-of-age' films as being focused on the wonders of childhood while simultaneously exploring the sacrifices and concerns of maternity. The film expresses plenty of empathy and understanding for Suzanne, whose late-arrivals and real-estate problems are portrayed with pure grace by the lovely Juliette Binoche and Hou's camera provides plenty of juxtaposition, alternating between the messy, cramped interiors of family's apartment and the wide-open spaces of the Paris skyline, graced by a fluttering balloon. The film is absolutely lovely, an expression of compassion and artistry that captures the feeling of family and imagination as tenderly as I have ever seen.
Spinning in a wholly other direction is Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine. (Note: It is impossible for me to talk about this film without discussing its revelations, so let me issue a spoiler alert right now.) Set in a small-town in South Korea called Miryang (a Chinese word, we learn, that means 'secret sunshine'), the film is the story of Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for this performance), a young widow who wants to raise her son in her late husband's home town. She is befriended by an auto-mechanic named Kim Jong-chan (the brilliant Song Gang-ho, star of The Host and Memories Of A Murder) who has a bit of a crush on her, but she doesn't have time for him; Shin-are sets up shop as a piano teacher and spends her days raising her son and working hard to overcome her grief. That task proves absolutely impossible when her suffering is exponentially compounded by the kidnapping and murder of her son.
The Calm Before The Storm: Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine
At this point, about 45 minutes into the film, the entire enterprise shifts tone as the inconsolable mother searches for any way to relieve her suffering. When she and Gang-ho visit a prayer vigil at an evangelical church, Shin-ae surrenders to the allure of protestant fanaticism as a way to forgive herself and cope with her loss. As she grows to understand the complexities of her faith, she decides to go and visit her son's murderer so that she can follow god's example and forgive him for his terrible sins. In what will rank as one of my favorite scenes in a movie ever, the smug self-satisfaction of this proposal is brilliantly exposed when she finally speaks to the killer, only to discover that he too has found god and feels that god has already forgiven him, thankyouverymuch. Stripped of the moral high ground and the catharsis of controlling forgiveness, Shin-ae spends the film's third act waging a war against god and his followers, looking for a single moment of peace that will take her away from her suffering. I loved this movie; Some have complained it is too long, but the seemingly interminable suffering of a mother who has lost her child is precisely the point. Just when Shin-ae seems on the verge of embracing her new provincial life, she makes a seemingly harmless mistake (leaving her son at home alone while she finally has a little fun at a karaoke bar) that proves to be the most punishing decision of her life. That Chang-dong refuses to take shortcuts in his examination of grief is, for me, the right decision; Shin-ae is one of the most difficult characters in this year's festival because of the singularity of her emotions, but at the same time, the monotony of grief and its consequences may never have been more precisely examined.
Last and least among the maternal portraits at the festival is Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage, a stylish Spanish horror film that provides cheap thrills and breaks no new ground while going bump in the night (again, spoilers follow). It is, however, one of the most grim portrayals of maternal anxiety at the festival; An orphan herself, the adult Laura (Belen Rueda) moves with her husband and adopted, HIV-positive son Simón (Roger Príncep) back to the orphanage of her youth in order to fashion the place into a home for mentally disabled children. Trouble brews when Simón, whose imagination already provides him with invisible friends, discovers new, unseen playmates among the caves of the nearby seashore. And then, he is gone; Just as Laura throws a party to welcome her new charges, a creepy burlap-masked child named Tómas arrives and apparently steals Simón. The rest of the film is about Laura's quest to find her child in the haunted orphanage, but despite some moody atmospherics in the visual and sound design, the film never mounts a truly frightening vision of an obsessed mother gone mad. Instead, the movie forsakes psychology for horror movie trickery and instead of building any real tension (like, for example, the ticking clock in the aforementioned 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), the film relies on tried and true methods to make you jump; Slow, crawling dolly shots down dimly lit hallways (Hello, Mr. Kubrick...) serve as misdirection for things jumping into the frame (boo! surprise!), objects fall suddenly (windows crash, doors open)-- almost all of the frights in The Orphanage spring from the classic 'gotcha!' school, and almost none come from any true psychological insight.
Sacked: Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage
That said, in the age of torture porn, The Orphanage feels like a good old fashioned ghost story, and as such, it is certainly a good movie that should please fans of the genre. At the same time, like many horror films, its narrative world makes very little sense; Who in their right mind would cover the face of a physically deformed child with a burlap sack with a ghoulish face drawn on it? If, as the film suggests, Laura was actually physically attacked by the ghoulish child and locked in the bathroom, how is it that the entire ghost world turns out to be her misinterpretation of real-world events? Did Simón dress up as Tómas and then hide away? If so, who leaves the series of clues for Laura that lead her to her gristly discovery? Of course, the improbability of any and all of the film's story shouldn't stand in the way of the suspension of disbelief and the enjoyment of a good tale, and The Orphanage, though slight, has enough creepy style to keep you entertained. But in the shadow of films like Secret Sunshine and 4 Months, its life and death stakes feel slight, its tensions manufactured and its portrait of a maternal crisis rather silly. Standing on its own merits, I know The Orphanage will be the biggest box office winner of the four films I've discussed here, but it is the film's conventional accessibility and shallow portrait of maternity in crisis that makes it feel pale in comparison to the company it is keeping at this year's NYFF.