21 July 2006

Comin' Home

Wild Side - dir. Sébastien Lifshitz - 2004 - France/Belguim/UK

In creating my 100th post, I reminded myself of all the wonderful films I saw years ago, that I have yet to revisit. I’d mentioned that Presque rien was certainly one of the more important films of my cinematically formative years, so naturally, while in Paris, I had to check out Lifshitz’s follow-up Wild Side (which was actually the first part of a poorly-conceived double feature with Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell). Watching films in the French language while you’re in France can be difficult. I speak French, but when it comes to the language in contemporary film, even in a film as quiet and image-heavy as Wild Side, I feel like the dumb American tourist asking a man on the street “par-lay voo on-glay?” The characters never face the camera when delivering their lines and often the words come under their breath. (The clinical, theoretical dialogue of Anatomy of Hell proved much worse, though) So, there were several lines of dialogue that slipped right past me while watching, yet, if you’re familiar with Lifshitz’s work, it doesn’t really matter. Most of his scenes unfold without dialogue where the viewer is left to search for meaning by looking instead of hearing.

Though closely related to the poetry and silence of Claire Denis’ films (as well as using her famed cinematographer Agnès Godard here), his films resemble more mid-period Bergman than anything else. His films aren’t as perplexing or as desolate as Denis’ work, because all of our answers lie within the faces of our characters and the structure. Bergman became obsessed with this idea around the time of his chamber drama trilogy, as most famously with Persona and Cries and Whispers. All of the answers we need to take from their films are placed upon the gazes and expressions of the characters. There are scenes in Wild Side; for example when a character asks to look at another’s hand, we’re surprised to not find a close-up shot of the hands, but the static shot of the faces as the action takes place below the frame. Like Presque rien, Wild Side is a nonlinear collage, placing moments of childhood and moments of the characters’ Parisian life in between the central story of a transsexual, Stéphanie (Stéphanie Michelini), who returns to care for her sick mother (Josiane Stoléru) with her two lovers, a young prostitute from North Africa, Djamel (Yasmine Belmadi), and a Russian immigrant, Mikhail (Edouard Nikitine), who can’t speak French. As the faces tell us what we need to know within the frame, Lifshitz’s style of narrative gives us the answers between the frame. Most of the dramatic moments of the film, such as the death of Stéphanie’s father and beloved sister or Mikhail’s running away from Russia, occur entirely offscreen. This is because Lifshitz is not concerned with melodrama or even our expectations of how a film should be; instead, he focuses on the placement of the lost souls that inhabit the film. We’re not always meant to find out what happens or how it happens, but what is left and what it has done.

Wild Side really was an accomplished follow-up to Presque rien. Wild Side takes us beyond the torments of youth and first love and into the pains and desires of family; it’s almost a further, stronger development of the underlying familial anxieties of Presque rien: absent father, sickly mother. Lifshitz never plays his hot topic interests like transsexuals, North Africans in France, or illegal immigrants for shock value or social acceptance; that his film never is never a parable, and that his characters are never single representations of groups of people, is admirable. It’s not so often directors emerge that really excite me, but Lifshitz has become one of the tops. Expect some further blogs on similar filmmakers in the coming weeks, as I’ve been solely revisiting films that have affected me in the past few years, especially the ones where the filmmaker is aware of the drastic difference between show and tell and the importance of faces versus the importance of dialogue.

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