When the schedule for the Third Annual Nitrate Picture Show, a film festival in at the George Eastman museum in Rochester, New York celebrating the projection of the pristine and highly flammable nitrate stock, was unveiled, I felt an exhilaration upon realizing an Ozu film, Early Summer, was being screened. I have seen the film before, actually when the Museum's Dryden Theatre showed the whole Noriko trilogy (the most underrated, possibly most profound, trilogy in film) two years prior. Yet, I was shocked that, upon second viewing, my appreciation for this film ballooned exponentially. Maybe it was because the theatre was packed; sharing this experience with so many people seems to amplify my connection with the story and characters. Maybe it was because the film, itself, was shipped from Japan...and original print struck from the negatives that originated from Ozu's production. It is a fleeting sense of romanticism, yes, but I was ready to fall in love again with a film from one of my favorite directors.
What makes any Ozu film refreshing is how I must readjust to his filmic techniques which remain so nontraditional in approach. In film school, it is often difficult to experience film form so contrary to mainstream philosophy. Thus, returning to an Ozu film after a time always carries with it a newness: from meticulous composition to bizarre shot coverage of a regular conversation, I am forced to entreat my creative inspiration and reassurance in the realization that there is always more than one way to tell a story visually, that different individuals from different cultures reflect such experiences through unique, almost personal modes of filmmaking.
Early Summer is Ozu's 1951 serving of his time-tested dish, detailing the rumblings and severances of the modern Japanese family. Yet, as part of the aforementioned Noriko trilogy, threaded together with Late Spring and the quintessential Tokyo Story by Setsuko Hara's immortal titular character, a woman lies at the center of the familiar thematic explorations. Briefly, Noriko happily lives with her extended family in Tokyo, including her brother and wife with their two sons as well as her parents. When a visiting uncle exclaims in wry defiance that Noriko is twenty-eight, he sets in motion familial anxiety and swiftly constructed expectations for the single woman. In one immediate whim, suppressed realizations became rashly illuminated, with the family now scurrying to figure out how Noriko can marry a proper man. Difficulties arise when Noriko almost gleefully denies any desire to become a wife.
There is a quote of which I paraphrase from Ozu where he posits that, in a sense, each generation has their own rules. The two brothers in the film, who provide much of the gentle hilarity in the film, essentially have their own rules of how they should act and react to the world in relation to their parents. And, for the most part, this story does depict such generational rules in conflict though, ultimately, one set of rules wins out, reluctantly. Nevertheless, the epicenter of familial strife does not really lie in generational abrasions but on an individual's set of rules. Noriko detaches herself from current tendencies and popular expectation. Her willingness to forgo marriage, even love, is seen as contrapuntal. Most of the characters are baffled by Noriko's unwavering strength as they claw to salvage some figment of an alternative lifestyle.
Yet, Ozu's script cleverly adds pressure onto the heroine, whose smiling face (a staple of the Noriko character, a face and performance one can write a book about) becomes a slowly crumbling facade. Numerous occasions find a character making the remark that Noriko is twenty-eight years old and that she needs to get married. Each instance is like another shove into the corner, a sense of claustrophobia seemingly inevitable. As we observe Noriko repeatedly trying to evade the question of marriage, we see her backing up and stumbling, the smile trying to maintain balance. Whether it be from her pesky friends, who humorously split between the married friends and single friends, or from her stern brother, who seems to try to maintain a paternal order in a house that carries so much responsibility, predicating a short temper.
Noriko represents a new woman, so to speak, one that developed in the modernizing, and westernizing postwar Japan. This episode of Japanese history is defined by Ozu as an entanglement of ideology, tradition, and morality. Knots are made between old, predictable lifestyles and new, uncertain lifestyles. Urbanizing leads to migration which can also lead to the break ups of extended and nuclear families, endorsing a newfound individuality that is not malnourished of responsibilities but has realigned responsibilities to revolve around the individual's goals. And as a woman expressing this notion of individuality, Noriko steps into territory many other people find unsettling due to an ignorance established by their acceptance of a well-grounded order.
So it is even more astonishing when Noriko, towards the end of the film, finally decides to marry, not to a man whom everyone was expecting her to marry, but a childhood friend, widower, and a father of a toddler. Not only that, she makes this decision on her own, separate from the affirming graces of her parents. Ozu gives Noriko incredible agency in a changing world that still does not understand such agency even exists. And what makes his storytelling all the more intriguing is that he is not constructing diametrical opposites between tradition and change. In other words, no one is worse or evil because of their beliefs. In addition, Ozu's allowance for Noriko's mobility is also interacting with the consequence of such mobility. There is a cost to her independence, to her quiet zeal to do things her way. Just as crucially, such zeal is conclusively not a downfall and Noriko is not, 'put in her place,' so to speak. These facets of representation inject a vibrancy and fullness into the protagonist and, subsequently, to the many family members and friends she interacts with...on paper. Ultimately, it is Setsuko who animates the detailed yet frozen image of Noriko.
Yet there is more to be discussed. Ozu is known to have an elliptical structure in narrative, stepping aside exhibiting what most other filmmakers would deem as the most important moments in the film. In Early Summer, we do not see Noriko marry her husband. We do not see her leave Tokyo and begin a new chapter apart from her family, to start anew in the country town of Akita. Ozu turns his gentle gaze onto her parents, who, after being paralyzed in disappointment in their daughter's sudden decision, are committed to staying strong and staying positive (a more optimistic ending than the other two Noriko films). What is most intriguing is that the last time we see Noriko, she is slumped over a table, crying into her arms, drowning in a biting sorrow that she is the reason her family is breaking up (it must be said that her leaving makes it harder for her brother to support their parents in the house so the parents move to another town with the aforementioned uncle). Now, any superficial analysis could surmise that this visual sendoff of the protagonist suggests a resonating sadness to this whole tale and that Ozu questions Noriko's independence. In spite of this possible suggestion, you must look at the ellipses of the narrative. You must somehow look at what Ozu does not show you.
As the parents sit and ponder, they wonder on their daughter's condition, letting the audience know that she did, in fact, go to live with her husband and the marriage had been certified. Consequently, a perception can be made that despite the cost of breaking up the family, the traditional unity of Japanese society, Noriko still ended up what she wanted to do all along. How did we know this was what she really wanted? She reveals it to her sister-in-law on the beach in an earlier scene, embraced by the soft, salty air. She was looking for someone she could trust, and she found him in this man. Her persistence supplemented with patience becomes the envy of her sister-in-law, who admitted ignorance to love and marriage when she married. And this beach scene, which also sees Noriko run in the sand, waving her arms with such uninhibited joviality, embodies the strength of this modern woman.
Compositionally, there are many examples of how Ozu visually represents this reinforced sense of feminine self. I'll choose one powerful example. After excusing themselves from the family meeting of which Noriko surprised everyone with her profession to marry, her parents sit, flanking their beds, as still as statues. In the background, Noriko walks into frame, walking from one end to the other and back, her body interrupts the stasis of thought and incredulity. Contrapuntal manifested in mise en scene, her movement is literally perpendicular to the rigid and staggered line made by the two aging parents. This visual representation depicts a woman free from the mercy of continuous pressure of familial expectation. It hints at the same movement I refer to in the beach scene. If all of this might seem subtle, that is because it is subtle. Ozu presents complex stories with simplicity and subduedness. Restraint is the dominating factor all of his characters exhibit, so even plain movement unveils something more. In this case, her rules, all the way until the end.
More can be said about Setsuko's acting, the elegiac editing as it relates to the narratological rhythm of musical interludes, and even the blocking. I write this off memory of the my second time watching Early Summer. Nonetheless, there is no reservation I hold when celebrating this film. It carries with it an insightful timelessness while being a fantastic document of a certain time and place. Consequently, you cannot discerp the film from its historical framework but you are enabled to place it into a more contemporary context, an indication of the dazzling power emanating from the flammable celluloid elucidated by projector light.
Melodrama, or being melodramatic, has evolved into some form of a negative connotation. We tend to forget that it was a formal genre that populated films in the 30s, 40s, and 50s but had its roots in theater. It is a style, both aesthetic and performative, heightening the emotional and sensual experience of character conflict. It is as if the medium, dunked in the melodramatic touch, can sometimes take a hold of those moments most sentimental and hold them up proudly for the audience to see. Sometimes, even this pride is enough to convince the audience to gravitate towards the density of sentimentality, forgetting about what lies outside the darkened theater. While being catapulted across space and time, upwards towards the heavens and darting deep into the obscure recesses of the human mind, Makoto Shinkai's Your Name weaves an intricate melodrama of love, memory, and how sense impressions can dictate how we see and feel the world.
Your Name begins with Mitsuha, a small town girl tired with the limiting surroundings, and Taki, a city boy incline in organizing his life, swapping bodies and, thus, where they live. Shinkai navigates through the immense awkwardness rather successfully, comically allowing each character to explore the opposite gender and the expectations they face. Within the first act alone, Shinkai builds up layer upon layer of intriguing set pieces that thoughtfully exhibit how stepping out of that preordained gender role can open you up to new people, to allow yourself the full spectrum of emotions and actions rather than just the ones you think will make you more of a man or a woman. The film is not wholly immune from thematic prat falls when it comes with toying with shallow gender stereotypes, as in it would have been interesting if each thought, in assuming the control of the opposite's body, they would assume control of conventional physique and mannerism but would later be surprised that may not be the case. Although this certainly does not ruin the experience, it needs to be acknowledge, nonetheless.
But that does lead me into probably the worst part of the film...which really isn't about structure, theme, style, or whatnot. It is merely about one shot, probably with an elapsed time of five seconds. Mitsuha is frantically bicycling down the road, wearing a the stereotypical schoolgirl skirt. The filmmakers decided to use a low-angle shot to watch her pump the bicycle pedals...essentially giving us access to her underwear...Look, if she were wearing joggers then it's fine but skirts and low-angle shots just don't mix. For a film trying, and succeeding, in creating a full and dynamic female character, they were careless in implementing a shot like this.
Amid some of these problems lies a film luscious in eye candy and brain pickings. Cross-cuts and montages, especially one montage dealing with how both of the protagonists adapt to the body-switching, are handled with an apparent deftness. These editing techniques are what the narrative hinges upon for clarity, bridging them with thought-voices and other forms of narration, culminating in a tapestry of time periods, or memories and experiences had, and how a flow of emotion restlessly recalls what has been done and what has been felt. And this tapestry is rendered gorgeous through the celestial color palette and fluid animation. From the sparkling naturalness of the small, lakeside town to the digitized vibrancy of the Tokyo cityscape, there is much for the eye to contemplate on. Even more so, the iridescent night sky imbues the whole film in a humanistic surrealism where every time Mitsuha and Taki look up at the universe in wonder, they are looking straight into the universe inside each other, so beautiful and mysterious; the definition of their relationship.
Certainly there is something Proustian to this tale, where Your Name is not just a title but a loose indication of the concept of the place-name. How many people have we met or have crossed paths with if for just a blip of a moment? How often do we think back to the people that have made an impression on us and find that what we see is only a kaleidoscopic image? The main characters wrestle with this idea. Their adolescent minds struggle to understand this inevitable tragedy, the silent tragedy all humans face. It takes its time for us to understand such ramifications and it orchestras these complex, often overwhelming themes into the melodramatic mode. Shinkai does this well. He does this even with a convoluted plot. It is because this plot works well to reflect upon the themes it sets out to retain and organize. Shortcomings arise, particularly towards the end where (SPOILERS KIND OF) the film dragged until the narrative instinctively reached a point of satisfaction, but these are merely structural and the content remains engrossing.
Your Name is a great melodrama and a great animation. It is one that wildly flaunts its intoxicating ambition. Yes, its flaunting sometimes lands it in areas problematic but it reaches for the stars, and it gives us a thorough story and its heart is in the right place. I've always felt a certain romance when looking up at the night sky. Now there is a story that thinks similarly.
Just get rid of that low-angle shot, please.
As some sort of declaration, not necessarily caring of its possible futility, I must exclaim the divisiveness pertaining to the talents of Kristen Stewart is something I loathe...or just aggressively apathetic towards. In watching Olivier Assayas's new film, Personal Shopper, at The Little in Rochester, NY, it was the first time I have seen a Kristen Stewart film on the silver screen. No excess baggage is tied to me in knowing Kristen Stewart plays the lead role: no Twilight, no other mainstream films, no tempestuous relationships. What I wanted was to see Stewart in her day job, free from distraction, observing her noted subdued quality in acting and reacting, and come to my own terms. Assayas, who had cast her in the acclaimed film, Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she was the first American to win the French Oscar-equivalent, the Cesar, understands the particular expanse Stewart's personality can roam in. What may lack in a supposed versatility is offset by effective authenticity since Stewart roams in a character she connects with. Her performance becomes the epicenter of the film's prideful obtuseness.
Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper for a distinguished Parisian model who cannot perform normal activities consequently to such fame. While not zipping from one store to the next, spending thousands of dollars (and writing blank checks, mind you), Maureen practices mediumship, occasionally staying overnight in an abandon house her brother use to live in to attempt to connect with his wandering spirit. She does so with an intriguing mix of desire and disinclination. And the source of such disinclination is also the source of much of the film's tension and character conflict. Maureen is an introvert living in a world that may have taken advantage of such a trait to the point where her individuality is minified into submission. Early on, Maureen explains that the reason she is a medium is not for herself but for her deceased brother, and her stints inside the haunted house are similar to her task of entering clothing stores and finding the right articles of clothing: one is for her brother, the other for a model.
Through this tormenting subordination, Stewart's Maureen enters in a constant struggle of self-identification. And this is where Stewart's muffled performance works because on one hand it is, indeed, muffled: her spare dynamism in tonality suggests distance. But what her voice disguises the rest of her body reveals, almost to a fault (through Assayas's direction). For the most part, it works extremely well, and an extended scene in the middle of the film where Maureen interacts with a disembodied stranger on a train to London exhibits a painful deconstruction of a faceless individual coming to terms with her own damaging passivity.
Imagine having to fixate on the death of a loved one, in Maureen's case through being a medium, when your struggle is to move on from a traumatic moment in your life. Assayas's framework and Stewarts skill delivers a fascinating character under pressurized circumstance deserving of applause. Now, I sort of partition my review between Maureen and the rest of the film because I, frankly, came out of the theatre with perplexity smacked across my face. Personal Shopper carries an almost insurmountable level of discomfort because, formally, it twists and contorts genre almost haphazardly, well, within lieu of a psychological thriller. Horror, crime thriller, social realism revolve in and out of the formal elements of the film, almost imposing as much of a spiritual force onto Maureen as the apparitions she chases.
And to say it all feels fluid would be a mistake, but whether or not that is totally a negative thing is still up for my personal debate, and it may be what irks most moviegoers. It doesn't help that these manic revolutions appear in slow-burning pacing. If you are not in perpetual unease, which I was, then you may, instead, be in perpetual disinterest. And I appreciate the unease; I appreciate this notion that Assayas is continuously playing with expectation through the prism of a complex character. Playing with expectation, at the very least, induces a simmering curiosity that drove my interest in the film and when its thrilling components interact so well with the pivotal character it is beauty that manifests itself.
Now, the segments that I am distant of, that necessitates further contemplation, are the extended dialogue scenes which have a bizarre potency of exposition. Some of it works but some of it feels off compared to the visionary uncertainty the film excels at. At least most of these scenes are sullen and quiet, allowing for the words to resonate through the theatre, allowing us to see Stewart embody the vocalization of her reasons, where we see the limitations to her unkempt goals. In then end, the unsettling construction of narrative and the openness of the questions Assayas asks are almost brutally ambiguous, to which the audience needs to decide whether to be swept up by such a tale or to watch it pass on by. I chose to be swept by the story through Stewart's interpretation: where an elusive self treads on an unstable faith; a woman trying to find herself in a world that requires her to be someone else.
To describe a work of art as laborious may not conjure up positive sympathy towards such work, yet that may be the greatest strength of Remi Chaye's Long Way North, a recent animated film coming out of France. Laborious in the sense that it shows a lot of hard work and it shows the bristled obstacles that chip away at the protagonist and the rest of the characters. And through the film's sense of pragmatism, detailing a late 19th century sea voyage towards the north pole as one girl, Sasha, searches for her grandfather and lost ship, the film belittles itself when the narrative alters direction by offering a disservice to its otherwise wonderful heroine.
I will explain the shortcomings first as a preface to the aforementioned 'laborious' traits that I found so impressive. A general theme wraps around the flaws which can be categorized as convenient and it may have something to do with a directionless intoxication of endowing the female character with too much strength. Now, this is not to say I advocate a more passive Sasha. Her motives are clear and honorable and her independence is gratifying. Sasha has a fiery spirit surrounded by a world so cold and lifeless. Yet, breaking social tradition is not mutually conducive to an excellent character arc. Sasha seems to prove her strength multiple times. While one time does it justice, where she shows a crew of men she can work just as well as them, the film seems to default to this scenario in subsequent pivotal scenes.
If the crew is in a life-threatening situation...Sasha steps in an isolated moment detached from any sort of mental or physical cost and saves the day. She is said to fifteen and none of her actions regard her youth or her lack of judgement due to inexperience, she's almost allowed to do anything with know consequences. Even when the male crew rightfully questions her motives and information on the whereabouts of her grandfather's ship, the story resorts to this deux ex machina that elevates Sasha's struggle immediately to a trouncing victory. Basically, once the voyage initiates (probably twenty to twenty five minutes into the film) things become too easy for her. It doesn't help that this 'deus ex machina' moment arrives in a way that confused me as I wasn't sure what I was looking at was a dream or the real reality of the diegetic world. It slightly perturbed me in that the otherwise shaky logic was totally ignored for an otherwise beautiful moment so that the conflict's challenge can be rendered easier...a visionary cheat code, if you will.
And it is a shame because between these pivotal moments there is this naturalistic and almost gritty approach to observing a voyage in the scathing icy seas north of Russia and the brisk, suffocating void of deathly whiteness in the Arctic. Chaye is very thorough with his presentation of seafaring, of traversing a large boat through a world of icebergs, as well as the mental cost of exerting precious energy to save what can be deemed expendable. That is emphasized with a crew, led by the prideful and honest Lund and his first mate, Larson. There is a nice chemistry developing between the band of men where we easily recognize not just the faces of these individuals, but their personalities and convictions to their mission and to Sasha. So when things become wretched and morose, tension gradually defines its dramatic contours and character arcs are appropriately mapped to survival. Of course, that shatters, but it is great while it lasts. Though I must point out that the ending is satisfying, only the stain of those foci in the journey bleed out.
And while the narrative runs into potholes (or, yea, plot holes...kind of intended) the visuals soar to fascinating heights. It is simplistic, painterly, and leaves many opportunities for interesting lighting techniques. Chaye dunks half of his film in golden hour sunlight and those moments, usually still moments, are obnoxiously beautiful. And it may be the visuals, along with the infectious heroine, that will ultimately draw audiences into Long Way North. Simplicity and naturalness dominate the film in a world where many people expect fantastical events to unfold because it is animation. I deeply admire Chaye for creating a story such as this, especially for his debut feature. Tinkering with narrative structure and critically thinking about those big, pivotal moments are keys for his films to mature and dazzle with strength. Maybe he can rival the complexity of Sylvain Chomet and Tomm Moore. For now, though, Long Way North is more than a decent experience.