Saturday, 8 August 2015

Review of Conversations With My Gardener (2007)

Conversations are as much about what goes unsaid as they are about what is said, and it is this principle which underlines and defines Jean Becker's 2007 French feature "Conversations With My Gardener", a film which is more or less what the title describes. It is in the moments where things fall silent, or we feel aspects of the conversation being edited, held back, embargoed, that we truly get a feel for what is actually being communicated.

To this end, a great deal, both verbalised and not, about friendship, love, and all manner of things, is being communicated in this most wonderful film.

The gardener in question is played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who replied to an advert placed by Daniel Auteil, that most reliable and versatile of French actors, referred to simply as "Dauber" in this film. They were once friends, back at school, years and years ago, which is established simply in a flashback where they place a firecracker in their teacher's birthday cake. The easiness and ease between them is apparent immediately, laughter coming quickly, the rapport being palpable. The garden is set to work on right away.

This is about as much plot as we are given, until about twenty minutes before the end when things take a shift; what that shift is, I will leave you to discover. Instead of plot, the film is a study as we piece together the characters slowly as the film goes on. The Gardener is a working man, uneducated but not stupid, an ex-railwayman who is fiercely devoted to his wife. The Dauber is much the opposite, a city-man, an artist, who recently moved to his country house after relations broke down with his wife. There isn't much doubt that The Dauber loves his wife as well, but then we also get the impression that The Dauber loves his wife in much the same way that he loves woman, and maybe even Woman. He's that kind of guy.

The central dynamic of the pair rests on the principle that friends are often opposites in a way that often rounds the other out. The Gardener doesn't drink; The Dauber offers wine at almost every social opportunity, and it becomes a motif in the film. The Gardener is openly in love with his wife, and can't help but mention her; The Dauber mentions his wife almost grudgingly, if it comes up. And so on, and so on.

Since the film is literally just about their friendship as it grows and deepens, it is most fortunate that the characters, and dialogue, is crafted with care, and we come to care. Jean Becker, a director I am unfamiliar with, has been directing films, I gather, since the early 1960's. The lightness of touch in this film belies an accumulated wisdom that, to me, is reminiscent of Rohmer at his best. The film is directed with fluidity, grace, and assuredness, knowing when to be still, when to be nimble, when to be sombre, and so on. Mood and tone are expertly handled, almost invisibly, and the gorgeous colour-palette, composed predominantly of greens, is expertly handled, and entirely evocative of gardens, trees, woods. The natural setting is almost the third main character of the piece.

The camera movements, courtesy of cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, are unassuming and expertly placed, gently hopping along no particular plane to reflect the ambling conversations held by the two main characters- and what wonderful conversations they are! Adapted from the novel by Henri Cueco, Jean Cosmos, Jacues Monnet and Becker's script gently cycles through themes such as woman, death, love, politics, illness, old friends and the like, they are conversations we have all had and should all aspire to have. Indeed, The Gardener and The Dauber are two people I would love to have as friends; seeing their friendship develop like the garden being tended to, is delightful.

This is a humanistic, compassionate film, with emphatic undercurrents, that tugs at the heartstrings as well as the mind. It has plenty to recommend it; a slight and sprightly film, resolutely in a minor key, but no less resonant for that.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Review of Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out, the latest offering from Pixar studios, is an animated film with a deceptively simple premise, charting the adventures of the anthropomorphic emotions living inside the head of a young, eleven-year old girl called Riley. The film may be about Riley, but the main characters are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lucas Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

The film is there with Riley from the very beginning; as she is born, Joy stands up to a giant computer-like console and sees her parents smiling down on her. She presses a button, and Riley smiles; a glowing yellow ball travels down into the lobby area; and we have just seen the creation of Riley's first memory. From here, the film effortlessly skips through Riley's first few years of life, in a manner that recalls the opening ten minute tour-de-force of Pixar's earlier masterpiece "Up". The other emotions are introduced at other defining moments of her life; Fear, as she becomes conscious of tripping over a wire; Anger, as she refuses to be fed broccoli, and so on. The film also introduces personality islands, such as an island for family, the hockey that Riley loves, friendship, and so on.

There is unity amongst the emotions with the exception of Sadness. It is apparent that Joy, the predominant emotion of Riley's life, does not know what to do with Sadness, so sets her menial tasks like reading emotional handbooks and sitting in a circle. When it is announced by Riley's parents that she is to move to San Francisco, even this doesn't stop Joy from forcing everything to be seen from a positive light.

The film works predominantly on two levels, micro and macro. On the micro level, we see the conflicts and situations at play inside Riley's head. There is an inherent turmoil in the relationship between Joy and Sadness, whereas the other emotions are quite content to let Joy rule the roost. On the macro level, we see Riley's struggles in school, how she copes with losing her friends, her attempts to fit in, and so on.

The catalyst for the film, then, comes at a point where Sadness tries to actually have an input into the emotional Life of Riley (which would have been a far better title). As she touches Riley's "core memories", they turn from yellow to blue; Joy views this as sullying the memories, and a fight ensues whereby Joy and Sadness are locked out of the control room and banished to the far reaches of Riley's mind; aka, puberty has begun.

We see this reflected in Riley's sudden mood swings; her sense of goofiness has disappeared, and she is now all-too quick to snap at her parents. The final hour of the film has an intriguing structural congeniality around this conceit as Joy and Sadness's attempts to get back to Riley's emotional centre are paired off against Riley's sudden transformation into being a moody pre-teen.

It looks gorgeous, with directors Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen having conjured up a subtle, inventive world that trades showy and flashy animation for a more plainspoken unfussiness. The film has moments of great humanism, feeling, wit and invention which are offset, I feel, by inherent flaws in the material itself. There is no denying that Pixar are onto something with this latest film, but it never, quite, feels fully realised. A large part of this is how the central emotions are placed at the forefront, but by their very nature they are one-dimensional characters. They exhibit varying degrees of understanding, perception and thought, but they are ordained by themselves. There is great truth and honesty to the idea that Sadness and Joy are coefficients, yet the proscenium the film is hung on almost derails itself by having an abundance of structure, and too many "rules" within the narrative itself (which the film flouts and breaks in the third act anyway).

I also wish that the film had evened the balance between screen-time devoted to Riley, and screentime devoted to Riley's head. I wanted to care about Riley, but it felt like by showing her emotions in an almost entirely different context (of an adventure film, their attempts to get back), we would, without any effort, care about her. I did not find this to be the case. A deeper union of the twin poles of the film, to me, would have paid dividends.

I am being, negative, but then as I have said before, when a film promises greatness and delivers goodness, that is sadder than a film that promises nothing at all and delivers mediocrity or worse. There are moments that feel up there with the passions of a Renoir, and a Chaplin (yes, really). but it never quite overcomes its ingrained faults to deliver something masterful throughout.

The emotions dominate, then, which acts as a fairly apt metaphor for the Disney model. Except this time the emotional pay-off is sorely lacking.

(As a final point, this is ostensibly a kids film, coming from a studio who have made morning but over it's 20 year run. Yet this doesn't quite feel like a kids film. When the climactic scene of the film involves nothing more than a character bursting into tears, moving though it is, I feel like some kids may not appreciate the poet of the scene and instead just come out feeling, well, sad.)