Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Loveism: a film review of Café de Flore

Loveism: a film review of Café de Flore (2011)

Currently showing at Cornerhouse.

If I had seen this film aged thirteen, I may have been impressed by its artsy, fragmentary appearance – or at least moved or turned on by its willing displays of romance. My disappointment may be due to the commercial and independent successes of other films with non-linear narratives over the past twenty years, such as Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Babel and Amores Perres, which have used non and multi-narrative perspectives to navigate a story’line’ through time and space. These films worked to illustrate the fractured, nuanced, micro and – at times - tenuous nature of their characters’ everyday lives, grasping at the viewer’s potential for empathy or chipping away at their conditioned inclination towards modes of expectancy. Now we have come to expect such linear-less stories. Besides, the triad perspectives of the three adult protagonists in writer/director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore work less fluidly, creating a frustrating sense of the arbitrary throughout nine tenths of the film, followed by a ridiculous explanation of how these characters cohere in the final melodramatic scenes. Before the story is propelled towards this unbelievable ending, the narrative tends to lack plot – sub or otherwise – and denies the characters of multidimensional personalities or of the everyday details of their lives, such as where they work or hang out - beyond the bedroom. Each and every affectedly chosen soundtrack, over-repeated, blurry memory sequence, distilled embrace or agonized facial expression is about what it is to be in love. If Loveism is a thing then it is possibly this thing.

We look for the connections between the two love stories, one which takes place between a weary mother – Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and her child – Laurent (Marin Gerrier) in late sixties Paris, and the other between a recently separated affluent couple – Antoine (Kevin Parent) and Carole (Hélène Florent) who are residing in present day Montreal. The story begins with Antoine and Carole’s perspectives. They met as teenagers and fell instantly and deeply into a twenty year, monogamous partnership. Repeatedly throughout the film we are treated to the shadowy glimpses of the two teenagers as they stare into each others’ black eyeliner rimmed eyes and seductively intertwine to the sound of The Cure. Incongruously and almost aberrantly, deserted single mother Jacqueline likes to lie in bed and play with Laurent, her son, who has Down Syndrome and whom she educates rigorously to try and counteract his learning difficulties. Whilst her love is unconditional, intense and obsessive, Antoine and Carole’s love is unconditional, intense and obsessive. Theirs’ obviously has the added dimension of sex but in both cases the love which binds the two sets of characters together is intense to the point of it seeming unnerving and unhealthy. I’m not sure this was Vallée’s intention, however. I think he just wanted to explore the all consuming nature of love itself- by writing it into a relentess script, then directing it into a long and unwieldy film. Its tone was self-indulgent, like a love poem written by a hormonal, middle class thirteen year old with illusions of grandeur. You can call a slushy love story an independent drama but only if one of the main characters has disabilities and especially if this is frequently and visually counterposed with the athletic dynamism of the other protagonists.

In synchronic fashion, minus the difference in eras, the two sets of couples face an opposition to their love – a conflict in their narrative journeys - and both of which appear in the form of a younger, blonde haired woman. Laurent meets the angelic Véro (Alice Dubois), another child with Down Syndrome, to whom he forms an instantaneous, co-dependent bond. Antoine glimpses the beautifully enigmatic Rose (Évelyne Brochu) on the dancefloor of one of the clubs where he works as a successful DJ and a similar mutual attraction entails. His wife sees and knows immediately she has lost him. Most of the film tries to demonstrate the feelings of hopelessness, confusion and jealousy of mother, Jacqueline and wife, Carole as they struggle to come to terms with their diminishing love. Infuriatingly, the men (well, boy in one case) have their cake and eat it right through to the end. In fact, in Antoine’s case, his adultery is completely cancelled out by a larger and uncontestable force. It is uncontestable because it’s unbelievable and because the audience is asked to suspend disbelief on this one - or else forget the tale as a whole. As much as this twist did not spoil the film for me (because it did this itself about two minutes in), I am not going to give a spoiler here concerning the story’s climax. I will say, though, that sometimes I think that supernatural story elements can be easy writing devices for sealing what constitutes an overall insipid plot.

The most tasteless thing about the film, however, was ultimately its evangelist and unwavering focus on the power of highly romantic love. Much of the dialogue involved mutterings of ‘soul-mates’ and in ‘having faith in love,’ as if Vallée just expects his audience to process their everyday encounters of love with religious ferocity, teamed with the simplistic myopia of a sex starved boarding school pupil who thinks they’ll be in love with their language teacher forever. And this theme – the love theme – if that is even possible in a post post-modern world soaks up so many other possibilities for the way the two tales of these characters could have been told. Notions of post-war anguish accompanying primn preconceptions; the aftermath of yuppie money and consumer fads; the rich-poor divide, stigma towards single mothers and everyday life for people with disabilities were all issues which were present within the framework of the story but were somehow not utilized as possible sub-plots or themes. Even if Vallée was determined to explore love alone, he could have interrogated the complex and manifold ways it surfaces. At one point in the film, when Carole is puzzling over how Antoine has found another ‘soul-mate’ (one which isn’t her), I had hopes that perhaps the film was making the point that there can be more than one soul-mate per person (Antoine is ultimately drawn between the two women). This is because, ultimately, there is no such thing as a soul-mate, or at least not in some romanticized monotheistic sense. Surely, humans fall in love with a range of different people throughout their lives and it is part of this capacity to be moved by different personalities, which makes being human interesting and worthwhile. But according to Vallée, love constitutes: a pure and unexplainable, monogamous, dogged, one-off life opportunity. And this suggests that love lacks, or at least Vallée’s translation of it fails to hit the spot. There are a billion Hollywood blockbusters which approach romantic love in the vein of Vallée but unfortunately they often do it with more humour, finesse, action and self awareness of their triviality. Ultimately, watching this sorry story pan out, gave me a sore bum and little else. Love hurts.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dandelions and Buds in Hulme

It is always the way that when you need something the most, it becomes out of reach; it dissipates, like dead dandelions to wind when you want to take them home and put them in a vase.
And then you fall upon a new verve you had forgotten you needed; it persists into existence from the earth on which you stand.
P.S. I always wonder why Hulme park - as part of its regeneration project - has a hill.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

All art history is contemporary

Recently, the department of art history - for which I work- has set up a blog for staff members to communicate their projects and ponderings on art and cultural things to students on the course and for anyone else who is interested. I don't usually discuss 'academic' stuff on my blog but I thought it would be rather sporting of me to give it a link (OK, a plug). Here, Dr Faulkner - the programme leader for our Contemporary Art History course - discusses why all art history is in fact contemporary. This is only the beginning - and it is never the end.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

When snow falls upon a Northern town

It is April and it hasn't snowed here in Manchester which feels strange when watching news footage of nearby places which have come to a standstill. However, I took a weekend away to the Hope Valley in February where it snowed so much that our taxi back to Grindleford from Bakewell nearly got stuck. I took some pictures then which I've been meaning to post as I love that part of the Peak District. So here's a few of them (I included a bleak one in yesterday's post). I've also written another bloem. I'm never sure how to construct poems. Does one need to learn this in the 21st century? Advice welcomed. It's something I'm doing to get by at the moment as I find spring a tricky time of year. So, in this poem I'm talking about snow. And, of course, other stuff too.

When snow falls upon a Northern town

Snow erases the pavements, worn shoddy by boundless weary footsteps
It wraps up afresh the tanned terraced houses, their stone ambushed by industrial smoke
It swathes the grubby river, littered deep with forgotten packaging
And encloses the ready traffic, setting cold the friction of rubber tyres on concrete

Snow glimmers like the white teeth of a tiger who knows you are aware of its volatility
Its beauty from a distance pinches your spirits, rescinds your routines and cancels out concerns
Excuisitley, it invalidates your everyday, offering an escape
enchanting, fleeting and unpredicted.
We lose ourselves in its frosty promise. We live with it and without it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Following the rage and beyond the frustration is the void.

Nothing speaks from it.

The isolation rendered mandatory.

There is no selection. The choice is not yours.

I breathe into the silence and watch the condensation disband.

Fragments of feeling are lost and inevitably untraced.

We walk through tunnels we didn’t construct.

We glimpse faces we’ll never touch. Gazes unreturned.

I didn’t create your skin from scratch. Nor you mine.

We scatter our cells amongst the stillness.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thought for the day: Where to belong

Jaeran Won: Cutting My Hair, (2006), acrylic on canvas

People around me frequently talk of their partners; their 'significant others'. As someone without such a 'partner,' does this make me an 'insignificant other'? And is 'other' the operative word?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Watching Tenerife

I went on holiday to Tenerife to watch in the new year. Here's some snapshots. Think Ansel Adams meets Cormac McCarthy (minus the talent). I read the apocalyptic novel - The Road - when I was there and my experience of the story intermingled with my experience of being in that landscape - and the sense that it was a difficult landscape to be in. I read the novel so I could later give a lecture on art and the apocalypse. I'm now preparing a lecture on materiality and non materiality in anthropology and I'm wondering where the material in that holiday was. Or how it relates to the presence of these photographs which have so far never left the world of gadgetry, pinged from mobile to laptop. If they can be described as a sort of telepathic residue (as some theorists describe photographs) of my interaction with the Tenerife environment, then it is a worthless residue because I'm not sure I really connected with that inert landscape with which to begin (and now I'm not sure it ever was a landscape). However, sometimes not connecting is connecting. Philosophers such as Polanyi and Heidegger have asked questions about where sensory perception and material distinctness connect or diminsh. Where is the vanishing point between living and non living things - or just how phenomenal is phenomena? Heidegger's concept of 'dasein,' addresses how we are being in the world, in a world which will be itself without us. McCarthy considers this boundlessness in The Road. Ansel Adams does too in a roundabout way.

'How does the never to be differ from what never was?' - Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

'When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.' ― Ansel Adams

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Supression in succession gives rise to repression. Repression disrupts inwards. Engagement of the supressable unveils the forbidden and stages its social consequences. To suppress or not to suppress? Either way, we're fucked. Either way we wade through territory which is at once torrid and broken and relentlessly revelatory of our scratches. We deviate without direction towards and away from despair.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Two films; one playful, one shameful (both post-modern?)

Film Review of The Artist (2011) - Michel Hazanavicius and Shame (2011) - Steve McQueen (both seen at Cornerhouse, Manchester)

Image copyright of Brian Slater, http://www.culture24.org.uk/sector+info/art313555

It is nearly the end of January and I've been to see two films this month, which I'm counting as achievements in terms of my quest to secure a work-life balance in 2012. I think it's fair to say that the two films - The Artist and Shame - are dissimilar, perhaps to the point of chalk and cheese when considering their tone, narrative, themes, style, setting, direction, characterisation, etc, but I don't have time to write two film reviews. And there is a way in which they can be connected. It's in the kind of way that you could say that chalk and cheese are both things you might find in a pre-whiteboard classroom, in the satchel of a teacher who likes to eat Ploughman's sandwiches. The Artist and Shame are both indicative of an era - our current era, which some may still describe as post-modern, or post post-modern - both barely worth applying as an adjective because it's just like saying that there's lots of different, diverse stuff out there and that's the way it is. The stuff of culture would like to break conventions if only conventions were still there to break. But it will still keep trying and sometimes the way it approaches the quandary of post post modernity will be successful in that it will evoke something fresh in the minds of those who consume it, because we are fresh (and we are mortal).

The Artist and Shame are both trans-genre whilst making reference to particular genres within their constructs. Obviously, The Artist imitates and explores the silent movie, a kind of movie which in the 21st century we perhaps think of as a genre - even though at the time they were made, their silentness was inherent, or obsolete. Of course, the director (Michel Hazanavicius) plays with this element in relation to the cultural knowingness of the (post modern) audience. We have seen clips of silent movies from the 1920s, and bemused by their melodrama, we have tried to imagine how that was ever the norm. On a lesser ontologically pertinent level, audiences of Shame may have read or seen American Psycho and remember its initial shock impact -shocking for its nonchalant stylization of its subject matter. Steve McQueen appears to be aiming for the same kind of reaction with Shame but we know that he knows he is onto a non-starter where 'post-modern innovation' is concerned. Perhaps the actual reference to the transgressive, desperate-yuppie-hedonist filmic genre itself is where he attempts something new. Perhaps not. Does it or should it matter that we have seen this urban, dystopian American nightmare before or that there have been other films where it is also impossible to be sympathetic to any of the lead characters (in this case, Brandon, played be Michael Fassbender and Cissy, played by Carey Mulligan)? Whether it matters in terms of if this film has anything new to offer - or not, the relentlessly hostile protagonist doesn't help to make the film enjoyable or accessible. The opposite can be said of the characters in The Artist: George Valentin, Peppy Mill and Jack (the Jack Russell), who are all charming, humorous and strangely relatable (particularly the dog). Whilst it could be described as a 'feel good film,' the tone of The Artist, at times, is sombre enough to suggest that there may not be a happy ending. Perhaps it is the black and white - ness of it all. Conversely, not only is an unhappy ending predictable in Shame, the notion of unhappiness itself seems irrelevant amongst the generically grey and bleak steadiness of its impact. Some critics have interpretted the precise moment of the shame which the main character, Brandon, feels in the film - as the point when he 'allows' his boss to sleep with his mixed up little sister or when he has gay sex in an S & M club after being beaten up. I'm with the others, who perceive the incessantness of his shamefulness. The question is why does he behave so shamefully and why does he even have to label it as shameful? Why do we? And do we even care if he is shameful or not? This is perhaps the only interesting thing about the script - that McQueen makes the decision to call a film about an otherwise fairly harmless porn addict 'Shame.' It is not often that I leave a film asking what the point in it was. The pointlessness of fiction shouldn't come into it, and so it was lacking. Yes, there were mesmerising one take shots and the acting was as believable as it could have been, but the content was unsatisfactory - and if that was the point, then it didn't work.

The Artist was more easily unique. It was a highly well researched and stunningly designed rendition of a silent film. Yet it also played with its own cinematic tactics, highlighting the spectator's attention towards features of film which we currently take for granted - sound and silence as notions, as unseen elements of mediation. One day, the protagonist and prestigious silent movie actor, George Valentin, awakes to the sound of everyday noise. The musical soundtrack which the audience had been treated to throughout, stops suddenly, interfering with the story, unveiling a narrative within a narrative. We wonder whether the main character, visibly afraid of the combination of non musical noise and silence, has actually been hearing the music himself as he goes about his daily business and then we remember that we have been suspending disbelief, that Valentin is really a character played by an actor (Jean DuJardin). It is 'classic' postmodern form to interrupt the narrative with a gesture towards its authorial voice (e.g. when the protagonist in Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy gets a call from Paul Auster) and it worked deliciously here to playful and inventive effect. Whilst post-modernism is old, this set-up was new and entertaining, perhaps rendering concepts of post-modernism or post post-modernism inadequate or irrelevant. Again.