Sunday, May 4, 2008


The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival began a week and a half ago with an opening night screening of The Last Mistress. Due to time limitations [work] and fiscal constraints [relocation debts] I had to be a bit selective when choosing my SFIFF tickets. Fortunately, two of those tickets were given to me as a birthday present by Siffblog commenter, Ratzkywatzky. As an additional stroke of fortune, I received a rebate check from Verizon, allowing me purchase three additional tickets for a total of five, five screenings, ah, ha, ha!

So, last Sunday, I went to the Sundance Kabuki and saw Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon . Interestingly, it was showing in two adjacent theaters, simultaneously [or near simultaneously, the projections were 30 seconds apart], so if you were going to meet someone at the film, you had to contact them and let them know which theater to find you in. Anyway, the film. I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never seen one by Eric Rohmer before. The closest I ever came was in college, when I had a crush on my freshman composition instructor, Claire, and one of my classmates told me I should see Claire's Knee, because I would really relate to it. And you know, Rohmer's only made 50 movies, so I have some catching up to do. Anyway, the film. Rohmer adapted it from an early 17th century text, by Honore d'Urfe, set in 5th century Gaul. An Arcadian tale of shepherds and shepherdesses, druids and nymphs, one would expect 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' sort-of romp and there's something of that in the tale of romantic misunderstandings, mistaken identity and lovers separated and rejoined, but there's very little of the supernatural in evidence. Instead it plays very flatly, albeit charmingly, like a lighter version of Bresson's Lancelot du Lac. Rohmer sought inspiration from the 16th century imagining of classical virtues, but he infuses it with the sensibility of his era. To put it simply, it's what you get when you combine 60's/70's French cinema with a Baroque vision of the Roman era. It's slow, it's languorous, it's offhandedly funny and it's sprinkled with casual nudity. I loved it.

Go Go Tales
Speaking of nudity, one expects to see a bit of that in a film set in a strip club. What isn't expected is something tasteful and sensitive. Not only is Go Go Tales the most un-sleazy film I've ever seen in such a setting, it's the most warmhearted film I've seen from Abel Ferrara. A couple of critics have compared it to The Killing of A Chinese Bookie and I can certainly see the ghost of Cassavetes in it, but it's got the shaggier, six-conversations-at-once spirit of Altman. I mean, it's like Prairie Home Companion, but with strippers. It's got Willem Dafoe, holding court as an embezzling, lottery-ticket addicted manager; Roy Dotrice as his accountant/partner"n-crime; Sylvia Miles as the landlady, constantly threatening to sell the place to turn it into a Bed Bath & Beyond and a bottle-blonde Matthew Modine, trying to score a lap dance from Asia Argento's Monroe, a stripper with the poise, elegance and grace of Sandra Bernhard [which, come to think of it, is pretty damn sexy]. Oh, and it's got Bob Hoskins, chasing a guy in a lobster suit. It's a masterpiece.
A rare moment of happiness in You, The Living
"Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot." --Goethe

With these words Roy Andersson begins You, The Living, but he could as easily have quoted Woody Allen's opening observation from Annie Hall :
There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."

Indeed, with its use of Dixieland jazz, its absurdist surrealism, its manner of verbally setting-up visual jokes and its Kierkegaardian dread, the film shows what an actual marriage of early Allen and Ingmar Bergman would look like and boy, is it funny. And depressing. It's not so much a bittersweet view of life, it's just plain bitter. It's not that the people in the film are suffering some endless horror, they're just listless, alienated, despairing and devoid of redemption. What life affirming moments there are, are presented as fantasies. The dreariest comedy ever, it might as well have been titled 'You, The Miserable Bastards' and you, the audience goer, will laugh and feel eminently thankful that you are not one of the people in this film.
Next up, an appearance by Guy Maddin and two hours with Bela Tarr.


  1. Roy Dotrice in an Abel Ferrara flick! That makes my day. Later this summer, he reunites with Ron Perlman (his "Beauty and the Beast" co-star) in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."

  2. I'm jealous of your seeing the new Rohmer. It sadly is one of many films SIFF didn't decide worthy of Seattle audiences.

  3. You know, I think that's a 'grass is greener' sort of thing. In fact, I was speaking to a festival-goer here and he apologized for SFIFF being such a small festival in comparison to SIFF. When I mentioned how impressed I was that they'd show a Catherine Breillat film for the opening night he was like, "Oh yeah, that's the typical sort-of thing they show, they'd never show anything really edgy" and when I said how impressed I was that one of the festival guests was Rose McGowan he was like, "Oh yeah, I wish we could get a real actress, like Laura Linney" and when I said how impressed I was that Vanity Fair was one of the festival sponsors he was like, "Oh yeah, this festival is getting so corporate." All in all, it reminded me of Candide's comment on the wealthy Venetian, "I hope you will own that this man is the happiest of all mortals, for he is above everything he possesses."

  4. I believe the Rohmer film is scheduled to open in Seattle sometime in June. It's on the Varsity Theater calendar.
    And exactly what kind of film does that SFIFF-goer think should open the festival? Bruce La Bruce? Or is it possible that he just doesn't know Breillat's work and had kind of a knee-jerk response to the fact that it's a period costume drama?

  5. You know, I don't know what he really wanted. I'm content to let the ambiguity hang. He was very proud, though, that Fran/ssois Ozon came to the Gay & Lesbian film festival, which also impressed the fuck out of me. So, we actually concurred on one thing!

  6. I'm wrong about Astree and Celadon being released in Seattle in June. It's not on the Varsity calendar and it isn't on the Landmark forthcoming films schedule, and doesn't appear to even have a US distributor at this point. Apparently this was all just wishful thinking on my part.