Monday, September 21, 2009

TIFF '09: "To exist clearly, and to do so without thinking about it..." Two films about beautiful and mysterious women

Okay, beautiful, mysterious, and wearing great shoes!

When Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours began making the rounds a few years ago it was met with a resurgence of interest in the world’s oldest filmmaker. The homage, or rather sequel, to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, in which Michel Piccoli revisits his role as Henri Husson, worked as an introduction to Oliveira’s work for an uninitiated generation of filmgoers. But its investment in its source material was at times as slight, or even superficial, as it was basically lovely. The appearance of his latest film, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, as well as the Cinematheque Ontario’s upcoming Oliveira program is an encouraging sign that Belle Toujours wasn’t a mere one-off in terms of the 100-year-old auteur’s circulation. This new work, while featuring numerous similarities to Belle—including a framing device that might even be a very subtle homage to Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire—is arguably more indicative of the particularity and breadth of Oliveira’s aesthetic and thematic concerns. It’s also an absolute delight.

A young man begins to recount a tale of personal tumult to a woman on a train, who incidentally may be blind, given that she always seems to be staring blankly off to the side of the young man’s face. He speaks of a beautiful young woman whose figure he first found fondling a flamboyant oriental fan in the upstairs window across the street from his office. There is a seduction, buoyed by a harpist and the recitation of a poem by Pessoa. Somehow the girl responds and encourages him while remaining always distant and mysterious. The young man falls in love, but his uncle and employer won’t give their marriage this blessing, and the young man is without savings of his own. As the story unfolds with Oliveira’s characteristic economy, a great deal of pleasure is to be taken in the simple act of looking, through windows and doorways, through mirrors, at grand vistas of the city under sunlight and shadow. But
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl distrusts appearances just as it celebrates the undeniable pleasure appearances give. The eccentricities turn out to be perilous. And perhaps the woman on the train makes an ideal audience for the young man’s tale, since, if she is blind, she’s less likely to be seduced by the visible.

Equally mysterious to those around her, virtually all of whom adore her, is the titular character of Rebecca Miller’s
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, though the film makes her somewhat less so for those of us privy to Pippa’s inner world. Swaying between the present and the past, Miller, adapting her own novel, displays her almost singular gift for crafting portraits of women with secrets, with a quiet yet tremendous capacity for change and adventure, and who can act impulsively, even audaciously or cruelly, without apologies.

The present-tense Pippa is brilliantly portrayed by Robin Wright Penn, who does a remarkable job of containing herself around others while also exposing fragments of her true self for the camera alone. The way director and star collaborate here is a wonder in itself, as is the performance Miller gets out of the top-of-his-game Alan Arkin, here playing Pippa’s much older husband. But the film still suffers somewhat from the neglect of supporting characters—Winona Ryder’s part is a comic shambles, Maria Bello’s is gravely overwrought—and a glib finale that promises freedom without complication. It reaffirms that I’ll happily watch anything Miller does, but I’m still holding out for something from her that takes this refreshing approach to character and pushes it to its fullest extent. Watch for an odd little cameo from Princeton philosopher Cornell West.

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