Monday, March 14, 2011

Variations on life's first-times: Au revoir les enfants and Yi Yi turn blu

As rendered in Louis Malle’s autobiographical
Au revoir les enfants (1987), the Petite-Collège d’Avon, which rested on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery and neighboured Fontainebleau, and which Malle attended during the Nazi occupation of France, seems austere and bone chilling, especially if you’re permanently garbed in short pants. Yet it’s also an oddly wondrous, comforting place, nestled in fecundity, where boys could get away with a little horseplay and develop a scrappy camaraderie. Under Malle and cinematographer Renato Berta’s earth-toned, always fluid gaze, the Petite-Collège feels like home, even its sleeping quarters, where too many bunks cram a single room and a it’s only a matter of time before a serial bed-wetter like Malle’s surrogate Julien (Gaspard Manesse) gets outed by his merciless peers.

The masterstroke in Au revoir, now available on gorgeous blu-ray from Criterion, lies in Malle’s respect for the past, his resistance to burdening it with the gravity of hindsight. In keeping with the experience as lived by Malle’s adolescent characters, much of what passes feels essentially ordinary, even if historical circumstances are extraordinary: reading by flashlight, playing on stilts in the courtyard, dodging the air raid drill to rattle off some boogie-woogie on the school piano, getting treated to a screening of Chaplin’s The Immigrant with live accompaniment. The film traces Julien’s friendship with Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), a story which stumbles along playfully and awkwardly the way childhood friendships do, until that day that forever changed Malle’s life, the day the Gestapo arrive to take Bonnet and three other boys away to their deaths, along with the school’s headmaster Père Jacques, who took them in and attempted to conceal their Jewishness. Before this final sequence Nazis remain in the background, spied outside the classroom window asking to confess, or, ironically, shooing away collaborators attempting to throw Jews out of a local restaurant. By largely eschewing overt, artificial portent, Malle’s finale becomes infinitely more moving, and every scene leading to it, however mirthful its tone, becomes pierced with unbearable loss.

The fleetingness of childhood (and adulthood) and ordinariness punctuated by sudden violence (which is ordinary enough) also dominate Edward Yang’s
Yi Yi (2000), also new to blu-ray from Criterion. It follows a middle-class Taipei family through a rough patch: grandmother slips into a coma, mother into a spiritual crisis, father into two parallel ethical crises. Sister undertakes her first brush with romance while little brother quietly absorbs everything, translating it into images. Eight year-old Yang-Yang’s nascent experiments with his father’s instamatic, collecting evidence of those aspects of ourselves that remain invisible to us (he takes pictures of the backs of people’s heads), arguably make him the world’s youngest conceptual artist. Not that he knows it.

Yang’s group portrait is also a portrait of urban life and its inherent merging of disparate experiences. Public scenes are observed entirely through windows, neighbours are heard fighting through walls, surveillance cameras track movements. Sounds, music or dialogue from one scene bleed into the next. Yang-Yang, whose name invokes the film’s writer/director, is
Yi Yi’s richest source of discovery and amusement. He’s cute, of course, but also vividly alert to the world and all its contents he can’t understand. A scene where Yang-Yang beholds a pretty schoolmate standing before the projected image of a documentary on thunder is elegantly echoed in a later scene where he dives into a swimming pool during a thunderstorm.

Yet I find myself most drawn to scenes involving NJ, Yang-Yang’s father, who, like Yang-Yang, is unassuming and wears clothes three sizes too big for him. The scenes where NJ dines and hits a karaoke bar with a Japanese colleague, their exchanges limited by their broken English (the only language they share), constitute marvelous moments of adults connecting. “Why are we always afraid of the first time?” the Japanese asks. Yi Yi brims with so many resonate variations on life’s first-times, and even if Yang allows them to be harrowing, he nonetheless consoles us with the fact that we can at least share them, though conversation, physical contact, or the compressing force of art.


Bunched Undies said...

The best examination and explanation of the magical YiYi I've read. Great blog, love it.

JB said...

Thanks very much for the generous comment, Bunched Undies. I hadn't seen Yi Yi since it was first released more than ten years ago and was really a treat to revisit it.