“Irrational Man” and “Flowers”
The European Film Festival, which is a collection of European films currently playing at Ster Kinekor’s Cinema Nouveau theatres, is a useful enough opportunity for South African moviegoers to be exposed to the contemporary cinema of Europe, and an equally useful opportunity to find that the fact that something is foreign, subtitled, subdued in tone, or literary in temperament does not denote its artistic pedigree or intellectual superiority to our usual bright and brash, American English-language stock comedies and thrillers. What matters in cinema is less how composed and refined a film can be, and more how much life and with what depth and breadth of experience and ideas a filmmaker can imbue it.
On Friday, in a programme of our own devising, a friend and I went to see Woody Allen’s new film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, named Irrational Man and taking on the breeziest and most enchantingly sun-lit tone, followed by Earl Grey tea and a screening of Flowers, a Spanish entry in the European Film Festival, in Basque and with English subtitles, and considerably more naturalistic and solemn. The sun lit the small Spanish town just as much as it did the small New England haven, but with far more organic, prosaic, and inert a glare.
The first is a satirical skit-like production, moving briskly through an exposition that sets up characters and motives, relationships and issues, themes and setting, before turning a sharp corner into a crime drama of clear abstraction and artifice; plot points and characters’ actions are drawn out by the writer-director to make his point clear and to illustrate his theories and worldview. The second is a naturalistic drama in the neo-realist vein that most of European cinema seems to have fallen into, as if European directors feel they still need to atone for the surrealist excesses and fantastical indulgences of Fellini, 40 years after his death. Characters’ dialogue is precisely what we could imagine it to be in real life, and, indeed, what we’ve heard from people in our own lives; the plot comprises an unusual scenario, but nothing implausible, and in many places falls quite effortlessly into the familiarity of everyday life, in all its charmless mundanity; motives are concealed, as our desires and fantasies are in real life; emotions are repressed, as are the unrulier and more vulnerable bits of our own personalities. Nothing in Flowers could possibly be objected to by an honest sociologist or journalist. Why, then, is it that Irrational Man feels – by the kind of margin you could drive a truck through – the more complex, more fulfilling, more challenging, more astonishingly real film, while Flowers has already shrunk in my mind into a dusty pastel soup of dreariness – the sort that you always end up eating when visiting relatives of a similarly rarefied and staid disposition?
Woody Allen has drawn ire from critics in recent years. In his defense, he was drawing ire from them from 1980 onwards, and it’s hardly his fault they’re so determined to grind their teeth over him for so long. In his further defense, their indignation is largely a result of their own pettiness and selfishness. In the 70s, he had great success with his earlier frivolous comedies, and then even more with his more mature, more personal comedies, namely Annie Hall and Manhattan. Audiences wanted him to make more of the same movies, but in the 80s he took a different route and made far darker, less raucous fare.
Nowadays, as Allen approaches 80, he’s developed an astonishingly bracing and beautifully distinctive late style, recognisable to anyone who’s seen You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love, Blue Jasmine, Magic in the Moonlight, or Irrational Man. (I happen to be in the enviable position of having seen all six of those films.) He has totally thrown out any worries of realism, tight plotting, plausible and subtle characterisation, and anything else so revered at Sundance that to escape it at Cinema Nouveau, of all places, was the most invigorating treat I’ve been offered at the movies in months. (The exception, of course, is Blue Jasmine, the great triumph of which is its masterfully clever plot and characterising dialogue, but with a consequently constrained sense of Allen’s customary welling up of grand ideas.) Critics seem to take stern exception to Allen’s method of coupling an intricate and challenging and deeply cognitive worldview with a light-hearted and briskly casual tone. Although he and his actors plant dark visions in his characters, the screen is constantly bathed in golden sunlight, and the action is followed in long, smooth, graceful takes, with minimum intrusion of editing, and the canniest, most discreet photography.
Such is the case in Irrational Man, which traces challenging topics, and returns Allen to the act of murder most foul, which he concerned himself with in his return to mainstream attention, Match Point, in 2005. Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a brilliant philosophy professor arriving at the small college Braylin in a little New England town. He is in the midst of a terrible slump of depression, finding no pleasure in life, and futility contaminating everything. He turns to the existentialists, with whose aid he manages to define his crisis well enough, but can find no way out of it. As is our custom when watching a Woody Allen movie, his fans will instantly read Abe as the perennially self-despising Allen’s tiresome self-portrait, but, since Allen is, despite everything, still paradoxically streaked with an endearing self-love, Abe has no preoccupation with suicide, and it’s hardly surprising that a game of Russian roulette turns out the way it does, especially considering we have more than another hour of the film ahead of us.
Abe is befriended by one of his students – the brightest, it would seem – named Jill (Emma Stone). She admires with raptured awe his great mind, and also pities his desolation. She undertakes to help him out of it, romanticising the notion of the student playing the teacher’s redemptive muse, which annoys her boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), to no end, and sets the school ablaze with gossip. Abe, however, takes it upon himself to be responsible and resist his student’s advances, which must be the hardest contest ever put up against the romantic interest of Emma Stone, on or (I infer) off the screen. Another teacher at the college, the science professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey), also thrusts herself upon Abe, and probably because of something to do with the fact that her propositions are accompanied by single malt whisky, he has no trouble sleeping with a married woman. Well, he tries. To their bitter disappointment, Abe’s emotional stimulation is not the only thing from which his despair has removed all firmness.
But one day, in a restaurant, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation, the implications of which lead Abe to the shocking and sudden decision to take action in his life by ending that of someone else. He convinces himself that the murder he seeks to commit will be helpful not only to him but the world, and secure in his justification, plans and carries it out. All subsequent action and consequences are too good for me to spoil here, and I refer all curious readers to the film, still playing in theatres, to see the magnificent artifice Allen has spun from the fantastically implausible tale and thin characters he sketches out. He even plays the movie like a pastiche at times, with shifty faux-jazz piano music playing in the moments between scenes, of characters walking down streets or hunting for clues, like a riff on hardboiled detective B-movies when saxophones crooned as characters peered around dimly lit street corners.
The life in the characters, artificial and thin and implausible as they all are, is deep and undeniable. One mark of a great director is great performance, and from the very first moment we see Phoenix, Stone, and Posey on the screen, they astonish us with the unruly, unpredictable personality they carry throughout. Every instant is a surprise of spontaneity and imagination. The actors could be reciting chemistry textbooks and seem more authentic and more daring than any performance I’ve seen since Jennifer Lawrence tore through David O. Russell’s Joy. The philosophical conclusions Allen draws are equally complex and challenging, but these I shall also defer for the sake of those yet to see the film. They’re best thrashed out in discussion between moviegoers, as is always the case with Woody Allen movies, and the reward is vast. For Allen, however, philosophy amounts to nothing without aesthetic pleasures and joys of taste and grace and beauty, and the plunging cognitions are matched throughout with the inordinate joy of this elegant masterpiece. It’s worth seeing for the sight of Parker Posey alone moaning to Phoenix, in his kitchen over glasses of amber alcohol, “I hope you’re not going to send me back out into the rain before sleeping with me.” The quiet unhappiness behind her mask of confident allure is like the heartrending chasms of violent emotion one sometimes falls into in the arias of a great soprano. Posey herself is all smoldering contralto, but she and Stone both reach an apex of fierce expressiveness in Irrational Man of the kind that only a great director could locate in an actress. See it for their irrational beauty, as well as the wonderful pleasures of the ironically rational ideas of the man who makes such beauty so readily available to us.
Recently, in Cape Town, a young waitress has been at the centre of a hurricane of online attention due to an unforeseen confrontation with a willful customer. In Flowers, two unsuspecting employees face an even more bizarre challenge from a customer, that is repeated later on in the film. The young ladies work in a florist’s shop, and are met with the frustrated puzzlement of a man and, later, an unrelated woman who are shocked that people are allowed to buy flowers at the shop without so much as a flash of ID, and outraged that customers are not barred from sending flowers without leaving a return address on the card, or an Identikit description of themselves at the shop where the flowers were bought. I, for one, was most astonished by the revelation that, of all the mysterious purveyors of posies we meet, despite having the utmost taste and refined eye for colour and arrangement, the filmmakers earnestly require us to believe that not one of the characters is within remote reach of being gay. Excuse me, but I thought I was attending a European Film Festival.
It won’t have been difficult for the astute reader to have deduced by now that the film is named Flowers for the large number of bouquets bought and anonymously sent throughout the film. But, for the narrative significance those flowers hold, and the listlessness with which they’re filmed, it may as well have been entitled Sheep, for the inane mammals that punctuate the film like the director’s – Jon Garaño – semicolons, bringing disparate pieces of story closer together, and jaggedly joining them in an ill-fated attempt at coherence.
The story is one of grief and repression. Although, what European film shown at Cinema Nouveau isn’t, nowadays? A woman named Arne (Nagore Aranburu), who lives with her fiancé, receives an anonymous bouquet one day, and then another and another, until the flowers open a rift in the silence between the couple. Arne appreciates the attention she isn’t afforded by her fiancé, and he is thoroughly unsettled by the continual intrusion of a stranger’s colourful articles on their faded lives. We’re shown that the secret admirer is Beñat (Josean Bengoetxea), a crane operator who works at the same construction site as Arne, and observes her from on high. His mother, Tere (Itziar Aizpuru), and wife, Lourdes (Itziar Ituño), are at constant odds, no thanks to his dispiritedness around the house, and besides his workplace creepiness and domestic apathy, all there is to him is an appreciation for flowers. He’s killed instantly when his car slips off the road in the rain and hits a metal barrier, and that, it rather seemed to me, was quite that. Tere weeps and Lourdes stands uneasily against a wall in the hospital corridor, frustrated that she isn’t as ostensibly torn apart as her mother-in-law. There’s a brief dispatching of his body to a morgue, for use at a medical school, and when the bouquets stop coming in, Arne quickly figures where they were coming from.
I anticipated a gear up from here, or at least a curious turn in the plot, rather like the moment Abe Lucas makes his compromising choice, but instead Garaño just flips his film around – like a mattress that really has begun to sag too much for one to bear – and works back up the same path he’s just come down. Tere and her daughter create a little memorial site for Beñat at the place where he died, leaving flowers and photos in memory of him. Arne, in reciprocation for the flowers she received from him, leaves bouquets at the site as well. Tere, who never sees or hears from Lourdes again, assumes that she is the one leaving the flowers, while Lourdes, having never gone back to the site, has no idea they’re there. Both find out there’s some mysterious mourner leaving flowers every week, and both investigate. But while Tere takes action in contacting Arne, Lourdes passively stalks her and argues with women in florist’s shops about just how malevolent someone’s intentions could be when they buy flowers.
Nothing is developed here, nothing about society or grief or family is revealed, and pitifully little is learnt by the characters. Despite five years having passed, no character seems any different at the end than she was in the beginning (except Tere, who loses her mind in her old age), nor is much effort made to show what she was even then. The blandness of the images and pervasive coldness of the film is doubtless meant to show us how dampened and unrewarding is the life lived in silence and isolation from those around you. But is there really anyone walking into a theatre playing Flowers who didn’t already know that, and who didn’t wish to find something other than the pervasive banality of life? It’s common enough to all of us outside of the cinema; the cinema’s precise purpose is to surpass it.