Monday, April 20, 2009

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Homework, you know the drill.

In The Piano Teacher (2001), Haneke comments on how gender affects dominance and desire in a relationship. Walter (Benoît Magimel ) wants a relationship with his piano teacher, Erika (Isabelle Huppert), and pursues her adamantly. Initially, it seems as if Walter will be the dominant force in the relationship, but their interactions are not as simple as that. During their first sexual encounter, in the bathroom of the music hall, Erika seems to take charge, ordering Walter not to move or even speak. Even though she seems to be dominative in the encounter, she assumes a submissive position on her knees in performing oral sex. When he resists her domination, she punishes him by not allowing him to orgasm until he agrees to comply to her wishes. In showing this, Haneke demonstrates that their relationship will be a power struggle that revolves around the fulfilling of sexual desires.

Early on in the film, Haneke presents Erika as a sexual deviant when she smells a used tissue in a pornography arcade/shop. Another instance in which her deviance is demonstrated is at the drive-in theater as she urinates while watching another couple have sex. Instances such as these happen throughout the film, and escalate in aberrance to the point where Erika initiates unsolicited sexual contact with her mother. Haneke presents Erika as a sexual deviant in order to highlight the difference between her and Walter’s desires. In the film, Erika asks Walter to perform a very specific list of sexual tasks including bondage and other masochistic acts. In doing so, she is really displaying a type of dominance over Walter, always telling him how to command her. However, just as in the bathroom scene, Walter resists Erika’s desires. In denying Erika the gratification she seeks, Walter is also denying himself sex with her. Ultimately, however, Walter rapes Erika, both denying her of her desires while fulfilling his own.

The Piano Teacher suggests that in today’s society, only masculine desires are achieved. Erika’s wishes represent stereotypically feminine desires and female sexual gratification, while Walter’s wishes represent masculine desires. This is not to say that female desires include Erika’s deviations; Haneke uses this deviance to exaggerate the differences between Erika’s and Walter’s desires. While The Piano Teacher is often read as misogynistic, perhaps it should be read as a criticism of misogyny. Just as Funny Games (1997) has violence and is a criticism of violent films, The Piano Teacher both contains and criticizes misogyny.

There is little nudity in the film considering the substantial amount of sexual content. Whenever Erika and Walter have sex, they are almost fully clothed. In one scene, Walter is even wearing a hockey uniform. Also, and perhaps because of this, none of the sex scenes are erotic. Instead of titillating his audience, which is exactly what would be expected with such a sexual film, Haneke bores them with mundane sex scenes. In doing so, Haneke suggests that sexual gratification is not being reached for Erika. In a less mundane scene, Walter runs and jumps around giddily after having sex with Erika in the bathroom, suggesting that his desires have been met. Erika however, is seemingly never pleasured even during her own deviant endeavors; her desires,(representing female desires), are not met while Walter’s, (representing male desires), are fulfilled.

The Piano Teacher is a decent, compelling and entertaining film with strong acting. It is provocative and will make you think twice about the nature of desire.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Code Unknown (2000)

More homework. No real spoilers here as there isn't really a plot. Still, you might want to watch the movie first.

One cannot help but notice the cinematic similarities between Michael Haneke’s Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown, 2000) and his 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments, 1994). Both of the films lack a continuous Hollywood-style plot and are presented in short, seemingly disconnected episodes each separated by a cut to black. In 71 Fragments, the unrelated characters converge in an event at the end of the film, while in Code Unknown, the characters meet in a conflict at the beginning. This conflict happens when Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) throws a piece of garbage in the lap of a beggar, Maria (Luminta Gheorghiu). Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke) confronts Jean and the two begin to scuffle, only to be separated by the police.

In watching the film, it becomes clear that main characters come from very different cultural backgrounds. A few of the characters are immigrants: Amadou and his family immigrated from Africa, and Maria is a Romanian immigrant. Both presumably immigrated to France in hopes of finding a better life, but instead were faced with much difficulty. Amadou, who is black, encounters racism as seen in the opening conflict during which he is taken to police station, and Jean, a white Frenchman, is ignored by the authorities present. Instead of a more prosperous life, Maria found herself begging for money on the streets of Paris which ultimately leads to her deportation. The presence of cultural differences in the film demonstrates that in a multicultural city, Paris, unfortunately the only time different cultures interact is in conflict.

One of the most striking ways in which Haneke demonstrates this cultural disconnect is through editing. As stated above, Code Unknown is presented as a series of unrelated episodes. The fact that very few of the scenes (and characters) appear to be directly related shows just how little the myriad cultures present interact with one another. The editing (or, rather, lack of cuts within each episode) gives the film a cold and impersonal feel; the viewer feels just as disconnected from the characters as they are from each other due to the wide angles and long takes. The episodic nature of the film also shows the different effects of culture by allowing the viewer glimpses into the lives of the main characters. For example, Amadou is seen giving music lessons to deaf children. He has them play what is presumably traditional African percussion. This manifestation of his culture is very different from the racism seen at the beginning. However, most of the film seems to assert that immigrants are persecuted for their native culture and their non-assimilation.

With Code Unknown, Haneke confronts many issues that are often ignored. Racism may be disregarded in many situations, but the racism in Amadou’s experience with the police is impossible to ignore. He also presents Paris in an unconventional manner: as a clash of cultures rather than the stereotypical city of love. Culture and its effects are inescapable. In the case of Code Unknown, the effects begin and end in conflict.

This is another difficult film to process, much like 71 Fragments (1994). I don't feel that it is Haneke's best work, and it might not get the point across to the viewer. If you have to choose, watch 71 Fragments instead of Code Unknown.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 3, 2009

Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008)

The brilliance of some films is visible on multiple levels. Films such as Network (1976) and American Beauty (1999) are both satirical, yet they can be simultaneously viewed as good cinema. Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008) is not such a film. It can be read as a satire, Bruce LaBruce’s whorish attempt at an instant cult classic, or simply as an entirely original work of art. Actually, it seems more like a combination of the three. Otto satirizes the zombie crowd’s lust for films that only have merit for their shock value. In case you aren’t familiar with him, Bruce LaBruce is famous for (infamous for?) his no-budget B films. He is one of few directors to have directed a porno and had a film premier at Sundance. Without seeing the film, Otto often comes across at an extremely misguided attempt to corner a niche market—gay zombie horror porn. With that said, the film is neither a horror film nor a porno. There is relatively little gore, and much less sex than the right wing IMDB trolls would have you believe. Otto may be a satire; Otto may be an attempt into instant cult status; but in any case, Otto is art.

Otto; or, Up with Dead People was shown at the Sundance film festival. However, simply being accepted into Sundance does not mean a film is good. Otto was also shown at the wonderful MoMA in NYC. Once again, this does not mean that it is a perfect film, but it should be noted in what way the film is being perceived: as a work of art. Most people will dismiss Otto as a pointless B movie, but in reality it is not pointless. Otto is one of the most original works of feature length cinema from the past decade that I have seen. And this is not simply based on the subject matter. LaBruce utilizes his distinct style and unique cinematic techniques to make Otto a truly fresh work of art.

Now onto the film. Otto (Jey Crisfar) is convinced that he is a zombie who just recently was resurrected. Stumbling around town, he comes across a flyer for auditions for a zombie movie, Up with Dead People. At the audition, the director of the film, Medea (Katharina Klewinghaus), is impressed with Otto’s commitment to the character. Otto of course truly believes that he is a zombie, while Medea is sure that Otto is just a regular guy who always seems to be exceptionally dirty. Zombies are often presented as allegorical to “the ultimate consumers who all eat the same things, congregate at the same places, act the same” (Fangoria). With Otto, LaBruce completely reverses this idea. Otto is a complete outcast. Not only is he a zombie, but Otto is gay. He experiences what is either gay-, zombie-, or gay zombie-bashing and generally not accepted by society.

Another of LaBruce’s interesting cinematic choices is presenting Medea’s lesbian lover, Hella (Susanne Sachße) as a silent film character. Hella is always presented in grainy black and white and her dialogue is even replaced with intertitles. Medea and other characters are still presented in full color even while the black and white Hella is sitting right next to them. As a film studies major, I am forced to attempt to find the symbolism/hidden meaning behind presenting Hella as such. However, I have come to the conclusion that LaBruce was simply attempting to present Hella as a specific type of character from the silent film era and he does so with clever blatancy.

Otto is not what most people would consider as entertaining. Otto is not what most people would consider as art. If you watch the film thinking that you will hate it, I can guarantee with complete certainty that you will hate it. Watch this film with an open mind, and don’t take it too seriously or literally. Network and American Beauty are praised because they work on two levels. They exaggerate the existing conventions of Hollywood cinema in order to criticize whereas Otto cinematically breaks free of the zombie genre in its criticism. As Dr. Marco Abel would say, whether or not you like the film is irrelevant. Otto is a entirely original piece of art.

Grade: B