Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

Goodbye Solo is a singular kind of film. Although not without flaw, it hits every emotional note perfectly, which is more than enough to forgive the few missteps that occur along the way. More unique was its unexpected quality; I did not predict Goodbye Solo would bring me where it did emotionally. I would not say it is heart-wrenching, because the act of wrenching implies intentionality. Conversely, with a few small exceptions, there is nothing forced about Goodbye Solo. It is the sort of film that takes its time, slowly and inconspicuously making its way into your heart, without blatantly tugging at its strings.

The story wastes no time getting started. William, an elderly white man, offers his cabdriver, a Senegalese immigrant named Solo, a deal: he is to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park in 10 days, without bringing him back, in exchange for 1,000$. Solo reluctantly agrees. The abrupt beginning feels a tad jarring. Taking place entirely inside a taxicab, with no establishing shot preceding it, the scene also inspires a sense of claustrophobia. However destabilizing, this is all very appropriate: William and Solo have just met, and they have entered a pact that has effectively tied their futures together. When you think about it, meeting someone new often happens suddenly and without warning. Indeed, there is something undeniably abrupt about the genesis of relationships, be they friendships or romances. Also, consider all the potential residing in that single moment when two paths meet. If you have been in any sort of meaningful relationship for a long time, think back to that first moment. Is it not hard to conceive how it managed to contain all that came afterward? All that experiential matter, in that tiny little space in time; enough to make any claustrophobic hyperventilate!

William, played by Red West, has been visibly worn by life. Everything about him, from his face to his voice, testifies to that. We get the sense that beneath his weathered exterior lies not so much pain as disappointment. He is now tired and feels the time has come to bring his life to a close. West embodies his character. We do not feel we are watching two people—a character being played, an actor playing him—but one completely real person. In Solo, William has met an unlikely partner in what could be his last days. Played by Souleymané Sy Savané, he is youthful and optimistic, and dreams of becoming a flight attendant. He wishes to dissuade William from committing suicide, by inspiring him to persist. Savané infuses his performance with such vitality, it is hard not to fall for his character. In fact, I was surprised to find myself genuinely happy for Solo when he announces to William that he aced his flight attendant test.

Wanting to show him there is still much worth living for, Solo begins to infiltrate himself into William’s life. William is at first reluctant, but eventually succumbs; that is, until he can no longer bear the intrusion, however much it might enrich his existence. Therein lies the tragedy of the two men’s real but ultimately doomed friendship: what Solo so desperately wants to offer, William has absolutely no interest in. At its core, Roger Ebert observes, Goodbye Solo “is about the desire to help and the desire to not be helped.” It is also about learning to respect the desire to not be helped, even if the result is death.

For the most part, director Ramin Bahrani has produced a work of honest subtlety, carefully developing his characters without making anyone say or do anything that feels unnatural or out of place. In Solo’s case, for example, we are thankfully spared an “I want to go places” type of speech, explaining why he wishes to abandon his earthbound taxi and travel the skies instead. Bahrani trusts his audience. He tells us just enough about his characters, letting us fill in the gaps when needed. This is a wise choice. In this way, we are able to unwittingly project some of our own selves into the characters’ very fabric, thereby making their story all the more personal, without our ever really knowing why.

So much of Goodbye Solo works very well. Sadly, this makes the moments where things do not quite come together not only more noticeable, but disappointing as well. There are a few sequences in the film that feel contrived. During these moments, we sense the camera wants to tell us something, and meaning ceases to organically emanate from the frame. There is a jarringly deliberate quality to these scenes. They remind us we are watching a film, effectively removing us from the otherwise free-flowing sequence of events. At one point, for example, Solo consults a local map his daughter happens to be studying for school, to determine where Blowing Rock National Park exactly is. Later in the film, a calendar spread across his lap, Solo slowly slides his finger down the number of days left until William’s contractual ride. While both scenes may be seen as fostering a sense of intimacy (we are literally peaking over Solo’s shoulder in both shots), there remains something tactless and synthetic about them. They belong in another, much less nuanced film than Goodbye Solo.

Regarding the subject of slow films, film critic Dan Kois opines: “Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span—movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression.” While Goodbye Solo certainly takes its time building its story and characters, none of it ever feels drawn out; and so, I was never bored. In taking its time, however, the film managed to sidestep some of my defences. In fact, in response to the events unravelling before me, an experience beneath my direct experience of the film was, unbeknown to me, taking shape…

Once the credits started rolling, I thought to myself, “This was not bad. A bit slow at times, but certainly not bad…” I retrieved the film from the DVD player and placed it back into its case. As I reached for my coat before stepping out to return the film, I started to cry. The film had struck a cord, dislodging something that apparently took a while to surface. I reacted similarly to Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist (2010). I knew I had seen a great film when I walked out of the theatre; I simply did not realize how much it had affected me until a few hours later. Both films end with a parting between two unlikely friends. Also, if one of the characters had it their way, the relationship would never come to an end at all. Still, we understand both characters are better off taking separate paths. There is something beautiful and tragic about both endings, a bittersweet quality that is terribly hard to bear. They are existentially unsettling, reminding us that all good things must come to an end, be it life or the very things that make life worth living in the first place: each other.

Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Incendies is this year’s Canadian contender for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Best Foreign Language Film Award. Based off Wajdi Mouawad’s play, Incendies proceeds like a detective story. After having read their mother Nawal’s (Lubna Azabal) will to them, notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) hands Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) two sealed envelopes. According to their mother’s instructions, one is to be handed to their father, who they thought was dead, and the other to their brother, whose existence they knew nothing about. The film subsequently follows Jeanne, and later Simon, as they make their way through an unnamed Middle Eastern country, attempting to find their long-lost relatives. While Incendies features capable performances and beautiful cinematography, it does not offer much more.

The storytelling on display in Incendies is best characterized as lazy. The set-up is contrived. We are never really sure why the characters behave the way they do because we are never given the time to know them; as such, we don’t much care for them. The film also relies on a sequence of hard to believe coincidences to push its story forward. For example, toward the end of the film, Nawal is made to realize something about her life in a way that is utterly implausible. The ending itself is preposterous. It is meant to come as a surprise, but astute audiences will see it coming from about halfway through the film. I, for one, was desperately hoping the film would not stoop so low. After all, this is Oscar-worthy material right? Unfortunately, it would, and does. Because Incendies relies so completely on its ending, once we come to expect it, the film ceases to have anything to offer. Certain valuable themes are introduced (logic and religion), but the film is so busy setting up its end payoff that it completely forgets to build on these. If Incendies had faith in its material, it would have revealed its “surprise” at the very onset, or by the middle of the film at the latest.

One reason stories often fail is because their characters are not written in ways that inspire compelling turns of events. Roger Ebert coined the term “idiot plot” to describe “a plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren’t, they’d immediately figure out everything and the movie would be over.” In line with this, director/screenwriter Michael Haneke explains, in an interview about his dastardly wicked Funny Games (1997), that he always gives his characters dispositional substance, so they may have the best chances of overcoming obstacles:

As an author, you should always give everyone, all the characters you create, all the resources that you have. I hate writers who think they’re more intelligent than their characters. That doesn’t interest me. There are very famous writers who write in a way that I find disgusting. They think they’re God. They show their characters and they laugh at them in a cynical way. I always try to give each one of them everything that the situation allows them to have. That means giving them your intelligence, your depth of feeling, and all that.

Unfortunately, the characters of Jeanne and Simon seem to have been shortchanged here. This is a real possibility, as several events surrounding their conception and gestation may have compromised their intellectual development. Although Simon proposes that the letters be opened to put a stop to his mother’s nonsense, he quickly forgets the idea. Jean proceeds to provide a ridiculously convenient excuse for why the letters cannot be opened: posthumous wishes, and a notary’s promise to uphold them, are sacred. In this way, the film treads an uncomfortably thin line from beginning to end, threatening to fall apart at several points in between. Then again, if the characters simply went ahead and opened the letters, and were clever enough to interpret their meaning, there would be no story. That is, there would not be the story we get here. Had Villeneuve endowed his characters with wits and had them do the obvious (i.e., open the letters), it would have effectively forced the story forward into more inspired directions. Indeed, when a screenwriter supplies his characters with intellectual and emotional substance, uninteresting or nonsensical plotlines are naturally eliminated.

In a way, Incendies focuses on its least interesting characters. Jeanne and Simon are painfully ordinary, and do not really seem to care about what is happening to them. Indeed, by the end of the film, they appear to have learned nothing except what directly concerns them. This, despite the fact that they have traveled to and back from a country rich with history, history tainted with political turmoil in part brought about by their own mother. Yet, both the children and the film itself conveniently overlook this. The country and its history are just a backdrop, and we are told just enough to sustain the mystery. Regarding the children’s stagnant development throughout the film, I suppose it is hard to change one’s worldview when you are too busy running around trying to make your dead mother’s wishes come true. Notwithstanding this, the most interesting characters in Incendies remain the peripheral ones: namely, Nawal and the recipients of her letters. However, because these characters are merely tools servicing a surprise ending, we are not given the opportunity to know them or engage in their experiences beyond what is necessary for the big reveal to not fall flat. We assume that these characters have feelings and motivations, but the film is too worried about the mystery to make us care.

In The Sweet Hereafter (1997), a film I encountered recently and which is considered by some to be the best Canadian film ever produced, director Atom Egoyan dealt with tragedy in a remarkably honest and non-manipulative fashion. Incendies, on the other hand, is self-important and calculating in its approach. Bringing to mind a Greek tragedy, the film is very theatrical, which is to be expected as it is based on a play. However, Villeneuve’s approach is too melodramatic. Indeed, Incendies amounts to no more than a soap opera. While it would have made for a fine TV movie of the week, it makes for a weak Oscar contender. If you are shopping around for an Oscar-nominated film to go see this weekend, I suggest you treat yourself to Sylvain Chomet’s delightfully quirky The Illusionist instead.

Note: Haneke’s full interview is available on Kino International’s DVD release of Funny Games (1997).

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