Ferris Bueller, Quentin Tarantino, and the Construction of Whiteness in American Cinema

I remember seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the big screen in 1986, back when I was nine. I was amused at what I was watching — and yet, I felt even then, at that young age, that the protagonist was an arrogant, bratty little shit. Kids playing hooky is nothing new, but writer-director John Hughes presents Bueller (Matthew Broderick) as more than just a typical teen playing sick so he can spend the day seeing the Chicago sights. He makes him a folk hero. He’s the most popular kid in school (“They all think he’s a righteous dude,” Edie McClurg’s secretary memorably says). When word gets around about his supposed “illness,” his home is overrun by get-well bouquets and sexually suggestive singing telegrams. “Save Ferris” soon becomes a mantra that spreads like wildfire. (A skacore band later adopted the name.) He even has the respect of both cops and criminals.

Ferris is among the several vexing and enduring heroes of “BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness,” a fascinatingly curated series (Steve Martin’s The Jerk is even in here!) kicking off this Wednesday. He paints the town red with his girl, Sloane (Mia Sara), and his less-confident buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck). He exudes rock-star swagger, literally taking over a parade and wowing the crowd by lip-syncing the Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout.” (I guess he didn’t think the versions made by Black groups the Top Notes and the Isley Brothers would sound right coming out of his mouth.) He is the coolest person in all of Shermer (the fictional town where Hughes set many of his movies), and when uppity haters like the high-school principal (Jeffrey Jones) or his jealous sister (Jennifer Grey, Broderick’s then-girlfriend) try to catch him in the act, they somehow end up abused and reprimanded while he gets away with his mad-dash adventure.

By making his ideal version of the Greatest Teenager Ever a cocky, scrawny white boy, Hughes subconsciously reminded audiences of a fact of American life: how white men usually get away with a lot and yet are still beloved and embraced by the (predominantly pale-skinned) populace. This is true even when it seems like the figure in question doesn’t appreciate the love all that much: We know school can be a pain in the ass, but what does it say about Ferris that he’d distance himself from the place where people treat him like a fuckin’ king? In fact, you could argue Hughes’s entire Shermer-set filmography comprises a universe where self-centered white kids roam free, while the minorities they meet — whenever they’re actually represented — are often characterized as shifty or intimidating. And, eventually, the white kids still come off as the cool ones. (Remember that scene in Weird Science where a shitfaced Anthony Michael Hall won over a blues bar full of black folk with a story about a “crazy little eighth-grade bitch” he was in love with?) If someone made contemporary sequels to those movies today, many of the beloved characters — Bueller, especially — would probably be Fox News viewers.

Much of “On Whiteness,” which is presented in collaboration with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, communicates a general impression that being white can save your ass — if not the whole day. Several selections envision twisted takes on the white-savior story: Gran Torino (2008), where director-star Clint Eastwood assumes the role of a racist old man who evolves into a Christ-like figure, laying his life on the line to protect an innocent family in his minority-filled neighborhood; Claire Denis’s White Material (2009), with Isabelle Huppert as a coffee-plantation owner who stubbornly stands her ground amid a bubbling civil war in Africa; and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where Robert De Niro’s unhinged Travis Bickle emerges as a local hero after saving child sex worker Jodie Foster from depraved men by blowing out their brains.

Even Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is essentially a trilogy of stories about cool white dudes coming to the rescue, whether it’s John Travolta’s druggie hit-man Vincent bringing his boss’s wife (Uma Thurman) back to life or Bruce Willis taking a samurai sword to slash the hillbillies who sodomize that same boss (Ving Rhames) whom he previously double-crossed. Or take Tarantino himself, who cameos as a guy who lets Vincent and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), temporarily stash their corpse-filled, blood-and-brain-soaked car on his property — but not before infamously clarifying to his good buddy Jules that there isn’t a sign outside his house that says “Dead Nigger Storage.” (In an ironic twist, the movie ends with Jules as the final savior, taking mercy on small-time thieves Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer during a diner robbery.)

In “Pulp Fiction,” the writer-director Quentin Tarantino (right) cameos as a man who shouts racial slurs.

We also have films that deal with assimilation, particularly as it pertains to Black girls passing for white. In the opening title in the series, the 1949 melodrama Pinky, Elia Kazan cast lily-white Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned Black woman who can pass for a sista. There’s also Shadows, John Cassavetes’s aptly-named 1959 debut, about a trio of African-American siblings, two of whom (including the fair-skinned Lelia Goldoni) are more light-skinned than the other. Black girls play white in a pair of shorts: Illusions, Julie Dash’s 1982 film with Lonette McKee infiltrating Second World War–era Hollywood by passing as a white studio assistant (this also screened during BAMcinématek’s “Strange Victories” series last November); and Free, White, and 21, a jarring 1980 piece wherein African-American artist Howardena Pindell verbally reveals the injustices she’s experienced while also going whiteface and playing a woman who simply dismisses her for being ungrateful.

Another extreme example of this identity-swapping theme is the madhouse 2004 farce White Chicks, in which co-writers-stars-brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans (with big-bro Keenen Ivory directing) perform a racial spin on Some Like It Hot by starring as FBI agents who pretend to be a pair of Paris and Nicky Hilton–esque socialite sisters in order to foil a kidnapping scheme. But being a privileged white girl isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, as evidenced by the inclusion in “On Whiteness” of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, which shows what happens when you keep a quintet of isolated sisters from going out and experiencing the world. (If you want to see white, middle-class ennui from the male perspective, the series includes the 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer.)

Additional intriguing selections deal with Italian-Americans taking on the throne of the white, all-American hero. In 1974’s The Godfather Part II, we get the origin story of the Corleone family’s immense crime empire; in his underappreciated 1999 Summer of Sam, Spike Lee dramatizes how Italian-Americans were on the lookout for the notorious killer Son of Sam; and, of course, the legendary 1976 Rocky features Sylvester Stallone’s Italian palooka going up against Carl Weathers’s Black-and-proud Apollo Creed.

It seems fitting that the series ends with Get Out, Jordan Peele’s surprise hit from last year. Besides it being among the best paranoid thrillers ever made about creepy-ass white people (take that, Stepford Wives!), the movie concludes with our hero Daniel Kaluuya literally taking out, one by one, a deranged white family who tries to turn him into a brain-dead brotha who can unthreateningly mingle with the white folk. The spectacle is virtually a violent battle cry for Black folk to stomp away white superiority and proclaim their blackness. You may not end up as cool and awesome as the Ferris Buellers of the world, but gotdammit — at least you’ll be yourself.

‘BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness’
July 11–19


‘It Helps to Love Without Possessing the Person’: An Interview With Juliette Binoche

Juliette Binoche is radiant — there’s no better word to describe the French actress, who shows up to our interview beaming in a cream-colored suit and baby-pink dress shirt. Hers is the kind of presence that demands attention. In her latest film, the Claire Denis–directed Let the Sunshine In (currently in theaters), the camera is almost always fixated on her, often in close-up, as it follows Binoche’s character, Isabelle, falling in and out of relationships with various men. The intimate camerawork allows Binoche to be subtle in her emoting, especially in the way her face reacts to different situations. In this complicated study of love and the pursuit of it, Binoche gives us a protagonist who is relatable yet frustrating, desirable yet naïve, someone whose perseverance propels the plot and perhaps reflects the filmmaker’s own outlook on romance. (Denis uses the presence and music of Etta James — specifically “At Last” — as a motif throughout.)

Binoche spoke to the Voice last week about reuniting with Denis on her forthcoming sci-fi film High Life and what it was like to work with the late, great Abbas Kiarostami.

You’re one of my favorite actresses, and Claire Denis is one of my favorite directors. How did she ask you to be in this film?

She asked me to read the script and see if I wanted to do it. It was as simple as that. I didn’t see all the layers when I read the script quickly the first time, but as soon as we started getting into it, I could see the humor in it. That was good, because it’s a sort of a comic tragedy. This lady is always going into love with a lot of hope, with a sort of innocence. In a way, that is ageless: this need of jumping in, and yet not being frightened to be knocked out, in a way. Because you need courage to go back when you’ve been hurt already before.

It’s very relatable. Different people read this movie different ways. Some say it’s optimistic, others say it’s exhausting. How do you feel?

The first time I saw it, I laughed a lot. The second time I saw it, I didn’t laugh as much. I really saw the tragic side of it. But I could see the comedy the first time, so I think it depends on the mood you’re in and at what kind of stage you’re in in your love life.

Yeah, true.

But she’s alone, she’s taking care of a child by herself, she’s in a sort of a [needy] place. A need for not feeling alone anymore. And it seems that work doesn’t fulfill that need. But it’s interesting because I think that when you overcome that need, you’re not putting that need on a man, then you may have a chance to have a man. But when your need is so big of a void, you’re trying to resolve something in you, and anticipate things, or push things in with too much will. It can kill the other person’s freedom, in a way. So it’s an interesting reflection on love and relationships.

When I spoke with Denis, she said, “The pursuit of true love is never exhausting.” I was surprised to hear that from her.

Well, what does true love mean? The Greeks had many ways of describing love, from the baby sucking the breast to get the milk, [to] the agape, which is love beyond interest, spiritual love. So there are many layers, but what we often mix together is the need and the love. And that’s important to define, in a way, because we tend to mix it. Because the need grabs you, takes you in. But when you understand that, then it feels a little better understanding how the human structure is made. It helps to love someone without necessarily possessing the person.

There are three big things that we all go through: the need of possession, the need of power, and the need of enjoyment. But when you liberate yourself from those three big things, then love might come to you. And I think it’s so true that love comes to you more than you go to love. And allowing the love to work on you, be with you, and not always thinking that it’s a power thing …

I heard that you had a lot to do with selecting the wardrobe for your character, and making her very sexy.

That’s interesting Claire says that because she wanted to film a woman of desire. So the short skirts are her idea, some of the boots are her idea, and I was quite surprised. I thought maybe it’s a Joan of Arc of love, you know, that she’s going with courage into relationships with different men and trying to feel fulfilled and happy. But one day when we had lunch together, I was wearing this sweater, the black and red sweater and a white T-shirt. She said, “Oh, I want that.” So she took it. My way of dressing that day became Isabelle’s way of dressing.

Oh, I remember that outfit. Yeah, Claire said she wanted a lot of cleavage.

Yeah, that’s what she wanted. Absolutely. A woman of desire. And she was comparing the French woman to the American woman. That’s a French woman. And I never thought that way, but she had more of a clear idea about how she wanted it.

There’s a lot of Etta James in the movie; she’s your character’s idol, in a way. She’s sensitive and strong, and provides a musical anchor. Do you have an artist like that in your personal life?

I had a message from Claire saying, “Etta James: very important character for me for that film.” And she left a second message repeating the same thing. So I thought, “Why Etta James?” And then listening to her voice and reading about her life, I realized she went through dark love stories. She was a drug addict, but she always went to love with such courage. It was probably important for Claire because it was related to a certain point of her life. So I respected it and I said to her, “But why don’t we call Isabelle ‘Etta’?” She thought about it for a while but she stuck with Isabelle.

But do I have characters like that? I inspire myself with a lot of different people when I star in films or plays, so yeah, I’ve been obsessed with a lot of different characters or singers or dancers and actors for specific plays or characters. I was listening to Etta James all the time, and the first day of shooting was me dancing.

In the club? I love that scene.

She goes into that space to dance by herself, being in need of love and not being fulfilled, and then he comes like an angel into her life. That was something for me, because I felt so exposed. And when you have to jump into a movie like that for the first day, it’s wonderful in a way, because there’s no trying to hide. You’ve got to jump into it. That was a good start.

And then you did Denis’s next movie, High Life. What was that like, to work with her right after?

I finished High Life in October or November. It’s very rare to shoot with the same director in the same year with very different projects. I was surprised. I love Claire. There’s a woman in her that is not conventional, who’s saying what she’s feeling, who loves shooting people in their own truth. She has a great sense of dignity and respect. And yet, using people as she sees them, there’s an honesty in her work that I appreciate. She’s going through anguish, anxiety, and all [that], but she would speak it out so you’ll know where her ship is. There’s not a hidden place in her. She will speak out.

She really seems to think out everything in her films.

Yes, everything. While working on Let the Sunshine In, I must have said something, maybe with a negative connotation, and I was not even aware of it, and she got upset. It was the first time, and I was wondering, “Why did she get upset at that moment?” And then I thought, “Ah. It’s because she only wants to have positive energy around her.” Because it’s so difficult to make a film already. And then when I figured that out, I was always with the wind where she wanted to go. I was always on her side and on the film’s side. That’s probably why the energy together was so smooth and intense, but very much hand-to-hand.

One thing I love about this movie is how close she shoots you; you have such a great face for micro-expressions. Just the way your expression changes when a man is talking to you and you’re reacting, but you’re sort of holding it back. There’s humor, there’s tragedy, and you express that so well.

Well, when you have a director who allows you to just be, that’s really as simple as that. And there’s no judgment; there’s just the pleasure of lifting it into a place where it’s possible. There’s no anticipation, no fear. It’s just that we’re going through that place of the moment of the shooting. But I felt there was genuinely an easy way of working. She trusted me, and vice versa.

One of my favorite films of yours is Certified Copy. I’d love to hear what Abbas Kiarostami was like; he’s dearly missed in the film world. Also, did you see 24 Frames?

You know, I went to Criterion, and I took 24 Frames! I haven’t seen it yet. We enjoyed each other’s company, and he was a warm person with lots of humor. He enjoyed sharing the process of filming, and making a story, and the reflection on men and women. He was a special person. I’m so happy I was able to speak to him before he left, because I didn’t see him, unfortunately, but I did speak to him very late because I made a mistake with the time difference. I phoned him at one o’clock in the morning his time and he answered, and he was so sweet.


Underneath Its Gorgeous Affectations, Bastards Proves Undercooked

Claire Denis douses Bastards in her usual oblique dreaminess, equal parts romantic and malevolent, shot by Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard in inky nocturnal HD that posits the proceedings as a gradual descent into a black hole of vengeance and vice. Yet that style can’t fully compensate for a tale that, underneath its gorgeous affectations, proves undercooked, especially during a third act that provides duly titillating answers to its initially beguiling mysteries.

Up until that deflating denouement, however, Denis’s latest generates suspense via a terse narrative mode in which every scene seems to have been distilled to its fundamental element—characters moving and acting with deliberate intent, and expressing fury and desire with brutal candor. Co-written with longtime collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, her story is a hallucinatory genre exercise cast in a mold similar to that of Olivier Assayas’s 2002 Demonlover, another sleekly modern neo-noir about the entwined bond between corporate malice and carnal deviance.

In its narrative outline, Bastards is pure pulp. After the suicide of his brother-in-law, tanker captain Marco (a grave, intense Vincent Lindon) abandons ship and returns home to help sister Sandra (Julie Bataille), who blames her husband’s death on his renowned business partner, Laporte (Michel Subor). Further complicating matters, Sandra’s teen daughter, Justine (Lola Créton), is in the hospital after an attempted suicide brought about by what a doctor (Alex Descas) claims has been severe sexual abuse. Marco’s immediate response to this chaos is to move into the apartment building where Laporte’s younger mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), lives. Through means that never seem to make sense—from his balcony, he drops a shirt filled with soap in front of her, thus initiating contact in the most inexplicably random way possible—the two soon strike up a steamy affair, even as Marco continues to keep his true identity a secret.

If their relationship seems almost preposterously sudden, Lindon and Mastroianni sell it well, he a figure of silent masculine determination and drive, she a wounded yet tough pseudo-femme fatale torn between lust for her new lover and loyalty to her domineering old one. With the steely gaze of a crocodile on the hunt, Subor’s Laporte casts an omnipresent shadow over Bastards. As such, the callous cruelty with which he eventually treats Raphaëlle comes not as a surprise but a fate preordained—merely one more example of the fatalism that encircles all of these characters, doomed by a depraved world rotting from the inside out.

Denis establishes her scenario in long stretches of silence and with a plethora of jarring cuts that create a mood of dissonant ambiguity. Her visuals have a stark beauty that enhances the increasingly inescapable feeling that everything is headed toward some unholy abyss. That notion becomes overpowering once Marco discovers that Justine’s troubles originated at a remote farmhouse where a sleazy couple have built a bring-your-own-camera-and-toys sex room that was frequented by the girl and others close to her. Those spaces hold closely guarded secrets, and for its first two thirds, Bastards intrigues through its storytelling sparseness, allowing nagging questions to hang in the air, kept afloat by pervasive suggestions that financial and lascivious domination and greed are the root causes of everyone’s misfortune.

Marco’s actual motivations, and the twisted truth underlying his relatives’ sordid relationship to Laporte, remain indistinct for long stretches, as Godard’s sumptuous camerawork—full of gorgeous shadows and constricting spaces—and Tindersticks’s ominous electronica score imply terror and chaos just up ahead. When revelations do finally materialize, they cast the film as a nightmarish reverie about the ugly violence of love and sex, and the impotent futility of revenge sought out of guilt.

Those themes resonate passionately in the moment, but lose a good deal of their vitality by the finale, which reveals Bastards to be, at heart, more than a bit ridiculous. That’s most true of a last scene that aims for gut-wrenching horror but instead comes across as cheaply and ludicrously sensationalistic, its wannabe-shocking closing note too B-movie for a saga that, up to that point, had affected loftier pretenses. The cracks in Denis’s atmosphere-over-all-else plotting, however, truly start to show shortly before that, with a climactic tragedy coming off as a contrived thematic device, given that it all could have been avoided if two characters had just chosen to have a single, contextually reasonable conversation.


Taking a Second Look at Trouble Every Day, a Claire Denis Flop

When Claire Denis’s blood-and-lust-filled reverie Trouble Every Day, her most maligned project to date, premiered in New York in 2002, it opened on only one postage-stamp–size screen at the Quad. The grander, increasingly indispensable BAMcinématek, where this film maudit screens in a new 35mm print, provides a more optimal viewing experience to consider anew—or, like this writer, see for the first time—a hypnotic, unsettling work by one of the most sensuous filmmakers of the past 25 years.

As in many of Denis’s movies, plot and narrative cohesion are subordinate to mood and texture, sight and sound. (She co-scripted Trouble Every Day with her frequent writing partner, Jean-Pol Fargeau.) Working with her usual cinematographer, the redoubtable Agnès Godard, Denis plunges us immediately into an atmosphere engorged with desire and dread. A young man and woman, partially obscured by shadows, make out in the back of a car on a Parisian street, their deep kissing long, slow, and arousing. Scoring this lust is the title song by the English band Tindersticks (also regular Denis collaborators), a brooding, swooning number with the lyrics “I get on the inside of you/You can blow it all away.” At some point during the second verse, we notice that the guy is wearing a necklace of what look like strung-together molars.

Those lovers are never seen again, but other devouring mouths, with teeth that masticate human flesh, will seduce and maim. Coré—played by Béatrice Dalle, whose diastema and pillow lips make hers the most distinctive bouche in recent French cinema—lures a horny trucker into a field off the highway only to render his face some kind of ghastly, crimson-smeared version of Howdy Doody’s. Alone with her victim in that meadow, in a stunned post-coital stupor with gore all over her chin, Coré is lovingly fetched by her motorcycle-riding physician husband, Léo (Alex Descas, the most supremely composed actor of Denis’s company regulars)—a rescue mission he’s had to complete many times before.

Paralleling this long-term couple is one that’s just begun: newlyweds Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey), who’ve arrived in the French capital for their honeymoon. On the flight over, Shane is seized by a gruesome fantasy of his pixie-ish bride drenched in blood; beyond celebrating his nuptials in the City of Light, the new groom hopes to track down Léo, who may be able to cure him of the disease he shares with Coré. As the film later reveals in gauzy backstory, Shane, a doctor currently reporting to a Big Pharma concern, once worked with Léo, who led a bio-prospecting mission in the tropics in the hopes of, as a fleetingly glimpsed website states, curing “nervous diseases, pain, mental diseases, and problems of libido.”

Yet these plot threads, however undeveloped, are ultimately beside the point. What matters—what jolts, repels, and intrigues—are the indelible images Denis conjures during Shane’s quest to track down his former colleague: a brain sliced as effortlessly as quiche in the medical facility that once employed Léo, a dissection that includes an appalling filament being slowly pulled out from the cortex; the endless, droning whir of magnetic mixers in flasks and beakers.

In contrast with the cold, clinical lab scenes—the white coats worn by the researchers there as blindingly pristine as the sheets and towels we see in the basement of the hotel where Shane and June are staying—are two sanguinary set pieces, the culmination of feverish sexual craving. In the more elaborate and successful of these scenes, Erwan (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a younger neighbor of Coré’s, breaks into the manse she shares with Léo, who immures his wife in their bedroom each morning for her own protection. A heat-seeking missile, this twentysomething beauty is so turned on that his pheromones all but waft from the screen when he first stands before Coré, who returns his avid gaze through the slats hammered into the door frame. His panting and grunts of delight soon become agonized wails, his pain as potent as his pleasure, his blood splattered across the wall.

Two years after its U.S. premiere, James Quandt, in an influential essay in Artforum, condemned Trouble Every Day as one of the exemplars of “New French Extremity”; reviewing the film for these pages, J. Hoberman deemed it “purposefully shocking in its eroticized gore, if unintentionally dull in its lack of poetic frissons.” Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now more clearly see how this initially castigated movie fits in with the tantamount themes that have dominated Denis’s work since Beau Travail, her breakthrough from 1999 (and Trouble Every Day‘s immediate predecessor): madness, desire, and power, motifs sometimes considered on their own, or, more frequently, in combination. (Some of the elements in Trouble Every Day presage those in the more sinister Bastards, which plays at the New York Film Festival before opening October 25.) But no critical reassessment is needed to make the case for the most unimpeachable aspect of Trouble Every Day, or any of Denis’s films: They know how to get on the inside of you.


Bastards: Mood Only Goes So Far in Denis’ Latest Oblique Odyssey

Claire Denis douses Bastards in her usual oblique dreaminess, equal parts romantic and malevolent, yet that style can’t fully compensate for a tale that, underneath its gorgeous aesthetic affectations, proves frustratingly undercooked. After the suicide of his brother-in-law, tanker captain Marco (a grave, intense Vincent Lindon) abandons ship and returns home to help sister Sandra (Julie Bataille), who blames her husband’s death on his renowned business partner Laporte (Michel Subor), and whose daughter Justine (Lola Créton) has attempted suicide after what a doctor (Alex Descas) claims has been severe sexual abuse.

Working from a screenplay co-written by Jean-Pol Fargeau, Denis establishes her scenario – which also involves Marco striking up a relationship with Laporte’s baby mama Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), into whose apartment building he moves – in long stretches of silence and with jarring cuts that create a mood of dissonant mystery.

Marco’s actual motivations, and the twisted truth underlying his relatives’ relationship to Laporte, remain indistinct for long stretches of Bastards, as longtime collaborator Agnès Godard’s sumptuous nocturnal cinematography – full of gorgeous shadows and constricting spaces – and Stuart A. Staples’ ominous electronica score suggest terror and chaos just up ahead. When the revelations do come, they cast the film as a nightmarish reverie about the ugly violence of love and sex, and the impotent futility of revenge sought out of abandonment guilt.

Those themes resonate passionately in the moment, but as answers pile up, so too do the cracks in Denis’ atmosphere-over-all-else plotting, to the point that the story’s climactic tragedy ultimately comes off as a thematic device, given that it all could have been avoided if two characters had just chosen to have a single, contextually reasonable conversation beforehand.


Beau Travail

Dir. Claire Denis (1999).
Denis’s sensational transposition of “Billy Budd” to a French Foreign Legion post on the horn of Africa is a mosaic of pulverized shards. Every cut is a small, gorgeously explosive shock. Time drifts, memories flicker. The hypnotic ritual suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras but the mysterious mix of artful deliberation and documentary spontaneity is Denis’s alone.

Tue., Oct. 11, 7 p.m., 2011


I Can’t Sleep

Dir. Claire Denis (1994).
Inspired by an actual case, Denis’s daring and original account of a French serial murderer is at once a pungent vision of the new multiculti Paris and a highly fluid narrative, predicated on upon a series of unusual family relationships.

Tue., Oct. 11, 12:30 & 4 p.m., 2011



When you name your band Lemonade, fans will expect some twee-ass chillwave. Thankfully, this Brooklyn-via-San Francisco outfit actually indulges in trance-y, tribalist dance music, the kind that those repressive military troops couldn’t help losing it to in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. On their self-titled debut, Lemonade deliver tracks such as “Big Weekend” and “Bliss Out,” multi-sensory affairs of big beats and dislocated vocals that scatter one’s reality. This is the closest approximation to doing drugs (without actually being on them)that modern music has achieved since Factory Records shuttered in 1992. With Lady Lazarus.

Fri., May 6, 8 p.m., 2011


Year in Film: Hoberman’s Top 10

My favorite movie of 2010 sneaks into town three days before the year ends: The Strange Case of Angelica is a strange case to be sure. Manoel de Oliveira’s latest last film, which includes the 101-year-old director’s first use of CGI in his debut dream sequence, is as funny and peculiar as its title promises. Putting his own eccentric spin on the myth of Orpheus, the last working filmmaker to have been born during the age of the nickelodeon offers a modest, ultimately sublime meditation on the photographic essence of the motion-picture medium, as glimpsed in the half-light of eternity.

As seen through the glass darkly of the present moment, I’d say the past 12 months were notable for directorial comebacks: Veteran filmmakers Olivier Assayas, Roman Polanski, Claire Denis, and even the late Henri-Georges Clouzot provided first-rate returns to form. Indeed, had the rules of inclusion (or at least mine) not stipulated that a movie have three public screenings and be no older than six years, this 10 Best list would have been strengthened by two more comebacks, namely Raúl Ruiz’s Secrets of Lisbon, shown once during the New York Film Festival, and, in a hitherto unseen triumph, R.W. Fassbinder’s 1974 telefilm World on a Wire, which had its belated premiere run at the Museum of Modern Art.

And now, back to the future . . .

Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal

Opens December 29 at the IFC Center


Olivier Assayas, France
Assayas puts it all together—historical reconstruction and globalizing enterprise, terror and terroir, plus sex, death, and rock’n’roll. Carlos is a total you-are-there immersion in the bizarre career of a ’70s terrorist and, as the equivalent of three feature-length movies, it arguably deserves three slots.


Roman Polanski, U.K.

The Pianist had its moments, but Polanski hasn’t made a movie so sustained in the decades since The Tenant or even 1966’s Cul de Sac. In a way, this seemingly modest political thriller is almost their sequel. Shot in Germany (standing in for the wintry New England beach), impeccably directed, and edited under house arrest—with a beleaguered British prime minister played by ex–James Bond, Pierce Brosnan—The Ghost Writer is rich with subtext.


Samuel Maoz, Israel

As classic in its way as The Ghost Writer and even more overtly formalist, writer-director Maoz’s first feature is at once existential combat movie and political allegory. (It’s about this tank . . .) The personal investment is evident. Lebanon, which could just as easily be called “Israel,” is based on the writer-director’s experience of the 1982 war, as replayed in his head for nearly 30 years.


Claire Denis, France
As a child of Africa, Denis also brings it back home with this convulsive, beautiful, terrifying work—Heart of Darkness by way of Apocalypse Now. The filmmaking is terrific, impressionist yet tactile, with the girlish figure of Isabelle Huppert caught up in the maelstrom of a post-colonial civil war, fiercely clinging to the remnants of her past.


Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France
Clouzot’s Inferno is another sort of wreck—that of a movie or perhaps a psyche. The title has a double meaning: The celebrated, wildly obsessive Clouzot attempted to make the ultimate ’60s flick, Inferno, and came unhinged in the process. It’s hard to imagine that Clouzot’s finished film would be more evocative than this explication of its shards—or that Romy Schneider could ever give a more seductive performance than in these screen tests and outtakes.

Andrei Ujica, Romania

Here is megalomania-made material. Romanian film-artist Ujica’s archival assemblage is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. It’s a modern-day Ubu Roi, with dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the tyrant himself.

Jim Finn, U.S.

American film artist Jim Finn’s deadpan faux-documentary account of image-making in North Korea complements The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu’s show-stopping Pyongyang sequence—a stadium filled with thousands of precision-drilled North Korean dancers creating an elaborate Romanian folk pageant for an audience of two (and the camera). Something other than ironic, the year’s prize whatzit is steeped in the pathos of political kitsch as well as the “Juche”—North Korea’s ideology of self-reliance—that DIY independent filmmaking requires.

Damien Chazelle, U.S.

Another example of Juche cinema, this mumblecore musical mashes up Shadows with A Woman Is a Woman (and a bit of Pickup on South Street) to create a no-budget, neo-new-wave musical love story, shot off-the-cuff on the streets of Boston. At once clumsy and deft, annoying and ecstatic, Chazelle’s debut feature is amateurish in the word’s original sense, suffused with the love of movies.

10. The last 40 minutes of INCEPTION

Christopher Nolan, U.S.

Pure cinema is where you find it: I caught this much-maligned behemoth as a civilian, about a month into its run. The first 90-something minutes were so nonsensical as to be unbearable, but then something kicked in—the special effect called “editing”! Since 70 minutes has always seemed the ideal length for a B movie, take in Inception’s finale with one or two of the equally sensational 3-D action sequences from Tron: Legacy.

And here are a dozen runners-up, any of which on another day might have wound up in the bottom half of my list: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Vikram Jayanti, U.K.); Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman, U.S.); Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, U.S.); Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, U.S.); Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, France); Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, U.S.); The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, France); Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, U.S.); Machete (Robert Rodriguez, U.S.); Ne change rien (Pedro Costa, Portugal); The Portuguese Nun (Eugene Green, Portugal); Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, U.S.).

For the 2010 film poll results, go to


Isabelle Huppert Will Not Be Defined

“In reality, people are most of the time enigmas.”

Isabelle Huppert is speaking generally, but her pronouncement could apply in particular to two of her characters, created 30 years apart and both on view this month. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself (1980), showing in a new 35mm print at Film Forum Friday through November 25, she is Isabelle, a prostitute prone to dissociation and reciting Charles Bukowski in voiceover. As Maria Vial, a coffee-plantation owner in an unnamed African country in Claire Denis’s latest fever-dream, White Material, opening November 19, she plays a woman blindly determined to continue her business while civil war rages on around her.

“Maria has a real love for the earth—like Gone With the Wind,” Huppert, 57, laughs, speaking on the terrace of the Gramercy Park Hotel last November, when she was in town performing in Quartett, the Robert Wilson–directed reimagining of Les liaisons dangereuses at BAM. Before she and Denis (who is being feted with her own retrospective at the IFC Center this week) teamed up for White Material, their first collaboration, the actress had originally approached the director about adapting Doris Lessing’s 1950 debut novel, the Rhodesia-set The Grass Is Singing. But Denis—whose first film, Chocolat (1988), is a semiautobiographical account of growing up in a French colonial outpost in Cameroon—was quick to anticipate the problems in transferring Lessing’s text to the screen. “Claire was wise enough to think that it might not be a good idea to do that book because it’s clearly about a certain time in that particular history of colonialism,” Huppert explains. “The woman in Lessing’s book is clearly a victim; she’s a sort of Madame Bovary of the bush, falling in love with this black man, which was beyond all possibility at the time, and was becoming mad in that situation. I think Claire wanted to set up a different situation: with the same woman, but as she would have progressed over the years,” to the ’80s or ’90s (though the exact date is unspecified in Denis’s film). “She wanted a more active woman, less of a victim.”

Huppert, one of cinema’s most fearless performers, has certainly never stopped in her nearly-40-year career, performing in more than 90 films and distinguishing herself as a titan of European theater in productions of Orlando, Medea, Mary Stuart, and Hedda Gabler. (No snob, she appeared in the 11th-season finale of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in May.) Within the past decade, she may be best known for playing the sadomasochistic Erika Kohut—partial to genital-slicing and Mom-humping—in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), for which she won Best Actress at Cannes. But the director with whom the actress is most indelibly associated is the late Claude Chabrol; of their three-decade working relationship—which includes Violette (1978), Story of Women (1988), La cérémonie (1995), and Comedy of Power (2006)—Huppert said in a recent phone conversation, “I think we really got on well in this idea that the world is neither good nor bad.”

And it’s precisely this idea in White Material that appealed to the actress. For Huppert, the power of both Denis’s movie and her character lies in the fact that neither is overdetermined. “The film goes way beyond any classification. It’s not the ‘bad white’ versus the ‘good black’; it’s not this Manicheanism,” she says. “It shows that everybody, at a certain point, is mad. If the world produces situations with child soldiers, it means that the world is crazy. And you have this woman [Maria], who was supposed to be the most civilized person at the beginning. [But] everybody becomes . . . animals, ultimately, returning to savagery.”

If Maria resides somewhere between good and evil, the key to understanding her, Huppert explains, was in her physical prowess. “Claire had me take motorcycle classes,” the sprite-size actress says. “Not only do I drive a motorcycle [in the film], I drive a tractor, a truck—I drive everything. This was a clue for me, that Maria is physically courageous, which leads to a sort of blindness to the danger of the situation. She just lives and works there; she doesn’t want to understand the conflict because [in her mind] she’s not really part of it.”

Isabelle, Huppert’s character in Godard’s Every Man for Himself, isn’t “really part of it” either, with “it” being the baroque debasements she must endure at her tycoon john’s insistence: Her body submits, but her mind remains resolutely elsewhere. Speaking by phone from Paris two weeks ago, Huppert recalls JLG’s typically cryptic response when she asked him to explain her character: “It should be the face of suffering,” the director told the actress while visiting her in Montana during the filming of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). “At the time, I hadn’t seen [Godard’s 1962 film] Vivre sa vie with Anna Karina [who also plays a prostitute],” Huppert says. “After I saw it, I realized there was a link between these two characters.”

Godard called Every Man for Himself his “second first film,” as it came after a decade of making radical, politically abstruse projects. The film concerns, in Huppert’s usual spot-on assessment, “living in town versus living in the country, living in the system or out of it.” More directly, “it’s also about money and how you sell your body.” Huppert’s body is exposed frequently in her first project with Godard (they made Passion two years later), particularly in a bizarrely orchestrated four-person orgy. But the scenes of Isabelle with her clients emphasize not so much the carnal calisthenics as Isabelle’s grace and defiance—the idea being that, in life, “even if you think you are in the most humiliating situation, you still have a soul, and part of your spirit is untouched.”

Always daring in her choices, Huppert will begin shooting a film in January in the Philippines with provocateur Brillante Mendoza, whose graphic gang-rape-and-dismemberment movie, Kinatay, was awarded the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2009, the year the actress was president of the Competition jury. Though Huppert can say only that “the film is about hostages being captured by terrorists,” it will surely allow the actress to do what she does so incomparably: to create a character who defies simple assessment. “You have a surface life that is a life of compromise,” she explained last fall. “You need that life in order to cope with society. But underneath, so many strange things lie. I like to work on that substance in my characters. And the camera, which is almost like a microscope, is the perfect [tool] to express this troubled and blurred part of yourself.”