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Alex Carnevale

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Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in vincent cassel (2)


In Which We Sense His Mild Resistance

Chicken Little


dir. Ariel Kleiman
94 minutes

Right around 1000 years after the death of Jesus Christ there was a German king named Otto who was short and somewhat squalid, although well-built. He was the second of his name and married a Greek princess named Theophania. As a result of this, he became passable at speaking the language. The couple had a child who was also named Otto.

Otto was a God-fearing Christian in a lot of ways. He believed in Jesus and the lord and all that. But when there was a smattering of talk about an uprising against him, he invited all the people involved to a big dinner and killed them at the table. They bled into their meals.

This was in Rome, and the treasonous men were Italians, or something like it. A year or two later he was fighting against a Muslim army in Greece. He had the superior fighting force, which is all that mattered in war before gunpowder. Yet a lot of Romans abandoned his standard and his force collapsed.

Otto was driven from the battlefield. He had nothing to his name, so he disguised himself as a hardworking peasant. Without any of his royal trappings, he was forced to rely on his own godly virtues and pretend to be no one. It was a good thing he spoke Greek, so he could carry off the lie.

Greeks care for their own, so Otto made it back in one piece. If he had married a woman from Gaul, he would not have been so lucky. (European diners were fortunate to have Theophania, too: she brought the fork to the region.) Otto died a bit after that anyway, from malaria, at the age of 28.

By all evidence, Otto was not a good man. But he was the sort of bad man who thought he was a good man, and when I saw Vincent Cassel's performance in Partisan, that is what I thought of. There are two modern things in Partisan: the presence of a small handgun wielded by a ten year old boy, and what appears to be a motorcycle helmet. The rest of it is an old story.

Gregori (Vincent Cassel) lives among a gaggle of women at a compound in the Balkans. He is kind to his wives, and when there is a problem, they come running to him. We see him recruiting a new mother and her child into his sunny, dilapidated lair. He is something like the Pied Piper, who was also German. The Pied Piper led a bunch of rats out of a village by piping away. (The rodents drowned.) Then when the village elders didn't pay, he did the same thing to all the children.

It is a recurring meme in these Eastern European stories that in every good thing, there is a little bit of bad. Gregori is like that. He provides for all the people in his little cult. He gets them food, sex; he genuinely cares for everyone. The children are the ones with the raw deal — they are assassins sent with earplugs to murder whatever target Gregori selects. Gregori tells them, perhaps not incorrectly, that these are bad men, and so they are doing a good thing.

Gregori is a lot better than the Pied Piper, although perhaps not by a lot. One kid, Leo, comes into the compound at an advanced age. He gets very protective of a chicken and lashes out at Gregori when the time of the bird's execution grows near. The boy and his mother are never seen again. We do not know what happens to them exactly, although it seems unlikely that they are murdered.

Alex (Jeremy Chabriel) observes these events with interest. He does not really want to kill anyone or anything, and was inspired by his friend's good opinion of a chicken. Since he is the only one resisting this lifestyle in any way, Gregori becomes sensitive to Alex's mild resistance, as if he was all this time waiting to be called out for sins.

Cassel is exciting to watch. Without his dominant charisma, Partisan would be a Kiarostami-esque slice of life. As Gregori, he gives his all in a role which perhaps required one more dimension. We see Gregori as a decent leader, and a manipulative villain, but most men have more than two sides. Actually, some men only have one side, but sociopaths usually have more than two. 

Mr. Cassel, whose best ever role was his performance as French gangster Jacques Mesrine, is just so innately disturbing, even seeing him without a beard retains a sinister element. Gregori probably should have been played by someone with a bit more natural grace; instead the character is like a gluttonous snake wrapped around a decaying alligator carcass.

There is not much more to tell of the story. Alex is sent out to kill a man. He does his duty, and weeps his way back home. He runs into a real boy, who fondles his gun and hands it back to him. A sense of right and wrong is beginning to develop. Director Ariel Kleiman is an Australian Jew, and he has the same fascination with moral grey areas that many of his background find intrinsically determinative. Since we are neither one thing or another, could this indeterminacy be the key to why bad things happen to good people?

Reading early German history is a master class in such ideas, since the Germans seem to have derived their sense of justice from politics rather than God. It is roughly the same in Gregori's cult, and this argument from power is generally a lot less merciful than verdicts of the Christian faith. Partisan is so titled because it is what we call a side in that useless war between earthly ideals — there can be no such division in His eyes.

Then again, Otto believed in God and he still made all those people go away. That is what Alex does to Gregori, in all likelihood, although Kleiman never shows us the climactic murder. In the final moments of Partisan, Gregori never tries to disarm the boy, or change the fate to which all his actions have led. He only protests verbally, by saying he gave the boy everything he has — which is true. It isn't much.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Both Sides of the Story" - Phil Collins (mp3)


In Which Black Swan Trumpets Disaster

Tortured Dancer


Black Swan

dir. Darren Aronofsky

107 minutes

Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller, Black Swan, is a cannonade of ballet’s absolutes turned burlesque. Like a self-doubting teenager who applies too much make-up or wears too much jewelry, the film piles on element after element and never once — despite its patent mirror motif — stops to consider its own reflection. In a world where precision wears the crown, Aronofsky’s cumulative fanaticism feels unwieldy.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a tortured young dancer whose reach for perfection as lead in Swan Lake results in her fatal undoing. Delusive eruptions of anger and suspicion, fright and mutilation, pilot her to the end without ever establishing reality or any basis for comparison. The entire film is a cold sweat panic attack that wobbles cartoonishly under a score of clichés — a devoted and despotic former ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) who paints nightmarish portraits of her daughter, Nina’s infantilized Capezio pink and plush toy bedroom, a doppelganger dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), whose drugs, tattoos, drinking, and sex life tempt and thieve, and the company director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), whose “Attack it! Attack it!” method of teaching is sexed up with adages on “losing yourself” and “letting go” in order to become “transcendent.”

At first Portman’s performance as Nina is fascinating because her initial calm is almost macabre. As tokens of imminent craze begin to surface — jealousy from other dancers, stress rashes, a ripped toenail while practicing her thirty-two fouettés — the prospect of a diametric character becomes exciting. But Portman doesn’t break from the mould. She is the stereotype of a strained dancer, taut to the point of tears or possessed in a spate of delirium. No layer of warm-up shrugs or pastel legwarmers can hide overwrought, flinty intensity.

Like years of corset tightlacing, her entire face recedes into her fixed bun; even her eyebrows appear pinned. Her performance reaches its ceiling and remains there. And like so many thrillers that misfire, the camera ceaselessly orbits and stalks her every move; Portman’s Nina spends the majority of the movie trapped in what might as well be a hermetic maze of eternal mirrors.

While there are moments of stunning beauty, indelible is not a word that comes to mind. Ashen skin set against total darkness is contrast and nothing more. Music that bullies instead of chaperones is not moving, it’s simply too loud. A girl in a delicate white gown can so easily look like a girl in a nightgown. Rare are the moments where Black Swan takes off, and en masse, it’s the props that are deserving of praise. Like the celebratory cake, a gift from mother to daughter. Replete with bright pink edible flowers, lustre dust, and royal icing, it looks sickeningly sweet and under no circumstance would a dancer consider even one slice. The cake — so ridiculous and ornate like a Havisham relic — both mocks and infantilizes Nina. It’s the most heartbreaking and in some ways creepiest cake ever. A perfect prop!

Ballet in film indulges some of our guiltiest pleasures: drama is at its highest concentration, the pursuit of perfection is infinite, rivalry is both tacit and public, company hierarchy breeds paranoia, discipline breeds mania, and the dancer’s lissom body — a complex and almost cruel layering of muscles and bones, a miniature torso, a long neck — is impossible to ignore. With that in mind, some of the worst ballet films are in fact some of the best ballet films. We pander to their production because like CIA thrillers— cover-ups, classified files, lampooned conspiracies — ballet’s backstage can be similarly entertaining. Both genres are met with “It’s what you’d expect” approval and recommendation, and some even garner cult status.

So why isn’t Black Swan one of those terrible but wonderful ballet films? And what does it take to make a great ballet film a great ballet film? A central love story? A repellent but ultimately well-meaning impresario? Real soloists as lead characters? Or perhaps no lead characters at all? Is it a question of proportions? An even ratio of clichés to nuance? For every scene where she can’t eke out a perfect turnout, count one where she can let loose at a downtown walk-in class. For every question, another question?: “Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live?”

That final example references the greatest ballet film: Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 The Red Shoes. In its climactic seventeen minute ballet of the same name, the most hallucinatory fantasia of optics and illusion dissolves the stage’s limitations into a celluloid nightmare. Likewise, the stage’s presence—its design, its costumes, the validity of live audience — imparts a physical power to the camera. Two art forms that are typically at odds converge. The ballet of The Red Shoes within the film displays the most harrowing commitment to art; a plenary account that Black Swan tries too hard to attain and ultimately misses entirely.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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