Thursday, June 25, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Ron Howard is the most innocuous director in Hollywood. The guy doesn’t make bad movies, on the whole, but outside of Apollo 13 he hasn’t made anything truly great, either. Frost/Nixon is yet another workmanlike effort from him, and it might as well be a metaphor for his entire career: It’s well-acted and competently shot, but it’s also frustratingly arbitrary and uninteresting (I can remember few Best Picture nominees that were any less discussed or controversial). Probably the only question raised by Frost/Nixon is why this movie--or, for that matter, the play it's based on--exists at all. Did we really need a dramatization of the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, especially when everyone who’s interested in the subject has either already seen the real thing or can easily seek it out? Sure, it’s fun to watch Frank Langella do a Nixon impression, and he does it well, but all the movie as a whole amounts to is a slightly clumsy reenactment of something that most people already know about.

Howard’s way of getting around this issue is to shoot the movie in faux-documentary style, with characters frequently addressing the camera in confessional interviews and recounting their experiences as a part of the two research teams. In addition to just being a tired technique, these interviews also come off feeling like a cheat-- an all too easy way for the film to tell and not show--which ironically breaks the first rule of the kind of “good journalism” that Frost/Nixon is trying to champion. And this is too bad, because the backroom preparation, dealing, and politics that helped make the interviews happen are the only story really worth telling here, and these scenes should have been where the movie really shined. Instead, we get one cliche rolled out after another, where the characters sit around tables littered with papers and coffee cups and name-check all of Nixon’s greatest hits, from the “Checkers speech” to his unfortunate debate with JFK. Outside of this, the movie is also notable for featuring what might be the most half-assed romantic subplot in recent memory, in the form of Frost’s relationship with his girlfriend Caroline, herself a journalist. Why a talented actress like Rebecca Hall would lower herself to playing what amounts to little more than set dressing is completely baffling.

Not surprisingly, the movie only really gains steam when it gets to the unscripted bits: the actual interviews between Frost and Nixon. In what amounts to a real intellectual fencing match, Frost is initially outdone by Nixon, who controls the tone and speed of the interview like the slippery customer that he is, and it’s only when they reach the subject of Watergate that the tables begin to turn. Still, these few exhilarating moments only succeed in highlighting the question that’s hovering over this entire movie: Why watch the recreation of an interview when the real thing is readily available, and now on YouTube, no less? Regrettably, this is a question that Frost/Nixon and its director are never quite able to answer.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Le Corbeau (1943)

On its surface, Henri Georges Clouzot’s noir Le Corbeau (The Raven) is simply an expertly crafted suspense film. Made in 1943, the film follows the controversy that erupts in a provincial French town after an anonymous author starts sending caustic letters revealing the citizens’ darkest secrets. Near-riots ensue, innocents are imprisoned, and at least one person turns up dead. There is a laconic leading man with a dark past (Pierre Fresnay), a lascivious young woman after his affections (Ginette Leclerc), a colorful cast of supporting players, and a cracking mystery at the center of them all. And while all this might not seem that extraordinary, the circumstances under which the film was made, along with its rich subtext and the consequences it had for its creators, certainly were.

Le Corbeau was made during the reign of the Vichy government, when France was still very much under the control of Nazi Germany. The film’s script had been around since the early thirties, but some of its incendiary content-- that Fresnay’s character, Dr. Germaine, performs abortions for desperate women is not only alluded to but stated outright-- had prevented it from being produced. Clouzot, who only had one other major work to his credit, was only able to get the film made by collaborating with the Continental Film Company, a production outfit that had been started by the Nazis as a means of making popular entertainment for occupied France, as all American movies had been banned. Ironically, at the time, filmmakers working for Continental were allowed to work with little censorship and larger budgets than those working for the French companies, and this freedom helped Le Corbeau become a wide success.

It was only after the war and the occupation ended that the controversy started. The film’s actors and crew were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and Clouzot was initially banned for life from making films in France. This ban was eventually lifted after much debate about the content of the film, but it would be four years before he worked again.

Seen today, the most puzzling thing about the firestorm created by Le Corbeau is how both the censors at Continental and those who decried the film as an act of treason so clearly misread its message. If anything, the film’s story of an anonymous writer of inflammatory letters now seems a bold statement about the culture of informing and back-stabbing that was going on in France during the occupation, when the Vichy regime and many citizens even went so far as to help the Germans organize raids to capture Jews and other undesirables to the Nazi Party. Le Corbeau, both through its characters and the way it deals with questions of morality, repeatedly condemns this behavior, showing the ways that it can tear a community (or a country) apart. The war is never once mentioned during the film, but it hovers over everything like a fog, and the message is there. Still, it would take some time before a number of prominent writers and filmmakers recognized Le Corbeau for the parable of life under occupation that it is.

That this message was so subtly delivered means that Le Corbeau works on many levels, and it can also be enjoyed as the pure entertainment that Continental meant it to be. On a stylistic level, it’s hard to believe that this was only Clouzot’s second film as a director, because he employs such a confident visual style. His compositions are as impeccable as they are economical-- every shadow, every object in the frame is there for a reason. He relies on his camera to express his themes as much as he does dialogue, most notably in a scene where the avuncular Dr. Vorzet, a psychiatrist in Germaine’s hospital, discusses the nature of good and evil, all while a light bulb swings overhead, casting alternating patterns of shadow and light over the two characters. It’s a powerful scene, and this motif of moral ambiguity is one that Clouzot would return to throughout his career, especially in his two masterpieces, Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. It has been said that Alfred Hitchcock would eventually consider Clouzot to be one of his chief rivals for the title of “master of suspense,” and after watching his work here it’s easy to see why.