Monday, April 20, 2009

Train in Vain

I think I'm finally beginning to warm up to Hayao Miyazaki (Ghibli fans will excuse me for not falling deeply in love with his movies). I've been dealing with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) for two decades now, ever since seeing the New World Pictures recut of the film as "Warriors of the Wind" on cable all those years ago. That cut has some serious deficiencies. I've had the full cut released by Disney for a couple of years now. I think the last time through, I must have been cranky or something because I didn't have a very good time. This time, with no expectations, I was thoroughly transported. I mean, it was always plain to see that the world-building in Nausicaa was a triumph of imagination. That even comes through on the New World cut. But I've never really trusted the narrative until now. I don't know. Maybe it's a film I had to get used to to appreciate. Or maybe I had to overcome my own prejudices against Japanese animation and its idiomatic conventions. Whatever. In any event, one constant in Miyazaki is the joy of flight, and this is the film that gives the joy of flight its most unbounded expression. There are all kinds of fanciful aircraft in this, as well as the giddy rush of speed and wind (natch). It's got too many serious themes on its mind to be a "fun" movie, but it is a joyful one.


The main difference between Patrice Chéreau's Queen Margot, and his follow-up, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) is that the wounds inflicted by the characters in Queen Margot actually shed blood, while those inflicted in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train don't. Otherwise, they're equally deep. This film pretty much follows a Robert Altman-ish formula in which a large cast is assembled for some central event--in this film, it's the funeral of Jean-Baptiste Emmerich, an artist who acted as a father figure for many of those in his personal and professional orbit--and they are examined as they interact. In the first half of the film, our sundry characters are transported from Paris on a train per Jean-Baptiste's wishes (hence the title), and from a stylistic perspective, it's striking. This is shot with a controlled run and gun hand-held style that moves through the corridors of the train with startling energy. It's certainly vivid. The restless camera moves through the train, introducing us to the characters and resisting any exposition that might provide a landmark for the viewer--this also similar to Queen Margot (which was also ambivalent about providing back-story). Among others, there are two couples, gay and straight, who are on the downward side. Several of the characters are Jean-Baptiste's ex-lovers (again gay and straight). And there's his estranged nephew. None of them seems to really love the man, and, really, after the opening where we hear his voice describing who he is, he's not really a player so much as he's a McGuffin. For the most part, the characters we meet in the first part of the film are pretty disagreeable. At one point, I asked myself if I was interested in meeting any of them in real life and the answer I gave to myself was "no." But they are intense, and intensely performed by a superior ensemble, especially Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Claire, whose relationship is falling apart in spite of her pregnancy, and Pascal Gregory as François, whose boyfriend has met and fallen in love with his own ex-lover.

Fortunately, there are only two characters of any pith and moment introduced in the second half of the film (any more and the thing would burst, I think--Chereau includes a metaphor for his own movie late in the game when much is made of a pot of milk that has over-boiled). These are Lucien, Jean-Baptiste's brother (both are played by the terrific Jean-Louis Tritignant) and Vivane, who used to be Frederick, played by Vincent Perez. Both of them share a scene together towards the end of the movie in which the healing power of a pair of red pumps is demonstrated, but beyond that, they ground the film by providing a safe haven for the audience. I suppose it's possible that Vivane's character archetype was intended to be just as screwed up as the others--she is a transsexual, after all--but to my mind, she's the least screwed up person in the whole film. There's a short scene, also late in the film, where she lounges on a couch and it's clear that she's completely comfortable in her own skin while those around her are tearing their own personae to shreds.

Edited after the fact: One of my friends on the IMDB (who pointed me at the film) had this to say to me:

I assume Viviane is meant to be a force for calm - she's not perfectly settled, certainly, since all that bakery fantasy is surely a way of describing the perfect peace that still seems hazy (and always will, who ever sorts their life out totally?).
My response:

I think this is right, although I also think that Vivane's fantasy about being a baker woman is probably also intended to show her as, perhaps, the character with the sanest ambitions for her life. This is a difficult argument to make, given that the ambitions of the rest of the cast aren't made explicit. I would imagine that the disappointment that seems to inhabit them all are indicative of out-sized ambitions that have been thwarted. But then the movie doesn't really delve that deeply into the motives of any of the characters, beyond the surface of the present. For a while, I suspected that Vivane was a kind of "magical other," but the movie does an admirable job of deflecting that possibility. She's just as easily hurt as the other characters (when Claire says "You're not a woman or a man," the expression on her face is deeply wounded). Unlike the others, she takes it without retaliation.

I should also note that the movie gets one thing exactly, perfectly right in having Vivane relate her fantasy: many transsexuals long for a more mundane "normal" life, if only because most of us never have it.

As a side note, the American disc for this movie from Kino sucks. It's an absolutely horrible transfer. I'd be interested to see the Region 2 version, because it's GOT to be better than this.

No comments: