Only Clouds Move the Stars

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Only CloudsMove the Stars directedby Torun Lian
Passingoff a canard as insight, Vincent Canby in the March 25 New York Timesslapped Steven Spielberg with this backhanded compliment: "He has a child's-eyeview of the universe. He demonstrates an uncanny appreciation for children'sfears and fantasies... To hail him as an Eisenstein is to mislead him and thepublic." This insistence on regarding Hollywood's most accomplishedfilmmaker on an innocuous, childish (rather than seriously artistic) level ispart of the non-thinking that denies legitimacy to movies. Canby's suggestionthat a film about children cannot pertain to the fears and fantasies adultshold (or that the best Hollywood craftsmanship has no purchase on intellectualideas) derives from the hoariest, anti-intellectual condescension. But ratherthan argue Spielberg's case once again before a court of fools, I offerOnly Clouds Move the Stars, showing April 7 at the Film Society of LincolnCenter's Norwegian Film Festival?a film about children that is alsoa serious work of art.
Rusten, a serious-seemingredhead, resembles a prepubescent Julianne Moore shifting between awkwardnessand grace while Kristoffersen, a latchkey jester who jokes about his own isolation("Don't I look like Eddie Murphy?"), exhibits the most prepossessingboyish charm since Anton Glanzelius in My Life as a Dog. Lian followsthis pair through an absolutely limpid countryside and quiet streets. Lian isn'tquite the nature poet Jan Troell is (Troell's monumental Hamsunstarring Max Von Sydow?one of the decade's highpoints?was featuredin the 1997 Norwegian film program), but she's much interested in depictingharmony between the emotions of the characters and the landscape?the earthlyexperience?they inhabit. Her storybook compositions pare each scene toexistential essentials. The mood isn't Bergmanesque but the implicationssuggest a springtime Wild Strawberries. Through Maria and Jakob, Liansearches for the meaning of both suffering and living. Lian's title offersa practical moral, but like Spielberg her faith in the significance of childhoodexperience emphasizes the hard work involved in human understanding. Maria'sagony is no different from her parents' but Lian trusts that the littlegirl's perspective distills a universal dilemma. When Maria and her fatherwatch Jakob sleep in the bedroom Pee Wee left behind, their uneasiness recallsthe finest movie depictions of complex emotions: Satyajit Ray's, VittorioDeSica's, Robert Bresson's and Spielberg's. Lian achieves a childlikefearlessness about facing the world; that makes Only Clouds Moves the Starsa revelation.
The Dreamlifeof Angels

directed byErick Zonca

(photo courtesy of Wiki)

ElodieBouchez is a movie star but she makes you think of a real girl in The Dreamlifeof Angels. As the drifter Isa who lucks into a job at a garment factoryin Lille, France, her brunette helmet of hair, wide-eyed, direct stare and crimpledlips are so striking you don't dismiss her as one of the lumpenprole. Bouchez'sfull-headlights iconography suggests luminousprole?she vivifiesIsa's personality. The backpacking girl has a casual, enigmatic manner;she's a little weird but she also seems to have a dignified reserve. Fulfillingthe strategy of director Erick Zonca, Bouchez ennobles an anonymous girl byimparting her own peculiarities.
There at the sewing bench,not sure how to stitch, Isa fails workplace submission and condoned behavior.She hooks up with another sweatshop malcontent, the sullen blonde Marie (NatachaRegnier); they sense each other's discontent with conventional drudgery.Marie is apartment-sitting for a family friend who, along with her teenage daughter,was hurt in a car accident; both now lie comatose in a hospital. Isa moves inand their temporary rooming situation becomes regular, forcing the communicationMarie has cut off even from her own mother. Zonca uses those mostlyoffscreen relationships as parallels to his main interest in a fragile, fraughtsymbiosis. Isa and Marie's bond is soon tested by their reactions to severalmen in their lives. They taunt, then date a couple of disco bouncers, Fredo(Jo Prestia) and Charlie (Patrick Mercado)?scrubs like themselves. Thematch with these rough and horny opposites reveals everyone's vulnerabilities?theirdissatisfactions, too. Zonca's found a way to lift romantic fiction intoa realm of social critique. These girls and boys struggle with their own senseof worth while seeking to relate (most poignantly to be of interest) to eachother. The most modern, empathetic element in Zonca's concept shows thatit's the women who act on their unease. Taking burly Charlie's attentionfor granted Marie drifts toward club-owner Chris (Gregoire Colin). In what seemslike an equally benighted turn, Isa becomes captivated by her unseen landlords;she peeps into the comatose daughter's diary, then on an increasingly psychotichospital vigil steals into the girl's mute consciousness. Odd behavior doesn'tscare Zonca: He pursues its source from psychology and society to its inevitablydamaged social and psychological effect. His naturalist style offers a crediblecontext (when Isa and Marie lose their sewing jobs, they're seen in thetown square trying menial work passing fliers at evocative, darkening dusk).But Bouchez and Regnier supply emotional vibrancy. Hollywood actresses are sometimespraised for not holding back emotion, for outstripping the profession'sbourgeois propriety, but as Isa and Marie, Bouchez and Regnier just slip intothe "normal" pathos that movies frequently falsify. The tension inthese roles, the endangered friendship, shames nonsense like Set It Off.It's the most remarkable such relationship since Eric Rohmer'sFour Adventures of Mirabelle and Reinette. Achingly swift and believable,Isa and Marie's split is as palpable as their need for each other. Usually it's pop starswho demonstrate this emotional generosity: On their new album Fan Mail,TLC exquisitely bond with (presumably other female) listeners by insisting theyare "just like you." Each song dramatizes situations that turn girlsinto women (sex, workplace and social responsibility). The reason Fan Mailhas been the number-one selling album in the country for the past two weeksis the same that distinguishes The Dreamlife of Angels: Both works ofart get inside the emotional rationales of contemporary living through oftenignored female experience?not the petulance of middle-class progressivewomen but those ladies who need a social hand-up most: those whose routinesare limited to jobs and sexual recreation. T-Boz's screen debut in Belly(as a hiphop hausfrau) didn't allow her to express impudence or sinceritylike the Fan Mail tracks "Dear Lie," "Unpretty" or"I'm Good at Being Bad" where her strength and sensitivity shine.These songs could accompany the scenes in Dreamlife where Isa and Mariewander around, arm-in-arm, smirking at their whole indifferent environment?amirage of friendship in a political desert. Fan Mail and Dreamlifeadvance sisterhood, achieving the parallel to personal relations and publiccircumstance that Mike Leigh demonstrated in Career Girls. Like Leighand Babyface (who conceptualized the landmark Waiting to Exhale albumand had a hand in Fan Mail), Zonca is to be credited (and amazed at)for rescuing the significance in mundane working-class experience customarilyleft to the minutiae of women's magazine fiction. When Isa and Marie rompthrough an airport, kicking out the back light of a showoff's car or Isaconfronts Chris and matches his temerity with an impertinent slap, Zonca getsa portion of the subversive sass that TLC keep in their hip pockets. By ironicallytitling his naturalistic, humanist pursuit The Dreamlife of Angels, Zoncacalls attention to the private aspirations that pop art usually sensationalizes(as in the egregious Thelma and Louise) or colors gray.
Zola's realism in 1919couldn't have been more bracing than Zonca's straightforward taleof two girls' struggle to survive. It also has a Swiss movie legacy: Zoncafollows the political paths of Alain Tanner and John Berger's La Salamandrefeaturing Bulle Ogier as Rosamunde, a wily young woman bored to distractionby dead-end work, and Godard's Passion where Isabelle Huppert toiledin misery. Tanner and Berger scrupulously examined the condition of workplacealienation in a precise, observant style. Passion worked more dynamicallyon the esthetic principle of repulsion and contrast: bouncing modern cinema'sdepiction of life off classical art. In between Huppert's travails, Godardreproduced the light, shadow and figures of Renaissance painting, reexaminingthem to investigate how truthfully art relays human experience. Like Zonca,Godard was particularly interested in conveying, without condescension, thephenomenon of modern ennui as an eternal, work-related condition. More importantly,Passion probed artists' (filmmakers) moral and esthetic responsibilityin remaking life into art. That question comes alivein the excitement of Elodie Bouchez's face?the wiliness she bringsto Isa, enlarging the character from lone freakishness to concern for a newfriend and deep compassion about an endangered stranger. Best known to filmgoersfrom Andre Techine's Wild Reeds and Gael Morel's Full Speed,Bouchez brings to Isa an attentiveness that observes others' misfortuneswhile persevering through her own. Her face reflects the intelligence and feelingof conscientious filmmaking. She transforms the soap-opera cliche of shopgirls'romantic catastrophe into recognizable class tragedy. In Dreamlife'sscript (cowritten by Zonca and Roger Bohbot), Isa's arrival in Lille introducesa distinct class analysis that recalls Mike Leigh's in Naked. Marie'sattraction to selfish, malevolent Chris (Colin's tight features affecta perfect sneering attitude) suggests a self-destructive compulsion learnedfrom class envy; she flips out from her own confused attempt to protect againstsocial deprivation. Although she lacks Isa's instinct for rolling with life's punches, Marie's heartache provokes startling empathy. It shouldhit audiences as powerfully as that shellshocked moment in Naked when the tenants stood paralyzed before the domineering arrogance of their classsuperior. Zonca's heroines addcharm and sexual allure to what is essentially a chronicle of class tyranny.Its romantic appeal is paradoxical since it will probably attract those whoare prone to miss the point of the film's hypnotic and crushing final tableau.Scanned among a line of workers, Bouchez's open, determined, inward sufferingconnects us to their anomie; she gives this movie the spark of a personal storyand the scale of a social epic. What's this Gwyneth Paltrow foolishness!To find another actress who made Everywoman as piquant as Bouchez, you'dhave to go back to the silent era.

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