Beyond the Multiplex

A haunting French film about a temp worker, a Swedish portrait of modern anomie, and the Kingdom of Bhutan's first feature film. Plus: The Oscar-nominated film about the children of sex workers in Calcutta.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published February 3, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

I'm probably not supposed to give props to the competition like this, but I recently saw New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott speaking on a panel about independent film, and he said something really smart. The panel was mostly a lot of bitching and moaning about how dreary the current state of the American independent scene is, and how we're just drinking the backwash of all those great movies from 1994 to 2000 or so. (I pretty much agree with that, as it happens.)

But then Scott said he feels incredibly lucky to be a film critic right now, and he thinks it's a hopeful time, almost a golden age. He was talking about the explosion of vibrant cinema all over the world, and he's absolutely right. American indie directors seem increasingly divided into those who make emotionless film-geek genre movies (hello, Quentin!) and those who make quirky little navel-gazing meditations about themselves and their endlessly fascinating middle-class friends (hello, Alexander!). In January alone, I saw five movies made in different corners of the planet, and each one was a mind-opening experience. Each reminded me of a contradictory law of cinematic physics: The film world gets more tightly connected all the time, but it's far bigger than we usually realize.

Of course it's true that we have to seek these movies out; you won't find them at the mall, unless your mall is a lot hipper than the ones I visit. If you live anywhere outside a handful of major cities and college towns, you're likelier to see them on video than on the big screen. But that, gentle readers, is why God invented progressive-scan DVD players: If you don't like the Manhattan where I live, you can be a connoisseur of weird art films in Manhattan, Kan., or Manhattan, Nev.

After skipping the last bit of 2004 due to, as all weaselers say, circumstances beyond our control, Beyond the Multiplex is back. (Recommendations: Godard's "Nôtre Musique," sort of, and Sean Penn's performance in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon.") If the god of DVD players is willing, I'll be here every couple of weeks with the latest in foreign and ultra-indie releases, documentaries, disreputable horror flicks and whatever else comes from the kinds of distributors who work out of their apartments with help from the neighborhood Kinko's and an EarthLink address.

There's an embarrassment of riches this time out, from a disturbing French debut film to an old-fashioned Scandinavian emotional bloodbath, a slow-motion road movie in the Himalayan foothills, and a coming-of-age yarn interrupted by a CIA-sponsored coup. And that's not even counting the Oscar-nominated documentary "Born Into Brothels," which I caught up with late and which left me weeping tears of grief and gratitude.

"She's One of Us": Story of a mad temp worker (is that redundant?)
French movies are in a funny period. They keep threatening to fall down a rabbit hole of sadism and self-regard, as do Gaspar Noé's "Irreversible" (which I reluctantly admired), Bruno Dumont's "Twentynine Palms" (an almost comical disaster), Olivier Assayas' "Demonlover" (interminable and unwatchable), Claire Denis' "Trouble Every Day" and so on. But those directors, especially Denis and Dumont, have all made much better movies too, and ambitious young directors keep surfacing in the land of fromage and escargots, many of them women. (See, for instance, Delphine Gleize's "Carnage" and Anne Fontaine's "How I Killed My Father," two of the best films I've seen in recent years.)

Like so many of the new French films, Siegrid Alnoy's "She's One of Us" ("Elle est des nôtres," for Francophone snobs and purists) isn't set in Paris but rather in a relatively anonymous provincial city, in this case Annecy, in the Alpine foothills near the Swiss and Italian borders. Alnoy seems to be seeking a brutal contrast between these picturesque, sometimes stunning surroundings and the empty, routinized life of Christine (Sasha Andres), her temp-worker protagonist.

And like so many other young filmmakers -- especially Europeans -- Alnoy apparently feels duty-bound to issue a manifesto explaining what she's doing. I have read this but will scrupulously try to ignore it, the way I've ignored Spike Lee's many bonehead pronouncements over the years. "She's One of Us" is a haunting story of loss and disorientation, anchored by Andres' extraordinary performance and Christophe Pollock's disturbing, apparently aimless traveling shots through the empty streets of suburban Annecy. It speaks for itself eloquently; we don't need the director to lecture us about how modern society is a "barren wasteland" and how Christine "seeks extreme situations which lead to the edge of reason, where humanity is defined." Sheesh.

When we meet Christine, she's holding body and soul together with a series of secretarial temp jobs, but her performance of normalcy is pretty much a sham. She overhears half of a conversation in the supermarket and repeats it the next day to her co-workers, as if the observations were hers. She takes naps in chairs at the mall (giving no notice to the young man who's watching her). Invited to go out for drinks after work, she can't even fake the rituals of social intercourse with people she doesn't really know or like. When she strikes up a casual friendship with Patricia (Catherine Mouchet), her supervisor at the temp agency, and finds out Patricia has a collection of porcelain owls, she claims to collect them herself -- and then has to race out and buy a dozen or so.

This movie may drive you nuts, but it'll also keep you on the edge of your seat: What's the story with this chick, anyway? Is she mentally disabled in some way? Or profoundly depressed, or psychotic, or a space alien? Is she a deeply closeted lesbian? (Given her uniquely frumpy style of dress, she might be a time-traveling lesbian from Virginia Woolf's circle of friends.) There's not exactly an answer to these questions, but stuff does happen. Christine gets an actual permanent job and goes through an amazing caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation, becoming a perfectly attractive 30ish woman complete with a boyfriend, sexy lingerie and plans for Italian vacations.

She also does something horrible and unforgivable, and clearly one event is existentially linked to the other. Alnoy wants us to understand, I guess, that normal life is always a performance; we all fake it, some better than others, and we've all injured other people while playing our assigned parts. Gradually, Christine becomes the target of two comically inept police detectives and their grave, philosophical supervisor, Degas (Carlo Brandt). The movie's mysterious, almost metaphysical dimensions come to the fore, and we understand why Alnoy begins the film with a quote from Dostoevsky. Sure, there's a little intellectual overreach here, but there's also a haunting vision of the strangeness of ordinary life, and a mesmerizing debut for both a director and an actress we will surely hear from again.

"She's One of Us" opened last week in New York; it may or may not spread to other cities.

"Daybreak": Not much winter light from Sweden
Speaking of European angst, the portrait of the decaying Swedish welfare state in Björn Runge's wrenching "Daybreak" won't be any too comforting to traumatized blue-state Americans dreaming of an idyllic refuge elsewhere. Runge's films, not often seen in the United States, come out of the Ingmar Bergman school of cathartic emotional drama, but the 21st century Swedes in "Daybreak" are less concerned with the death of God or the fate of Woman than with the right combination of booze, drugs and money to get them through one long, dark night.

Again, we find ourselves in a distinctive provincial setting -- a small city in northern Sweden -- but Runge's three not quite interlinked yarns of modern anomie could probably be set in Hungary or England or Oklahoma. An older couple has lost all hope for the crime-ridden outside world and wants moonlighting bricklayer Anders (Magnus Krepper) to wall them up alive inside their suburban home. (They calculate that they have enough canned beans to survive for six years, maybe seven.) An embittered, deserted wife (Ann Petrén) stalks her ex-husband and makes money by selling her psychiatric medication to teenagers in a parking garage. Then there's a two-couple dinner party that makes the one in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" seem downright jolly, at which Agnes (Pernilla August) learns that her feckless, handsome husband Rickard (Jakob Eklund) has gotten the wife in the other couple pregnant.

If all this sounds fairly gloomy, well, I can't tell you that it isn't. But Runge is a top-notch filmmaker who deserves your attention, and if you're the kind of borderline masochist who can buckle your seatbelt and ride out the tremendous emotional turbulence, he delivers a genuine glimpse of daylight by the movie's end.

"Daybreak" is masterfully paced and constructed, and the performances are memorable. As the battling couple balanced between passion and hatred, August and Eklund (two of the leading standard-bearers in the prodigious tradition of Swedish film acting) will get the most notice, but Petrén, with tremendous effort, finally wins your sympathy for the rejected, shrill Anita, and Krepper's fundamentally decent Anders is the movie's moral anchor. When the sun comes up he's back home with his wife and daughter, planning to watch a movie and order a pizza. Life goes on, even after a night like this one.

"Daybreak" opens this week at the Film Forum in New York, with other cities to follow.

"Travellers & Magicians": Going nowhere fast, and loving it
I guess if the Kingdom of Bhutan had to wait this long for its first feature film, it might as well be as thoroughly engaging as Khyentse Norbu's "Travellers & Magicians." Going into this movie, I was thinking pretty much the same thing you're thinking now: A "village movie," as they say at film festivals, with pretty scenery, a treacle-slow plot you can't really understand, and dutiful life lessons that make the whole thing seem like eating your vegetables. Well, forget it. Norbu's dramatic debut (he also made "The Cup," which I guess was Bhutan's first feature-length documentary) is a wry, knowing comedy. It isn't going anywhere, but the journey is highly entertaining, detouring along the way into a mysterious fable out of Zhang Yimou's "Ju Dou" (or, for that matter, out of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice").

And hey, that pretty scenery is nothing to sneeze at. Bhutan is a landlocked country in east-central Asia, squished between India and China in the Himalayan foothills. Our hero, Dondup (Tsewang Dandup), he of the shaggy, '70s-style mane and the boombox crammed with crappy Western pop-rock, is a minor government official in a remote mountain town. When a long-awaited letter arrives from a relative or friend in America (Norbu doesn't waste time on the details), Dondup seizes on the opportunity for his big break. All he has to do is get to the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, inside two days, and he'll be leavin' on a jet plane, bound for the land of Axl Rose and other big dreamers.

But small-talking villagers make him miss the bus, and Dondup finds himself stranded on the roadside with an assortment of other pilgrims and hitchhikers, on a light-hearted symbolic voyage that starts to resemble "The Canterbury Tales," or maybe the endlessly digressive tales of Diderot's "Jacques the Fatalist." Dondup is bound for America, dammit, and he has no time at first for the chatty Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga), the silent apple merchant (Ap Dochu) or the elderly papermaker with a beautiful daughter (Sonam Lhamo) who become his companions.

Of course that changes -- and if the general course of events in "Travellers & Magicians" is predictable, I didn't mind one bit. Gradually, as Dondup's journey slows to a crawl, he's drawn into the hypnotic story told in installments by the monk. And so are we, to the point where this story-within-a-story pretty much takes over Norbu's movie. It's the story of two brothers, the indolent Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) and the overlooked, ambitious Karma (Namgay Dorjee). Tashi is studying magic, but doesn't believe in it; Karma, on the other hand, has been paying attention and spikes his brother's wine with herbs that send him on a hallucinatory journey to a mountaintop refuge where a bitter old man named Agay (Gomchen Penjore) lives with Deki (Deki Yangzom), his sultry, much younger wife.

If you're paying attention, that's now a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and although Norbu has a very light touch with magical realism, the various levels of narrative begin to infect each other: At one point, Dondup tries to flag down a passing sports car, and the Westernized, miniskirted woman at the wheel sure looks a lot like Deki, the mountaintop seductress. In the monk's story, Tashi can't seem to find his way off that mountain, but it's never clear whether magic or just young lust is at work. You might say the same thing is at work in the so-called real world; as Dondup works his way toward Thimphu by bus, truck, tractor and shoe leather, the pretty young Sonam looks more and more interesting and America seems ever farther away. "Travellers & Magicians" won't rock your cinematic sense of self, I guess, but it's a smart, winsome and often beautiful little picture; I didn't want it to end.

"Travellers & Magicians" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

Quick cuts: "Machuca" tackles prep school and Pinochet; the heartbreaking "Born Into Brothels"
I'm getting to Andrés Wood's "Machuca" a little late -- it's already come and gone at New York's Film Forum -- but it's a powerful and handsome film that should, in time, reach fairly deep into the heartland. Chilean movies of recent years have mostly steered away from the grim subject of that country's two-decade military dictatorship, which began in 1973 with the CIA-sponsored coup against Salvador Allende, the democratically elected left-wing president. Director Wood was an upper-middle-class 8-year-old in that year, a student at an exclusive Santiago prep school, and he uses that perspective to break the subject wide open.

Wood's protagonist, Gonzalo (the cherubic Matias Quer), is more like 11, but much of the tale is apparently drawn from Wood's own biography. Gonzalo is barely aware of the Allende government and the rising class conflict its socialist policies have provoked, but his friendship with Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna), a poor, mixed-race kid admitted to his school on scholarship, becomes Gonzalo's window into the abyss separating rich and poor, socialist and nationalist, white and Indian. As he is drawn into the Machuca family's shantytown world -- enticed partly by Pedro's short-skirted, smart-mouthed and sexually precocious neighbor (Manuela Martelli) -- Gonzalo begins to notice things about his own family. His dad has mysterious black-market connections, and his mom appears to be sleeping with an aristocratic older Argentine man in exchange for the kinds of European designer clothes nobody else in Santiago can afford.

Into this pitch-perfect period piece about teenage awakening comes Gen. Augusto Pinochet's infamous coup itself, packing a wallop that devastates Gonzalo and his world of adventure across class boundaries. I won't drop hints, but the ending of "Machuca" may haunt you for a long time. Wood's film works, first and foremost, as a powerful character drama; it's not trying to teach historical or ideological lessons. But along the way, it can't help but remind American viewers of one of the least savory examples of the United States' insistent meddling in Latin American affairs.

I'm also late on the Oscar-nominated documentary "Born Into Brothels," which documents British photographer Zana Briski's quixotic attempts to help the children she meets while shooting in Sonagachi, the notorious red-light district of Calcutta. But late is better than never when the movie is as remarkable as this one. Filmmaker Ross Kauffman (who co-directed with Briski) creates such memorable images out of squalid surroundings that I sometimes wondered whether I was being distracted from the devastating stories of these kids by the beautiful cinematography.

Briski begins by teaching the kids -- the children and even grandchildren of sex workers -- to use cameras, and the results are astonishing on a number of levels. At the very least, they document their world in a street-level way that no one else could equal, and in the case of at least two, a girl named Puja and a boy named Avijit, Briski seems to have unleashed genuine talent. But talent, intelligence, spunk and hope may not be enough for the kids of Sonagachi -- the girls will be forced onto "the line" (some within a year or two), while the boys are destined to become thieves, pimps and drug dealers.

Briski realizes that her task is essentially hopeless; the overworked social service agencies have abandoned these children, and when one of their mothers is killed by her pimp, the police won't even show up. But Briski makes the only ethical choice anyone could make: She refuses to turn her back and fights valiantly to get her group of kids out of the wretched whorehouses of Sonagachi and into boarding schools where they might have half a chance of escaping.

What happens to Avijit, Puja and the rest of Briski's junior posse will leave you weeping, in some cases out of sorrow and, in a few, out of joy. There's no storybook ending to "Born Into Brothels," only the half-redeeming idea that someone tried to throw these delightful and doomed children a tattered lifeline, tried to prove to them that there was a world beyond the streets of Calcutta, and that it was possible -- however remotely -- for them to reach it.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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