Beyond the Multiplex

A breakthrough work from one of today's most important young directors. Plus: Tarantino's camera guy explores "oral sexuality," and Sally Potter delivers hot sex -- in iambic pentameter -- to the NPR set.


Andrew O'Hehir
June 24, 2005 12:00AM (UTC)

Want contemporary social relevance? We got it in spades. But relevance isn't always what it seems to be at the movies. In short order I'll get to this week's prime offering, Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's "The World," which could certainly be read as a gloomy parable about the costs of globalization. But let's face it, that's a terrible reason for paying 10 bucks to sit in the dark with strangers for two hours. You don't want to see "The World" for its supposed message; you want to see it because it's a dreamy romantic tragedy, staged with tremendous poignancy against the hypermodern desolation of contemporary Beijing.

First, though, while I won't attempt to calculate the odds of two films in the same week focusing on love affairs between white women and Arab men, let's agree it's a striking coincidence. The differences between Ziad Doueiri's "Lila Says" and Sally Potter's "Yes," however, are more instructive than the similarities.

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Defenders of pop culture -- as if it needed any defending at this point -- will observe that network TV has already engaged this topic, a couple of years back in a plotline on the Fox series "24." (The Arab was innocent; the white woman was a terrorist.) That's what TV does; it tackles "issues" by absorbing them whole and virtually undigested into its plot-driven, deterministic universe.

Forgive me for using such a terrible word in the 21st century, but art is actually after something different, even something bigger. If neither "Lila Says" nor "Yes" fires on all cylinders all the time, that's because both films have higher ambitions, and take bigger risks, than anything you're likely to see on TV. I don't recall that the aforementioned "24" romance was conducted in iambic pentameter (as in "Yes"), or that the white woman's first question to her Levantine swain was "Do you want to see my pussy?" (as in "Lila Says").

Beyond that, Doueiri's and Potter's films are both experiments, combinations of odd elements that forge alchemically into something unique and nonreproducible. Whatever their flaws, "Yes" and "Lila Says" are breathtaking visual adventures that don't seek to replicate the surfaces of the visible world or trudge through the steps of some familiar narrative or another. Instead, both try to create the haunted, magical space of cinema, which exists somewhere between the outside world and the innermost temple of our consciousness. They remind us, among other things, that while all movies are constructions, the best are closer to being cathedrals than airports.

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"The World": Love among the Pyramids (and the Eiffel Tower, too)
"The Twin Towers were bombed on Sept. 11," says one character ruefully to another in Jia Zhangke's new film "The World." "But we still have them here."

Well, yeah, sort of. "Here" is World Park, a perennially under-construction theme park in suburban Beijing that features a spookily foreshortened replica of pre-9/11 Lower Manhattan, sitting in a lagoon-sized version of New York Harbor. That's only one of World Park's attractions; none of Jia's characters has ever left China, but they all spend their days wandering from the Taj Mahal to the Pyramids to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Elvis-maned, chain-smoking Taisheng (Chen Taishen) works as a park security guard and spends most of his day on the observation deck of a one-third-size Eiffel Tower.

Jia's title, and this setting, establish a set of ironies almost too obvious to comment upon, but "The World" is not some arch or chilly exercise in postmodern anomie. If a movie can be stark and rapturous at the same time, this is that movie. Taisheng and his girlfriend, Tao (the sprite-like Zhao Tao), are kids from the poor and distant provinces trying to make it in the big city; their story is an archetypal one about big dreams, lurid temptations and doomed love. Their environment at World Park sometimes seems barren beyond belief, but at other times it's lovely or comic: Tao walking across a simulated Piazza San Marco with her shawl fluttering in the breeze; Taisheng berating his errant brother Erxiao (Ji Shuai) beneath a bogus Sphinx and a solitary, cud-chewing camel.

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Jia became an international cult hero for his earlier films "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures," shot documentary-style amid the disaffected, pop-saturated youth of his native Shanxi province, in China's rugged and remote northwest. Filmed in spectacular wide-screen format on a much higher budget (that is, higher than nothing), "The World" memorably fulfills his potential, and if some tiny percentage of his film festival audience thinks he's sold out, that's too bad for them. (Answer to a question I have long considered: The translated title of "Unknown Pleasures" deliberately references the late-'70s Joy Division album; the Chinese title doesn't.)

Like the director's other films, "The World" combines soap opera, sociology, pop spectacle and pure imagistic cinema. Jia's not afraid to shoot the cheese-ball theme-park dance numbers Tao performs and make them look stunning, but his best moments actually come in heartbreakingly intimate compositions: Tao doing a backbend in the cluttered World Park dormitory, clutching a cigarette, with Taisheng's arms around her waist. Or the two of them riding a "magic carpet" in "Paris" -- they sit absolutely still while a video camera wobbles and a monitor depicts them sailing happily above the Trocadéro fountains.

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You may feel at first that "The World" is a striking film in which not much is happening, but Jia gradually builds a densely absorbing web of stories around the central couple. There's Tao's best friend, Wei (Jing Jue), a redheaded dancer, and her jealous boyfriend, Niu (Jiang Zhongwei). There's a young man from Taisheng's village, mysteriously named Little Sister, who shows up and starts working double shifts as a construction worker on the booming outskirts of World Park, with disastrous consequences. There's Qun (Huang Yiqun), an affluent clothing designer whose husband lives overseas and who takes a predatory interest in Taisheng. There's a Russian dancer named Anna (Alla Chtcherbakova), who becomes Tao's friend although they can't speak a word of each other's language.

There's no question that "The World" depicts a culture that has radically uprooted itself and traveled in two or three decades from agrarian feudalism to text messaging, karaoke and theme parks. But this film is not an angry or polemical tale; it's a sad and sweet one, simultaneously entranced by nostalgia for a lost China (and, really, a lost humanity) and by the luscious allure of a new technological age.

When Tao and Taisheng read the text messages on their cellphones, Jia launches delicious animated sequences depicting their internal worlds. These are so delightful and surprising I shouldn't spoil them for you, and one could say the same about this film as a whole. (Fair warning: If you demand unconditionally happy endings from your love stories, stay home and watch "You've Got Mail.") This time the film-geek hype is justified: "The World" is a breakthrough work from one of the most important young directors anywhere in, um, the world.

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"The World" opens July 1 in New York, July 29 in Chicago and Washington, Aug. 26 in Boston and Sept. 9 in Seattle, with more cities to follow.

"Lila Says": A wildflower grows in the back alleys of Marseille
Ziad Doueiri is patient and polite when you ask him about Quentin Tarantino. Only after talking thoughtfully about his relationship with the indie godhead does the Lebanese-American director permit himself an almost inaudible sigh. "I guess I have to make my own $150 million movie," he says. "Then I can finally stop answering questions about Quentin."

Doueiri became known as one of the most skillful camera operators in the indie-film world for his work on "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" (among other movies), but what he really wanted to do, as they say, was direct. His sultry erotic drama "Lila Says," starring the impossibly gorgeous Vahina Giocante as a sexually precocious blonde growing up wild in the French port city of Marseille, is only his second film, and his first in six years.

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After his well-received first feature, "West Beirut," a memorable tale of growing up amid Lebanon's civil war, Doueiri started putting together an ambitious project about U.S. policy in the Middle East, focusing on a real event of 1991. (He won't tell me exactly what that was.) "We had a producer in France," he says. "We had built about a third of the budget. It was exciting -- we had all this material about secret contacts between Washington, Amman, Damascus, Jerusalem."

Then something happened. To be specific, a couple of buildings in New York fell down, and Doueiri realized that a movie by an Arab-American criticizing U.S. policy wasn't the most marketable idea, and that most American actors would run, not walk, in the opposite direction. Now the production of that film is back on after four years, which is one reason Doueiri is visiting New York. "The war in Iraq has started opening people's eyes," he says. "This taboo subject, I think, may have been opened up."

In the meantime, Doueiri read an anonymous French erotic novel called "Lila dit ça," about a steamy love affair in the Paris slums between an Arab guy and a Polish-French girl. Several European filmmakers had tried to adapt it without success, and Doueiri saw a personal opportunity, a chance "to get away from the United States for a while" after 17 years in and around the film industry in Los Angeles.

"What I liked about the book was that it's trashy," Doueiri says. "It's not a vulgar book, it's trashy. I liked that -- there's no fucking around." To be blunt about it, there's also no fucking; the sex in "Lila Says" is almost entirely, shall we say, oral. Giocante's Lila talks impressively dirty to Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), a sleepy-eyed, caramel-skinned boy she has met on the street, and the inexperienced Chimo, incurably smitten, isn't really sure what to do about it.

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"I wanted to exude sexuality through words, not images," says Doueiri. "There are so many movies where you see good sex scenes, especially in French cinema. I wanted to do something where the sex comes out of somebody's mouth and isn't based on people's bodies.

"What interested me, in fact, was how much the oral transmission can affect your body. When you talk dirty, or you tackle a fantasy subject, it can really turn on the other person. I think we've all had that experience, but I didn't know if I could do it in a film. I was scared I would wind up with something that was all talk, and not arousing at all."

Opinions will no doubt vary on how far Doueiri succeeds with "Lila Says," which the filmmaker transposed to the more familiar (to him) Mediterranean surroundings of Marseille, the most Arab city in France. At first I thought the movie was too self-consciously poetic, too faux-innocent. In the opening first scene, Lila approaches Chimo, surrounded by a sunburst or nimbus, and tells him unashamedly that she's beautiful -- she has the face of an angel, she's a Ferrari in a junkyard. Then, with total nonchalance, she asks him, "T'as pas envie de voir ma chatte?"

Doueiri says he had more than 500 French actresses read that scene, and none of them found the tone he was looking for. "I was starting to panic," he says. "Fuck, maybe it doesn't work. Maybe this idea of oral sexuality doesn't work at all. I was just desperately hoping somebody was going to come along and get it right. Then Vahina came in and read the line, and when she says, 'Do you want to see my pussy?' it's like she's saying, 'Do you want to have a cup of coffee?' That was exactly what I was looking for."

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If "Lila Says" starts out as a kind of male-fantasy picture, it gradually transforms itself (beginning, perhaps, with that early question) into something else. Lila's pornographic narratives hang over the not-quite lovers like a languorous, unfulfilled promise, and the dreamy, passive Chimo becomes almost as much an erotic presence as she does. Both of these kids need to get out of the dirty-laundry streets of Marseille and escape from Chimo's increasingly threatening deadbeat friends. Their mostly imaginary -- and, in fact, almost completely innocent -- sex life is the only refuge they have.

Doueiri started out, he admits, with a simple question: "I wanted the audience to constantly wonder, 'Is he going to fuck her?'" He wound up with a set of questions about Lila and Chimo that were more complicated and delicate. "The female perspective took over the film," he says with a sigh. "Believe me, that was not my intention, but this developed organically during the shooting. Maybe this makes me a 'women's director.' I think I do have a macho side -- I'll just have to express it in another film."

Unsurprisingly, the camerawork in "Lila Says" is spectacular. Its showpiece is a fantastically fluid series of shots capturing a moped ride Chimo and Lila take along the Marseille docks. (Lila's hand is down Chimo's pants, actually, but we don't see any of that.) "Vahina really craves the screen," Doueiri explains. "I brought the camera right up close to her, using extreme wide-angle lenses, and she looked almost three-dimensional, as though you could reach out and touch her. To me, this scene defined the atmosphere of the film, and I wanted to keep the camera moving with them as they were riding."

It took five days, Doueiri says, to shoot what ends up as three minutes of unforgettable screen time, set to a hauntingly sexy song by Vanessa Daou. "I really wanted to shoot in a postindustrial zone like the docks," he adds. "I didn't want a scene in nature with birds and butterflies. It makes the whole thing trashier, edgier. This is what Lila does -- she creates a sensual aura in the wrong place."

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"Lila Says" opens June 24 in New York, July 1 in Los Angeles, July 15 in Boston, July 22 in Chicago and San Francisco, July 29 in Atlanta and Seattle, and Aug. 5 in Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Diego and Washington.

"Yes": Tweed skirts, white walls, hot sex and Shakespeare's rhyme/It's dazzling, yes -- but dies before its time
Sally Potter's new film "Yes" shouldn't possibly work. This isn't just a quasi-experimental post-9/11 message movie; it isn't even a post-9/11 message movie that's also a highbrow erotic romance. It's those things and it's written almost entirely in iambic pentameter, the rhythm associated with classic English verse and, more specifically, with a certain well-known Elizabethan playwright.

Hardly anybody besides Potter, the feminist polymath of British cinema, would have tried this -- in fact, the only filmmaker I can think of whose sensibility might be in this range is Peter Greenaway, Potter's misanthropic evil twin. The characters played by long-necked, long-legged Joan Allen and soulful, dignified Simon Abkarian have no names; they both live in London, and we gather that she's an Irish-American scientist and he's a Lebanese surgeon turned cook. She's unhappily married to a British diplomat and he's -- well, we never find out much about him, despite the film's good intentions. I guess he has the kinds of deep secrets swarthy romantic heroes must have.

As they progress from a chance meeting at a fancy dinner (she's dining; he's working) to adulterous passion, these two don't spend much time in anything we can recognize as the real world. Oh, there are shops, restaurants, parks and other familiar spaces, but Potter's interiors are nearly empty geometric planes in brilliant whites or subdued earth tones, almost abstract in their intensity. She has a reputation as a cerebral filmmaker, but that's not fair; she has a tremendous feeling for the sensuous nature of the medium, and for the most part "Yes" buzzes with visual life and imagination.

I'm not surprised that Potter's iambic verse is arch and witty, often tightly wound with hidden meanings and imaginative half rhymes -- especially as spoken by Shirley Henderson, the irrepressible British comic who provides running commentary in the role of Allen's housecleaner. ("There's no such thing as nothing, not at all/It may be really very, very small/But it's still there. In fact I think I'd guess/That 'no' does not exist. There's only 'yes.'")

What is surprising, though, is how well Potter's poetry works as movie dialogue. Quoting her lines out of context doesn't really work, but Potter has made the paradoxical discovery (well understood by all English-language poets before the 20th century) that formal strictures can liberate ideas, and her actors respond to this with brio. At least until Potter really turns her attention to the film's predictable political message, "Yes" is inexpressibly invigorating, like finding a cool, clear stream where you expected a brackish, tepid backwater.

Allen herself has something of that effect, and if my reaction is obvious it's nonetheless real: You hardly ever get to see erotic roles for women her age -- and when you do, it knocks your socks off. Allen is of course a beautiful and distinguished actress, irredeemably sexy with her aristocratic bones and tweed skirts, and Potter photographs her lovingly (she's never seen naked, or even close to it). But Allen also looks every minute of her age (which is 48), and in presenting her as a woman with a vibrant -- nay, voracious -- sexual appetite, Potter knows that she's violating one of the hoariest of film taboos. It's very hot.

For many audience members, that'll be more than enough. It's easy to deride Potter as a filmmaker for NPR listeners who don't go to the movies, but hey -- people who love Nina Totenberg have rights too. Personally, I'm disappointed that Potter settles for banal identity-politics whining and a phoned-in plot resolution after things get sticky between Allen and Akbarian. Then there's the final scene, which takes place on a beach in Cuba (so help me!). If the Nation carried cologne ads, this is what they'd look like. But I come to praise "Yes," not bury it. Sally Potter is brilliant and has balls -- what more do you want in a woman?

"Yes" opens June 24 in New York and Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

Fast forward: Homage to Macedonia, and a crisp, terrifying "Elevator" ride
I caught up with Ivo Trajkov's "The Great Water" a bit late in the crush of recent foreign films, and it's an impressive entry in the eastern European memory-movie mode. A prominent politician in Macedonia (the former Yugoslav republic, not the Greek region) is rushed to the hospital after a crippling heart attack, and revisits brutal memories of his youth in a Stalinist reeducation camp for the children of "enemies of communism." Jug-headed little Saso Kekenovski plays the irrepressible hero, torn between a profoundly religious classmate who seems to possess mysterious powers and a fervent socialist vixen whose true passion is for Comrade Stalin.

Writer-director Trajkov was educated in Prague and now lives there, and "The Great Water" -- adapted from a famous Macedonian novel of the Tito period -- features many familiar Tarkovsky-lite cinematic gestures of eastern European magic realism. Few films from Macedonia have ever reached Western audiences (no others I can think of, in fact), so I was rooting for this one all the way. Despite his reliance on visual cliché, Trajkov mines a rich vein of morbid Slavic comedy, and his young characters have an appetite for adventure that's thoroughly unfake. (Now playing in New York, with more cities to follow.)

Perhaps more famous for the Miles Davis score that accompanies it than for the movie itself, Louis Malle's 1957 debut, "Elevator to the Gallows" (or, if you're British, "Lift to the Scaffold"), is back in a lustrous new 35 mm black-and-white print. I for one had never seen it before, and it turns out to be a lot more than a curiosity: It's a tightly structured thriller with a brilliantly moody performance by Jeanne Moreau, and depending on your point of view, it's either one of the few genuine French noir films or an early entry in the New Wave.

The plot is virtually archetypal: Moreau and her ex-paratrooper lover (Maurice Ronet) plot the murder of her husband, but one minor oversight launches a disastrous stream of consequences. We've got a murderer trapped in an elevator with the cops closing in, a beautiful woman wandering the Parisian streets alone and a couple of hotheaded kids in a stolen convertible with a loaded gun. The cinematography by Henri Decaë is amazing -- and yes, Davis' awesome cool-jazz score is even better with pictures attached. (Opens this week in New York and Boston, Aug. 19 in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., Sept. 9 in Washington, Sept. 16 in San Diego and Sept. 23 in Atlanta.)


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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