Sunday, September 13, 2009

Breaking free of the emptiness (Books - Night Train to Lisbon & Film - L'Emploi du Temps & Pierrot Le Fou)

The desire to break free of society's template and find one's more true self is, through no specific intention of my own, the theme of both the novel I am reading and the the two films I watched this weekend.

Laurent Cantet's L'Emploi du temps (Timeout is the American title) concerns Vincent, a reasonably well off French family man. Mom and 3 kids are installed in a well equipped and modern home, the in-laws live near by - and Vincent goes off to work, which keeps him on the road all week, calling in from meetings to apologize for yet another missed dinner. The trouble is, Vincent has been unemployed for months and the elaborate lie he embroiders about a potential job with the UN in Switzerland investing money to help under-financed countries develop infrastructure begins to take on a life of its own. He collects hundreds of thousands of francs simply by spouting unspecific rhetoric he has poached by stealing some of the U.N.'s public relations pieces from their lobby. I won't give the whole story away, but two things struck me about this dreamy, leisurely-paced film, one was the psychological insight about deception and especially self-deception, which I found detailed and subtly played Aurelien Recoing and the rest of the cast. The second was the emphasis on how devoid of meaning much of daily commerce is. The domestic scenes, the visits to school sports events and fairs are shot with warmth but distance, but all the scenes in the work world are icily cold, buildings are glass fortresses, people move their mouths in meetings and in phone conversation. Sentences come out, they contain the right catch-words but are devoid of any substance whatever. The biggest question the film left me with (and meant to leave me with, I believe) was whether Vincent really wanted to be in the game or not. It seemed as though his self-worth was really caught up in everyone thinking he was employed at this level. When the people around him thought he was they praised him and gave him money, his wife and parents felt more secure. But Vincent called his wife three or four times a day, not merely out of an insecure need to shore up the elaborate lie he had built, he also seemed to call because he needed connection with her and wanted her love. He seemed to crave connection with people around him and yet the people around him seemed to wish to connect most through his accomplishments. A quietly provocative film and surprisingly similar in some thematic ways to...

Jean Luc Goddard's 1965 Pierrot Le Fou which also explored opting out of society's conventions, but in a more manic and aggressive style. Pierrot who, he keeps telling the camera, is really named Ferdinand, is married to a wealthy Italian woman, lives in Paris, and reads art criticism as she plays tennis and tries to get her husband gainfully employed through Daddy. Early in the film, the couple attends a cocktail party in which the guests seem to spout nothing but platitudes and advertisement slogans. This was remarkably similar to L'Emploi du Temps emphasis on conventional society's reliance on empty rhetoric so that people in the course of daily interaction whether social or economic don't have to think. While Vincent had a quietly desperate need that vacillated between wanting to escape and wanting to take part so that he would be admired, Pierrot le Fou is angrily dismissive, (this is the 1960s, you know) condemnatory of valuing brand-name shampoo as war rages in Vietnam. Pierrot decides unequivocally to "drop out," as they said then, and run to the South of France with the babysitter who, incidentally, is being chased by Algerian gun men. He is played with iconic, cigarette-dangling insouciance by Paul Belmondo. She is played with irrepressible carelessness by Anna Karina. This is a courageously experimental film making with direct-audience address, characters bursting into song, voice-overs of quotes from art criticism, shots with colored filters over the lens. It's part screw-ball comedy, part musical, yet as violent as Quentin Tarratino's films, and is simultaneously serious social criticism. Although both character's want to drop out of conventional life, she is a nihilist, he is an intellectual wastrel. This is film making with both a lively spirit and an intellectual seriousness and that brings me to the book I have been reading over the past week...

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, a Swiss author now living in Germany, has received such a contradictory reception from its critics, I find it fascinating. The paperback edition is larded with hyperbolic praise for its seriousness, its philosophy. "It is a handbook for the soul..." the cover screams. "I read it in three nights and was then convinced to change my life," another said. Other critics not plastered across the book's back and front covers or first few pages found it "Fantastical, long-winded and dull..." or "turgid...bombastic." "Think of W.G. Sebald recast for the mass market: stripped of nuance, cooked at high temperature and pounded home, clause after clause." The controversy alone made me want to read it. In a sentence the novel concerns a Swiss teacher of dead languages who comes to life. A chance meeting with a woman on a bridge leads him to a philosophical book by a Portuguese doctor, which leads him to upend a life musty with routine and pursue the story of this man's life; but what this really is is a journey to himself. The passages from the philosophy book are a bit long-winded and very repetitive in theme. There is nothing particularly nuanced about this story (many of the critics blame the translator), but I am finding his book-laden adventure appealing to the bookish romantic in me and I am always a sucker for stories of self-discovery and escape from routine. In fact, it has been quite a weekend for them. I'll let you know when I'm done with it, on which side of the argument I landed.

4 comments:

Smriti said...

emI love French movies! They have a fabulously way of tackling prosaic or even delicate subjects! I wish I had access to French films like you do!
We used to get a French channel called TV5 and I would watch one film almost every evening! I vaguely recollect Pierrot Le Fou..for all the others I recall a blank!!

Ted said...

Smriti- I can't help thinking that Netflix is eventually going to be electronic rather than a mail service, in which case it can go international, in which case you'll have access to everything! Might be a decade though.

Peter said...

Hello, Ted! I reached your blog via Matt. I love your take on movies and books.

Have you seen this French movie titled Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train? It's one of my favorite French films.

Ted said...

Thank you, Peter. I hope you'll visit often. Yes. I love that film. If nothing else would have won me to it, their using Jeff Buckley in the sound track definitely won me as an admirer. I can't remember which song they used any more. Halleluja or Lilac Wine?