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Sept 28/12

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Laurence Anyways (Movie); The Goldberg Variations played by David Jalbert (Music); Farewell, My Queen (Movie); New Yorker pieces by Paul Rudnick, Woody Allen and Ian Frazier

Laurence Anyways  (Movie) written and directed by Xavier Dolan; starring Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clment, Nathalie Baye, Monika Chokri, Susan Almgren, Sophie Faucher, Catherine Bgin, Emmanuel Schwartz, Jacques Lavalle, Perette Souplex, Patricia Tulasne

Xavier Dolan made quite a splash as a young auteur with his first movie, J’ai tu ma mre. (Reviewed on DD page dated Feb 22/12) Great astonishment world-wide that such a youngster could turn out such formidable art. Fair enough. At this point, however, there might be people in the arts community who would wonder whether, at the age of twenty-three, Monsieur Dolan is such a genius that he should have access to the enormous resources required to produce a lavish third feature, lasting nearly three hours, with himself as both writer and director.

But let’s try to set that question aside for a moment and turn our attention to what M. Dolan has produced. It’s a story about, Laurence, a thirty-ish Qubcois who decides that he is really a woman. His girlfriend, Frdrique ("Fred"), who has been his lover until now, decides that she’s going to try to stay close to him as his friend. The movie charts the ups and downs of their difficult relationship over a period of about ten years, starting in 1989, when Laurence changes from man to woman.

A great subject for a movie, no question about that. But then there’s the matter of the way M. Dolan has chosen to present the story. (Or maybe, as a true artist would say, it’s not a matter of "choosing"; you simply have to present the material the way your muse offers it to you.) It’s doled out not so much as a linear narrative but as a somewhat surrealistic panoply of sights and sounds. The psychedelic visuals and the horrendously noisy music make you feel at times that you’re watching a rock video. Maybe this is what some viewers want when they settle into a movie theatre these days: a whole-body experience that shakes up their entire nervous systems, thereby convincing them that they’ve experienced something.

Not me. I prefer a movie that proceeds in a relatively realistic way. All the fireworks tend to make me suspect that maybe the story isn’t good enough to stand on its own. It’s like the suspicion that comes over me when writers get too flashy in the way they throw words around. (One thinks of the old joke about the preacher whose notes for a sermon said: "Argument weak, so pound pulpit like hell!")

However, we’ll try to hold in abeyance our personal preferences in such matters and see if we can appreciate M. Dolan’s movie on its own terms. The acting is very good, in every respect. Especially in the case of Laurence and Fred. I didn’t quite believe their relationship at first, before Laurence’s change; there’s too much silly horsing around and forced laughter, too much effort to convince us what a jolly couple they are. After Laurence’s change, though, both actors became a lot more interesting. Suzanne Clment, as Fred, particularly grew on me. She conveys a touching combination of vulnerability and strength. She has a heart of gold but you can see that she can be driven to wild extremes. (There’s some mention of her being bi-polar but not much is said about that.)

Melvil Poupaud, as Laurence, shows that he, too, is a very good actor. It was his character, though, that presented the biggest problem for me, apart from the movie’s frenetic style. When he first decides that he’s a woman, he chooses to appear in public wearing women’s clothes and makeup, with one earring and nail polish, but he doesn’t wear a wig. His closely cropped black hair remains as masculine-looking as ever and he doesn’t do anything to hide his five o’clock shadow.

I found it hard to understand this. Why wouldn’t a person go all the way in terms of changing appearance from male to female? Perhaps someone in Laurence’s situation might eschew a wig on the basis that it would be too phoney – somewhat the way a woman who’s bald from chemotherapy might refuse to wear a wig. The message would be: take me as I am. I can just barely understand how a person who has changed sexes might have that attitude. But then why the lipstick and the nail polish? A possible explanation for Laurence’s ambiguous appearance, offered late in the movie, didn’t settle the matter for me.

But there’s a more fundamental problem with Laurence. And my saying this may get me into trouble with the Political Correctness Bureau. It never seemed to me that Laurence, in his male stage, was anything like a person who was suffering from any sort of gender confusion. He was totally male and that was all there was to it. I’m not saying that every potential transsexual should seem like a psychological basket case but I do think an actor, if not a script writer, should be able to suggest that there’s some issue brewing under the surface. To me, it’s simply a matter of reality. That’s the way the world is.

On the other hand, I’m not a psychiatrist or any kind of expert in this field. Maybe I’m completely out to lunch on my impressions about sex-changes. So let’s turn to other aspects of the movie.

It’s the kind of movie where nobody really discusses anything; nobody listens to anybody. It’s all a lot of shouting and emoting. Mostly reacting. Sometimes the tirades are worth hearing; sometimes less so. In these outbursts, Laurence’s and Fred’s mothers, as well as Fred’s sister, feature prominently.

Given all the surrealistic effects and the pyrotechnics, some of M. Dolan’s models as film-makers would appear to be Federico Fellini and Pedro Almodvar. The possibility that the latter should exercise any influence on a young auteur is a particularly ominous portent, from my point of view. Women are often photographed in garish close-up, with all their pores showing, and far too much livid makeup. One shot shows a group of women staring out the window of a beauty parlour as Laurence walks by. The watching women are all made to look like hideous hags, with huge rollers in their hair. For a minute, it seems we’re in the country of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs. Why such a heavy hand with the effects?

It may not be fair to criticize such a hyped-up movie for not being very realistic but I can’t help citing certain scenes and incidents that don’t jibe with my sense of the way life goes. When Laurence, a literature prof, first appears before his students dressed as a woman, there’s silence while he stands frozen at the front of the room. The silence lasts nearly a minute – which is a heck of a long time on screen – until somebody asks a question about the assigned text. It’s a great moment for an actor but I think it’s completely implausible. In any college class I can think of, somebody would have made a smart remark about Laurence’s appearance, tried to joke about it, tried to do something to relieve the tension.

Then there’s Laurence’s being fired because the parents of his students don’t want a transsexual teaching their kids. But these appear to be college or university students. What weight could their parents’ opinions have in any such matter? Granted, Quebec in 1989, just like the rest of the country, wasn’t as liberal-minded about such matters as we are now, but could parents really be expected to have that much influence over the private lives of the professors of their college-aged kids?

When Laurence gets up to leave the room where the faculty members have assembled for his firing, he goes to a chalkboard and writes Ecce Homo. (Pontius Pilate’s words when presenting Jesus to the crowd.) Is Laurence actually comparing himself to the condemned Christ? Or is this supposed to be some kind of joke, a pun perhaps, on the matter of sexual identity? The most likely answer seems to be that it’s a melodramatic touch that writer/director M. Dolan couldn’t resist, regardless of whether it had any believability in terms of character or situation.

Another moment of great drama that stretches credibility is the one where Fred has a psychotic meltdown in a restaurant because a jolly middle-aged waitress has tried to joke with Laurence about his appearance. Fred stands there and foams and fumes for several minutes, while the entire clientele and staff of the crowded restaurant sit in cowed silence. It’s a fabulous shtick for an actress but, to my mind, it has nothing to do with life as we know it. Somebody in the restaurant would have told her to pipe down; somebody would have tried to start up a conversation by way of distraction; somebody would have tried to bundle her out the door. The only justification for the scene is that the writer/director wanted his actress to shine.

When these kinds of breaks with believability occur too often, I begin to feel that I’m not learning anything about real life. Instead, I’m getting the perfervid outpourings of an author’s imagination. Depending on the maturity and wisdom of the artist, these outpourings may or may not be as helpful as reflections based on actuality.

And yet, to my taste, M. Dolan offers too much realism on one matter: tobacco. We all know that Quebec is the smoking room of Canada, and it was probably even more so in the era when the movie’s taking place, but we don’t need to have our noses rubbed in the fact in every scene. It gets to the point where you begin to feel you’re watching one of those movies from France in which it looks like the actors wouldn’t know what to do with their hands if they weren’t wielding those cancer sticks all the time.

But I did find some fanciful things to enjoy in the movie. One of the strangest elements is a group of four or five performers that Laurence encounters. They’re mostly elderly, fat and misshapen. Some of them may be drag queens, maybe not. It’s hard to tell what’s going on with them. They seem to have befriended Laurence and dragged him into their exotic lair. Their scenario strikes me as the kind of thing where a writer/director encountered some eccentric individuals in real life and decided to put them into his movie. Whatever their origins or whatever their connection to the story, or lack thereof, these people do provide some moments of startling and quixotic charm.

Thanks to some ingredients like that, and given the fact that the two stars were consistently interesting to watch, I did, somewhat to my surprise, stay to watch the movie for the full two hours and forty-eight minutes. Is M. Dolan, then, the genius that he is supposed to be? Maybe.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Unwieldy


The Goldberg Variations (CD) recording by David Jalbert, on CBC Radio Two, Sept 23rd, 2012

A few years ago, Murray Perahia’s playing of  J. S. Bach’s "Goldberg Variations" was a revelation to me. I remember driving to Ottawa and listening to the performance on Eric Friesens’ program "Studio Sparks" on CBC Radio Two. Until that point in my life, it seemed to me – and doubtless to many of my generation – that Glenn Gould owned the Goldbergs. His performance of them seemed absolute and definitive. It was hard to imagine that anybody’s playing of them could get out from under his shadow. So it was thrilling to have Mr. Perahia demonstrate that a pianist could, very convincingly, take quite another approach.

Apparently, the Perahia way with Bach was something of an epiphany for David Jalbert too. At any rate, that’s what host Paolo Pietropaolo said in his introduction of this new recording (from Atma) by Monsieur Jalbert, on this past Sunday’s concert program on CBC Radio Two. The playing was so entrancing that it kept me rooted to the spot, even though I’d had other plans for the hour or so that the performance took.

Without intending to imply that any one interpretation is better than another, I’d say that M. Jalbert’s performance of the Goldberg’s is lighter and more lyrical than Mr. Gould’s. The gentler, kinder spirit in M. Jalbert’s playing makes for some subtle messages from the voices in the left hand that I don’t remember hearing in Mr. Gould’s version. At times, you wonder whether M. Jalbert can sustain the long phrases without the driving compulsion of the rhythm in the Gould version, but he manages. The opening (and closing) Aria is played very slowly indeed. Yet it doesn’t have quite as plangent a sound as the Gould one. M. Jalbert’s is more straightforward, matter-of-fact. I did wonder, though, if it might benefit from a bit more breathing space between the phrases occasionally.

If you could say that Mr. Gould’s version was more masculine, in an aggressive, driving way, then it could be said that M. Jalbert’s is a touch more feminine. That might sound like a slur until you understand that"feminine" is meant here in the way that those great men of music like Beethoven and Chopin can be very feminine when they want to. Without Mr. Gould’s relentless momentum, his sense of pent-up fury, you miss the excitement, the ecstasy, of the rhapsodic outbursts. But M. Jalbert’s more thoughtful, sensitive approach is an agreeable alternative.

After all, J.S. Bach left very few interpretative clues in his scores. So who knows what he really wanted? Everybody’s input is welcome. And the absence of growling is a special pleasure! 


Farewell My Queen (Movie) written by Benot Jacquot and Gilles Taurand; based on the novel by Chantal Thomas; directed by Benot Jacquot; starring La Seydoux, Diane Kruger, Virginie Ledoyen, Xavier Beauvois, Nomie Lvovksy, Michel Robin, Vladimir Consigny, Anne Benoit

I don’t know whether the French Revolution has ever been done this way before but it’s a great idea: to look at the momentous events around the 14th of July 1789 from the point of view of the servants at Versailles. It’s a malestrom of confusion and turmoil in the servants’ quarters. Nobody’s sure what’s happening over there in Paris. Rumours are flying. Everybody’s swearing everybody else to secrecy. Lists of candidates for beheading have been smuggled in and are being passed around.

Through it all, we’re following a nice young woman named Sidonie (La Seydoux). She’s the person Marie Antoinette sends for when she wakes up in the morning and reaches out to turn on Radio France but there’s no Radio France. (The bastards are probably on strike again.) Still, the Queen needs a little light diversion to take her mind off her troubles. So, after a lot of scurrying through palace halls, Sidonie arrives in the Queen’s chambers, ready to read aloud whatever volume strikes the royal fancy that day: romance? history? poetry?

When Sidonie’s off-duty, she’s our guide through the rumbustious netherworld of the servants’ quarters. Inevitably, a certain Downton Abbey ambiance creeps in as the hired help moil through the dank, stony corridors, gossiping about their bosses, filching here and there, grabbing a bit of quick sex when the opportunity arises. People favour their friends with treats from the kitchen, corrupt priests steal kisses and a venerable archivist (Michel Robin) who was exercising a calming influence runs afoul of a bottle of wine. Apparently, much of this was actually filmed in Versailles. We become intimately familiar with the dingy warrens and tunnels, the attics with their stark bedrooms and the rat runs behind the gorgeous settings – i.e. the sumptuous sitting rooms and the Hall of Mirrors – that the royals inhabited and that tourists still see today.

As news arrives of escalating riots in the city, courtiers are abandoning ship in the night. The Queen (Diane Kruger) is planning to flee to Metz. She asks Sidonie to help her pry her jewels out of their settings so that they’ll take up less space in her baggage. Seems that the gear the Queen’s going to need for this daring escape will take more than a few U-Haul trailers. But the King (Xavier Beauvois) nixes that plan; he says they’re going to stick it out here.

The scene where we see the King and Queen discussing that is one of the best in the movie. At first, Louis XVI looks like fat doofus but, as you get to see a bit more of him, you can see that he has a certain dignity and honesty. He’s frankly puzzled that "The People" want power; he himself has always considered power as something of a curse. While nobody would be fooled into thinking that this married pair are passionately in love with each other, there’s mutual respect and affection between them, thus genuine poignancy in their parting, when the King goes off to Paris to face down the rebels.

I did find that the King and Queen – like everybody else in the movie – seemed rather too modern in mein and comportment, too casual and laid-back. On the other hand, how do we know what it would have been like to see and hear those people if we were among them back in the day? Written accounts can’t convey that. Maybe we become accustomed to a certain feeling of distance about historical figures when there’s a more high-flown, less contemporary, sound to the language, as in Shakespeare’s plays. I can’t say whether or not the French in this movie had any such effect.

Still, there’s no denying that the movie’s consistently engaging. If it’s not utterly enthralling, that may have to do with a couple of factors.

First, there’s the hand-held camera. Given the vertigo that the process can induce in a viewer, it makes reading the subtitles a little more challenging than usual. And there are a lot of subtitles, given that this is a pretty talky affair. It could be, then, that we subtitle-readers are missing some of the nuances that would help pull a viewer into the story. For instance, there’s some kerfuffle about the embroidery of a dahlia that Sidonie is preparing secretly for the Queen. The Queen is not supposed to know that Sidonie’s doing it, but I could never see what all the fuss was about.

The other problem is Sidonie. She’s supposedly the thread that leads us through the maze. But she’s a bit of a mouse. We never know much about her apart from the fact that she seems slavishly devoted to the Queen. She’s passive and compliant for the most part. People order her around and she obeys. This means, if you’ll pardon a slightly academic turn of phrase, that there’s not much of a dramatic arc to the proceedings. Yes, there’s an awful lot going on, but you don’t become engaged in the story of a character who’s struggling through certain obstacles that lead to some sort of development and change.

Mind you, there comes a very dramatic turning point that forces Sidonie to make a daunting decision. It has to do with the Queen’s fondness for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). A splendiferous green dress figures prominently. How much of this denouement of the film is based on historical fact it’s hard to say (from my limited perspective). I’m guessing this is complete invention on the part of Chantal Thomas, the novelist on whose work the movie is based. Historical or not, it does make for a very strong statement about what it means for a girl to go the extra mile for a beloved employer.

Capsule comment (in lieu of a rating): Interesting, if not enthralling


Recent New Yorker Humour from Paul Rudnick, Woody Allen and Ian Frazier

Funny about humour. (Pardon the silly pun but we are talking about light-hearted matters.) Why is it that something that strikes one person as funny can leave the other person cold? I suppose there’s no explaining it satisfactorily. Still, it can be interesting to try to tease out some of the possible reasons.

Presumably the editors at The New Yorker think that what they publish on the "Shouts & Murmurs" page is funny. Often, I do too. But lately, that page has contained a couple of surprising duds. Paul Rudnick has provided some of their funniest pieces. I’ll never forget his "I was Ghandi’s Boyfriend" (noted on DD page dated July 19/11). But his "Test Your Fashion I.Q." in the Sept 10/12 issue has hardly a single amusing line in it, as far as I can see. The whole thing seems like an attempt to be outrageous that ends up looking merely ridiculous.

And then there was Woody Allen’s "Not a Creature Was Stirring" in the May 28/12 issue. Let’s give Mr. Allen his due. He’s one of the great humourists of our time. He may have contributed more quotable quotes to the standard conversational repertoire than any other contemporary writer. In this New Yorker piece, though, he starts off with an arch, prosaic narrative voice, employing locutions that don’t sound at all natural – "While the assorted opinion-makers regained consciousness in the cold air of Broadway..." The narrative continues with belaboured wordings like, "I interrupted incredulously," and "I chimed in,"and "he concurred." Along the way, though, we get jokey slang like "smackeroos," and Yiddish-flavoured words like "nudnik" and "fressers."

If one of the most important aspects of humourous writing is that the writer needs to make us like his or her tone of voice, this piece fails on that score for me. It sounds fake; there’s too much posing in it. I’ve noticed this in other New Yorker pieces of Mr. Allen’s. I think it’s supposed to be a parody of a certain kind of story-telling but the tone of it is so off-putting that, in this case, I couldn’t be bothered trying to get the point of the piece (something about a plot for a sci-fi movie about mice who become art thieves).

It’s the tone that I find most winning about Ian Frazier’s "Cranial Fracking" in the May 21/12 issue. Granted, the premise is delightfully nuts: this guy is telling us that he has deposits of natural gas in his skull and he has signed contracts with a major oil company to extract what may be enough methane "to power all of New England for twenty to fifty years." And I think we can probably see some good satirical points poking their heads up between the lines. (Like maybe the current ethos is that natural gas deposits should be exploited no matter where they’re found....?)

But what really makes the piece for me is, unlike the fake literary sound of Mr. Allen’s piece, the writer’s disarmingly colloquial and candid voice as he discusses a subject that’s nearly unthinkable. Of the gas deposits in his head, he says that he counts himself "somewhat lucky to possess this resource." But, he allows: "I wish I had paid more attention during the brief cranial section of my earth-sciences class in high school." He mentions that he first suspected the presence of the deposit when, as a kid, he was hammering a nail into his nostril, "just to see what would happen, as kids will do." When he begins to touch on the physical horrors of the fracking process, he makes you catch your breath with off-hand lines like: "Often, this is a hit-or-miss process." A warning that bits of skull fragments may scatter in all directions ends with banal politesse: "...I am sorry to say." And the final paragraph, which sums up the author’s misgivings begins with the nonchalant, "The only thing I would say is...."

It’s a masterful demonstration of the way that, by winnng you over with a very natural, colloquial tone of voice and taking a light, casual approach to a preposterous subject, the author makes it all the funnier and the satire becomes all the sharper.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com