Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another masterpiece of cinema from the Dardenne brothers

It's hard to find words enough to praise Two Days, One Night, the latest film from the extraordinary Dardenne brothers of Belgium. They have won two Palme d'Ors at Cannes, numerous other important awards, and the wide respect of the entire film community. They only lack an Oscar, which may be to their credit. They were contenders in the Academy Awards this year because for the first time they used an international star, Marion Cotillard, who "disappeared into" her utterly unglamorous role. (She was nominated as best actress but lost to Julianne Moore in Still Alice, a film about Alzheimer's that raises a lot of questions which I may comment on at a future date.)

I have written about the Dardennes before on this blog (see last paragraph):

Anyone interested in Christian faith will respond to the brothers' work. Secular people would probably not notice the way that they subtly, almost invisibly, weave Christian themes into their scripts (they write, produce, and direct all their films). There is one tiny moment toward the end of Two Days that overtly introduces God, but the moment vanishes instantly--to be reintroduced anonymously at the very end in one of the most unexpected twists of plot that I can remember. Well, you could hardly call it a twist of plot, because as in all their films everything is so subtle. Nothing calls attention to itself. It is there to figure out, however, for those who have eyes to see.

The Dardennes' technique involves the use of hand-held cameras and available light. Because of their understated and modest style of directing, it is all the more striking that at least four of their movies (I have seen all seven of their major films) have heart-in-throat pacing. There are many points when you wonder how it can all possibly work out in any believable way. This suspense is particularly notable because they use virtually no music or sound track at all, and especially not to create mood, increase tension, or signal to the audience what might be coming. The plot of Two Days has a superficial resemblance to Twelve Angry Men, with the main character, Sandra, charged with changing the minds and votes of (in the case of Two Days) sixteen people from her workplace, but even when that famous jury movie was new, long ago, it did not have anywhere near the prolonged suspense of Two Days.

There are some admirable little touches. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie is meeting the sixteen people, one after another in sequence, as Sandra visits each one in their various humble dwellings; yet the one that hurts Sandra most deeply is never seen in any identifiable way. The others, in all their variety of character, ethnicity, and circumstances, elicit your understanding if not admiration. The subject of economic hardship is always to the fore. The Dardennes make you care about their very ordinary blue-collar characters, about their struggles, and about what happens to them. In them we see what we share in common.

It is common to hear of "redemptive themes" in films. It can be an overused concept, frequently verging on sentimentality. There is no sentimentality in the Dardenne brothers' work. The characters are too complex for that. The brothers do not ask for the audience's sympathy. They just show everyday working-class people, in all their ordinariness, cussedness, and frailty. All of their movies are shot in public housing and featureless workplaces in dreary industrial towns with no cinematic appeal whatsoever. Yet without question the hint of redemption is there, and the suggestion of Providence and meaning in even the most humdrum lives.  It is an honor and a privilege to share in the Dardennes' respect for their characters and their hardscrabble lives, where occasionally an unforgettable touch of humanity breaks through.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover 2015

This blog is going to cross some boundaries, so you have been warned.

The new swimsuit cover is, as usual, front and center on all the newsstands. I thought I had become immune to what I see in the airport and supermarket displays, but this was something else again. I am certainly not posting it; you have already seen it.

The model (Hannah Davis) has obviously had all or most of her pubic hair removed, as have all or most models today. I don't look at pornography, but I have read that the performers in pornographic films have it all removed as well. The degree of anxiety that this new expectation must create in today's girls and women, not to mention the amount of money and time necessary for the procedure, can scarcely be exaggerated. Growing up and coping with sexual situations is complicated enough already; I am very thankful that my contemporaries and I did not have this particular concern to add to all the others. (I noticed that at least one of the actresses in the HBO series Rome had had the procedure; somehow I doubt if that was done in ancient Rome.)

A painting that I love is L'Origine du Monde, by the provocateur Gustave Courbet. (I'm not posting this one, either, but you can easily find it online.)  I have studied the history of art and have been to most of the major art museums, but I didn't know this celebrated painting existed until The New York Review of Books published a reproduction of it a few years ago (inside the journal).  It has only recently been hung in public view, though in a side gallery, at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. In my view it is art, not pornography. It is a picture that I would like for young people to see, with this comment: This is what women are supposed to look like.

There is a school of thought that women who allow themselves to be presented like Hannah Davis are exhibiting female strength. To me, it seems like a regression in women's advancement. I believe that most younger women who are struggling to make a place for themselves will be subtly or not-so-subtly undermined by this sort of objectivization. Sometimes I think there is something to be said for the modesty of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women. The way a woman dresses should never, and I mean never, be used as a justification for rape, but I also think that women are well served by discreet dress (though by all means fashionable, if she likes).

Moreover, adults who care about children should be increasingly concerned about the sexualizing of very young girls. This has been going on for some time and has been observed with alarm, but it continues apace. My precious little great-nieces are going to see this magazine cover and wonder about it. I know exactly how my mother would have dealt with it. She would have said something along these lines: "This picture is all over the United States and many people will look at it, but it is not a picture of the way a woman or girl should allow herself to be photographed and I hope no one in our family will ever want to be like that model." My guess is that most mothers today will simply ignore the cover and say nothing, which will lead the little girl to think that this is the way it has to be. It's not the way it has to be.