Chamber Music, Sculpture and Still Lives By N. T. Binh

in 63rd Venice International Film Festival

by Nguyen Trong Binh

Three of the most remarkable films featured this year in Venice (and the three main winners at the awards ceremony) encompass the largest possible spectrum of screen acting : Private Fears in Public Places, The Queen, and Still Life.

Alain Resnais’s Private Fears in Public Places (Cœurs) is a prime example of what is commonly referred to as ensemble acting. From his very first features (including his ground-breaking 1960s trilogy, Hiroshima, My Love (Hiroshima mon amour), Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad), Muriel, or The Time of Return (Muriel ou le Temps d’un retour), Resnais has always used his actors as music instruments. For a number of years, he has been faithful to a group of actors we could call the Resnais Chamber Ensemble (Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Lambert Wilson), and now he has added newcomers Laura Morante and Isabelle Carré, as well as the voice of one of his former leading men, Claud Rich. Gestures, looks, and especially voices answer or ignore each other in all his films, making them chamber pieces where solos, arias, duets or trios alternate, in a sometimes stylised, sometimes ‘natural’ way.

In Private Fears, the Resnais method is seen at its best. The sense of music, of a chamber piece, is of course enhanced by his use of sets, framing, and editing, overcoming potential staginess, to achieve a particular kind of acute theatricality. And there definitely is a particular ‘tone’ in Resnais’direction of actors: they are all allowed a wide gamut of acting styles, and what would in lesser hands become an incoherent brew, veering from deadpan to hysterical, from adagio to allegro con brio, here serves to reflect his personal view of human feelings and relationships. The self-reflective quality of Alain Resnais’s cinema is perhaps never more apparent than in this film ‘about acting’, where all characters are desperate to give the right performance in front of their partners, and then wind up facing themselves (and gazing at us) as in a dark mirror.

The Queen, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Frears, and played by Helen Mirren, may be the ultimate star vehicle of the decade. There are many Queens in the history of cinema, especially during Hollywood ‘s heyday, ranging from the boring (Katharine Hepburn in John Ford’s Mary of Scotland , a part coveted by Ginger Rogers!), to the triumphant (Bette Davis in Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). The great achievement of Morgan, Frears, and Mirren’s Elizabeth II, is akin to the collective carving of a beautiful sculpture. It has to ‘look like’ its model, but in order to exist as a work of art in its own right, it has to be acknowledged as an original creation, endowed with meaning and aesthetic coherence. That is exactly what The Queen has done, and Helen Mirren’s beautifully vibrant face, as well as her perfectly modulated regal ‘voice’ lifts this performance way above the well-crafted mimmickry the posters had us expecting. Each spectator can thus identify with a woman who herself identifies with a country , and the wonderful twist is that The Queen may really be a case study in split personality, with England as its main character. Which makes it, against all odds, a cunning political film.

Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life was the surprise film, and suprise winner, of this year’s Mostra. The way Jia Zhang-ke directs his non-professional actors is as impressive as ever. Thoughtful underplaying expresses the disillusionment of his characters, and the Three Gorges dam project now destroying, and submerging a whole area becomes a dreamlike metaphor of disintegrating couples, and broken relationships: the words ‘still life’ of course refer to the pain that awaits protagonists torn apart by economic, as well as private contingencies. They also show how movingly the director inscribes his non-actors’ bodies and souls in the canvas of his film, just like the painter-hero of his remarkable documentary, Dong (which played at the Horizons section of the Mostra), partly shot on the same locations as Still Life.