Sunday, April 8, 2012

Film Review: Belle de Jour

 “Belle de Jour is the tragedy of a divorce  -- between body and soul, between the tenderest love and the implacable demands of the senses…..” proclaims its trailer. You can’t blame them, I suppose – back in the sixties, Buñuel’s adaptation of Kessel’s novel was a little too absurdist, a little too psychoanalytical, and a little too frank with regards to that touchy topic of sex to allow for any kind of interpretation other than a traditional one.

But the tale isn’t as simple as that. There is certainly a sort of divorce, as the film’s protagonist, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), divides her identity into two: trophy wife by night and prostitute by day. Initially fearful and repressive of the sexuality that she relegates to her fantasies, she becomes increasingly intrigued; escaping the elegant and aristocratic Paris of Haussmann that she knows, she ventures into a brothel - and a world of discovery. It is here that she finds a haven without which she cannot live, here that she goes through a sort of initiation into sexuality, introduced to the most bizarre and humiliating of human desires by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) and her girls; it is also here that that she lives out her most depraved fantasies, especially in the arms of Marcel (Pierre Clementi), a crook who’s just sufficiently threatening for Séverine’s desires.

The separation here is not the simple divide between love and lust, and that’s precisely what makes this film intriguing. In a highly sexualized world, Séverine maintains an opposition between love and sex because one represents the greatest tenderness, while the other rough violence. They must forever remain at odds, in a paradoxical conflict in which sex can never be the extension of love because their very natures are so different.

“It’s the other one that you love?”  Marcel asks her once.
“Why do you come here, then?”
“I don’t know. They’re two very different things.”

Unfortunately, Deneuve is hardly the perfect actress to incarnate this duality: though her icy, pale, blonde beauty is undoubtedly fitting for a virginal Maddona, she retains this frozen demeanor even in the scenes of passion. If one believes the actress’s commentaries that are appended to the DVD, she had very little idea of Séverine’s internal struggle and very many issues with Buñuel’s artistic vision, which, quite possibly, is explanation enough for her iciness.

Nevertheless, Buñuel’s film is a chef-d’oeuvre. It is unflinching in its treatment of truth and also merciless in erasing the lines between reality and imagination. Séverine’s fantasies are as disturbing as some of her real escapades, and also indistinguishable from them. The film ends with no clear moral message, no punishment for a woman’s adultery, but no vindication of it either – in fact, Buñuel himself admitted that he doesn’t understand the ending. The movie deals with a topic that has, no doubt, been addressed to death by our day and age – female sexuality – but it also deals with a grander human question, that ever-elusive nature of both love and sex; the masterful ambiguity with which Buñuel unravels his story in what now feels like the Paris of by-gone days is precisely why Belle de Jour remains a masterpiece even today.

This is an edited version of a review that first appeared at Blogcritics. This movie's a "classic" by now - what are your thoughts on what it "means"?  

Friday, April 6, 2012

Parisian Escapades

In case you haven't noticed yet, I''m in Paris, that city of light, culture, and broken technology...and I've finally started writing about it. The first of my articles over at The Cool Ship is about the Paris Sex Museum - check it out! 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake and I just don’t get along.

Perhaps it’s a tragedy of missed connections, varied personalities, and drastically opposed attitudes towards tale-telling. Maybe I’ve had the misfortune to chance upon his works at inopportune times, but whatever the case, his stories have never evoked that imaginative stirring in me. I had plunged into his Gormenghast novels with high hopes, but found that world too oppressive. I fared no better with Boy in Darkness and Other Stories.

My impression of this collection of tales was that of reading a compilation of literary templates. Any of these tales could easily be the outline that an aspiring writer could use to create his own tale, much as a blogger might customize a template design. These stories are the bare bones of tales, waiting for color and details, strung together with a theme of underdevelopment.

The eponymous story tells of the journey of Titus – of Gormenghast fame – into a dark wilderness, where he encounters a Goat and a Hyena who serve a demonic Lamb. It’s a bewildering world, as the Lamb – a Biblical symbol of God and salvation – is a sort of devilish deity, while the Goat and Hyena who serve him are men degraded to animal form, rather than raised higher by a god. The Boy – who has not yet become Man – must make his way through this darkness, but his path through it is at once too long and too short. The intriguing premise itself is passed over, while the atmospheric descriptions drag on.

The other stories are five in number, and suffer from the same flaw of underdevelopment. The first of these, “The Weird Journey”, is supposedly a play on Baudelaire’s idea of Correspondances, but Peake seems to have tried too hard. Its opening paragraph reads so much like an exercise from a creative writing class that I seriously debated whether I should read the second one:

“Once upon a time-theory, when alone on the great bed, I found that no sooner had my head left the pillow than I fell wide awake. How far I fell I cannot say, but the light was brilliant all about me and the shrill cries of birds were loud in my eyes – so loud, they seemed, that I could not tell whether they were in my brain or whether, all around my head and limbs, they spiraled in a flight too fleet for vision.”

The story goes on in more or less the same vein, and while this oversaturation of metaphors might be someone’s cup of tea, I found it to be unpalatable.

The next tale is a short one, “I Bought a Palm Tree,” and this is perhaps the most enjoyable of them all, for its humor adds spice to a volume that is otherwise rather lacking in it.

Next, one encounters “The Conoisseurs”, two art lovers whose dialogue is supposed to read like a “snippet from one of Oscar Wilde’s short plays,” as the introduction claims. The tale’s ending does indeed have the biting irony of Wilde, but Peake’s style holds it back, preventing that harmony of form and function that was such an integral part of Wilde’s charm – and artistic credo. The following piece of hyphenated callousness, for example, lacks the aesthetic context of Wilde’s writings, and thus ultimately fails as a witty imitation of Lord Henry Wotton’s posturing, which it clearly intends to be:

 “yes, yes, the vase. But, surely, very far from poor. Are the poor ever so elegant? I have been told they have their own kind of beauty – somebody told me that once – I don’t remember who- don’t ask me- but all the same, leaving the poor aside (as one usually does, God help us) – if you see what I mean – they are hardly vases – nor are they rare – my dear chap – one might say they are never rare.”

The penultimate tale is “Danse Macabre”, which, as the introduction claims, “takes a familiar image from the traditional Gothic tale and gives it a new and sinister twist.” But this story finds itself in an uncomfortable tug-of-war between its Gothic atmosphere and its drawing-room setting. The Poe-esque nightmare with which the tale begins – not entirely unreminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart – is quickly followed by an elegant dinner and drinks party; its attendees are the mere sketches of socialites, lacking the psychological depth that made Poe’s tales so sinister.

The volume ends with “Same Time, Same Place,” a yarn which could perhaps be subtitled “Same Story” for its predictability: a young man, curious for adventure, leaves his familiar home and finds a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love and to whom he rash makes promises. Well, of course she turns out not to be what he imagined, and of course the promises he made to her are meaningless, and of course he returns back home, better able to appreciate what he’s left behind.

This simplicity could perhaps be excused by the fact that these are supposedly children’s stories – except that children’s stories rarely utilize the word “adumbrate” in the opening paragraph or attempt to define themselves as Kafka-esque or Poe-esque. Peake’s collection of tales seems to be having a sort of internal identity crisis, oscillating desperately between simplicity and attempted complexity.

 This article was originally published at Blogcritics

Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Review: Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles

Imagine two men. The first: a mastermind who lives for solving pretty little problems. Eccentric and amoral, he sees the truth through the fog of that distant Victorian London. The second: a war veteran from Afghanistan, tough, scarred, addicted to danger. He’s a faithful sidekick and chronicler. Admittedly, I didn’t mention a deerstalker or pipe, but nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson come to mind.

Except that that’s not who I mean. That description applies equally to Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, is mysteriously – and tantalizingly – absent from most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was created by Doyle to kill off Holmes in The Final Problem, turns out to be beyond the events of The Valley of Fear, and appears in none of the other fifty-eight tales. Holmes only encounters him once (with the exception of that fateful meeting at Reichenbach Falls), and Watson himself never actually meets the Professor. In fact, the only time the reader actually “sees” Moriarty is in a narrative by Holmes later related by Watson. That makes Moriarty a rather tantalizingly mysterious blank slate.

Kim Newman has courageously taken up the challenge of filling up that slate in his book Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  He’s put together a delightful series of stories – tied together into a novel – narrated by Moriarty’s right hand man, Sebastian Moran. The idea of Moriarty and Moran as a sort of dark-double duo of Holmes and Watson, with Moran recording Moriarty’s crimes, is not entirely new – there are hints of it in Doyle’s stories (referred to as the Canon), and in a few of the more obscure Holmes movies. But never has it been developed to this extent, and never (with the exception of a particular Neil Gaiman story), as delightfully as this.

These stories don’t take place in Holmes’ world, but in a mirror reflection of it. Everything is exactly the same, except that Moriarty’s quite literally replaced Holmes. Newman has carefully, methodically disassembled the edifice that is the Canon, added a few crooked building blocks of his own, and reassembled the entire thing in a skewed, backwards, disturbing and utterly brilliant way. If Neil Gaiman can be described by a reviewer as a demonic chef, then Newman is certainly a possessed architect.

Newman’s Moriarty makes tea, plots dastardly deeds, drives his enemy to lunacy (or, as the latter would prefer, “moonacy”), and avoids being a walking cliché – all before breakfast. The stories are absolutely stunning in their inventiveness, the crimes are ingenious, and the humor is literally breath-taking. Yet they contain just enough reverence for Doyle’s originals. Particularly remarkable is “The Red Planet League,” a play on “The Red-Headed League” and perfect for fulfilling one’s daily humor needs. The prose – which I can’t call “stunning” because there must be a limit to how many times that word can appear in a review – is sizzling, engaging, witty, and punctuated by particularly remarkable passages, such as the following:

“They’ve called him the Napoleon of Crime, but that’s just putting what he is, what he does, in a cage. He’s not a criminal, he is crime itself, sin raised to an art form, a church with no religion but rapine, a God of Evil. Pardon my purple prose, but there it is. Moriarty brings things out in people, things from their depths.
He poured me tea.”

And, of course, the book has its fair share of witty variations on famous Canonical lines: “To Professor Moriarty, she was always that bitch,” and “the worst and wildest man I have ever known.”

There’s only one downfall to the novel, which is more of a small bump in the road than a pitfall, and that’s the question of the intended audience: avid Sherlockians or casual readers? The book is packed with clever references to minor Doyle villains and other Victorian literary works. The avid Sherlockian likes nothing better than a puzzle to solve, and finding these well-hidden hints to familiar works is like getting an early birthday present – except that the endnotes give it away. Answers at the back of the book may make the story clearer for the casual reader, but it certainly spoils the fun for the Sherlockian. And yet, to enjoy the clever, provocative twists on the Canon Newman offers at the deepest level, the detailed knowledge of a Sherlockian is necessary. For example, Moriarty presents himself as a scientist, juxtaposing himself to a conjurer who dabbles in deductions. It’s a clever contrast to Doyle’s Holmes, who is often referred to as a magician or wizard for the deductive skills that make him a beloved hero. Presumably the Sherlockian who catches this twist would know about the conundrum of why Watson had never heard of Moriarty in The Final Problem? Yet this explanation, like many others, finds its way into an endnote. But that’s a minor complaint, really.

In a world overcrowded with Holmes adaptations, pastiches, sequels, prequels, and re-writes, true gems can be as rare as the Pearl of the Borgias, and this is truly one of those gems that Moriarty himself would create a dastardly plot to obtain. There’s much of the Canon Newman left untouched, and one hopes that one day, more ink may flow from his pen onto paper…

This review was originally published at Blogcritics

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Covers, Ayn Rand, and some ranting

Living in Paris, I sometimes miss good old English language bookstores. As much as I love the 4-story Gibert Jeune with its 3 euro copies of almost any literary classics, sometimes I yearn for those good old Penguin Classics. That's when I head into one of the few English language shops available: either the wonderful, always crowded, creaky and dusty Shakespeare and Company or its shiny, squeaky clean alternative, the foreign language section of Gibert Jeune. Of course, Paris being more in the vicinity of England than the United States, many of the English language titles tend to carry the British covers rather than the American ones. Which led me to stumble upon the following covers of Ayn Rand's novels:


This is not going to be a "cover comparison" post. It's more of a "cover complaining" post, that is, a response to seeing the above covers for the first time and finding them utterly ridiculous.

Let me start out by saying that I am actually rather fond of Ayn Rand's novels. Her philosophy has problems, yes, and one could argue about it until the cows come home, but I've always found her stories inspiring. Her characters are heroes, who have their own principles and act according to those principles. They are smart and courageous and self-sufficient, and those are things I will always admire. They represent the greatness of man, and that's always inspired me. That's perhaps why I'm so fond of the American covers - they show skyscrapers and trains and sunlight and they do give one the feeling that man can reach the heavens with his creations.

But the above covers...made me laugh. The Atlas Shrugged cover looks rather like John Galt is trying to be...Mr. Darcy? with a bit of Heathcliff? But in America? the Fountainhead one looks like it's trying to be The Great Gatsby (and yes, it's the correct time period). Now, if I were more of an art history expert I'd probably be able to say what artistic movement the covers are pretending to be a part of, but I can't. All I can say is that the covers are pretending to be something, something stylish and literary and artistic and utterly not fitting with the stories themselves. While Rand's stories do have their fair share of snobbishness, elitism and aristocracy, that was not the focus of Rand's stories. It was not the glittery gems and money, it was the personality and intelligence of the characters that earned those rewards that she focused on. Which is why portraying John Galt, a nameless factory worker with the world's greatest mind, as an aristocrat on the cover sort of fails. The woman on the cover of the Fountainhead is presumably Dominique, and she does indeed spend a lot of the book being all tall and skinny and blonde and exquisitely beautiful, just like in that cover illustration, but the Fountainhead is not her story but that of Howard Roark, and of the fountainhead of human creativity: the human mind.

And now I've just spent an inordinate amount of text over-analyzing book covers. At this point, is anyone going to judge Ayn Rand by a cover? She's a bit infamous, at least, in the United States, and those who pick up her books - mostly the young - will do so based on recommendations, the allure of the Ayn Rand Institute's essay prize, or because it made some list of literary classics. But this brings me to my next question: what is the attitude towards Rand in the UK? She's an American author, very concerned with American politics and the American system, and it's easy to see how some people might see her "current." That's not the case in the UK, obviously, and yet she's an English-language author, meaning that there's no barrier of translation. So are these covers the result of a need to market those stories to a UK public? Is their artsy, literary style a way to market these stories as literature, because to a non-American reading public, it's more difficult to market these stories as political and economic and philosophical texts?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday Masterpiece: Heemskerck’s "Course de taureaux à l’antique"

Continuing the trend of focusing on obscure works of art instead of actually masterpieces…(I promise I’ll get to Titian eventually)…this week I’ll be looking at Heemskerck’s Course de taureaux a l'antique, which I stumbled upon in the art museum at Lille, and which I've had a bit of trouble hunting down a picture of since. Click on the image for a larger version of the painting.

Heemskerck was an early Dutch Renaissance artist who helped introduce Italian art to the Netherlands. Like many Renaissance painters, he seems to have been rather fond of Roman ruins, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance. They served as inspiration for the artists and writers who looked back on antiquity and strove to emulate it in their art; Heemskerck in particular is known for his series of paintings of the seven wonders of the ancient world, several of which are classical edifices.

This particular painting falls into a tradition stretching back from the Renaissance through many centuries of painting Roman ruins; it’s a tradition of depicting a great civilization in ruin, paintings of people dwarfed by the broken remains of grandiose columns and dilapidated arches. Yet Heemskerck plays with that format. He creates a tension between past, ruin, destruction and the present, memory, the cycle of life.

The Coliseum-esque arena in his painting is a grandiose ruin that represents the ruin of a grandiose civilization. It towers above the people, but it’s falling apart, cracked and forgotten. The people in the arena are but ghosts, memories of a society long gone. They aren’t really there. Their presence is overshadowed by the medieval looking figures towards the front, who are certainly present and who recall a later age. Some are reminiscent of medieval courtly scenes. They suggest a new age that’s come. The cycle of history will continue as the sands of time obscure what’s past.

And yet…the painting itself is a record, a memory. The ghosts, even if they’re ghosts, are present to us, the viewers. The ruin is still there – it has not been completely effaced from the face of the earth. Greenery, representing life, grows from the very stones, suggesting that even from ruin comes life. The cycle continues, and human life is preserved by memory. Human life will not be effaced. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Living in France, part 1

Since I'm in Paris until June and highly opinionated (or overly observant), I thought I'd do some weekly post sharing my thoughts and some interesting highlights. By which I mean, I'm going to complain about how weird/inconvenient living here is. So, here is this week's list:

  1.  Apparently falling in love is a valid excuse for missing a deadline, not doing a particular piece of work, or being late.
  2. Apparently, you cannot view any transactions on your bank account that happened more than 45 days ago. 
  3.  The library of the university I attend has a lower limit on the number of books you’re allowed to borrow, a shorter loan time, and a poorer selection than the Paris public libraries. Deduce what you will about the education system.
  4.  To learn what my grade is, I can't look it up online. I have to go to the campus of the university, find a particular hallway in a particular building, and look for my grade posted on the wall. Sometimes it's there. 
  5.  The book I bought for one of my classes yesterday – a novel- cost the same amount of money as a coffee. Another book I bought – a Moliere play – costs half as much as said coffee. Um. Priorities?
  6. Something is always broken. The elevator, the credit card machine, the metro, the RER, the ATM, the internet…..
  7.  I went out to lunch with a dozen French people today. They said that two bottles of wine would be “too much.” Wait…what?