Friday, December 29, 2006


I finally saw this today, a film I'd wanted to see since it was screened at Cannes, but somehow missed for the couple of months it's been in release, and I am definitely glad I did. Inarritu's first two films are both interesting, but they lack the scope that this film has. 21 Grams is one of the most relentlessly depressing films I've ever seen, what makes this film stronger is the way it mixes moments of beauty and peace in with the heavier stuff, so we get a total emotional experience. It's like Irreversible, the bad stuff is even worse because when we know how good things can be.

I'm hoping that Inarritu was making a thematic trilogy with his first three films, because it'd be a bit excessive to go back to the same well again. That said, there are some crucial differences from his previous work. The basic show how one event affects various characters in unexpected ways remains, but rather than the strict separation of stories we saw in Amores Perroes, everything here is intercut. There's some of the chronological fracturing of 21 Grams, but it's used in a much less confrontational way. Instead of disorienting us through the blending of time periods, the disparities between the various storylines are used to create dramatic irony, by giving us information that the characters don't have at that point. This is most notable in the juxtaposition of the Richard/Susan storyline and the Amelia storyline.

In the film, the four storylines remain distinctly seperate. The characters from the storylines never cross over, the closest we get is the phone call from Richard to his house. The lack of implicit connection thankfully means we avoid any ridiculous Crash moments, the audience is allowed to make the connections rather than having them forced upon us. The first storyline, and my least favorite, involved Yussaf and his family. I'm never a big fan of 'village life' stories, maybe it's shallow, but I enjoy visual glamour, the neon glow of a city to a dusty desert farm. This one starts out slow, but by the end, it's picked up. Yussaf's surrender to the police is tough to watch.

In all the stories, Inarritu does a great job of quickly setting up the characters and the world they live in. Just looking at the place he lives, we know who Yussaf is, while Susan's refusal to risk drinking the local icecubes tells us all we need to know about her. Her storyline was visceral and full of tension. The theme of the film is the way that failures to communicate lead to awful consequences, and here we get a fantastic sense of just how alien this world is for Richard and Susan. They are there as tourists, to experience the exotic, but only from the safe confines of a tour bus. When that bus is attacked, all order breaks down, their safe haven from the 'real' Morroco is gone and they drive off the bus route into the village.

The difference in privelege and values is clearly evident. Susan does not want to be operated on, likely afraid of infection, unaware that her life is in the balance. The whole sequence does a great job of capturing what it's like when someone gets injured like that. The people on the bus are sympathetic, but don't want to get themselves hurt for someone they barely know. Richard completely loses perspective and rails against anyone who's not working to help Susan.

We get a great sense of how much of an ordeal this is, the stitching scene is painful to watch, and it's all capped by the fantastic scene at the payphone. I'd seen that image in all the film's promotional material, but in the context of the film, it's absolutely devestating. In that moment, Pitt makes you forget about Brangelina and all that tabloid stuff. He's so in that moment, and the juxtaposition of his son's happy recounting of his day with Pitt's crying is phenomenal. It's even more affecting because of what we know will happen after this conversation, the ordeal that the kids will go through. That's the best use of the chronological displacement, to completely change the meaning of this conversation by showing the other end now. 21 Grams felt like the time displacement had no particular purpose, here it's carefully considered and makes for a killer emotional moment.

The other end of that conversation leads to another great plot thread. Towards the end, the story confronts you with the outside perspective of what happened. Amelia wanted to go to a wedding in Mexico, so she took the kids she was supposed to be watching across the border with her drunk driving nephew, then abandoned them in the desert so she could flee the police. But, going through it with her, we have a completely different perspective on the events. We are so immersed in her subjectivity, it's painful at the end when the police won't even consider her side of the story.

What makes this storyline work is primarily her deep connection to the kids. It's basically a parent-child relationship, and I think she has some pride in taking them to her home and showing them her culture. They are having fun at the wedding and she is too, I love that the scenes there are played with joy in the moment, it's a temporary escape from everything else around them, into music and dancing. That makes it even worse when things go awry towards the end.

A series of small mistakes at the border leads to the major mistake, when Santiago drives off. The costuming and makeup on Amelia at the end tells us all we need to know about her state of mind. She is completely lost, and it makes sense for her to go off in search of help. The ending is tough because we know she'll never get a chance to tell Richard her side of the story, and even if she does, he won't care. He'd have to see it from her point of view, as we did, to really understand what happened.

That leaves one storyline, the highlight of the movie and the one that really makes it more than anything Inarritu had done before. Chieko is a Kim Ki-Duk heroine in a Wong Kar-Wai world, and her story is so powerful I think Inarritu might have been smart to make it into a standalone feature. Kim Ki-Duk uses the inability to speak as a way to show the distance between people, and also the deep connections we can make that transcend words. To him, speech is a societal defense mechanism to guard our rawest emotions. Chieko does not have this option, she struggles to express herself, and winds up seeing her physicality as the only option.

Chieko has a deep pain from her lack of connection with the world around her. The sequences in which the sound cuts out and we see the world as she does, people talking, musicians playing, but no sound, are startingly effective in showing how she experiences the world. I was wishing we could hear what was going on, and then was only after a short shot, it would be agonizing to view the world like that all the time. The scene where the guy comes up to her at the arcade game and she is unable to communicate with her is painful. The rest of the film has a lot of raw stuff, but it takes place on a big, global canvas. I feel like her storyline is much more relatable, Richard may be struggling to find help for his wife, but eventually he will, and then he can return home to a comfortable, easy world. Chieko does not have that option, she will always find it difficult to connect with 'normal' people.

Seeing her failure with him, she decides to use the asset that speaks loudest, her body. In seeking physical affection from all around her, she is trying to break the shell that distances her from the world. She cannot hear, cannot talk, but she can still feel, and evne if it's fleeting, she wants to experience that kind of communication that transcends words.

The film's best sequence, and one of the best in any film this year, is when Chieko goes to the club with her friends. She seems to be making a connection with that guy, he understands her inability to hear and is able to deal with it. They forge a connection while moving through the city and when they enter the club, she almost seems to hear the music. In the moment when she sees her best friend making out with that guy, she shatters, both her best hope for love and her best friend gone. She now drifts through the streets alone. What makes the moment so powerful is the whiplash transistion from Chieko's happiness to complete devestation, from inifinite possibility to sad resignation.

Stepping back from analysis, let me just say that the club sequence was visually dazzling. I love the swirling lights and strobe effect, particularly on Chieko after she sees him kissing her friend. I also love the way he cut the music out to give us a sense of what it's like for Chieko at the club. We watch as she seems to hear the music by watching everyone else dancing, and then struggles with the transistion between songs. It's so visually excessive, immersing you in this moment and I absolutely love it. This is what cinema should be.

So, Chieko is absolutely desperate for some kind of connection, so she calls the police officer. She wants someone who won't be able to turn her down, just someone to be with, who she assumes will want to be with her. She tells him what she thinks he wants to hear, and tries to keep him from leaving. Then, she emerges naked and stands in front of him. This nudity was necessary because it emphasizes her vulnerability. She has no power in the situation, offering him all of her, forcing herself on him, and crying when he rejects her. She just wants to feel, but societal restrictions constantly get in the way. There's something so sad about that, and it's easy to imagine her mind buzzing, desperate to tell someone how she feels, but unable to do so.

Completely rejected, she stands out on the balcony, contemplating suicide. It's her father who finally holds her hand, reaching out and breaking through the shell she lives in. She is desperate to feel, desperate to know that someone does love her and she isn't completely alone, and he's the only one who's able to do that for her. Here, I think she realizes that throwing herself at men isn't going to get her what she wants, there's a deeper kind of feeling, a catharsis she finds at the film's end.

I thought this storyline was just amazing. I really liked the rest, and it wasn't like I was just waiting for her to come back, but it had so many of my favorite things in cinema, and such a fantastic visual environment to work in. It would have been easy to not include it and make the film narratively tighter, but for me, it was the highlight of the film.

Throughout the film, there was a great emphasis on visual storytelling. The language differences, and a deaf protagonist, meant traditional dialogue wasn't going to cut it. So, we got a lot of visual communication, but throughout, there were also moments with no dialogue, dwelling on wonderful images. The score, with its driving, looping rhythmic build worked great with these moments, particularly at the end of the film. It was never cloying, creating a mood that allows us to feel rather than telliing us when to do so.

I think this was easily the best of the Inarritu trilogy. It was the most ambitious, with a mix of locations and characters. But, what really made it work was that I cared about the characters and was right with them on their emotional journeys. I've also got to give respect to the acting throughout, with everyone immersing themselves in character, an immersion that allows us the audience to completely accept the narrative reality. This is a great film and I think you'll be seeing later this week on my top ten list.


Anonymous said...

Just finally got around to watching this movie. Good movie, but Cheiko's ending left me perplexed. Fantastic job of explaining the movie here. I get it now. Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

My first time watching this movie, I was much younger and didn't really understand it. 6 years later, I watched it again and I am in awe at the storyline. It's definitely not your traditional movie with a Fairfield ending.... Intact, this movie is a great example of Realism. Thank you for making it even clearer to me. The ending (with Chieko) kind of left me guessing... But I know there could only be one answer. A lot of people said that it was incest because her father wasn't surprised to see her naked... But I thought if I was put in that situation, & I saw MY daughter naked, considering suicide, I would not address the naked part until I knew that she was emotionally stable. Nevertheless, this will be a movie that I definitely will remember.

Film Semi said...

Nice Thoughts on Stuff

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