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Posts Tagged ‘metaphysics’

For a long time there was a disquieting rumour that the directorial career of Luc Besson had some kind of self-imposed limit: Besson having decided as a young man that he was only going to do a certain number of movies and then quit the business. Thankfully (for I always find Besson’s movies to be interesting and entertaining), this idea seems to have been abandoned, and indeed – after a fairly long stretch between 1999 and 2010 where his only credits were for the oddball Angel-A and a couple of children’s films – Besson seems to be back in the saddle with something like his old regularity.

As a writer and producer Besson is known for a seemingly-endless stream of efficiently barmy action movies, but his work as a director seems to be moving in a more challenging direction. No film is actually easy to make well, but a narrative-driven genre movie is certainly a less daunting prospect than a metaphysical examination of the human condition. For me it is telling that one of Besson’s more recent producing credits is for the environmentalist documentary Home, which certainly leans in this direction, and it may perhaps give us a different perspective on his new movie Lucy.

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The film opens somewhat unexpectedly with some cells replicating via the wonders of CGI, followed by an equally CGI ape-creature going about its business in the ancient past. But from here we go to much more familiar territory for Besson-watchers, as we meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a young American woman apparently studying in Taipei, although it has to be said neither script nor performance are really convincing on this point. Lucy’s sleazy boyfriend co-opts her into making a delivery to Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik), yet another of those terrifying Asian gang-lords who are such a frequent figure of the Besson canon. The delivery turns out to be of a mysterious new drug, and Jang expresses his gratitude by having a packet of the stuff surgically implanted into Lucy’s gut so she can carry it through customs for him.

However, Jang’s staff are not quite up to speed on the plan and prior to taking Lucy to the airport decide to have a bit of fun with her. There is a scuffle and the packet bursts, flooding her system with the chemical, the main function of which is to massively increase brain function. The film would have us believe that most people only use 10% of their brains, but in Lucy’s case this figure begins to spike dramatically.

According to Lucy, using more than 20% of your brain actually gives you superpowers: the ability to disregard pain and fear, in the first place, but then fearsome bodily co-ordination, the power to manipulate electromagnetic fields, and then more and more cool stuff as time goes by. There is always the danger your body will spectacularly disintegrate, apparently, but the cool stuff surely makes this risk worthwhile. Lucy decides to make use of her new powers by flying off to Paris, where she can find leading brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Always assuming Mr Jang doesn’t catch up with her first, of course.

There may be some elements of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon in this scenario (Everyperson has their intellect massively boosted), but the most recognisable elements of this film are resolutely old-school Besson: the ass-kicking heroine, the Asian gangsters, the world-weary French cops who show up towards the end. On the other hand, the film rockets off into some very weird areas unlike anything Besson’s really touched since The Fifth Element, and he himself has described his ambitions in making it as a mixture of Leon, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. So perhaps the polarised reviews and general bemusement which have greeted Lucy are understandable.

Some people have treated Lucy as either a straight thriller or a superhero movie with philosophical ideas above its station, but I think this really does it a bit of a disservice. Right from the start the film is rather adventurously directed, with the opening sequence – Lucy being taken by the gangsters – intercut with thematically-relevant stock footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle. Even after this, the plot about Lucy and Mr Jang is interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman delivering a preposterous bafflegab lecture, which most often consists of his narration playing over cod-profound images of wildlife and nature. It’s like a strange mash-up of Nikita with Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara (indeed, footage from Samsara turns up) – but then that’s really what Lucy is.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Lucy as a routine thriller with dollops of added pretension: I got the distinct sense that Luc Besson wanted to deliver a film about the nature of being human and our place in the world, but decided to make it a bit more commercial by adding a few gun-toting gangsters into the mix. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s utterly ridiculous – at times Lucy plays like an absurd deadpan comedy. It’s hard to express just how wacko Lucy gets in its third act without spoiling the plot, but it is waaaaay out there.

Certainly, as an action thriller Lucy isn’t going to supplant Leon in anyone’s top ten, though this is mainly a function of the plot rather than anything else: Lucy’s powers develop so rapidly that the other characters lose the ability to realistically threaten her very quickly, though for form’s sake there is a massive gun-battle near the end of the film. This was a bit disappointing as I would have enjoyed seeing Johansson take out a few more vanloads of goons.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson gives a seriously impressive performance – rather better than the film strictly deserves, if we’re honest. Her fear and distress in the opening sequences (I feel obliged to mention that these do border on the misogynistic, but I expect Besson would defend them by saying they just increase the impact of Lucy’s ultimate transformation and empowerment) are replaced by a superhuman detachment and intelligence, but there’s also a moment where she tries to describe her expanded perceptions to her mother which is genuinely moving. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to deliver some of Besson’s vaultingly silly and pretentious dialogue with an impressively straight face – though this is also true of Morgan Freeman, and the scenes near the end where the two of them earnestly debate the nature of reality while a full-scale gang war rages in the next room are cherishable.

As you can probably tell, I did enjoy Lucy rather a lot: to be honest, the combination of highbrow philosophical SF and old-school action movie tropes doesn’t quite work, and the movie grows increasingly absurd as it goes on, but I couldn’t help but enjoy its ambition. It is an incredibly ambitious film, conceptually, and if it occasionally doesn’t hit the targets it sets itself there is a lot of entertainment to be had along the way. And you have to admire Luc Besson’s drive to keep doing new things – this certainly isn’t his best film ever, but it’s probably his craziest, and that’s an excellent second-best.

 

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The path to making epically facetious comments about Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is a treacherously inviting one, but you know what? I’m not going to. Oh, well, maybe just one, but I’ll secrete it in the body of the review and see if anyone notices. This movie has acquired a bit of a buzz around it in the UK, which is frankly bizarre, given its subject matter and tone. Even stranger, upon popping down the arthouse cinema to check it out I was utterly astounded to find the showing practically sold out: there had been talk of a works do to see it, but it was just as well this never happened as there was no way we could have got more than a couple of seats together. Considering the kind of film Le Quattro Volte is, this was a practically cortex-melting discovery.

Based on one of Stan Lee’s less celebrated comic books, Le Quattro Volte is the story… well, it’s not really a story in the conventional sense. There is no dialogue and only one main character. Even the full extent of his involvement is debatable, on the deepest and most metaphysical level.

Most reviewers writing about this film have concentrated on the earlier sections when it comes to attempting some kind of coherent synopsis. Fair enough: they concern an elderly and clearly infirm goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) who spends his days endlessly taking his caprine charges up to the meadows where they graze and back. Apparently in an attempt to fortify himself he is taking nightly infusions of a horrible-looking elixir largely composed of grit off the floor of the local church. Ugh.

Look, I normally try and avoid spoilers, but this isn’t a conventional movie so I can’t really do a conventional review. Spoilers Looming. You were warned. Quite unexpectedly, given he’s the central character, but not surprisingly given his poor health, the old man dies, off screen, and is buried. The camera lingers for a long moment on a shot positioned inside his sealed tomb: pitch blackness and total silence dominate the screen.

Then, abruptly, we’re seeing the back end of a goat in the act of giving birth and the new-born animal suddenly becomes the new focus of the film. There is no implication on screen that the animal has any connection with the old man but in terms of the grammar of the picture the death of one and the birth of the other cannot help but seem significant.

And so the film progresses and the significance of the title becomes clear: Le Quattro Volte, the four times we must know ourselves, according to Pythagoras (I didn’t actually know this, I nicked it from another review by someone more erudite). Human, animal, vegetable and mineral each become the focus of a section of the film, the transitions between them subtly linked and never completely arbitrary.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like this one before. It’s not as rampantly and barkingly strange as that French movie about the murderous psychokinetic tyre I saw a month or two back, but it’s quietly and firmly disconnected from practically every principle of conventional cinematic storytelling.

(It certainly seems to have set film writers struggling for things to say about it: ‘Redefines the act of perception,’ said some guy in America, managing to be memorable yet usefully vague. The pamphlet from the arthouse is even more all over the place, opening with the frankly baffling and unhelpful ‘Buster Keaton with goats!’ and wrapping up with a reference to the transmigration of souls, which is bang on but not exactly enticing.)

The narrative, such as it is, is delivered entirely through a kind of implication, and as a result it occurs largely in the viewer’s head – on the screen there are simply a series of carefully composed and rather beautiful shots of rustic Italian life. Le Quattro Volte takes a laid-back approach to things, and Frammartino appears to be very relaxed in his direction. One static and naturalistic shot succeeds another, animals and people wandering about the screen apparently at random, the only sounds being the wind, the coughing of the shepherd and the clangour of goat bells. However, it’s quite clear that this is a film that’s been made with the greatest precision and rigour.

After about half an hour, Frammartino unveils the scene from this movie that has attracted the greatest attention. Abruptly, the camera slowly swings around almost 180 degrees, showing the other end of the same country lane it started by showing, then swings back, and then swings again. This takes what feels like about five minutes, but in context it carries as much impact as anything Michael Bay has ever done. Even more remarkable, something happens towards the end of this long, long shot that surely must have been planned in advance, but appears to be utterly spontaneous and natural. It’s an astounding coup.

Once you get used to the slower pace demanded by a film where the main character for some of the time is a tree, Le Quattro Volte is an absorbing and rather rewarding movie, if extremely difficult to describe. Talking about what’s on screen just makes it sound banal; talking about one’s own intellectual and emotional response to it is to potentially intrude upon another’s experience of the film. Please disregard everything you’ve just read and scrub this review from your memory, should you be planning to see it. But do see it if you fancy something thoughtful and very, very different.

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