PARANOID PARK Written and directed by Gus Van Sant, from Blake Nelson’s novel, with Gabe Nevins and Taylor Momsen. A Maximum Films release. 84 minutes.
THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS Directed by Jacques Rivette, written by Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, from Honoré de Balzac’s novel, with Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu. 137 minutes. Subtitled.
Both open Thursday (March 20) at the Royal Cinema.
It’s the great tragedy of the movie-going experience in the 21st century: the DVD format offers unfettered access to the greatest films from cinema’s finest directors – particularly if you have a region-free player – but good luck finding them at a theatre near you.
Given that reality, it’s almost a radical act for a tiny distributor like Maximum Films to book two terrific, important pictures into the Royal for a week.
They are Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which won the 60th anniversary prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival before making its way through the festival circuit, and Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess Of Langeais, which played the 2007 editions of Berlin and Toronto under its original French title, Ne Touchez Pas La Hache.
Both films are unquestionably the work of directors following their own artistic interests. Both have virtually no commercial prospects. Both will fiercely divide audiences.
But the mere fact that they’re opening on a local screen – and on a Thursday, yet – means they’re out there to be talked about and seen rather than just dropped into a sea of little silver discs.
I can’t imagine Van Sant cares how you see his movies, as long as you see them. But for some people the fact that Paranoid Park is another movie like Gerry, Elephant and Last Days – and not like Good Will Hunting or even Finding Forrester – will keep them from buying a ticket.
But that will mean missing out on the development of a fascinating personal aesthetic. Yes, Paranoid Park is about a high school kid who mostly sits very still and hopes people won’t notice him. His name is Alex, and as Van Sant frames newcomer Gabe Nevins’s nuanced blankness, we come to understand a great deal about his immobility.
Alex is writing a letter, which we hear in bits and pieces throughout the film. It’s about his strained home life in the middle of his parents’ divorce. It’s about his uncomfortable relationship with his domineering girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen, a very long way from Cindy Lou Who in How The Grinch Stole Christmas). And it’s about the railway security guard whose horrible death near the titular skate park has driven Alex behind his protective shell.
I’m not the biggest fan of Elephant, a Columbine-themed drama that cops out catastrophically in its final third, but Gerry and Last Days are tremendously affecting films about people so trapped by circumstance and behaviour that they can see no way out.
Paranoid Park is emotionally of a piece with those two, its young protagonist – you can’t honestly call him a hero – locked away behind his eyes, trying to find his way through a situation he doesn’t even have the emotional capacity to comprehend, let alone resolve.
Maybe it’s not as confident or controlled a work as Gerry or Last Days, but, then, those films have simple, straightforward narratives and conclude unambiguously by the time the credits roll, while Paranoid Park is almost uncomfortably open-ended.
That doesn’t make it any less compelling, or strangely beautiful, than its predecessors. “They loved it at Cannes” isn’t always a backhanded compliment.
If The Duchess Of Langeais wasn’t afforded the same level of European rapture, that’s probably because people over there have had plenty of time to appreciate Jacques Rivette’s finely crafted sensibility.This is one of his minor works, a simple costume drama lacking the philosophical gravity of Celine And Julie Go Boating and La Belle Noiseuse or even the bouncy vigour of the contemporary romantic comedy Va Savoir, but even minor Rivette is still several orders of magnitude better than just about anything else on our screens.
Working from a Balzac tale, Rivette charts the doomed battle of wills between a bored noblewoman and the upright military officer with whom she chooses to amuse herself.
Things do not go well for either party; the film opens with a lengthy prologue introducing the characters five years after their doomed relationship, finding the former duchess (Jeanne Balibar) hiding in a convent under an assumed name, and her would-be lover (Guillaume Depardieu) a wreck of thwarted passions.
From there, we leap back to their initial meeting and courtship, which consists of the duchess arranging for the general to call upon her at her home, where she treats him like a dishrag and refuses his advances until he leaves in silent fury, only to return the next evening to start the whole sado-masochistic process all over again. Eventually, someone has to explode – and someone does, though things don’t go exactly as planned.
The storytelling is measured and thoughtful, the acting balanced between passion and control, the camera work considered but unobtrusive. In other words, un film de Jacques Rivette.
And while it seems like the last movie a distributor would want to pair with un film de Gus Van Sant, no one’s forcing you to see them on the same night.