|That the issue of subjectivity, and its place, use, and ultimate irreducibility in film criticism was brought up several times in the recent (and lengthy) discussion of The New World on Dave Kehr's blog comes as no surprise. You find it time and again -- whenever film critics find themselves locked in heated debate over a particularly polarizing film, the S word gets brought up...and rightly so. In the thread, Matt Zoller Seitz argues that there are two schools of film criticism -- one that feigns pure objectivity while the other admits to and embraces a subjective response to a film. (For what it's worth, I don't agree with his assessment that Hoberman is of the former.) An alternate taxonomy offered by Matt Clayfield was that of Missionaries and Sceptics, which I think comes a bit closer in defining the two major "types" of film critics. But Seitz isn't entirely incorrect -- I have noticed a trend in the film blogosphere of critics who, while talented writers, are so damn clinical in their criticism that I find myself wondering if they actually enjoy film.|
Yet at the same time, I feel that even openly subjective critics are less than willing to go all the way -- to admit that their reaction is purely emotional, and that no amount of purple praise or platitudes can change that. The New World is a perfect example -- I loved the film as well, but I consider it more of a visceral than intellectual experience. And even after forty comments on Kehr's blog, minds weren't changed, nor had the argument advanced much beyond where it began.
I bring this up only because I've been struggling somewhat with my reaction to Danis Tanovic's second feature, L'Enfer, which is being shown this weekend as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at the Walter Reade. I saw the film just days before my father's death. With my constant worry, and inability to do anything, I thought a film might give my mind a two-hour reprieve. I came out feeling even worse, but convinced that I had just seen a great film. Weeks later (with the film still lingering in my mind), I started to seek out reviews, and I was more than a bit shocked to find just how poorly it was received by French critics. The average review on Allocine is one star, with links to scathing reviews from Positif, Cahiers du Cinéma, L'Humanité, etc. The few American reviews I could find weren't much better. Was my reaction to the film solely due to my personal circumstances on that afternoon, or is there really something to this dark, Medea-influenced psychodrama?
L'Enfer, Tanovic's follow-up to the magnificent No Man's Land, is the second part of a planned trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. (The first part, Heaven, was made by Tom Tykwer in 2002.) After one of the most remarkable opening credit sequences I've come across in some time (a young bird struggles to push the un-hatched eggs out its siblings out of a nest) the film settles in to tell of three sisters who have become estranged over the years -- Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart), an unhappily married woman who suspects her photographer husband is having an affair, Anne (Marie Gillain), a student who is romantically involved with a married professor, and Céline (Karin Viard), an emotional wreck of a woman who spends most of her time caring for their mute, wheelchair bound mother (Carole Bouquet). A traumatic incident from their youth, which is in some way responsible for their current situations, will come back to haunt them in the form of a mysterious stranger (Guillaume Canet) who will also reunite them.
Several critics focused their attention on the reveal (which occurs late in the film), and complained that it was neither suspenseful nor satisfying. But to do so is to reduce the film to a simple thriller, which I doubt was Kieslowski's intention. Where L'Enfer differs from other similarly themed films is the powerful manner in which it addresses the repercussions of childhood trauma. Not in the "crying-on-Oprah" way, but rather the subtle, unrealized long-term effects that can result from such early negative experiences. While Sophie's husband's infidelity has nothing to do with her own childhood, the way in which it affects her is undoubtedly tied in to what she witnessed between her parents. Same can be said for Anne, whose desperate clinging to an older married man is far from a normal, healthy relationship.The performances by the three lead actresses are all outstanding, especially Béart, who hasn't been this good since Un Coeur en Hiver. With its hellish hues of red and brown, Tanovic and cinematographer Laurent Dailland evoke the work of Chabrol or Téchiné. (A comment left on Allocine speculates that French critics' hatred of the film is due to their wounded national pride -- that a Bosnian (read: non-French) director has successfully created the kind of French film that French filmmakers can seemingly no longer make.)
At the moment, I consider L'Enfer to be one of the best films I've seen this year. But the question remains -- will I feel the same way nine months from now? Were my critical faculties completely overridden by my emotional state at the time? That I can find few positive words about the film proves nothing, but it does leave me with considerable doubt. Still, I can't help but wonder how often this occurs among critics, if at all. And if it does -- if their reaction is purely subjective -- will they admit to it?
Both screenings of L'Enfer are sold out, though standby tickets are ocasionally available. If anybody should see the film, please feel free to comment below.