28 August 2008

Before the rain
written and directed by Milcho Manchevski
1994 – in Macedonian, Albanian and English with English subtitles
113 minutes – colour
[ Criterion DVD released 2008 ]

I’ve watched this film (in the wonderful recent edition from Criterion) three times over the past few weeks, and I cannot get it out of my head. I’m astonished that this is the first feature from director Milcho Manchevski – this is world-class cinema, crafted with artistry, depth and subtlety, taking on a subject as horrifying as the ethnic / sectarian violence that seems to be staining our world with terrifying, increasing frequency, filling it with imperfect, completely believable human characters, and setting it against a natural backdrop of some of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful locations, stunningly photographed, that a viewer is likely to encounter anywhere. The contrasts – images, events, emotions, values, choices and actions – are stark and sometimes jarring…just like those in the real world. Manchevski has created his story with care and commitment – and he has continued that commitment throughout the twists and turns of an arduous production path that at times left him wondering if the film would ever be finished, emerging with a finished product that any director would be satisfied to call a career-defining work. There is much complexity here – but it never gets in the way of a story that, while placed firmly in its setting, is so universal in its message that it cannot help but resonate within the heart and mind of any viewer anywhere in the world.

Before the rain is subtitled ‘a story in three parts’ – each has its own central protagonists, some of whom overlap, and well-defined environment. As the film progresses and moves from one section to the next, it becomes apparent that the timeline of this work is more than simply non-linear, or circular. Manchevski has taken inspiration – whether conscious or subconscious – from no less an artist than the unique M. C. Escher, constructing something the director calls ‘a circle with a kink in it’, or perhaps a Möbius strip of time. As contrived as this premise might sound at first, rather than distracting viewers from the soul and story of this film, it winds up enhancing it – at the end, when the credits roll, it is almost impossible not to ponder what one has seen, to replay it in the mind, to discuss it with others. And with a theme as vital as the seemingly endless cycle of violence that we human beings seem intent on inflicting on ourselves as a race, perhaps concentration, decompression and dissection of what has been seen, heard and felt over the length of this experience would do us more than a little good. It certainly won't end or go away if we ignore it.

The film begins with a quote from Serbian / Bosnian poet Mehmedalija ‘Meša’ Selimović (1910-1982) : ‘With a shriek, birds flee across the black sky, people are silent, my blood aches from waiting.’ Manchevski’s title itself, this quote from the epigraph of one of Selimović’s poems, repeated mentions of a rain that is expected, and other references that are imbibed with a sense of heightened anticipation, fill the film and the viewer with a tension that slowly builds to its climax. Several times the image of startled birds presages an event, or the arrival of a person, or lends a sense of foreboding to various scenes.
Part one (entitled ‘Words’) takes place in Macedonia – a monastery and the surrounding grounds, to be exact, which, from appearances, could be situated in any time during the past several centuries. It is only when we see a jet’s vapor trail in the sky that the scene comes firmly to rest in the present – but as this image is contrasted with the ancient painted icons and the darkened, serene architecture and lighting of the chapel and the monks’ quarters, there remains an undercurrent feeling of timelessness that pulls like a riptide, which lies on the landscape like a morning mist. A young monk – Father Kiril (Grégoire Colin) – is picking tomatoes in a garden, his face and posture radiating a sense of peace, sure in the knowledge that he is exactly where he belongs. An older priest approaches and begins speaking to him, making small talk about the weather. 'The flies are biting,' he says. 'It's going to rain.' As Kiril stands to walk with him, the elder man gestures across the plain below them and adds, 'It's already raining over there.' As they walk along the mountain path that leads from the monastery itself to the nearby chapel, the rolling sound of distant thunder is heard. The old man says, 'Thunder always gives me a jolt. I fear they've begun shooting here, too.' They walk past a group of children playing at war, using turtles as tanks, sitting in a circle, an apt visual metaphor for the just-referenced cycle of violence. Kiril's brother priest muses, 'Time never dies. The circle is not round'. This phrase recurs, in one form or another, in other parts of the film. A lightning strike in the distance is followed by its accompanying clap of thunder. The old man says, 'I nearly took a vow of silence like you. But this heavenly beauty merits words.' The natural panorama visible behind them is the perfect backdrop for his statement.

After the service, as Kiril is in his cell preparing for bed, he is shocked as he sits on his bunk to find it occupied. A young woman – her gender not apparent at first due to her short hair, slim build and the lighting – has taken refuge there. She speaks Albanian, Kiril speaks Macedonian – each of them is frightened at the circumstances in which they have found themselves. He understands enough from her manner that she is hiding from some sort of danger, and makes the decision to shelter her. Still unsure of his intentions, her trust begins to warm at his gift of fresh tomatoes (he has correctly guessed that she is hungry). A beautiful, effectively composed shot – one of many in this incredible film – captures her, out of focus, crouching in the dark across the moonlit room, with Kiril lying on his bunk, his back to her, his features clearly defined, smiling at the sound of her eating the tomatoes. In Albanian, she offers, ‘My name is Zamira’, and, after a pause, her judgment : ‘You are good’.

Kiril’s choice to hide the young woman in the face of the irreversable implications of his action on both of them is the central theme of the first part of the film. He has turned a corner on the path of his life from which there is no turning back. Armed men come to the monastery in search of the the girl – ‘The whore killed our brother’, they say. The elder priest attempts to calm them – the old and the new are contrasted again when the apparent leader of the armed men says, ‘An eye for an eye – blood is in the air’, to which the priest replies, ‘Turn the other cheek’. After attempting to dissuade them – and after receiving assurances, in private, from the other monks that there is no girl there – the head priest agrees to allow them search the premises. The men, while outwardly showing respect and reverence towards the priests, procede to ransack the place, leaving its traditional solitude shattered. Kiril’s tension increases as they prepare to search his cell. The director cranks this up subtly by not showing the activity directly, but by having the camera remain with Kiril on the floor below. The sounds of their search – the rough footsteps, furniture being dragged across the floor objects being thrown about and broken – filter down to the anxious monk. The camera looks up, and through the gaps between the floorboards motes of dust drift down into the light, dislodged by the men above. They return empty-handed – the girl has not been found, much to Kiril’s surprise and relief.

The searchers are not convinced, however, and refuse to leave the area of the monastery, posting a guard outside, waiting. Kiril returns to his cell to find it turned upside-down. In another old-new contrast, one of the intruders is seen outside the walls of the ancient structure, dancing to the sounds of the Beastie Boys blaring from his transistor radio. That evening, as Kiril lies on his cot, we can see the shadows of rain, running down the window opposite, play across his face. He starts from his sleep and sits up to see Zamira standing in the room. Rubbing his eyes, he looks again and realizes that he is dreaming – she is not there. A bit later, this time without the ghosts of rain on his face, he awakens again and sees her – this time the apparition is real, and she is indeed there. The next morning, two of the elder monks enter his cell unexpectedly and discover her – they feel they have no choice but to expel both the girl and Kiril from the monastery. Although Kiril and Zamira, the very picture of cast-out innocents being thrown into the world, manage to sneak past the sleeping guard, they soon encounter an equally dangerous foe – members of the girl’s family and villagers, including her grandfather and brother. Their animosity toward her is open – they consider her to be a troublemaker, her grandfather repeatedly calling her ‘whore’ and ‘slut’. It is not a pretty confrontation, and the outcome is bleak from the start.
BR 012
The second part of the film is entitled ‘Faces’, and the setting moves to bustling, modern London. A brief shot of a brick wall, acting as a thread connecting the two parts, shows scrawled graffiti that echoes the phrase spoken by the old monk in the first part of the film: 'Time never dies. The circle is not round.' One of the main characters at the centre of part two is Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), who is employed at a news photo agency – she is married, but is estranged from her husband and involved in an affair with Aleksandar Kirkov (Rade Šerbedžija), a Macedonian-born photographer whose work in the theatre of the Balkan Wars has recently won him a Pulitzer Prize. He returns from his assignment in Bosnia unexpectedly and announces to Anne that he has resigned his position. Shocked by this revelation, she presses him for a reason – she understands both him and his passion for his work well enough, to know that something serious has happened to drive him to such a decision. She begs, ‘What happened, Alex? What happened to you in Bosnia…?’, to which he quietly replies, ‘I killed.’ He has always staunchly refused to ‘take sides’ in any conflict from which he is reporting, considering himself to be a neutral window through which the world can peer. Without explaining any further, it is apparent that he feels he has crossed that line, which he has long vowed never to do. He is broken, he is burned out – he is determined to return to his home in Macedonia, which he last visited 16 years before, and to take Anne with him, to live out their lives together there.
BR 011
Anne is unable to bring herself to go with him on such short notice – there are complications in her life, not the least of which is her husband, that she feels cannot be resolved satisfactorly enough to leave immediately. She begs him, ‘…be patient with me’ – he has made up his mind to go back, with or without her, and replies, ‘Have a nice life…don’t forget to write’, and walks away.

The violence that people see on television news programs, and in newspaper and magazine photographs, can seem like another world – but sadly, more and more, that violence has a disturbing way of finding a crack in the wall and worming its way into everyday lives and activity. This is the infection that finds Anne and her husband Nick as they dine in a quiet, refined London restaurant. He thinks she has asked him there to attempt a reconciliation...but she reveals to him that she wants a divorce. As they work their way through this discussion, their private tension naturally mounts, and it is accentuated by frequent camera cuts between them, other diners, and an additional drama that develops when a man enters and begins talking with a waiter – both of them speaking in a foreign language, in tones too low to heard clearly (their dialogue is not subtitled, inferring that the viewer can learn all that is needed from the rhythm and pitch of their speech). The conversation between these two men becomes louder and more heated, growng into an abusive argument, with the man repeatedly tossing currency into the face of the waiter. The maître-d’, attempting to restore order, intervenes and tells the waiter that he should leave and not come back – effectively firing him – and that he should take his friend with him. The angry words escalate further into an all-out brawl, and customers scatter. Subdued by a number of other employees, the man leaves, only to return a few minutes later with the intent of wreaking even more violent havoc, spraying the room with gunfire. The ensuing carnage plays out so quickly that its over almost before it begins – yet, as is the case with scenes such as this, at the same time it seems to last forever.
Part three (‘Pictures’) sees a return to Macedonia – but instead of the tranquil setting of the ancient monastery, our first view is of a modern jet landing in Skopje. The subdued blue, moonlit hues that visually ruled much of part one are replaced by scenes brightly lit by sunlight, as if to imply that events are to be revealed more openly, unable to remain hidded, unavoidably seen by newly-opened eyes. Aleksandar has returned, and after a ride in an old bus along dusty rural roads to his old village, finds himself welcomed not by family and friends, but by a young thug brandishing an automatic weapon (one of the armed men who come to the monastery in part one), demanding to know where he is going. Alex turns to walk away and ignore him, but finds the youth in his path again, threatening to shoot him. The photographer sighs and says, ‘You’ll hurt yourself’, and before the boy can react, snatches the gun away from him, much as one would take a toy from an unruly child. ‘Anyone home?’ asks Alex, gently slapping the boy on the head. He slings the gun over his shoulder and continues into the village, leaving the young man hurling insults at him from behind. He makes his way down the narrow dirt lanes that are etched into his memory, pausing at one house and reaching up into a recess in the wall, retrieving a water pistol that he had apparently left their as a child. There is a sense of watching a classic American western as he walks along : villagers are reluctant to speak with him beyond a nod or a brief spoken greeting, or to meet his eye for more than a second. Startled birds take to the air, and we see a shot of a child's swing, in motion, apparently just vacated at the approach of a stranger.
When he reaches his former house, he finds much of it roofless – the walls are standing, but the structure shows a weary, harshly-weathered visage that is the architectural equivalent of seeing the scars (both physical and emotional) of warfare on the faces of human beings who have endured such horror. Alex shakes his head, laughing silently at himself for ever imagining that he would find anything different after all this time, especially considering the events that have transpired in his absence.

After spending the night in his old bed, he re-connects with his cousin Zdrave and old friend Mitre (the latter turns out to be the uncle of the young man who had challenged Alex on his arrival). The sense that things have changed more than he imagined in Macedonia sinks in more and more as he spends time with his old acquintances – the ethnic and religious hatred that has cloaked other areas of the former Yugoslavia in blood and death has begun to spread its stain here as well. Christians and Muslims (Macedonians and Albanians, respectively) distrust and dislike each other, and have gradually grown physically apart, forming separate villages. The tensions that such feelings engender threaten to erupt into full-scale civil war at any moment – all that is left is for the fuse to be lit. When he announces at a welcoming dinner that he has come home ‘for good’, his words are met with disbelief and gentle ridicule. He is told that things have changed, which he begins to believe more and more as events progress toward what seems to be, sadly, an inevitable conclusion.

One person Aleksandar is determined to see is a woman named Hana, a former sweetheart for whom he has continued to harbor a deep love since their days in school together. He knows that she married after he was home the last time, and that she is now a widow. He has brought gifts for her, her father, and her two children as a token of respect and good will. His relatives and friends advise him to stay away from her – because she’s a Muslim – but he remains headstrong. When he walks into her village, his presence is challenged by armed men from the other side of the conflict, who immediately recognize that he is not one of their own. He manages to have a visit with her father that is courteous, but strained, despite the old man’s welcoming words and shared comments about the 'bad situation'. Hana brings a tray of refreshments into the room, but hardly speaks to him beyond a quiet welcome. In an almost subliminal moment, we see a young woman, Hana’s daughter peering around the corner at the guest, shooed away rapidly by her brother – it is Zamira, from part one of the film. The young man, Ali, is called into the room by his grandfather and is ordered to welcome Aleksandar. Instead, he glares at the guest and asks, 'Why is he here?' When the old man insists that his grandson kiss the photographer’s hand, the young man instead says, ‘I’ll slit his throat.’ He is gruffly dismissed by his grandfather. As Aleksandar walks away from the house at the end of his visit, he stops and looks back, as if into his past – he sees Hana in a window watching him. After a poignant look is exchanged, she lets fall the sheer curtain she has held up in order to peer out, a visual reminder of the tangible veil that divides their two cultures – it seems so fragile, but it keeps them apart as if it were a brick wall.

It is during this part of the film that the incident that caused Alex to resign his position is revealed. Attached to a group of fighters in Bosnia, he had complained to their leader that he wasn’t ‘getting any action’. The soldier subsequently pulled a prisoner (in a semi-Hitchcokian twist, this prisoner was portrayed by Malcho Manchevski, the director, since the assigned extra did not show up for work that day) from a line of detainees and shot him in the head in front of Aleksandar, coldly asking, ‘Did you get that?’ The photographs were taken – and with that event, his life changed forever. His long-held vow not to ‘take sides’ had been shattered in the space of a few seconds – if he had not killed the man directly, with his own hand, he felt responsible for the man’s death, and it was too much for him to bear. He writes a letter to Anne, explaining, 'My camera killed a man. I took sides.' He tells her that the photos, copies of which he has left with her, belong to her now, not to him. He wants no more part of them, but he still bears the guilt, which hangs around his neck like an invisible millstone.
BR 010
The path down the road to greater violence opens wider when Mitre’s brother Bojan is attacked with a pitchfork – Alex arrives at the victim’s house just in time to watch him die, surrounded by his grieving family. As the photographer stands in the doorway to the death room, watching Bojan’s life literally slip from him, his blood dripping over the edge of the bed and onto the floor, he raises one hand to his face, in an unconscious gesture that is unmistakably that of snapping a picture – complete with the click of the shutter from the absent camera. Afterward, as he and the doctor walk away, mulling the situation as it exists in the country, they encounter a party of the dead man’s relatives and friends on their way to mete out their own brand of vigilante justice on a young Albanian girl who has been accused by local children after seeing her with Bojan prior to the attack. Whether the girl was even involved, or whether the attack was done in self-defense, perhaps in the face of an attempted sexual assault, is never considered. The seething prejudices cloud the air and narrow rational sight, removing any hope of objective assessment of cause and guilt, in effect pouring gasoline on smouldering embers. Aleksandar and the doctor sit to have a smoke (even though Alex has given up the habit) and ponder the situation. Hearing the medical man express his thoughts on the inevitability of the cycle of violence, Aleksandar declares, ‘You’re as crazy as the rest of them’ – the doctor nods and replies, ‘I’m still here…in this asylum.’

That night, in a visual reprise of Kiril’s dream from part one, Aleksandar is seen in his bed with rain shadows on his face – he is awakened by a noise and sits up to see Hana in the room. Just as in the earlier scene, when he rubs his eyes and looks again, she is gone. A few minutes – or hours – later, he is awakened again. This time she is really there, and tells him that her daughter is missing – the very girl that the vigilantes are out to capture. She asks Alex, ‘Don’t you see what is happening here?’ He replies, ‘I see.’ She counters with ‘No – you just watch.’ When he asks what he can do, she says, ‘Help me. As if she were your own.’ Hana does not go so far as to tell Alex that he is Zamira’s father – but the unvoiced possibility is left hanging in the air like a scent that won’t go away. The weight of its implication is in his eyes.
The next day, he goes to the sheepfold where he suspects the group is holding the girl. The same man who was seen asleep at his ‘post’ outside the monastery in part one is slumbering again, with an automatic weapon in his lap, at the door. Aleksandar strides in – this shot looking very much like something John Ford might have composed – and finds her. His cousin Zdrave tries half-heartedly to stop him – Alex admonishes him for his part in this dangerous game, saying, ‘Shame on you. She’s a child. A child.’ He wraps a cloak around her and begins to walk her away, with the intent of returning her to her family. As the others come to the realization that their prisoner is being taken from them, that their 'justice' is in danger of being denied, Mitre begins goading Zdrave to stop them, calling him a coward – and yet another confrontation between neighbours and relatives is set up. As the climax plays out, the ‘Möbius timeline’ connects and becomes clearer – but as the director says, it is ‘a circle with a kink’, containing elements that are deliberately left in an ‘impossible-to-connect’ state – more aspects for the viewer to consider.

This film is marvellous and a wonder to behold – with all of the beauty of its photography viscerally opposed to the violence that occurs or is implied, it’s a clear portrait of the dialectical nature of humanity’s aspiration to end war and violence and its seeming inability to break the chain of death and destruction. Instead of leaving one with a mood of despair, however, it gives cause for reflection on the causes of ethnic and religious hatred, as well as consideration of ways to stop the cycle. After all, one broken link can destroy a chain. Milcho Manchevski has brought forth a true masterwork here in his first feature film. It cannot fail to move the viewer both emotionally and intellectually; it is intelligently conceived and brilliantly executed by all concerned, yet it is not so ‘lofty’ a film that its message and theme are beyond the grasp of anyone. This is the first feature film shot in Macedonia after the break-up of Yugoslavia – many obstacles were encountered during production, including the sudden loss of one of the principal investors, and the project almost didn’t make it to completion. It went on to win the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, as well as garnering a nomination as ‘Best foreign language film’ at the Oscars that year. (Manchevski's latest film, Shadows, has been nominated for the 2008 Oscars in this same category.) The budget for Before the rain was comparatively small by contemporary standards – under $3 million – and several times during filming the crew had to scramble to find a way to accomplish the director’s aims – but after seeing it several times, I have to say that it’s an unqualified success. Additionally, Criterion’s treatment of the DVD release is predictably laudable. This is a superb, stunningly beautiful restored digital transfer, accompanied by several special features including an informative interview with the director, as well as a revelatory second-channel commentary by him along with film critic Annette Insdorf that runs the length of the film.

This is a film that I am very pleased to have in my collection – I’m sure I will return to it again and again through the years to come, with new discoveries and subtleties revealed with each viewing. It is one of the most moving works of cinema I have ever experienced – I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’ll end with a trailer – but keep in mind as you watch that this is a decidedly low-resolution embed from YouTube, and that it doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the beauty of this film…

16 August 2008

Monsieur Hire
the fine line between love and obsessionMonsieur Hire -- DVD cover
directed by Patrice Leconte
1989 / France / 79 minutes / colour
in French, with English subtitles

Patrice Leconte’s 1989 film Monsieur Hire, which was just released on DVD last year in the US by Kino, is a small masterpiece of a thriller that has stood the passage of time very well indeed. By allowing the characters to reveal themselves with subtlety and patience, and stressing their struggles (inner and outer) and their attempts to live with and liberate themselves from these struggles, rather than relying on setting and artifice, the director has removed the stifling effects of chronological and spatial imprisonment that mar so many otherwise well-made films. Monsieur Hire is thus a film with a contemporary feel, but the foundations of the story and the humans who populate it could easily be transplanted into any era – love, loneliness, insecurity, the suspicion of anything / anyone different, desperation, guilt, erotic obsession, scheming and betrayal are all present here, manipulating, infecting and challenging their mortal carriers, driving them to actions that lead to consequences none of them could foresee.

Leconte wrote his script based on a Georges Simenon novel (Les fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933) which had been filmed once before, as Panique, in 1947, by Julien Duvivier – in fact, it was Leconte’s viewing of the older version on television that first interested him in the project. Rather than attempting a ‘remake’ of Duvivier’s film, the director explains (in a short 1991 interview included on the DVD) that his intention was rather to create ‘a new adaptation’ which, while remaining respectful to Simenon’s story, became ‘…a more personal work, expressing my own ideas, also to express something that’s very interesting to me, and troubling, which is erotic desire.’ The film lives and breathes with the success of Leconte’s intentions, but in a way that stops far short of being erotically explicit or exploitive, relying instead on the stunning performances of the two leads (Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire and Sandrine Bonnaire as Alice) to convey rich feelings with a dark gentleness that belies the powerful emotions seething beneath the surfaces of their characters’ external façades. Leconte and his principals accomplish this without resorting to any visceral sex scenes – the single short flash of nudity that occurs when Hire is depicted in a sauna at a high-class brothel is over almost before it begins.
Monsieur Hire 001
The film opens with natural ambient sounds over the credits, which roll on a solid black background (the end credits are presented in a similar manner, effectively framing the film itself and thereby audibly ‘placing’ it in everyday reality). Music begins only with a fade to a scene that presages the voyeuristic aspects that will be developed more fully later on – the pale body of a young woman lies on the ground, almost in an attitude of peaceful sleep, the camera viewing her from a level very near the ground. A man – revealed as a police detective, who is never identified by name – looks down on her, then with a nod instructs his assistants to cover her with a sheet. We next see him sitting in her apartment, and hear his thoughts in a voiceover: ‘Pierrette died on her 22nd birthday. That’s no age to die, people say, as though there were a right age.’ He wonders about why she had to die, and who might have killed her, as he goes through the things in her apartment – a type of post-mortem voyeurism in itself – and muses that ‘…no one will hold her in their arms again...’, giving voice to the importance of touch, which will also be repeated throughout the course of the film. The scene shifts to the morgue, with her corpse on a table covered to the shoulders with a sheet, her hands folded in false repose in front of her. He kneels beside her, obviously moved, and places both of his hands over hers, leaning in for a closer look at her face before standing and, in a more procedural but still touching gesture, snaps a photo of her lifeless face.

Monsieur Hire is a lonely man in the deepest, most painful and desperate sense – he occupies a small, neat, sparsely furnished apartment. His job as a tailor allows him to manifest his talent and creativity, but only to a certain extent – the work he does seems professional and proficient, elegant in a simple way, but it is a solitary pursuit, done in a small shop that is inhabited only by him, the occasional customer, and a small cage of white mice he keeps as pets. The depths of his feelings are never displayed overtly by Michel Blanc – his portrayal, however, is rich in the subtlety with which he allows the viewer to know Hire more intimately and effectively than if he were writing his own biography, or pouring out his soul to a therapist. Blanc manages to convey more with an almost imperceptible shift of his eyes than most actors express with blatantly obvious displays of emotion. The tenderness with which he removes a dead mouse from amongst the others in the cage, gently wrapping the body in a carefully chosen remnant left by his work, then dropping it, almost ceremoniously, into the river, is very moving.

Hire’s neighbours revile and distrust him. The children who live in his apartment building regularly make him the target of their taunts (he sits stoically at his rollup desk, eating a poached egg, hardly reacting at all when they pound on his door, then run away, laughing, down the stairs). Yet our first glimpse of him, in one of the film’s earliest scenes, shows him extending kindness to one of them, his hand on the head of a little girl, gently directing her gaze toward a doorway, having her count to 30, in an apparent attempt to cure her of a headache, or perhaps a fear, by distracting her in a relaxing manner. When she finishes counting, he removes his hand, bends slightly to address her, comfortingly saying, ‘See…? All gone now.’ He then walks away, headed to his tailor shop. She looks after him with a gaze that is so unaffectedly childlike that it could not possibly be coaxed from a performer, a mixture of gratitude and unease – the man who has been the butt of so many pranks has shown her a moment of honest compassion, and she doesn’t quite understand it.
Monsieur Hire 003
Monsieur Hire 004
His aching solitude finds an outlet in his furtive, frequent viewing of Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), a beautiful young woman who lives in the apartment building across the way. Rarely closing her curtains, she goes about her life unaware that she is being watched – for hours every day, apparently – by the solitary Hire from his darkened window. She casually dresses and undresses, bathes, does her chores, and conducts a love affair with her fiancé Emile (Luc Thuillier), all under Hire’s steady, unflinching gaze. It is only by a chance flash of lightning one night, illuming his face in an almost ghostlike manner, that she sees him in his window and realises that she is being watched. Shocked and frightened at first, she gradually becomes fascinated with this voyeuristic stranger, and sets up a situation through which – to Hire’s subtly revealed but obvious horror and discomfort – the two of them meet face to face.
Monsieur Hire 007
Monsieur Hire 002
The detective investigating the murder of the young woman turns his attentions early to the reclusive, almost universally despised Hire, his instincts aroused by the fact that the man is a loner, neither liked nor trusted by those who live around him. He attempts to coerce a reaction by asking why he is disliked so much. Hire relates, ‘They don’t. It’s true. But then, I don’t like them.’ Pressed to explain, he adds, 'I’m not very sociable or friendly, and they don’t like that. Conversations stop when I approach and resume after I’ve passed by. It doesn’t bother me. I prefer silence. I don’t like to talk.’ The detective nods and observes, ‘You’re a strange guy.’ Hire responds, ‘I don’t agree. See? You’re just like the rest of them.’ He then discovers that he’s under suspicion – the detective mentions the murder and the fact that a cab driver saw a man in a dark overcoat running toward Hire’s apartment building. The tailor shows no emotion, merely commenting that ‘Life is horrible’. He then gets in a subtle jab of his own, saying, after the investigator has apparently faked sudden pain in order to elicit a reaction, ‘It can’t be easy to still be just a detective at your age.’ It hits home – the expression on the face of the policeman reveals this.

The detective continues to question Hire frequently, returning again and again, both to the shop and to the small apartment, sometimes almost brutally hounding and embarrassing him, in one instance forcing him, in the presence of several of his neighbours, who have gathered out of morbid curiosity, and very likely in the hope of seeing him squirm, to reenact the scene witnessed by the cab driver. One of his neighbours goes so far as to put out a foot to trip him, causing him to stumble and fall to the ground. When the cabbie admits that he cannot say with total certainty that Hire was the man he saw that night, the detective calls off the ‘show’ and the crowd disperses.
Monsieur Hire 005
The police investigation reveals that Hire has a record (just how long ago the offense occurred is not revealed) – casually showing up at a bowling alley where Hire has apparently been engaged to draw a crowd by exhibiting his skill at the game, the detective confronts him with it, ‘…six months for indecent assault. That’s not going to help your case.’ The tailor’s face is impassive, and the detective continues to attempt to pry information for him, questioning him about his name, which Hire freely admits was changed from Hirovitch by his father and grandfather. Continuing, believing that he is dealing with a ‘simple’ sexual predator, the policeman attempts to shock a reaction from Hire by asking, with a smile, ‘Tell me, Monsieur Hire…how long is it since you came inside a woman?’ The tailor makes no reply, his face revealing nothing beyond a brief sidelong glance.

The friendship that grows between Alice and her voyeur is a strange one – her feelings of shock and danger seem to disappear rather quickly, replaced by expressions of understanding, accompanied by a revelation that she actually finds herself enjoying being watched. The love that Hire has felt for her for some time grows even stronger – and while initially he attempts to remain emotionally aloof, he begins to let his feelings for her become known, a little at a time.
Monsieur Hire 006
At one point, he takes her to the brothel he has regularly visited, recounting the repeated scenes with various girls in detail – his emphasis on the subtle, tactile aspects of their contact illustrate that the sex act itself is not the ultimate goal for him. His life is such an isolated existence that he values simple, honest touch above other aspects of physical intimacy. He tells Alice that he has stopped coming to spend time with the prostitutes because he has fallen in love with her, and doesn’t need the attentions of these women any more. His detailed description of his experiences at the brothel shock and repulse her, but at the same time it’s easy to see that she’s touched by his honesty, and that she believes him when he professes his love for her. His narrative implies that events were almost exactly the same each time, and that the women with whom he spent time there were interchangeable to him because the services they offered were not felt on a deeper level, making this activity an easy thing for him to forego.

Emile, Alice's fiancé, is apparently involved, or has been involved, in some sort of activity that has caused him to be under the gaze of the police…yet another type of voyeurism. The tension he feels under this scrutiny begins to loom larger in their relationship, causing emotional cracks to appear. At one point, he assures Alice that he wants to marry her – when she reminds him of this later, telling him ‘…the time is now’, he hedges, citing his problems and uncertain future. As her relationship with Emile becomes less satisfying and more unpromising, we see Alice apparently begin to rely emotionally more on Hire. The lonely man finds himself beginning to believe that the two of them might share a future together, and to think more solidly along those lines as the film comes to its climax. Rather than reveal any more about the plot here, I’ll just state that like all well-made thrillers, there are twists and turns along the way that are quite skillfully and believably made real by the director and his cast.

More than simply presenting the story itself, the film gives the viewer plenty of cause to contemplate the fine line between love and obsession, along with all of the grey areas that surround these two states. Hire’s voyeurism of Alice, while inarguably disturbing, is pursued by him with a pure heart, with an almost meditative calmness and reflection. He is never seen engaging in physical self-gratification in relation to his voyeurism, nor is it ever implied. Just as the early scene with the little girl illustrates, I believe, that Hire is in not a sexual predator, per se, another, depicting him at work in his shop setting the hem of a dress for a young female customer, shows that him visibly undistracted by the legs of the young woman (the rest of whom is never shown) standing on the fitting stool just inches from his face. The consummate professional, he concentrates on his work, without an iota of lust in his eyes or in his expression, simply asking her to turn a bit now and then so he can continue to progress around the hem of the dress. This is an extremely complex character whose inner thoughts and feelings are not clumsily conveyed by over-emotive acting. The skill with which Michel Blanc fleshes out his part is immense, on a career-defining level, quietly and completely stepping into the shoes and soul of a man whose pain and loneliness have manifested themselves in facets that open slowly to the audience. It’s almost like watching a flower unfold – and the beauty, despite the darker sides of the character, is undeniable. Sandrine Bonnaire – who has given many standout performances in her career, including a veritable tour-de-force as the young vagrant in Agnès Varda’s 1985 masterpiece Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), is absolutely perfect here as well. Patrice Leconte has brought forth something very special in Monsieur Hire – a finely-crafted, intelligently written and well-acted thriller, to be sure…but a treasure of much deeper proportions that will reveal more and inspire more thought and contemplation with repeated viewings, even after the ending is known to an open-minded and appreciative audience.

trailer :

02 August 2008

Stephan Micus

ECM Records, 2008

What the sky is made of I do not know –
sometimes it is made of dancing snow.
– Rose Tremain (quoted in the CD booklet)

Every time a new release from Stephan Micus reaches my grateful ears, I find myself reaching for superlatives with which to describe the magic he performs – but in the end, of course, words fall far short. I’ve been listening to his work since the release of his first album, Archaic concerts, in 1976, hooked happily from the beginning. Few people who know me have ‘escaped’ the experience of sharing one of his recordings with me – I have no idea how many times I’ve uttered the words ‘You’ve got to hear this…!’ in relation to his music. His art is something that never fails to touch my heart and soul at the deepest level – and unlike many things that come and go with moods and other variables, the echoes remain. Now and then, I find myself humming a melody, or simply listening to it play out in my mind, only to realise that its source is some Stephan Micus release, recent or otherwise.

Unlike too many performers who gather instruments from around the world and weave the various sounds into their own personal audio fabric, Stephan’s compositions / constructions seem to possess a spirit that goes far deeper than ‘simple sound’. He combines instruments from far-flung locales which would likely never be heard together were it not for his imagination. The musical paintings he conjures from his palette never ring false or sound forced – it’s as if the listener were sitting in on a gentle, natural conversation between cultures. The best aspects of each are intermingled, yet preserved – even when one instrument holds sway over another, it’s a brief dominance and not an overbearing one. The respect with which Stephan holds the music of the traditions he has touched in his musical travels passes from his heart through the instruments in the form of something that is ancient and new at the same time, eternally being reborn.

Snow is Stephan’s 20th album since 1976 – all but two of them have been released on Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records or on its affiliated label, JAPO. Each one has its own personality, array of employed instruments, and themes – but they’re all distinctly Stephan Micus creations. Instruments on this new release include duduk (a double-reed instrument from Armenia, this particular one being specially made for him to play in a lower register than the standard model); doussn’ gouni (a harp from West Africa with gut and nylon strings); maung (a set of 40 tuned gongs from Burma); Bavarian zither (utilising his own tuning and strings); steel-string guitar; sinding (another West African harp, this one with cotton strings); hammered dulcimer; nay (an Egyptian hollow reed flute, used extensively in Middle Eastern and North African music); and charango (a small guitar-like instrument from the Andes with 5 pairs of strings), which is a new addition to Stephan’s sound.

The pieces on Snow, like all of Stephan's works, are constructed and performed with great thought – rather than attempting to reproduce the music of the various cultures from which he draws his tools, Stephan groups them together in ways that create a new musical language, but without turning his back on the sources that have inspired him. On the ECM website, he says, of the album’s title, 'To me, snow is one of the most beautiful of all natural phenomena. It’s closely associated with lasting impressions of my original home in Bavaria, especially the long moonlit walks I used to take when I lived in the Alpine foothills. I’ve always regarded snow as the essence of magic, even more so today, now that there’s so little of it and the glaciers are disappearing.’ Impressions of the beauty and majesty of nature abound in his work, as well as the love and respect he so obviously feels for the people and cultures he has encountered. He goes on to speak about the instruments themselves, and how he feels drawn to employ them: ‘I feel strong ties to the sound of these age-old instruments. To me they lie somewhere on the border between an object and a living being, between a thing and a person. Sometimes I actually think of them as sentient beings. You have to listen to what they want to say. When you do, you connect almost automatically with their traditional idiom. To me, it’s important not to adopt any pre-existing melodies, or even fragments of them, but to develop a language of my own.’

Some selections feature several instruments, utilising the overdubbing techniques available in the modern studio with great taste and sensitivity – at times a single ‘voice’ is enough, the perfect setting for the ideas and images he wants to convey. Now and then, he adds his own voice to the mix, with wonderful results. On this recording, it’s done in groupings of 22, 11 and 15, on three selections – sometimes the effect is that of a choir, other times in a call-and-response setting.
SM 2006 Sofia Jazz Festival
Stephan Micus performing in Portugal (photo by Filipe Palha)

‘Snow’, the title track which opens this set, features 2 doussn’ gouni, a duduk and an array of percussion. The beauty deepens with ‘Midnight sea’, in which a duduk soars in and out of the sound of the zither. Stephan’s gentle plucking on the strings of the sinding open ‘Sara’, then his solo voice enters, soon joined by harmonies – he’s said that the words he sings ‘have no known meaning’, indicating that they’re not in any given language, but spring from a universal voice within him…but it’s hard not to hear or imagine meaning in them. ‘Nordic light’ is a lovely charango solo – the notes on the ECM website refer to it as an improvisation, which makes it even more amazing for its breathtaking beauty. ‘Almond eyes’ features 11 voices, accompanied by a steel-string guitar and percussion. The duduk and the doussn’ gouni return for ‘Madre’, along with maung and other percussion. ‘For Ceren and Halil’, the palette is expanded a bit after a opening charango solo – Stephan brings 8 charangos, duduk, nay, sinding and 5 hammered dulcimers into play, arranged and played with such grace that it never sounds ‘crowded’ in the least. The album ends with the beautiful ‘Brother eagle’, featuring some incredibly beautiful playing on the bass duduk (the rich tones of which will likely rattle your speakers, but in a good way), as well as 2 sinding and 15 voices.

Every single track on this disc is a treasure – the titles are listed as ‘parts’ of the entire album, a usual practice for Stephan, and it’s very easy to hear them as a whole…it’s as seamless as a breath, and equally natural. His music can be strongly rhythmical, like a pulse, without ever being ‘pounding’…it can be as ethereal and diaphanous as a cloud over a mountain…it can be as deep and mysterious as the sea…it can evoke an image so crystalline that it could be a photograph…it can conjure a memory that is so enveloped in mist that it seems to be from another life. His music is eternity…it is very much the present at the same time – and aren’t those extremes, and everything in between, contained in each and every one of us? His music is as universal as music can be – if it’s something you’ve never experienced, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve often said that if I had to choose the music of just one artist in my entire collection to keep for the rest of my life, it would be the work of Stephan Micus, without hesitation.

Stephan’s catalogue:

1976 Archaic concerts (Caroline Records, 1976 [LP]; never released on CD)
1977 Implosions (JAPO, 1977)
1977 Koan (ECM, 1981)
1978 Till the end of time (JAPO, 1978)
1978 Behind eleven deserts (Wind Records, 1978 [LP]; Verabra Records, 1990 [CD])
1981 Wings over water (JAPO, 1982)
1980-1983 Listen to the rain (JAPO, 1983)
1985 East of the night (JAPO, 1985)
1986 Ocean (ECM, 1986)
1987 Twilight fields (ECM, 1987)
1989 The music of stones (ECM, 1989)
1990 Darkness and light (ECM, 1990)
1992 To the evening child (ECM, 1992)
1993-1994 Athos (ECM, 1994)
1995-1996 The garden of mirrors (ECM,1997)
1997-2000 Desert poems (ECM, 2001)
1999-2001 Towards the wind (ECM, 2002)
2001-2004 Life (ECM, 2004)
2003-2006 On the wing (ECM, 2006)
2004-2008 Snow (ECM, 2008)