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The term “high-concept,” not unlike “high tea,” is confusing for some Americans. The assumption is that “high” always refers to superiority, but a movie that’s high-concept is merely simple, not necessarily lofty. Of three of this week’s haunted-family dramas, for example, The Machinist and Birth are both decidedly high-concept: The former is about a man who hasn’t slept in a year, and so increasingly experiences hallucinations, and the latter is about a young widow who becomes convinced that a 10-year-old boy has the soul of her 10-years-dead husband. But only Almost Peaceful’s portrayal of life after a true waking nightmare—the Holocaust—approaches the realm of high art.
Adapted from a novel and proud of it, Almost Peaceful doesn’t employ any of the organizing principles of easily summarized films. It’s episodic, juggles a half-dozen central characters, and presents events that, though often significant, have no long-term narrative function. Its primary framing device is history itself: Everyone understands the backstory in a saga whose setting is Paris, 1946, and whose characters are mostly Jewish.
With his garment shop newly reopened, Albert (Simon Abkarian) can claim to have returned to his normal life. But life cannot be normal when so many friends and relatives are dead or missing—which both likely mean the same thing. New jobs and employees arrive, meals are prepared and eaten, and children are sent to the country. Yet the simplest things remind survivors of what happened: A matchmaker’s entreaty to Charles (Denis Podalydès) infuriates him because it assumes that his wife is dead. Joseph (Malik Zidi) goes to apply for naturalization and finds himself face-to-face with the policeman who arrested him and his parents. In a bar, Léon (Vincent Elbaz) and Charles meet a man who is unembarrassed about his fascist sympathies; Madame Andrée (Julie Gayet) asks Albert to hire her sister but must acknowledge that the sibling is unwelcome in her hometown because she had a child by a German soldier. The war is over, but peace of mind has not arrived.
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Almost Peaceful was co-scripted from Robert Bober’s autobiographical What News of the War? by producer Rosalinde Deville and director Michel Deville, who’s probably best known in this country for the erotically gamesome 1988 film La Lectrice. There are amorous currents in the newer movie, as well, but they tend to be awkward. Reunited with Albert, who spent the war in hiding, Léa (Zabou Breitman) returns to working, living, and raising their two children with him but learns that she no longer loves him. (There’s also a tale of sexual discovery, but that happened in a more innocent time: a prewar adolescence.) In the final scene, new acquaintance Simone (Clotilde Courau) tries to teach Léa how to flirt. That exchange might be reassuringly unexceptional—except that it happens at a picnic for war orphans where the entertainment includes hurling balls at effigies of prominent French collaborators.
This is a small film, but one whose implications are larger than the incidents it depicts. Fittingly, the action is punctuated by stills of everyday Paris. They typify the film’s willingness to allow viewers to fill in some of the blanks themselves—after all, everything cannot be said or shown or arranged according to some system that will make sense of it. But amid the half-remembered Yiddish songs, jokes about bust sizes, and tentative romances with hookers, Almost Peaceful also conveys an implacable sorrow.
The Machinist is a monomaniacal creepfest embodied by a monomaniacal acting stunt: Star Christian Bale lost 63 pounds to play central character Trevor Reznik, a factory worker who’s increasingly losing control of his own perceptions. Session 9 director Brad Anderson’s film is a masterly exercise in deep-shadow atmosphere, summoning buckets of dread without indulging in similar quantities of blood. But ultimately Scott Kosar’s script must explain what’s gone wrong in Trevor’s world, and even those viewers who didn’t see it coming will probably find the revelation a letdown.
Trevor is introduced along an industrial waterfront, apparently lugging a body to the shore for disposal. The film then cuts—it’s a probably a flashback, but it could be a fever dream—to Trevor’s grubby apartment, where the sunken-eyed loner lives with a pack of Post-it notes that seem to have minds of their own. When not at work or at home, Trevor almost daily visits his only two intimates: prostitute Stevie (the ever-edgy Jennifer Jason Leigh) and coffee-shop waitress Marie (too-good-to-be-true Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Stevie imagines that she and Trevor might marry, but he seems happier with the surrogate family offered by Marie, who has a young son. Yet when the threesome visits an amusement park together, a potential disaster looms.
Of course, catastrophe also beckons Trevor every day at work, where his increasingly distracted state seems likely to lead to an industrial accident. Taunted by Ivan (John Sharian), a brutish co-worker whom no one else seems to see, Trevor is a danger to himself and his colleagues. When he does allow one of his cohorts to get seriously injured, Trevor becomes a pariah. But perhaps that’s just a reflection of his status in life.
Shot in almost decolorized color and swathed in Roque Baños’ Hitchcock-worthy score, The Machinist conjures a place that’s just on the cusp of recognizability. Because it was financed with Spanish money, the movie was actually shot in and around Barcelona, yet the only location that appears obviously European is that city’s subway system. The rest could be Texas or California or North Carolina, with just a hint of hell.
In addition to studying Hitchcock, Anderson has also clearly examined the movies of Roman Polanski, Nicolas Roeg, David Fincher, and others. (Trevor’s landlady is played by Anna Massey, who starred in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.) The film also includes references to Nine Inch Nails—though the director says that’s entirely Kosar’s enthusiasm—and Dostoevski. A copy of The Idiot lies in Trevor’s apartment, so it’s no great surprise when one of the minor characters turns out to be epileptic, just like the novelist and his protagonist, Prince Myshkin.
For all its allusions and artifice, however, The Machinist belongs to Bale. At a time when digitized images are once again being hailed as the future of film, he demonstrates that the human body itself is still one of cinema’s greatest effects. Anderson’s display of Bale’s hollow face and skeletal forms seems almost tasteless, but then why lose 63 pounds for a movie that isn’t going to make use of that sacrifice? Indeed, the fundamental difficulty with The Machinist isn’t that it exploits Bale, but that it does so for such a scant payoff. The Machinist is every bit as harrowing as it intends to be, but its final twist is more Rod Serling than Dostoevski.
Eerie yet largely untouched by violence, Birth offers a different sort of tutorial in the uncanny. The milieu of British director Jonathan Glazer’s second feature is affluent and domestic, whereas The Machinist’s is grubby and isolated, but the principal distinction between the two movies is that Anderson provides a tidy resolution and Glazer doesn’t. Which outcome is more disappointing is a matter of taste.
Birth opens with death: While jogging, Sean collapses and dies in a Central Park tunnel. Ten years later, widowed Anna (Nicole Kidman) is still in shock but preparing to marry imperious Joseph (Danny Huston). At a party at Anna’s family’s vast Manhattan apartment, the eventually significant Clara (Anne Heche) enters, followed by a somber little boy (Cameron Bright). It’s not until the family’s next social occasion, however, that 10-year-old Sean takes Anna aside to tell her, “You’re my wife.” Anna resists, but she wants to believe, and soon does.
What follows is a series of incidents that barely expand on the incongruity of Anna and young Sean’s first meeting. Anna’s family and friends, especially her mother (Lauren Bacall), are not amused by the boy’s presumption, and Joseph’s indignation slowly escalates. At the formal engagement party, Sean kicks Joseph’s chair, and the threatened fiancé erupts in rage. Mostly, however, Glazer concentrates on Sean’s wide-eyed, unnerving composure—call it dead calm—and Kidman’s reactions. Adding another chapter to a folio of glamorous-victim roles that stretches from Dead Calm to The Others to Dogville, the actress gazes straight at the camera, variously looking anguished, lost, confused, enraptured, and, of course, vulnerable. Psychologically, she’s entered Dogville again.
For mild shock value, the movie includes a scene in which Sean climbs into the bathtub with Anna, and another in which they kiss. Anna even playfully asks how Sean “will take care of my needs,” yet the point of all this is not sex. For one thing, Sean is hardly a seducer. He’s odd and detached, possessed of an idea that involves Anna, but which, despite all his declarations of love, doesn’t seem to encompass desire. (It’s someone else’s profession of desire that ultimately flusters him, however.) But then, everything in Birth—save Joseph’s outbursts—is hushed. Is this the zone of mystery Glazer wants us to enter, or just his conception of life in the co-ops overlooking Central Park?
Scripted by Glazer, Monster’s Ball co-writer Milo Addica, and French art-film veteran Jean-Claude Carrière, this fable sets Kidman’s langorous poses amid opulent décor and a score (by Alexandre Desplat) that marries Tchaikovsky and Philip Glass. If little Sean is the specter of Anna’s lost love, this is a decidedly upscale sort of ghost story. The film’s old-money discretion, however, works against it: In the end, Birth doesn’t provoke any strong response other than bewilderment.CP