Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lucas McNelly's BLANC DE BLANC

There's a scene fairly early in Lucas McNelly's Blanc de Blanc, in which one character makes dinner for another. The chef goes by the name of David and is a stranger to the diner, Jude. He ended up crashing on her couch the night before, was still there when she went for work, and is still there when she returns home. Still there, in her house, and cooking her dinner. It's an invasion of her space and her person that's at once creepy but well-meaning (he felt bad about crashing), a dichotomy of which David is simultaneously ignorant but also acutely, painfully (self)-aware. It's within the fuzzy spaces between these seeming opposites-- creepy and well-intentioned, ignorant and aware, dangerous and romantic-- that the film's central mystery lies: can this man be trusted? Who is he, really?

The film gives us theories and possibilities: David is an innocent amnesiac, or David is on the run from his past and wants a fresh start, or David is actually perpetrating a cruel and manipulative game on Jude, though we don't know why or to what end. None of these really takes precedence over the other, none of these are ever officially denied or validated in the film, though a careful second viewing will reveal what I think is a pivotal clue in the film's first few minutes, one that's led me to formulate my own theory. The mystery is never definitely answered to the audience's satisfaction, which is part of what makes the film so very satisfying.

It is, in short, a true mystery film, the same way that Turn of the Screw is a truer mystery story than, say, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The only reason to come back to Ackroyd after the first reading has exhausted its novelty is to see the clues pointing to its famous twist; the same is true of a lot of so-called mystery films. I shudder to think of anyone watching Orphan once, let alone a second or third time. But by denying catharsis and explanation, by hinting at a twist that's never revealed, Blanc de Blanc constructs a mystery with real staying power.

It's also a lot of fun, playing jazz with various genre elements. There's a locked box, a golden macguffin without a key. Or consider the bald smoking man who follows Jude around and insists that David is in fact a man named Archie. He's almost a caricature of menace, ever-so-slightly-fey, always accompanied by musical cues that would feel at home in a more conventional thriller but here creates a sense of comic danger, of riffing. The music intrudes on the film, and underlines his intrusion into their lives.

It's helped in that regard by the film's smart, bifurcated structure. Roughly the first half-hour could be described as a sort of deconstruction of romcoms, which have always gotten their traction from the notion that obsessive, stalker-like behaviour is romantic. The creepiness is underlined but often in a comedic way: Jude horrified as one of her friends insists that this total stranger crash on her sofa, Jude surprised to find David cooking her dinner.

When Jude texts her brother, asking him to check up on her, it's not done with furtive shaky close-ups of a cell phone screen but, in a snazzy little bit of style that also appeared in Joe Swanberg's LOL, with subtitles, distancing us from the danger.

The scene with the brother that follows is also comic in tone, with said brother serving as a sort of mouth-piece to the audience's own desire to throttle the passive Jude for letting herself get into this situation. The tone of these performances and dashes of style don't push the potential creepiness from our minds, but it does neuter it for awhile, making Jude and David's eventual hook-up believable and a more than a little sweet.

Their love scene is filmed in a long take and done in silhouettes, and the music McNelly uses is lover's-languid and rhythmic, purposefully slowing time down to a crawl and giving us time to reflect. It's a stylish, smart, and perfect use of music.

I can't say that, however, for all the music in the film, as I personally think there's a little too much of it. Almost every scene has music underneath it or uses music as a transition. Many filmmakers think that music will liven up a dead scene or speed up the "feel" of the film; neither are true. In fact, music slows a film down, especially in dialogue scenes, because its rhythm is at odds with the rhythm of the film-- the cutting, the dialogue, the emotion.

McNelly's film doesn't have any bad scenes or dead weight, doesn't need to be "sped up" and thus slowed down; I think if he had less music, it would make those stylish uses of music-- the opening, the love scene, the scenes with the smoking man-- much more effective. He's a good enough filmmaker that the film doesn't need the crutch of a wall-to-wall score.

Good enough, in fact, that the film is still very, very good, perhaps even great; good enough that the film still works and the transition from romance to thriller is at once acutely noticed and seamless. It's stylish, fun, mysterious-- and, above all, highly recommended.


オテモヤン said...
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Anonymous said...

Wow really?
I just watched blank de blanc last night and I have to say it wasn't the #1 worst movie ever made but pretty close.
Absolutely nothing happened.
Why is it entitled blanc de blanc?
Even if the translation has some hidden meaning why title it in French? Just to seem like a "noire artist?"
a better title would be
"a boring bunch of edited video footage which would be unwatchable if it didn't star a cute girl"
what the he'll was it supposed to b about? A guy shows up and starts a relationship then mysteriously leaves. What am I supposed to take away from that? Geez the dialogue was excrutiating. Just exchanging pleasantries.
"hello I'm Dave"
"hi Dave I'm Norah"
"how are you"
"very nice how are you"
"would you like a drink"
"here u to"
"thank you very much"
"you're welcome"
"no problem my pleasure"
"oh thanks that's very kind of you"
"you're welcome"
"how is the drink?"
"great thanks how's urs"
"great thank you for asking"
"wild you like to go to my party"
"yEs thanks.."

noooothng happens!

Lucas mcnelly if you're gonna keep making edited video footage you should really consider making ANYTHInG happen in the next one.

-an avid fan

Tom Russell said...

Anonymous-- Well, different strokes for different folks. I think the title is a pun-- not meaning "blanc" but "blank", referring to either the man's amnesia or, if you don't believe he's amnesiac, to the big question mark of his past. It also could refer to the multiplicity of interpetations-- it's letting you fill in the blank.

Best not to get too hung up on titles, though-- I think it was Bergman who said he didn't care what they called his films overseas, because the films were still the same. I know our last film, SON OF A SEAHORSE, contains no seahorses, no sons (at least, not sons paired with fathers)-- it has zilch to do with the film, though I think on the other hand that in some ways it's still evocative of the film.

Back to BLANC DE BLANC: as I say in my review, this is the sort of mystery story that I respond to. As for "nothing happening", well, even if I disagree with your assessment regarding this particular film, I don't see "nothing happens" as a bad thing, per se. Probably the greatest film I've ever seen is INTO GREAT SILENCE, which is really just two and a half hours of monks doing monk stuff.

It's all a matter of taste. And I don't mean to imply that either of us is wrong, or has better taste-- just different tastes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, come on. You don't REALLY prefer movies in which nothing happens. That's just a lie. You just want it to SEEM like you enjoy old black and white movies.

Movies come from plays which are stories.
Movies NEED stories.
Those stories are better when things happen.

I've never heard the monk movie you mentioned, but there is no way in hell it is as good as a regular old blockbuster like Independence Day.

Know why? Because stuff happened in that movie.

Jeff Goldblum played a character with some personal issues. A problem arose. He helped solve it for selfless reasons and grew as a character as he did it.

Not EVERY movie has to be the same, I agree, but movies that DON'T follow that structure generally suck.

Wailing in Westwood

Tom Russell said...

Part of me wants to keep this conversation going, and part of me knows better than to feed the trolls. And, yes, leaving comments like "you pretend to like old black and white movies" and championing blockbusters like Independence Day over art films, does constitute trolling on a site that extolls the virtues of independent, classic, and arthouse films.

Anonymous said...

Gotta say I agree with Wailing in Westwood here.

There were times in the movie (I'd say roughly 75% of it) that I found myself literally screaming at the television, begging for something to happen. If not an occurrence of some sort, then at least some dialogue that had any weight in any way whatsoever.

But instead I got a ton of useless words that told me nothing of the characters. I still have no idea why she let that man into her life, and a well-written film would NEVER have left me in such a state. I am sure you can explain it in a comment, but you should have included said comment in the film in some way.

And WTF was that sex scene?? We watched them take off clothing in the most excruciatingly slow manner of all time, seeing nothing but their silhouettes without EVER moving the camera or cutting, and then when SOMETHING was about to happen, and they were about to initiate the sex, THEN you cut?? The first part of that scene that required any writing or directing at all you SKIPPED. That transition from stripping to making love was the only important part of the entire scene, and you skipped it!

You might as well have called it "blank de blank" and packaged blank disks. The film accomplished the same goal.

Sorry I sound so harsh. I hope this helps.

Tom Russell said...

I obviously can't speak for the director, but I think that was kind of the point of the sex scene, and showed a very deep understanding indeed of mise en scene, rhythm, and the art of direction.

Anonymous said...

The point of the scene was that nothing happens?

The point of a sex scene was that you don't know how they got to the point of the sex? But we got to see the totally useless clothing removal that lasted for like five minutes?

That's a bit of a hard pill to swallow...

Tom Russell said...

The point's not an intellectual one, not a "this is what I take from this scene", but a _felt_ one, one that can't really be verbalized. Like a sunset shot out of DAYS OF HEAVEN or Fred Astaire dancing on ashtray sand. An aesthetic experience.

Obviously, it's not to your taste. All I can say is that I enjoyed it.