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.