Them (2006)

Them (2006) movie poster

directors David Moreau, Xavier Palud
viewed: 09/19/2014

I’m your total “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of film viewer.  When I open one trope of film viewing (most disturbing films) and uncover another trope of film viewing (New French Extremism), I quickly add to my list the films that I haven’t seen and see what’s readily available.  Them is available on Hulu Plus at the moment.

Home invasion movies have become quite proliferate in recent times.  It’s not because the crime is new, but maybe because it is more proliferate than it once was?  Is it because we think that this is a realistic fear in our modern lives?  I don’t have an answer here.

But Them, which came out in 2006, was ahead of the curve on this, a little bit at least.  And actually, honestly, it’s one of the better films of this style and genre.

Based roughly on a real event, Them tells the tale of a young couple trapped in their rented chateau in Romania, tormented by shadowy figures at utter random.  Only there is a sort of twist here, the twist based on the reality of the story that inspired the film, apparently.  It isn’t such an “aha” but has an insidious and awing alienation and creepiness.

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud actually shoot the film in a refreshingly cinematic style.  It’s not hand-held camera gone wild nor is it the “faux found footage” style.  It’s a more classic thriller and all the more thrilling for it.

It’s interesting because we’ve had so many antecedents since 2006.  The ones that immediately jump to mind are The Strangers (2008), Trespass (2011), and You’re Next (2011).  At least You’re Next is sort of an evolution of the genre.

Them is a very solid thriller.  A lot more easy to appreciate if you haven’t seen too many films in its genre before.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Cristian Mungiu
viewed: 05/16/10

A harsh and harrowing thriller of sorts, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a Romanian film about a woman who helps her friend to get and illegal abortion in 1987, the late years of the Nicolae Ceauşescu-era Communist regime, one of the darkest and considered most-backward of all Eastern Europe in that time.  I say thriller “of sorts” because this is not about car chases, spies, bombs, machine guns, and the only death is that of a fetus aged to the date of the movie’s title.  And it’s a brutal experience, this film.

Aligned in the media as a sample of the Romanian New Wave (such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), and Police, Adjective (2009)), the film shares with those others a portrait of Romania that probably galls the tourism board (as noted by writer/cultural pundit Prince Gomolvilas), a country permanently under grey sodden skies, comprised of morose Soviet-era structures, and streets eternally slick with yesterday’s rain.  The portrait of Bucharest isn’t the pure heart of the film, but rather a tale of desperation, sacrifice, sublimation, and the threat of jail time.

While certainly in America, where abortion is largely legal, the debate on the rightness of the termination of a fetus at various points along its incubation is split pretty severely, the film isn’t so much in question of the rightness or wrongness of the act.  It’s a crime in Romania 1987.  That’s why the two college roommates rent a hotel room and hire on a highly dodgy, yet straightforward man who is willing to perform the abortion (with dubious reason).  Everything is secretive.

Even if it was sunny outside, the women are still at the mercy of the system, the rules, the hotels, the police, and even the illegal doctor.  The women have to put themselves through great humiliation and downright abuse, which speaks to the extremity of their desperation.  And writer/director Cristian Mungiu very effectively manages tensions and terrors in almost benign ways.  When the abortion is performed, it’s not gruesome or explicit, but I was clenching my jaw throughout the scene.

Of the few Romanian films that I’ve seen, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a standout.   While they all employ a downbeat semi-verite style, slow and morose, this film is intense.  Its intensity belies its slow build, its long takes, its lack of musical soundtrack, its humdrum settings.  And while it’s hard to get excited perhaps about seeing a film whose topic is abortion, so politicized, dramatic, yet morally complex, this film really transcends much of that.  It’s humanist and hard work.

Police, Adjective

Police, Adjective (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Corneliu Porumboiu
viewed: 01/29/10

The Romanian New Wave, anyone?

Well, outside of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), I can’t claim any experience with it, despite the fact that director Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) have had the buzz that typically draws one to films that one doesn’t necessarily know that much about.  Well, anyways, the press must be continually lazy calling it the “Romanian New Wave” because while new, surely, and a wave perhaps, it’s not particularly poignant nomenclature.  Heck, I don’t begin to have a picture of it too much yet.

Actually, for me personally, this is kind of an unusual thing, because I watched this film on Pay-Per-View, which I am categorizing as “TV”, though it’s still on its theatrical run.  I guess it’s some deal struck by the IFC film channel, which I don’t even get, and distributors, but both this film and the English film Fish Tank (2009) are available while still in cinemas (Fish Tank just opened yesterday in San Francisco).  And what with liking going to the cinema, being pretty well satisfied by Netflix, this isn’t something that I’ve done too often (as in never), watching a film that perhaps I should be seeing in the cinema on cable.  I’ll spare you my Comcast drama around this, but let’s just say that I had some ironic setbacks in trying to forge a new relationship with Pay-Per-View (so I am not necessarily endorsing it here).

Police, Adjective sounded interesting to me, but it’s not the kind of film that is apt to sound interesting to “just anybody”.  It’s viciously slow and downbeat, low energy and perhaps ultra-understated.  The story follows a plain-clothes policeman in a Romanian town, set to follow some pot-smoking teens, set to bust one of them for sharing his stash with friends, therefore (distributing).  But the cop doesn’t feel that it’s a crime really, considering how other European neighbors treat such an offence, and is loath to send the kid up the river unnecessarily.

The film follows his dull routine, following these pot-smoking teens, who really don’t do anything unusual.  He spends hours just waiting for nothing to happen, and it starts reflecting badly on him professionally.  Ultimately, he’s faced with a conundrum, moral law (his personal feelings about right and wrong given the circumstances) and the literal interpretation of terminology, not just the law as it is set, but the definitions of “law”, “moral law”, “morality”, “police”, as spelled out by his superior from a Romanian dictionary.

And really, this is what the film is about.  Semantics.  Language.  Meaning.  Morality.  Rules.  Interpretations of rules.  But also a set of legal rules that have come down through a historical system (and without questioning their meaning or rightness), the requirement of one to follow said rules.  It’s really quite funny how a film, so slow moving, slow-evolving, a film where so little happens, becomes so thought-provoking while so low-key, so down-beat, and so seemingly unchallenging.

Perhaps this is part of the nature of “The Romanian New Wave”.  Something to do with the social structures, the power, the old Soviet structures (buildings and rules) that have been left behind to be interpreted in the here and now either by literalists or by those with a broader perspective.  It’s really quite amusing.  Like a joke whose punchline gets delivered in full only hours after the movie has finished.  Irony, yet implacability.

Interesting.  Seriously interesting for those willing to challenge themselves to such a thing.  And on Pay-Per-View too, if you can’t find it in your local cinema.

Is it a good or a bad thing, this?  I don’t know.  Neither literally, nor figuratively, nor morally, nor symbolically.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Cristi Puiu
viewed: 10/23/06

Strangely marketed as “The Most Acclaimed Comedy of the Year”, this is a Romanian film about a very ill 63-year old man and his passage from emergency room to emergency room as he quickly becomes more and more ill.  Maybe it is a comedy, because as bleak as the story is and as harsh as it could seem, it comes off as some Kafkaesque journey toward death in Eastern Europe.  There certainly is a strong message of social criticism, as the titular Mr. Lazarescu (who unlike Lazarus doesn’t seem to have much chance to revive), is turned away by one hospital and another where despite his deeply fading health he is not given priority.

He is frequently criticized for his drinking and his swollen liver makes it clear that whether its colon cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, he’s doomed.  His health deteriorates faster and faster as he seeks out medical treatment, even with the help of one caring ambulance nurse.  And his treatment that he seems to be getting toward the end is brain surgery.

There is some humanity speckled in this mixture of misanthropic doctors, neighbors, family, and other potential caregivers.  As pessimistic as it is and as it sounds, the tone and style of the film is not unlike the work of Jim Jarmusch to be honest.  There is a simplicity to the camera-work and a real sense of the life and environment of this man in his tenement with his three cats in Bucharest.

Comedy?