Tag Archives: B+

FEAR AND TREMBLING (STUPEUR ET TREMBLEMENTS)

The same culture clash that served as the backdrop to the halting romance between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation” takes center stage–though romance is nowhere in sight–in “Fear and Trembling,” a cool, incisive, funny but also strangely melancholy film adapted by writer-director Alain Corneau from a novel by Amelie Nothomb. Fashioned with impeccable style and blessed with a flawlessly restrained performance by Sylvie Testud in the lead role, the tale of a young Belgian who suffers through a horrendous year as a low-level employee in a Tokyo-based megacorporation is probably too specialized to appeal to many viewers, but it will touch a nerve with anyone with a taste for trenchant storytelling and refined filmmaking.

Again like Sophia Coppola’s much-praised picture, “Fear and Trembling” has a very narrow focus, which it hones in on with uncanny precision. Amelie (Testud) is a mousy European who was born in Japan and recalls her early years there as a time of enchantment. Fluent in Japanese, she’s enthusiastic about the job she’s managed to secure at the giant Yumimoto Company. But from the first day in the well-oiled-machine of an office she finds herself treated with utter condescension by division head Mr. Saito (Taro Suwa), who answers to a Buddha-like vice-president named Omochi (Bison Katayama). Amelie’s immediate superior is Fubuki Mori (Kaori Tsuji), a tall, incredibly beautiful young woman who’s working her way up the corporate ladder. Amelie sees Mori not only as a model but as a kind of oriental ideal, and assumes that her friendly manner–especially when compared to the dismissive attitudes of Saito and Omochi–indicates a degree of warm support for the newcomer. But in this, as in so much else, Amelie is mistaken, and by the end of her year with the firm she finds herself repeatedly humiliated, yet strangely instructed by the experience of being relegated to successively more demeaning duties–culminating in a stint as washroom attendant. The odd thing is that she realizes her ineffectiveness in each of the roles she’s assigned, and sticks it out for the full year–despite the miseries heaped on her–to prove that she can at least achieve the attitude of complete submission to hierarchical authority characteristic of the Japanese worker.

On the surface “Fear and Trembling”seems pretty slight, not much more than an elongated sketch; but it’s actually about a good deal more than simply earning chuckles from a clash between Japanese and western mindsets. The picture gets at the essential impenetrability of cultures to outsiders while painting a fascinating psychological portrait of a woman bewildered by a society she idolizes who ironically must demean herself in western terms in order to prove worthy of even the most grudging acceptance within it. If played ineptly, such a tale would seem cruel and unpalatable. But here it’s staged with an artfulness that keeps it light on its feet–not fluffy, but cooly, almost ascetically weightless. That winningly precise tone is enhanced by Amelie’s reportage of her experiences as the picture proceeds in the words of Nothomb’s book, but even more by Testud’s marvelous performance, which makes the character not just a pitiful waif but curiously determined, almost courageous figure. (The actress’ mastery of the Japanese dialogue is also impressive.) The mood is further assisted by the excellent supporting cast, particularly the extraordinarily lovely Ysuji, by the crystalline cinematography of Yves Angelo, and by the decision to score the film with excerpts from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” which, especially when performed on harpsichord as they are here, mirror the visuals both in fastidiousness and in structure.

Like director Alain Corneau’s previous film “Tous les Matins du Monde” (1991), “Fear and Trembling” is a rarefied piece, sophisticated and somewhat distant emotionally, and so unlikely to appeal to the mass audience. But connoisseurs of cinematic elegance should find it a brilliant jewel.

BRIGHT LEAVES

The documentary as personal odyssey–a form popularized by Michael Moore and taken up, in a less provocative fashion, in films like “Stone Reader” and “My Architect”–appears again in this charmingly deadpan examination by Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) of his own family’s involvement in the North Carolina tobacco business.

McElwee, as it happens, had a cinematic hook on which to hang his quest: the 1950 Hollywood period melodrama called “Bright Leaf” directed by Michael Curtiz, which starred Gary Cooper as an entrepreneurial nineteenth-century tobacco baron who sought revenge against the competitors who’d wronged him. Informed by a second cousin–a fanatical movie collector who, on the basis of the evidence here, could be a good documentary subject himself–that the Cooper character was based on their great-grandfather, the creator of the Bull Durham tobacco brand who was maneuvered out of ownership and sent into bankruptcy by the machinations of the Duke family (from which the university takes its name), McElwee undertakes to investigate the idea.

But if that search were all that “Bright Leaves” were about, it would long outstay its welcome. What makes it consistently engrossing is McElwee’s persistently languid, ruminative approach: he’s always ready to take up what appear to be digressions or tangents that actually relate to his larger project. So he uses his investigation to look into his family’s curiously ambivalent involvement with tobacco, ranging from growers and smokers who die from the habit to physicians who treat the afflicted. He employs it as well to reflect on the very nature of family, not only looking into the connections between his clan and the Dukes but taking his project into very personal terrain by making it a springboard for him to reflect on his relationship to his own son. And in his hands the odyssey also engages the history of North Carolina as a whole, particularly in terms of the dependence of its economy on the product, and even more broadly on the nature of capitalist competition. By the close we’ve been introduced to so many issues and so many engaging people, in such a delightful way, that even the fact that McElwee can’t offer a final “gotcha!” moment (of the sort that Mark Moskowitz, for instance, achieved in “Stone Reader”)–indeed, what he gives us, in the testimony of the widow of the author of the novel on which “Bright Leaf” was based, is the exact opposite of that–doesn’t diminish the pleasure one takes from having gone on the journey with him. Interviews with Patricia Neal, a member of the 1950 film’s cast, and with film theorist Vladimir Petric, who insists that McElwee film him from a wheelchair that Petric will push around the street to make the sequence (as he puts it) “kinesthetic,” as well as those with McElwee’s own cousins and friends or cancer survivors whose lives were saved by his doctor-father, prove equally memorable–as are, in a different sense, the periodic inserts of the director’s son as he grows from child to adolescent. And insofar as his commentary is concerned, McElwee keeps it more buoyant than didactic, even at points when it might have easily veered toward a shrill screed against the effects of smoking.

“Bright Leaves” doesn’t wear its importance on its sleeve the way Michael Moore’s films do, but in its quiet, gentle way it raises issues that are in some ways even more fundamental. And it touches on serious matters with a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor that makes receiving its messages a pleasure rather than a chore.