Truth on a shoestring beats blockbuster bombast

What is happening in modern cinema? If we didn’t know before, The Artist’s Oscar success surely told us. And this week Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place and Le Havre, from Finland’s mad but lovable Aki Kaurismäki, tell us again. Shoestring Theory dominates cinematic space-time. Screen truth today is formed from quivering, shimmering lengths of inexpensive genius, no longer from the stable, costly building blocks once known as “Hollywood”.

I cannot remember a period in which major-studio American films fell so regularly to the bottom of a critical column, or off it. The best or biggest thing this week from La-La Land? The return of Titanic in 3D. Two weeks ago had The Hunger Games: big and splashy but showing that even when today’s US popular cinema does something sonorous and self-important it does it, or can do it, with a blithering crudity.

Greater Europe is a whole other story. This Must Be the Place stars Sean Penn and is set in the US, with a brief Irish prelude. But an Italian writer-director ensures that it has brains, wit, imagination. In many ways it is about America’s decline. Penn whimpers sweetly in lipstick and an Alice Cooper wig, a German-fathered retired rocker called Cheyenne, undertaking a revenge pilgrimage. His late dad left him a spiritual bequest: the memory of a concentration camp guard who humiliated him and who lives on in that wonderland for waifs, strays and demons-in-denial that Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia.

Cue road movie. For its first half-hour This Must Be the Place behaves like this-must-be-the-film-you-don’t-want-to-see. Penn is mannered to a point of maddeningness: all high, faint voice and unblinking stare. He combines Delphic with dumb-idiotic. But then so do many rockers. His performance grows on you. I loved his question, “Why is Lady Gaga . . .? (end of sentence)” Later I loved the way this hero, pressing on with his dad-ordained itinerary, confronts the American Grotesque – from the World’s Biggest Pistachio (Rauschenbergian tourist monument) to the pampered matrons with their pooches to the stalag fugitives hiding in icy nowheres – with a wisdom as deadpan and assured as another recent Germanic seeker, Werner Herzog.

Into the abyss? For sure. Once more into the abyss, dear friends, or close history’s wall up with our memories dead. Sorrentino, who made the superb love-and-payback Mafia seriocomedy The Consequences of Love (2004), and later darkly mythologised Italy’s Andreotti era in Il Divo (2008), is obsessed with the past’s reach into the present. He is obsessed simultaneously – same theme but different – with those parts of the past that cease to reach into the present. Cheyenne, in a moment of woozy enlightenment, notes the change from “an age when we say, ‘That will be my life’ to an age when we say ‘That’s life.’” We used to control and determine our fates. Now we accept them.

Perhaps. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. What matters is the story that sets out to correct the perceived truth, to rattle the bars of predestination and acquiescence. Startlingly the film I was reminded of was The Wild Bunch. Paolo Sorrentino, like Sam Peckinpah, sees revenge as existentialism in full absurdist glory. The only difference here: Cheyenne finds his own piquant, pacific, imaginative way to settle the accounts of history.

Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is a film you want to hug. It is so adorable – like a loved mutt – that it lowers your blood pressure while heightening your besotted and caring interest. In a noirish corner of north-west France the former author and social rebel Marcel Marx (Kaurismäki regular André Wilms) employs himself as a shoe-shiner. In a vocational acte gratuit – this week’s second existentialism alert! – he has gone native with the common people. He is now a one-man catchment and protection area for foreign fugitives, such as the young Gabon stowaway Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) pursued by immigration police. Imagine a plot made from Rimbaud, Camus and Simenon, mixed together, then served with a festive cracker and funny hat.

Kaurismäki finds that point where a basilisk spoofiness intersects with a throbbing verismo. You can take the film seriously: the ominous music, shadow-edged décor, men in hats pursuing men without. Or you can giggle in pastiche-lovers’ delight. Or you can do both. This is the temps perdu of novelist Céline and filmmakers Melville and Carné. People say solemnly surreal lines like “She is the road manager of my soul.” And who could resist the Dadaist scene of a brooding black-coated detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) sitting in a bar holding a pineapple, drinking a Calvados, pondering unsolved crimes? Maigret meets Magritte.

The plot, I think, resolves itself. I believe the wife with a fatal illness, played by Kaurismäki regular number two, Kati Outinen, is cured. (“I am cured. The disease is completely gone. Let’s go home.” Or did I imagine that line?) I have a vague sense that the African boy is saved. But I have no certain memory. I was on cloud nine throughout the film: that place of Technicolored rapture where Kaurismäki fans dwell, and where past, present and oneiric future are rolled celestially into one.

A Cat in Paris
was Oscar-nominated in the Best Animated Feature category. Times must have been hard for the Academy. Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s feline frivol starts promisingly. A domestic moggy with Picasso-styled features moonlights as a cat burglar’s assistant. (Does the same pun exist in French?) The human faces are similarly modern-artish, though more Modigliani, and there’s a very funny yapping terrier who yaps on regardless even when winter weather reduces him to two paws sticking up through thick snow.

Then the film becomes heavy with chases. Cops chase crook; owners chase cat; audience chases vanishing charm, though there is something a bit export-made about this charm even at best. Too many Paris rooftops under moonlight; too many shots of that well-known tower presenting its tourist eyeful.

We came in and go out with Shoestring Theory. When the week’s best American release is a penniless returning-soldier story by a little-known independent director I think we can say “QED”. Liza Johnson’s Return, though no Hurt Locker, wrestles honourably with western agony over “Iraq-istan”, that two-front tragedy, and its toll on US self-belief and self-esteem. Linda Cardinelli plays the home-coming veteran about whose war we never learn quite enough. John Mad Men Slattery is interestingly cast as a reformed drunk. Michael Shannon steals the film – when does he not? – as the loving, frustrated husband whose fuse is burning short.

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