Two of my favorite films of 2016, so far. Son of Saul is another film that harkens to the triumphant return of the 1.37:1 ratio. Alongside other recent international films Ida, Gueros, and The Assassin (a post is coming on that one), the Academy ratio is making a strong comeback. In Son of Saul it combines with director Laszlo Nemes’ insistence on close-ups to yield a harsh, harrowing, claustrophobic film.
Son of Saul is hard to watch. The story of Saul (Geza Rohrig), a concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz trying to bury his son’s body is brutal and intense. Nemes relies heavily on sound and the off-screen audio is as frightening as the few images we see in bold focus. It’s fantastic sound design.
The film is shot mostly in long take close-ups. The first one is really long and feels like Nemes might be going for a one-take gimmick (not that all one-take films or their cousins – Russian Ark, Rope, Victoria, etc – are gimmicks, but in all of those films the technique is more interesting (Russian Ark and Victoria) or as interesting (Rope) as the story), but he soon cuts away. What he does insist on is the shallow focus close-up.
The frame gives us glimpses here and there of what’s happening in the surroundings, but much of the goings-on are done via context and sound, or, frequently, in the soft focus background. There’s a lot of background action in the film. While Saul is front and center foreground there’s violence in the out of focus figures behind and around him quite often. That’s hard work for the audience. It’s difficult to put it all together with such a limited frame, and the concentration required combines with the wrenching narrative to create a difficult experience.
The 1.37 aspect ratio also really serves to center in on Saul. He’s the heart of the film and we’re with him the whole time. And he’s a frustrating protagonist. His route is atypical of the traditional movie hero’s. When we want him to fight he does anything but. His actions are a form of resistance, just maybe not the action-oriented resistance (and therefore, catharsis) that we want.
Son of Saul is about the need for some kind of hope, no matter how grim. Even when Saul’s journey verges on the ludicrous (is this guy he finally finds really a Rabbi?), the despondent (a pretty literal pit of despair), or the briefly transcendent (a quiet scene in the water), the man keeps a single-mindedness that, though perhaps ultimately useless externally, seems to drive him internally.
Someone give the camera operator in this film an Oscar.
The Forbidden Room
It’s been awhile since I’ve watched a Guy Maddin film. No one makes movies like Guy Maddin. Sure, he’s obsessed with old film and you can count a lot of the references in here as they show up – German Expressionism, ’30s Hollywood melodrama, Dziga Vertov, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, Un Chien Andalou, cheesy horror like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die – but the only real reference when all is said and done…is Guy Maddin.
Maybe his short film (and, alongside 7:35 in the Morning, probably my favorite short film) The Heart of the World is his closest other work in terms of sheer layers.
This is an absurdist movie. It kind of reminded me of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” but less interested in rigor and formalism, and freer and more deadpan and lunatic than the Calvino novel. The film is story within a story within a story. It starts in a bathtub moves to a submarine, and from there goes wild with vignettes that include women in poisonous skeleton costumes, talking Aswang bananas, a complete musical interlude about derrieres, an amazing murder section with Mathieu Amalric, and more.
The Forbidden Room almost definitely wouldn’t work on a laptop screen by yourself. I was lucky enough to catch it on a great digital projection with an audience that was into it. Maddin’s humor is so goofy and so dumb sometimes that you really just have to go with it.
The director also never lets up and that’s important. Where someone else might throw a joke or two in there and then get on with it, he keeps upping the ante. Consistency is a boring reason to like a movie, but this won’t be the first time that I’ll argue for its being a main reason why a movie is good.
But Maddin isn’t just about cheesy punchlines (though the bathtub prologue and epilogue – featuing Louis Negin in a great performance – could combine to make a short film that I’d watch over and over). He’s really talented and really unique. I mentioned layers earlier. Nearly every shot in The Forbidden Room has multiple layers or at least effects that present the same as layers – front and rear projection, morphing, cutout animation, text on text.
The pace of the edit – and also of the effects/layers – is so manic that it adds to the comedy and points to real skill and vision. No surprise. This feels like the film that Maddin has been working towards for a long time. It’s maybe my favorite of his, alongside Brand Upon the Brain
I remember seeing Archangel in the theater and being totally confused and kind of hating it. While I came around to it a bit on a second viewing it now feels like a warm-up in hindsight. Where that film and something like Careful feel almost exclusively like homage, The Forbidden Room is fully realized.