SCREEN GRAB: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone star in Woody Allen’s latest film.
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Strange as it be seem, Hollywood icon Woody Allen began as a writer of jokes for television in the 1950s. But while his movies still retain a dash of wit, there is also a lot of sorrow and pain in them.
Allen was at Cannes the other day, presenting his latest work, Irrational Man, at the ongoing 68th edition of the Festival’s Out-of-Competition section. The day his film screened, the sky over Cannes was a bright blue. But Woody was moody. Meeting the media after the screening, he lamented: “We’re all going to end up in a very bad position one day. The same position but a bad one.
“The only thing you can do as an artist is to come up with a way to explain to people why life has some meaning. And you can’t do that without conning them. Because in the end it has no meaning. Everything you create will vanish and the earth will vanish and the sun is vanishing.... it will all be gone one day no matter how much we cherish it.” Allen loves to be overwhelmed by a sense of doom.
I still remember that scene in To Rome with Love, where he himself acts. In one of the first scenes, he tells his screen wife as their plane is about to land at the Italian capital that he has a bad feeling. “The aircraft may crash!” It did not.
Irrational Man has similarly a lot of irrationality about it. It was written that way by Allen himself. The movie, a black comedy, centres on a philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), who is marvellous in despairing. Call it existentialism. Despite his melancholic nature, women still find him attractive.
Early on Lucas meets an attractive student, Jill (Emma Stone), who is willing to let go her boyfriend to be with her professor. She cajoles him one night to take her to bed. Emotionally blackmails him: It is my birthday, come one, give me this gift. He gives her.
But even her affections are not enough to get Lucas out of the blue mood. He has to commit a crime to pep himself up. A premeditated murder, which he justifies, a murder that pushes him towards another gruesome one. When he overhears a woman in a cafe talk about the cruelty of a judge, Lucas takes it upon himself to play the good samaritan. So what if the path he chooses is wrong.
Irrational Man appeared to be heading towards Match-Point, where the hero commits a murder — kills his girlfriend when she begins to pester him to get married — and goes scot free. I was amazed. Allen was being so amoral. But that is Allen. Perhaps, he thinks some crimes are absolutely necessary.
“Religious people believe that if they live a good life they will live on in Heaven,” Allen quipped. “But that is a fallacy which equates to a secular person like Phoenix’s character thinking he’ll commit this act and make his life better.”
At 79, Allen still averages one film a year, and even his most serious work is laced with humour. “I just had to be a comic moviemaker because that’s where my gifts were and no one would give me any money to make a serious film.”
Does Irrational Man have that spirit of comedy in it? It is there all right, but one has to look hard for it. The movie is more about irrationality. Lucas confesses to Jill about his crime, and when a innocent man is wrongly accused of it, Jill pesters the professor to come clean. Lucas does not want to do that, and plans a second crime to hide his first.
Irrational Man is wonderfully crafted like always, but my favourite among Allen’s recent works remains Vicky Christy Barcelona — where three women chase an artist, and boy, that was hilarious to the hilt.
The Fourth Direction
There was another film at Cannes that I quite liked. Gurvinder Singh’s second work, The Fourth Direction or Chauthi Koot is a vast improvement on his first, Alms for the Blind Horse — which though a well meant exercise, was raw, unpolished and a trifle ponderous. The Fourth Direction deftly negotiates all of these.
Set in the 1980s Punjab that was in the grip of the Khalistan Movement, demanding a separate nation for Sikhs — a bloody insurgency which finally led to the storming of the Golden Temple by the armed forces and flushing out of the militants holed in there — The Fourth Direction reminded me of a Hitchcockian trait. Singh recreates fear with just a hint of violence. While we see plenty of anxiety on the faces of the actors, we see virtually no bloodshed and just a trace of physical brutality.
The movie pictures two unrelated stories. The first focuses on how three men force their way into the guard’s compartment of a train that has been ordered by the military to run between two stations absolutely empty. The men, one Sikh and two Hindus, having missed their last train are left with no choice but to finally push their way into the coach.
In the second story, which is the main one, Singh takes us to a farmhouse, far removed from habitation, where a family of father, mother, son, daughter and their grandmother, lives in mortal fear of not just the militants but also the armed forces. Their pet dog, Tommy, is a source of irritation for the insurgents, who find its barking a giveaway as they pass by the farmhouse under the cover of darkness. They walk into the house one night, accept the family’s hospitality and suggest (maybe order) that the animal be put to death. The family abhors the very idea of doing this.
The following morning, the troops arrive, search the house, turning it upside down, and even rough up the man there in their vain effort to find arms or even militants hidden away.
The dark days in Punjab which eventually culminated in the assassination of Indira Gandhi are retold by Singh most vividly through the haunted eyes of the small family that lives under the constant threat from and fear of both the military and the militants.
Singh tells us that the real victims of the 1980s insurgency were the ordinary people whose lives were shattered — not the hundreds who fell to bullets on either side.
The Fourth Direction is certainly a marvellous attempt at narrating a bloody part of history without actually resorting to an exhibition of bullets and blood. Yes, the pace could have been quicker, and the narration less repetitive.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for the 26th year, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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