Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cannes duo

Two film recommendations (each of which won a prize at Cannes, though not the Palme d'Or): A Prophet and Harakiri.

I don't have much to say about A Prophet except that it shows how good French films often are and I'm not sure I quite get it. The main character (I'll try not to give too much away) sees things, but he gets the nickname that gives the film its title by 'predicting' something that I'm not sure is anything other than literally seeing it. Is that the point? Is the idea that you can tell what is going to happen just by being observant of what is happening? And then is the film as a whole meant to show us what is happening and going to happen in French society? If so, that seems a bit too bold and ambitious. Otherwise, though, a definite must-see if you can handle subtitles and prison violence.

Harakiri is more interesting. Like Kurosawa and Tarkovsky, Kobayashi makes every shot beautiful. This is helped by the Japanese architecture and interior design that features so prominently in the film. It's all very symmetrical, (apparently) carefully-made, minimalist without pretension. And then the story is philosophically interesting, rejecting the samurai concept of honour while simultaneously upholding and celebrating a (novel or, perhaps, simply deeper) version of it. (The samurai code is similar to the ideal of the western knight. Like the buildings they live in, samurai should be square, upright, unfussy, characterized by uncommon care and skill, but also fit for human life.) There are moral lessons in the story as well as food for thought about what it means to follow a moral rule. And there's a social or political point, too, about what happens when those at the top of a hierarchy act on the basis of worldly concerns but still expect those below to be motivated by honour. It reminds me of how we often treat soldiers, teachers, etc. We don't need to pay them well (or take care of them in other ways) because they should do their jobs for love (of country or whatever). But don't expect those at the top not to make sure they get as much as they can.

This is nothing new, of course, which is generally the way with ethics. But Harakiri shows how old ideas can be presented in new ways, and can need presenting to us again. It perhaps loses something for the emotionally manipulative use of a child's suffering (but then you could say the same about The Brothers Karamazov), but otherwise it's just about perfect. Both films are worth at least four stars.

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