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Naturalism, Beauty, and Babies

Drafthouse Films

Pietà (directed by Kim Ki-duk)

Post Tenebras Lux (directed by Carlos Reygadas)

The Stroller Strategy (directed by Clément Michel)

It would be hard to name the most brutal example of naturalism since the style came in about a century ago, and the last place one would have looked for a contender is the Venice Film Festival. Yet the winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s festival is a contender for that distinction. The film is Pietà by the South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, and the opening credits—extraordinarily—tell us that this is his eighteenth work, as if to assure us that this is not a cheap shot by some fly-by-night sensationalist. It is the first of Kim’s pictures that I have seen, although I’ve read serious comment about him, and it is clear early on that he is a capable director.

It is also clear from the start that he is setting a mode of candor. The very first shot is of a young man in bed, masturbating. He is Kang-do, the setting is a slum of Seoul that is full of small machine shops, and he is a collector for a loan shark. His method is simple. The borrower agrees in advance that if the loan is not repaid on time in full, Kang-do will put that man’s hand in his machine, injure it, and collect on the insurance. We see this done, and we see previous victims. Kang-do is not a rank criminal in his environment. He is accepted, but he lives with a bravado about himself and his job.

We see him do more to get his way as he moves along, but I will skip describing these things except to note that, disgusting as some of them are, the core of the film quickly seems to be one of the original points of naturalism—art as information, showing us lives we do not know.

Suddenly in Kang-do’s life there appears a woman who has come to beg his pardon. She is Min-sun, in her forties, attractive, who claims to be his mother, and she begs him to forgive her for abandoning him as soon as she bore him. He ridicules her, tries to get her to quit her pretense, commits some atrocities which she endures, and ultimately rapes her. She is distraught, but nonetheless she remains to care for him, cooking and so on, enduring his rough behavior. He seems to become fond of her in a fairly filial way. 

The story develops at an obliquely fiendish angle with an implied glance at the Michelangelo of the title. Lee Jung-jin as Kang-do makes us believe that this secure double-dyed thug is nonetheless a human being with more aspects than he knew. Cho Min-soo as his claimant mother is tremulously full of the feeling she is talking about at any moment. Kim directs in a way that conveys his own feelings about what happens even while he must tell the truth. There is a touch too much of the handheld camera, but in general one senses that the very quality of the way this film was made is one of its justifications for being and for its raw moments.

The god of film is saying, “I never promised you a rose garden.” 

On the other hand–and it’s an increasingly weighty hand–another new film says adieu to any old school or style and, like a number of works in all the arts, declares freedom from the past. Post Tenebras Lux by the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, which takes its title from the Reformation discourse of Calvinists, means “light after darkness,” and apparently signifies that Reygadas feels that his work signifies freedom. It certainly is made in a way now familiar in film—like Malick’s To the Wonder—that shows it is not going to follow the precepts of any style or of historic concepts of art, yet has an ambition toward beauty.

It opens with a little girl in rainwear chasing some cows through a soaking field, exquisitely shot, followed by animated shots of a red devil on his way to some mischief. Then comes the home of the child and her family and the start of what we think may be a story. But it is not: There is a succession of shots, including children playing on a beach, lovely landscape vistas, two old men playing their usual game of chess, the visit of the first child’s parents to a sex club, and more. We soon realize that to apply our usual expectations about a film would be as out of place here as expecting figuration or representation from any one of thousands of modern painters.

Strand Releasing
A rugby scene.

Reygadas, like many other artists in the past century, is rebelling against a tradition of art, the assumption that the artist may prescribe what we may look at or listen to. He is showing us what is happening in the world around and outside of what might have been a conventional film—around and outside of that original family in a conventional story—yet all the time bringing everything to us with all the beauty at his command. For a hundred years at least there has been an intellectual and artistic protest against the fact that traditional art of any style has imposed ideas of order on life which in nature is not orderly. In protest against this order there has for instance in the theater evolved a movement called post-dramatic theater, in which a group of actors may simply come out and sit down and talk about whatever comes to mind. Reygadas is hardly as freewheeling as that, but certainly he does what he feels like doing as he feels like doing it—to bring lux out of what he considers past darkness. The result calls for a viewing as different as looking at a Vermeer against Rothko or de Kooning or multiple other modern painters. This is not an attempt to put him in their class, simply to understand what and who he is. 

To turn from these two films to The Stroller Strategy is almost like turning to another medium. Clément Michel’s film (he directed it and wrote it with Louis-Paul Desanges) is a farce, thus by its nature a creation of convention and artifice—a work that takes its very essence from rejoicing in the matters that the other films assail. Farces do not in their nature explore life, they utilize it. They rejoice in creating an atmosphere that exists only in far possibility and that attracts us both by its unlikelihood and its refreshment.

Studio Canal
Raphaël Personnaz as Thomas

Thomas is a free-living young man in Paris. He begins a freewheeling affair with Marie, and all goes easily enough until it begins to look serious. She withdraws. Then—and this is the plot’s mainspring—something over a year later a newborn infant is suddenly plunged into Thomas’s care. The mother, a lone neighbor of his, is taken to a hospital and is in a coma for four days. He has no choice but to accept the responsibility, though he knows nothing about babies. Then come all the situations in baby care and social strain. (He has to take the baby with him to a job interview.) Then he takes little Leo to a baby-care center, and who works there but Marie—who now sees him with a child after she faded at seriousness with her.

The film reasserts the unique quality of watching a farce. With any picture, we care about the script the actors are doing and the way it is being done. With a farce, we care considerably more about Item Two. We don’t expect much in depth or insight or fidelity to life, but we do care a good deal about invention. As we watch, we are chiefly hopeful that the writer-director can keep inventing brightly.

Clément Michel certainly does. The result is not continuous laughter but 90 minutes in a kind of aerated existence, just credible enough to be amusing. Michel directs with a gentle yet firm hand. Raphaël Personnaz is a good-looking, flexible, and appealing Thomas. Charlotte Le Bon, as Marie, is exceptionally lovely and engagingly pert. The infant who is Leo doesn’t act, of course, and he is a knockout.