Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Noir City XVIII #4: Ennui, from the Latin for BORING

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Just before the first feature on Italian Noir night, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller described acclaimed director Michelangelo Antonioni's take on Story of a Love Affair by saying something to the effect of "he's more concerned with the ennui of these people than actually telling the story." I'm paraphrasing, but the Czar certainly used the word ennui. It's one of my two favorite privilege signifiers; the other is eccentric. I'd never forget any mention of either.

How is it a "privilege signifier?" Well, have you ever heard anybody with no money suffering from ennui or described as eccentric? Nope. If you're rich and crazy, you're eccentric. If you're poor and crazy, you're just batshit. And if you're hustling to make ends meet, as many of the characters who populate Noir City are, you ain't got time for what Oxford defines as a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. 

Alas, the characters in Antonioni's 1950 debut are infused with ennui and the director most definitely isn't interested in focusing on the noirish bonafides of his story. I have stated before that I am not a fan of Antonioni's work at all. The only joy I've ever gleaned from his watching-paint-dry oeuvre is the montage of exploding imagery in Zabriskie Point and the super-cool way Jack Nicholson said "Antonioni" in this clip of the director receiving his Honorary Oscar. In fact, I was going to use Italian noir night as the "get out of Noir City free" card I always save for one day every festival, but I was told that this was Antonioni before he was, well, Antonioni. Admittedly, I was intrigued! Like many a man in the noir movies I adore, I was a damn fool!

Though the story has echoes of The Postman Always Rings Twice, there isn't a moment in Story of a Love Affair that crackles with the electricity of the moment Lana Turner drops her lipstick and the camera gets a shot of her legs. Hell, there isn't even a glint of the 80's era absurdity soaking the remake that starred the aforemented Mr. Nicholson. At some point, we can assume that Paola (Lucia Bose) will not-so-subtly hint that former (and current) lover Guido (Massimo Girotti) should off the husband who stands between them and sheer bliss. It's even implied that, back in the day, she literally gave the shaft to her prior competitor for Guido's affections. The guy investigating that mysterious death by elevator looms in the background, as if waiting for Paola to slip up and commit another crime of passion. 

We're waiting too. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. "Look lady! Just ask the man to kill yo' huzzband already!!" I wanted to shout as the ninth hour of this movie rolled along. "I got laundry to do!" Instead, we're trapped in Paola's Ennui, which sounds like a perfume that smells of the itchy feet John Garfield kept mentioning in Postman. The movie looks like the commercial for that fragrance, which isn't a criticism to be honest. Not even I can dispute Antonioni's visuals. But by the time the film crawls to as ending that's far more anti-climactic than ironic, I was wondering if SCTV had ever done a parody of it. 

During his introduction to the first feature of Czech Noir night, Eddie mentioned another director with whom I have a long history of dislike, David Lynch. However, Lynch has made two movies that I've put on my ten best of the year lists AND he managed to fool me into watching one-and-a-half seasons of Twin Peaks. Lynch is many things but he is certainly not boring. Nor is ...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear, director Zbynêk Brynych's very political and exceptionally harrowing tale of Nazi-era paranoia set in a sprawling yet claustrophobic apartment building. It's a perfect fit for this year's festival; the groupthink-led tragedy of Brynych's film has a kindred spirit in Panique, and the director's masterful use of the geography of a building is eerily reminiscent of The Housemaid.

This film's allegorical bonafides are aces. It makes no attempt to be period-accurate, opting instead to fool the Iron Curtain censors of the time by constantly making reference to Nazi occupation. However, any viewer watching in 1965 saw right through that ruse and knew immediately that Brynych was conducting a contemporary dissection of life in his country. 

Miroslav Machácek plays docent Brown who, against his better judgment, helps a man who has been mysteriously shot. His neighbors include a kid who seems to be everywhere, a family with a maid, an excitable old lady with a dog and Fanta (Josef Vinklár), whose mousy appearance hides the potential danger that he's an informer, especially when he inadvertently witnessed the mysterious man with Brown.

...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear launches an unrelenting sensory assault on the viewer. There's a well-edited chaos to many scenes, most notably when sinister government officials invade the building looking for any signs of dissent. The sound design, and the nerve-shredding musical score, are invaluable assets to the film's ability to disturb. Folks who thought this year's Uncut Gems dragged them through the ringer should give this a look to see what true relentlessness looks like. A classic of the same Czech New Wave that first brought Milos Forman to audiences' attention, ...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear is a must-see. And that title is just brilliant.

Next time: More Czech Cinema and Evil Inspector Clouseau
Last time: Evil Maid, Bonkers Movie

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