TIFF 2012: Sans Soleil and Tess Reviews (Paolo Kagaoan)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Sans Soleil (1982)

Voice overs by Florence Delay and Alexandra Stewart, featuring Kim Novak and James Stewart

Directed by Chris Marker

This movie has the bearings of director Chris Marker’s style, a series of images accompanied by a voice over; a woman speaking for Marker or recalling his letters about the movie, a voice from whom we hope we can trust.

Time is long and an equally oppressive force that distances humans as much as space does. The title Sans Soleil recalls a saying that the British Empire has made an empire where the sun never sets. The movie seems more of a cynical take on that quote; the Empire and many others like it are revolted against but it leaves an imprint that blinds the people affected by it, at the same time being oblivious to time and its events’ omnipresence.

So in showing us Iceland, Tokyo, Guniea-Bissau, San Francisco, and many others of his present day, what is Marker trying to prove? That he can show the essence of a whole planet within two hours? To show life’s reality in its implications instead of its machinations? What I got from it is that he’s deconstructing the notion that certain civilizations are more advanced than others, showing that we’re trapped by time, a shackle for the world’s present inhabitants to feel once in a while. It also shows that people can’t solve past trifles and brutalities. People are also bound by the idolatry and fetishization of the material objects that are evidences of time’s passing, whether they’re in an advanced city like Tokyo or the third world.

Pardon the intellectual blabbering – if you’re not into that, you’re probably not going to be into the movie either. The movie’s multiple locations also imply that this movie sprawls, its journey filled with distractions and stray observations that sadly don’t feel solid or compact. This doesn’t make for the best cinematic experience. It doesn’t get the message across for me and, I assume, for a great percentage of its audience, but snippets of it will do.

Tess (1979)

Starring Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin, Tom Chadbon and Lesley Dunlop

Directed by Roman Polanski

The visuals tell the story and TIFF’s presentation of the restoration of Tess makes its narrative arcs more lucid. Clocking in at almost three hours, director Roman Polanski’s adaptation is typically more concise compared to its source material, Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the story of a young country girl who reluctantly tries to reclaim the dignity of her noble ancestors. In the novel’s fourth chapter in a book that has more than fifty, Hardy chooses to treat his characters sadistically, so I imagined beautiful people in a dark and dreary movie akin to what you’d see in film adaptations of  Bronte novels. And when we think of sadism, it now makes sense that Polanski would direct such a  movie, even if it was set in the 19th century. And from my knowledge, epic movies have either arid or cold environments, treating nature as something to be traversed.

On the other hand,  let’s look back to Polanski’s best work, which is either elegant or opulent. And it’s true that the characters in it aren’t at their best – John Durbeyfield looking old from drink, his daughter Tess’s beauty not exceptional, her two love interests equally imperfect. But what Polanski does with the English countryside, its geological history and its population of troubled characters with sordid pasts, is treat it with love. Every form of life is colourful without being artificially so; Polanski not robbing these characters with the hope and the home that they want and could have.

And it’s all pacing, the movie can’t be all sad.

The movie has three colour schemes. The first features the golden sunlight that dominates most of the film (can you imagine, a Britain where it doesn’t rain?) symbolizing Polanski’s surprising optimism. Then there’s the second phase with its eventual wintry grays and the third with its crimsons, but if you haven’t read the novel, I won’t ruin it for you.

Polanski also moulds his cast within these loving landscapes. True, their performances are distractingly bad but there’s something romantic when we see say, the oblivious second love interest Angel Clare’s hand on Tess’s face. Romantic male leads are either muscular Clark Gables or waify Leonardo DiCaprios (then, not now) but Peter Firth’s Clare beautifully fits the middle ground, the sexual dynamic between him and Nastassja Kinski’s Tess is conservative without being creepy. Polanski here outdoes Hardy by thankfully rooting for his characters.

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