Sunday, July 31, 2005

#9: Centuries Apart in the 60’s: On THE DREAMERS & THE MAGDALENA SISTERS 4/15/04 Between Paris & Dublin, it’s just 489 miles, as the crow flies. Recently I asked three seasoned world travelers how far apart they thought the two cities were. Besides assuming that anyone would prefer traveling to Paris, they all imagined a much greater distance than is actually so. Two new films set in the 60’s initially might suggest there’s also considerable psychic distance between the two cities. Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE DREAMERS takes us to Paris in the spring of 1968, when the dismissal of the national cinema’s popular director really did spark street riots. THE DREAMERS focuses on three students drawn together by their passion for movies, the twins Isabelle & Theo, & Matthew, played by American actor Michael Pitt. These bright & curious young people spend their time re-enacting & miming favorite movie scenes in a sort of strip poker of cinema literacy. The twins are soon deeply involved with their more strait-laced guest. Their parents’ unexpected arrival home from vacation nearly provokes a tragedy, except that a passing riot distracts them. Peter Mullan’s THE MAGADALENA SISTERS relates the lives of four young Irish women held from 1964-68 in the gulag of commercial laundries across Ireland run by the Catholic Church. THE DREAMERS evokes a Parisian legacy of revolution & riots, while MAGDALENA exposes the Church’s medieval grip on vast tracts of the Irish psyche even beyond the Sixties. The Magdalenas detained 30,000 women in their enforced work programs for misbehavior as mild as exhibiting a potential for flirtation. The last one closed in 1996. MAGDALENA skimmed through Central New York briefly last winter but came out on DVD the same week the French film opened here, so I saw them both within days. Otherwise, I might never mention them together. But it’s simplistic to dismiss Dublin as the more backward place. No, the jolt of seeing these two movies together is realizing that similar upheavals occur during the same historical moment. The moment I mean is that hinge of the last century, that most resonant of decades, the Sixties. This was preeminently a decade of youth - that time when one believes that one’s world & experience are obvious & universal. Such conviction can lead to a certain tyranny of the obvious – a failure to imagine that things might be different elsewhere, for others. Clashes born of such belief lay at the heart of the upheavals of the Sixties. The two films share some common themes & devices that help us map this out. First, characters in both films love movies & use them to conceptualize their lives. The people in THE DREAMERS are immersed in film almost wantonly. Their encyclopedic grasp of movies sometimes seems to substitute for regular human interaction. When Matthew & Theo & Isabelle react spontaneously, the contrast is vivid, their inexperience startling. Movies also matter to the iron-fisted head nun in MAGDALENA. One night the laundry workers & nuns see THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S in what we imagine must be a rare break in routine. This brings on Sister Bridget’s sudden, enthusiastic revelation of her secret youthful aspiration to become a cowboy if sistering didn’t pan out. None of her captive audience is fooled that Ingrid Bergman’s character has anything to do with their lives, but does Sister Bridget imagine she is dispensing some form of frontier justice? Second, in both films interior settings evoke passing eras. The Paris apartment & the Dublin convent-laundry are ancient & labyrinthine, places where it’s hard to get one’s bearings & locate oneself, & hard to escape. Leaving at all is deeply conflictual. In MAGDALENA one young woman gives up a chance moment to escape through an unlocked gate – the quiet green expanse of hillside is as frightening to her as Matthew finds the French street riot. And in each film - though the tone differs sharply - a woman feels so desperately caught that she attempts suicide, and fails. Both films explore the ambivalent nature of sexual liberation, specifically through forced nakedness & more prolonged frontal nudity than we are accustomed to seeing in mainstream movies. In one of MAGDALENA’s most disturbing scenes, two young nuns, bundled up in habits, impose a so-called game on dripping rows of other young women, just after showers – who’s got the biggest bottom, the smallest bust, who’s “hairiest.” But when Matthew’s held down & stripped by Theo, Isabelle discovers he’s hidden her photo in his underwear - she thanks him for holding her so close to his “heart” – & Matthew’s discomfort is more complicated because he wishes to be naked with her. One axiom of screen writing is that exposition should be visual. MAGDALENA’s opening sequence is a stunning success. A young man at a wedding feast pulls his cousin aside & rapes her – it’s clear he’s been aroused by watching the women eye a handsome priest’s almost embarrassingly sensual singing. When the weeping cousin tries to tell someone, the men gather & decide it’s her fault. This knowledge unfolds & travels across the gathering like a wave, turning word of mouth into a physical phenomenon. It’s the closing shot of THE DREAMERS that’s most brilliant in this regard – an ancient, silent, rain-washed street after the riot - luminous Paris, still there after the Molotov cocktails. To make such images of one’s own culture requires a degree of self-reflection from the filmmaker that parallels that of characters preoccupied with movies – even if that leads some, such as Sister Bridget, to self-delusion. Although it looks different, violence is an instrument of both liberation & oppression in Dublin no less than Sixties’ Paris. Having failed twice to escape, Bernadette’s final effort is ferocious. Wielding a giant candlestick, she takes Rose with her. Almost miraculously, the first woman they ask helps them. But whether explosive or chronic, violence endured leaves its corrosive mark. Years later, Bernadette cannot see a nun’s habit without physical recoil. Bertolucci’s judgement is not far from this. “This is not the movies,” says Matthew to the twins at the riot. “This is real. I told you I am non-violent.” On this point he walks away from them. So we arrive the links between these films. There was real alienation between the generations in the Sixties. The Irish parents who refuse to speak to their “disgraced” daughters aren’t really so different from the overly talkative French parents. Siblings prove far more loyal – not only Theo & Isabelle, but the younger brother whose first adult act is to bring his sister out of the laundry; then there’s the sister who faithfully brings her nephew to glimpse his mother through a gate for years. The degree of self-examination that occurs in these films set the Sixties apart too. What’s seemed obvious to youth is transformed at the juncture where this occurs. This Sixties generation turned out to be highly responsible, even if it didn’t look that way in the beginning. Besides Matthew’s choice to walk away from the twins, there’s a startling epilogue in MAGDALENA - this film was based on four real women. One realizes what they had to share for this movie to get made - the unflattering parts, their struggles for sanity, their pettiness, their lack of generosity, not just their heroic moments. This is confession transformed to consciousness-raising. (1211)