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Key Films #24

Our Daily Bread [Mani Kaul, 1970]: 
In the opening sequence, the dutiful wife Balo, the protagonist of the film, waits patiently at a bus stop for the arrival of her husband, the impetuous Sucha Singh.  The man - a municipal bus driver - spends his weeks in the city, returning home only on the weekends, before he's off again; moving from town to town, betwixt worlds.  Each day, his bus passes the main road close to Balo's village.  The woman - his faithful wife - makes the gruelling trek to greet him.  Waiting, with a lunch pail in hand in the hope that his bus might stop to pick up a passenger, is more than an obligation.  It's a daily ritual.  A way for this woman to maintain some semblance of a relationship, or to lessen the loneliness that this life of servitude and routine has forced upon her.  To make matters worse, the chatter of the local gossip seems to imply infidelity.  Could Sucha Singh have a second wife in the city; one that he spends his weeks with?  For Balo, the possibility of this is devastating.  Kaul communicates the feeling of intense sadness by isolating the character within the frame; creating "interior" moments, where time seems to slow to a crawl; where her loneliness becomes unbearable.  Later, as if to add to the film's wounded tone, the filmmaker evokes suicide.  The body of a young woman is pulled from the river, but the fragmented narrative leaves us uncertain of victim's true identity.  If this is Balo, then how does she return to reconcile in the film's final act?
The editing of the film is both vague and indefinite.  Characters drift in and out of the narrative; scenes seem to reoccur, until we realise that it's just the repetition of days.  Jump cuts are used to disrupt time; creating the feeling of hours passing in minutes, the time slipping away.  The film breaks continuity, making the progression of the narrative difficult to follow.  In several sequences, the action seems to be presented as if a memory, or as if we're witnessing the life of one character through the eyes of another.  As with Duvidha (1973), a later work by the same director, the film seems critical of the way women are treated by the culture.  The loneliness of these women, left to tend to the running of the house and its endless list of chores while the husband goes off to work and to socialise, is central to both films.  This social commentary is beautifully realised, but it is on a level of pure filmmaking that Our Daily Bread truly transcends.  The 'Bressonian' approach of the actors, both mannered and withdrawn, is subtly affecting, while the quality of its cinematography recalls Dreyer and his masterpiece Ordet (1955).  The purity of the image, where the brightness of a summer's day obliterates all detail, suffused as it is by a holy glow, is staggering.  The scenes throughout, tranquil and pastoral in presentation, establish the loneliness of this world, the isolation of it.  The unearthly, almost ghostly aspect, which comes to define the life of its character, is captured within every static frame.
Light Sleeper [Paul Schrader, 1992]:
The territory, as defined by the film's title sequence, is immediately recognisable.  An open road, leading nowhere.  An endless stretch into the black hell of an infernal city; the city of the damned.  The fog of a film noir street scene shrouds the air like a storm cloud, obscuring everything; making the journey both formless and indistinct.  The car moves at a sombre crawl through these lonely streets, its headlights blazing, garbage lining road.  In the backseat, high-class drug dealer John LeTour is the condemned man; his face full of anguish and pity; numb to the experience.  The song on the soundtrack communicates his thoughts through verse, establishing a recurrent leitmotif, where the music becomes a way of expressing the thoughts too painful to be spoken or felt.  "And it feels..." the lyrics lament, " the world's on fire."  Through the iconography, or through the presentation of the character, this could be Taxi Driver (1976) or the later scenes of American Gigolo (1980) - that same loneliness, the late night despair - but it isn't.  Nonetheless, it's classic Schrader.  Another dark night of the soul; another God's lonely man, still searching for redemption.  The title alone establishing the restless nature of this protagonist; his purgatory-like existence as a lost spirit, hovering, in limbo, between life and death.
From the outset, LeTour is being introduced as the archetypical Schrader character.  An outsider, defined by his job, his adopted "role."  Like Travis in Taxi Driver, or Julian in American Gigolo, his life has become a series of appointments, encounters, but on a strictly professional level.  His time away from the job seems empty and meaningless; his barren apartment, where he sits, shirtless, writing his thoughts in a journal ("fill one up, throw it out, start another one" he muses) reflects the emptiness of this existence; the life without passion or memory.  It is this feeling of intense loneliness that defines the film.  The loss and longing, which finds its most moving expression in the relationship between LeTour and his former lover, Marianne.  They meet, by chance, after an absence of several years.  She's cleaned up, got herself straight.  There's a tension there.  He loves her.  She loves him too.  But she recognises that he's still a link to that world; that past life of violence and addiction.  They spend the night together, but in the morning she leaves.  The look on LeTour's face - bathed in the neon-green glow of an adjacent street sign - is devastating in its vulnerability as he is denied the only reflection of hope that made life for him worth living.
Like so many characters in Schrader's work, LeTour is seeking salvation through self-destruction.  He knows that the path he has chosen to walk is a dangerous one, but he embraces it, regardless.  Even when his better judgement tries to steer him clear, tries to wake him up to the inevitable violence that awaits him at the end of this lonesome road - this phantom ride - he's compelled to continue.  Like Taxi Driver, this is a bleak work - a film about the worst kind of loneliness; the loneliness that hits us in a room full of people when we realise that inability to connect - but with the redemption of American Gigolo; the hope for absolution.  The appearance of Dafoe as LeTour gives the film its emotion; its wailing heart.  The way Schrader uses Dafoe, making the most of those stern features - at first hard and threatening, but then punctured by a sadness, both honest and true - recalls the way Scorsese had used him in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); finding something of the martyr in his fall from grace.  The final scene, which brings us back to American Gigolo via the Bresson of Pickpocket (1959), presents LeTour almost as a saintly figure; his supplier, Ann, becoming Mary Magdalene, as he kisses her hand for forgiveness.  It's the final perfect expression of what Schrader himself once referred to as the transcendental style.
Querelle [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982]:
How to describe a work like Querelle?  As a 'haunted' film?  A 'violent' film?  A film submersed in the feelings of pain and self-pity?  A film where powerful emotions, like anger, bitterness, shame and regret, find expression in every facet of the film; from the use of colour, to the language, to the use of space?  The world of the film - this seedy port; this dream of Brest created on a stifling soundstage - presents a world of brutality and suffering.  A world where men and women, looking for an escape, lose themselves in squalid bars or smoky bordellos; disappearing into the mire of indulgence via the various backstreets and passageways that run through the town, like veins through the body.  The port of 'Querelle', at least in Fassbinder's mind, is like an elaborate fantasy.  A Burroughsian 'Interzone', alive with the desires and the compulsions of its shiftless characters, corrupt and uncontrolled.  The entire film, bathed as it is in a yellow-green light or the glow of an artificial sun, suggests this corruption - this sickness - on a visual level.  The moral decay of the characters, as a corporal thing - the port, with its vaginal canals and its obviously phallic lighthouses - turns the harbour itself into a living being (like a body with a broken heart), but it's also the decay of the mind, as much as the body, that overwhelms the thing.  The loneliness, the desire and the desperation of these characters, creating an illness or obsession that is manifest in every aspect of the work.
A film where the colour suggests the psychological deterioration of its characters, while the use of space seems to trap them, crushing the spirit, or ensnaring them in the pain of their own desires.  The walls, closing in, the streets leading nowhere; the fortifications, like giant erections trailing testicular mounds, remind the characters at every turn of their own physicality, or the physicality of their particular obsessions; their lust and indignation.  Through this, the entire experience of the film is like being trapped within the mind of a character suffering through his own nightmare of guilt and grief; trying to make sense of it through projection, or dramatisation.  So a 'confessional' film, perhaps?  An admission of remorse or culpability for the way these character are exploited or misused, but not necessarily from the protagonists - the titular Querelle (the violent sailor who arrives in Brest to reconcile with his brother, Robert) or Lieutenant Seblon (whose sexual repression and urge to possess Querelle gives subtext to this narrative of corruption) - but from Fassbinder himself.  One could argue that his Querelle is not simply an adaptation of Genet's novel, but perhaps an attempt by Fassbinder to reconcile his own feelings of remorse following the suicide of his abused lover Armin Meier in 1978 or the subsequent death of his former lover El Hedi ben Salem in a French prison in 1982.  In this respect, the film is a painful and wounded acknowledgement of the way obsession and desire - that need to possess - can destroy lives, or the dream of life, as it does for the characters of Querelle.


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