BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 18, 2010
Sony Pictures Classics
Around a Small Mountain
It took Samuel Maoz more than twenty years, he says, to write Lebanon. In June 1982 he was a tank commander in the division of the Israel Defense Forces that invaded Lebanon. In 1987 he went to film school in Israel and became a writer-director. In 2007 he decided to write about his war experiences. In a press comment he notes: “My memory of the events themselves had become dim and blurred.... What remained fresh and bleeding was the emotional memory.” That memory pervades the film, but one can hardly call the events themselves dim.
Lebanon takes place almost entirely within an Israeli tank. We see outside when the soldiers do, but we almost never leave the tank. Four men in their twenties are the crew, one of them the commander. It begins with the start of the invasion, but the picture has no political content. We know who is doing what, but the center of the film is the trials of the tank crew, not politics.
It is almost always a bit dark. Faces are oily and smudged. From the start the atmosphere is not exactly gung-ho: the four men are obeying orders, not frightened but not much more than obedient. They are visited occasionally by a snippy superior who checks on them and gives them directions, but most of their orders come via radiophone. (A simple code is used: a soldier is called a “flower,” a dead soldier an “angel.”) During their drive forward, they are given charge of a Syrian prisoner, who is fiercely resistant. That prisoner is visited by a Christian Phalangist who is the one vicious person we meet. Otherwise, the tank simply makes its way to a rendezvous, firing as necessary or as ordered, often delayed and hampered. That traversal is the film.
Naturally—not plot formula, just naturally—quarrels break out among the crew, sometimes wildly. But we know from very near the beginning that essentially what we are about to enter is much less a story than an embedding. We are in that tank, a universe of its own, for almost all the picture’s ninety-four minutes.
I thought, strangely enough, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I was a schoolboy, my class was taken several times to the museum. The paintings were all right, the nude statues better, but, when we visited the medieval rooms, I was wonderstruck by the armor and weapons. First, I was surprised to see, from the armor, how short the adult males were. But I was shocked and fascinated by the weapons—the huge broadswords (for those short men), the wriggly knives, the variety of vicious clubs, the ball and chain with the nails in it. And the iron maiden—a hinged human figure filled with spikes that impaled the enclosed victim! I was amazed even then by the amount of imagination that men had invested in ways to hurt men.
Modern weaponry shows what real application can do; manifold are the instances. Lebanon is a taciturn comment on one of the chief uses in history of human ingenuity. As we see here, a sizable part of that magnificence has always been employed in the anti-human.
The four main actors are Yoav Donat (the commander), Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, and Michael Moshonov—all convincing. The Syrian prisoner is forcefully played by Dudu Tassa: the Phalangist is relished by Ashraf Barhom. One bother is an early scene where we see a mother in a Lebanese village frantically distraught by the loss of her child. The woman looks more like an actress than a villager. But in sum, Maoz, whatever the emphases in his memory, has fashioned a powerful ex post facto documentary.
To a quite different universe. The French director Jacques Rivette presents a new film called Around a Small Mountain, and the first point about it is that it exists. Rivette was born in 1928. In recent months we have seen new films from Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais, both in their eighties. Jokes about French food aside, the nourishment presumably comes from French film culture.
Rivette’s career has not only been long: it has been widely if not constantly celebrated. He was of course a member of the New Wave—in fact Godard and Truffaut performed in one of his early shorts—and also a critic. For a few years in the 1960s he was the editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma. His first film to attract wide attention was Céline and Julie Go Boating, whose length and disregard of cinema convention were admired by many and discussed by even more. Adventurous he has remained during a busy life, his catalogue particularly notable for his unusual, almost paradoxical interest in both theater protocol and film bohemianism. (L’Amour Fou, rhapsodically cinematic, is nonetheless built around a theater’s rehearsals of Racine’s Andromaque.) My own favorite Rivette, of the relatively small number that I have seen, is the four-hour version of La Belle Noiseuse, based on a short story by Balzac, which concentrates on an artist painting a nude. It was subsequently issued in a shorter version that seemed longer. His last film, The Duchess of Langeais, had tasty period style.
Rivette says that his new work derives from an idea in Raymond Roussel, a novelist and poet especially marked by his dreamlike qualities. The viewer, who will not know this fact, will anyway note the film’s dreamlike quality very early. Take the seemingly commonplace opening sequence. On a pleasant summer day, on a deserted country road, a woman of a certain age is standing by her car, the hood lifted. A man drives by in a roadster, and she gestures to him that she needs help. He keeps driving. She goes back to looking at her motor. In ten seconds or so, the roadster returns. The man gets out, inspects the motor, and soon fixes it. Commonplace? Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich in Desire? Look again.
At the start the woman, alone and clearly incompetent in mechanics, is not especially upset, though she is stuck. She is almost amused, almost accepting. The roadster drives by, ignoring her. Again she is not especially upset: she simply seems patient. Then the man comes back, which doesn’t especially surprise her. He gets out and fixes her motor—and not one word is spoken between them, neither of his regret at passing her nor of her gratitude. The sequence seems Rivette’s super-subtle means of telling us that the sequence is realism, but not really.
Soon after, the man—Vittorio, we learn, an Italian—accidentally meets the woman, Kate, in a nearby town where there is a small touring circus to which she is attached. As soon as we see the circus, we know we are entering deeper into some sort of symbolism or allegory. What else are circuses for? Rivette and his co-writers fill the bill. Essentially the film soon takes on the teasing credibility of a dream—not because of anything gauzy or misty on screen, but because odd things keep happening that are unexplained yet that everyone there takes for granted.
Facts are only momentary rest spots along the film’s figurative balloon journey. We see a clown act—several times—that has been performed for years by the same men. (A nod to theater.) We see torches juggled, acrobatics; we even see Kate, though she is not currently working in the show, practicing a tightrope act at low level. Vittorio, who is in a way our vicar, investigating and exploring, is himself drafted into performing.
But who supports this circus, which is virtually unattended? Where is the crew that manages the tents and so forth? Kate is here only for a sort of commemorative visit about something that happened fifteen years ago, but how did she get to be a successful Parisian stylist, which we also glimpse? After a while, she has to go back to Paris on business, but she returns to the circus because of a phone call from Vittorio. Yet she is not especially intimate with him. And who is he? He hangs around the circus for ten days, and all we know about him is that he is going from Milan to Barcelona and is not in a hurry.
The film floats us along so seductively that we almost feel ashamed for the questions, as we might be in a private dream. At the end, or near it, all the major characters, except Kate, come out through curtains and bow to us. Possibly this is Rivette’s thanks to the theater, which has so often inhabited this cineaste’s films. With his good directorial eye, he has encouraged Irina Lubtchansky, the cinematographer, to use colors that are both theatrical and abstract.
Sergio Castellitto, who plays Vittorio, is casual, mature, knowing but uncynical, attractive in a relaxed way. Kate is played by Jane Birkin, who has become a different woman. Anglo-French, she first drew notice as one of the young models in Antonioni’s Blow-Up and was frequently seen thereafter in both British and French films. Always she seemed to be trying too hard, light or grave. She has now grown into an intricate, quietly humorous, tacitly deep person. This is the first time I ever wanted to see her again.
And what is it all an allegory of? Matters of loss figure in Kate’s life—especially in two soliloquies—and other lives have some wrinkles, but principally the film’s being is simply because of Rivette’s pleasure in dreaming. How pleasantly irresponsible it is to watch a film in which nothing is fantastic yet which is never much more solid than fantasy. Like most dreams, this film is only a temporary habitation, but it is contrived for us by an experienced dreamer.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the August 12, 2010 issue of the magazine.