FILM AUGUST 27, 2008
Man on Wire
Sony Pictures Classics
A Girl Cut in Two
On August 7, 1974, a man walked across a tightrope stretched between the roofs of two Manhattan skyscrapers. The buildings were the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The funambulist was a Frenchman named Philippe Petit, to whom the feat was much more than daredevilry.
Man on Wire tells us how Petit came to do what he did and what it meant to him. The buildings had figured in his mind since he was a teenager. Early footage shows us the young Petit practicing on a low tightrope in the garden of his home in France, helped and encouraged by friends who stuck with him all the way. He tells us that when he saw the first newspaper stories about the projected construction of the World Trade Center--he was seventeen--he knew what his life must dream toward. Peculiar though this dream seems at first, Petit makes it so possessive that attention must be paid.
Today, as he speaks to us, he is very much the person he is in the early footage--movingly articulate (in English), vibrant, certain. Just by the way he talks about what he did, he changes this picture from the tale of a circus performer to an achievement of the spirit. Not many will share his view immediately; but he soon makes us believe that, far from show biz, his action was for him a move toward the metaphysical, a communion with space that no aviator or astronaut, dependent on machines, could ever know. We find ourselves surprised by our empathy with him and our understanding of his drive, and our surprise becomes part of the film's rewards.
Petit prepared for the walk with, among others, two walks that we see. He negotiated a wire stretched between the two towers of Notre Dame, and another stretched between towers of an immense bridge in Sydney, Australia. These were as much preparations of the spirit as of the body. From youth onward, he had the support of his girlfriend and of two male friends, all keenly intelligent, who are interviewed throughout the picture and who contribute to its texture. (Oddly, no one ever mentions the two subsequent attacks on the towers, although a clip of Ground Zero is inserted early.) There is no explanation of financing. Everything that Petit did must have cost money--for equipment, travel, helpers. We get no hint of how it was all paid for. (He had at least one other vocation, street clowning and juggling in Paris, which we glimpse, but it hardly answers the money question.)
Another question, about the term "documentary." Ever since such films were first made, some of them have been more than strict records of fact. Lumiere's La Sortie des usines (1895) was shot more than once until it suited the director. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) had some rehearsed bits. James Marsh, the director of Petit's film, clearly assumes we will understand that the interviews and the high-wire moments are factual, but that, for example, the shots of Petit and friends sneaking into the World Trade Center the night before the walk and the close-ups of the girlfriend watching Petit up there were made for the film. So was the archery. The crucial wire was put in place between the towers by means of an arrow shot from one tower to the other: a string was attached to the arrow, a rope to the string, and so on.
The picture's weakest moment was meant to be funny. After Petit came down from the wire, he says, a strange girl threw her arms around him and persuaded him to accompany her back to her place. Then we get a fast-motion film of their sex, a sequence questionable only for its relevance. The best humorous moment is musical: as Petit steps out on the wire, we hear one of Satie's "Gymnopedies."
He spent forty-five minutes there. The viewer's heart thumps--almost proudly--when Petit actually lies down in the middle of that wire, 1,350 feet in the air. The wire is transmuted into Chaplin territory when Petit sees the police waiting for him on the second roof and retreats teasingly to the middle. (Later there were some light legal charges, which were lightly taken care of.) But what we are left with at the last is not physical thrills but an extension of imagination and romance. George Mallory famously said that he had to climb Mount Everest because it was there. For Philippe Petit, enthralled and exalted, the sky was there.
Yet another cinema term has become rubbery. "Independent film" can suggest an enterprise that was patched together as well as limited resources made possible, and this is indeed true of many good ones. But it is not always the case. Frozen River is an independent film, made (as far as I know) free of corporate control, and it is technically outstanding. It is a good deal more than that, but, to begin with, we need not concede that the film-maker was doing her best in straitened circumstances.
Frozen River was written and directed by a young woman named Courtney Hunt, her first feature. She says, "I wrote this film after learning about [American] woman smugglers at the border of New York state and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make money to support their kids." But that was only the basic situation: Hunt is too good to be content with expose or revelation. For a start, she has done wonderfully in the integration of people and place. The frozen river is the first shot. The beings and actions and habits of the people we see become the behavior of creatures along that river. Very soon we can smell the wool of their jackets.
Reed Morano, the cinematographer, has a subtle sense of light. Every tone, from the bright to the virtually black, is handily in his chromatic scale. Hunt has had Morano's help in keeping every shot either the rightly inevitable one for that moment or a variation of the expected that freshens--sometimes beautifies--the moment. We quickly sense that the director of this film has unusual perception, and that whatever the story and performances turn out to be, she will make the most of them.
The story is in fact not especially deep, but it nonetheless holds because of its telling. Ray is a woman in her forties whose husband has run out and left her with two sons, ages fifteen and five. She has a part-time job in a shop, but she is hard-pressed for money. A Mohawk woman called Lila--a Mohawk reservation is nearby--who also needs money for her children gets Ray involved in alien smuggling. They will be paid good money for stowing two people at a time in the trunk of Ray's car in Canada and bringing them across the river to New York. (When Ray, who drives, is fearful, Lila says that the cops won't bother her because she is white.) Money does come, and of course so do complications.
Our faith in the film, begun by its very making, is heightened by three performances. Misty Upham as Lila is both taciturn and eloquent in creating bitterness plus a grim bravado. The acting of Charlie McDermott as Ray's adolescent son is a tribute both to his talent and to Hunt's directing. But it is Melissa Leo who brings the picture fully to life. An experienced actress, lovely, sensitive, strong, Leo keeps verifying the film every moment that she is on screen. More of her, please, and of Hunt's exceptional directing.
Claude Chabrol is at the opposite end of the experience line from Hunt. Since 1958, this French director has been making films continually, almost continuously. His attitude has obviously not been one of perfectionism--polishing one work assiduously--but of plenitude. We can infer that he wants to be judged by his entire career, and so far he is doing well. To name just two early ones--Landru and This Man Must Die--is to see that Chabrol truly matters.
A Girl Cut in Two, his latest, is in familiar Chabrol territory: the violence, physical and otherwise, that erupts into silken lives. The picture begins with the arrival of a publisher at the luxe country home of her most successful novelist, Charles Saint-Denis, and his wife. Chabrol's skill is immediately manifest in the way he handles the opening exposition, facts that must be given to us: we get them through motion, as the characters stroll through several rooms to a pool, rather than through static gabble.
We then go to some publication-day events with Charles in nearby Lyon, in the course of which he meets Gabrielle, a weather girl on the local television station. Just as feelings lock between them, we meet Paul Gaudens, a rich cockerel, vain of his good looks and wealth, who is also attracted to Gabrielle. The center of the story (the screenplay is by Cecile Maistre and Chabrol) then shifts from Charles to Gabrielle, who is figuratively cut in two between the two men. (At the very end she is more literally "bisected" when--as Chabrol contrives it--she appears in a magician's act.) Her adventures with both men are troubled. Paul is arrogant even though he is in love; Charles takes her without her foreknowledge to a plush bordello for an (unseen) orgy. Apparently Gabrielle agrees because she wants to seem at ease in this high-level world to which she has been admitted, but the experience registers.
Chabrol maintains his familiar character perspective. He doesn't so much photograph his people as view them. His camera usually seems to have a slightly cynical lens in it. "What a curious thing to do," it seems to comment wryly on this or that. "On the other hand, how predictable."
The result here is a comedy that makes us feel somewhat sophisticated. It would be even more comic if his principal actors were a bit better. Benoit Magimel has the looks and the air for Paul--though this rich young man seems to have only one jacket--but he slips into mannerisms. Francois Berleand is quite acceptable as Charles until we consider what Philippe Noiret or Jean Rochefort would have done with the part. Ludivine Sagnier, good enough as Gabrielle, is not quite the charmer that everyone in her television station raves about.
Yet, as is nearly always the case with Chabrol, a special pleasure pervades the picture. The English critic John Russell Taylor once said, as I've noted before, that it is difficult to deal with this director on paper "because so much of the overall effect turns on Chabrol's sheer hedonistic relish for the medium." How comforting to remember that Chabrol is busy, as he has been for fifty years, fashioning something new with his casual skill and intrusive imagination, which, whatever its flaws, will convey that relish.
By Stanley Kauffmann