I have not managed to get to the cinema to see as many movies as I would have like, but recently I did manage to fit in two, and both were very good. The first was The Time That Remains by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. Though a Palestinian, Suleiman was born in Nazareth and is therefore an Israeli citizen. And it is the experience of Palestinians in Israel that forms the basis for the film. It is though a very personal account as it tells the story of Suleimans’ parents. It is not however a conventional narrative, rather a series of vignettes, some bordering on the surreal. These vignettes begin with the war of 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel. For the Palestinians this period is known as Al-Nakba, the catastrophe. As Israel triumphed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forcibly ejected or surrendered. In all cases great brutality was used against them. Both physical and psychological violence and these opening scenes are quite terrifying. You really do feel you are the one being blindfolded and forced to kneel on the ground in an open field, not knowing if you will be shot or not. The rest of the film essentially shows us what it is like to live as a defeated and second class people. Life goes on, but there is a pervading sense of hopelessness about this life. Suleiman is suggesting that for Palestinians living in Israel, life has lost its meaning and purpose. Thus we are shown a series of ever more absurd vignettes in which the Palestinians are the put upon victims. There is not a lot of hope in this film. The title itself is somewhat enigmatic. The time that remains - for what? Just to keep on living? This seems to be the lasting impression from the film - live goes on and each character has to work out whatever works to help them live through the time that remains. A very powerful and impressive film, though not a bundle of laughs.
Whatever Works is of course the title of Woody Allen’s latest film. And after a series of not very successful films shot in Europe, Allen has returned to his real and spiritual home - Manhattan. Though not one of his masterpieces Whatever Works is a very fine and very funny film. Though the premiss of the plot is that life sucks and is pretty much meaningless, this is a surprisingly upbeat film. There is in fact a happy ending for just about every character. As in all good Woody Allen films the central character is either Allen himself or an Allen lookalike. In this case he is played by Larry David who is primarily a comedian and writer and star of an American sitcom. David’s character is a more strident and arrogant version of Allen. He really doesn’t like the world, especially his fellow human beings, most of whom he despises for their ignorance, incompetence and lack of taste. Like Allen though, he is Jewish, though an atheistic Jew and his performance is peppered with sarcastic one-liners. This is in many ways a typical, almost old fashioned Allen film. The main character has a nihilistic outlook on life and twice tries, and fails, to kill himself. Again, as in most Allen films he is somehow saved by the attractions of a very much younger woman. This time she is a rather naive and innocent southern belle, played with spirit and charm by Evan Rachel Wood. Somehow she and David hit if off. Though their affair does not last it lasts long enough to bring about the beginnings of change in the Larry David character. Life may suck, it may even be pointless, but happiness when it comes is wonderful, so seize it any way you can - whatever works for you. In the latter part of the film this motto extends to all kinds of other characters, all of whom somehow end up finding happiness. A fine return to form for Allen and a film well worth seeing.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel by French writer Muriel Barbery, who teaches philosophy in her day job. Like the two films, this novel is also about how to cope with living in a pretty senseless and ugly world. This world is so irredeemably nasty it seems that the only way to cope is by either retreating into your own world or to commit suicide. For these are the paths chosen by the two main characters in the novel. And more different they could not be. The main character and the hedgehog of the title is Renée Michel who is the 54 year old concierge of an apartment building. Though from a poor working class family, Renée is a self-taught lover of erudition and all things of beauty. However she hides this from all of the very rich residents whom she despises as part of a snobbish, parasitical and ignorant elite. Her way of coping with the world is to create her own little sanctuary in which she all alone can continue with her quest for knowledge and where she is free to appreciate the beauty of artistic creations. The other main character is Paloma the 12 year old daughter of one of the rich and snobbish families who live in the apartment block. However Paloma too is appalled by the world as it is. In her case she despises the despicable vacuousness of her family and their friends. Her solution though is to commit suicide on the day she turns 13. In the meantime she keeps a journal of her profound thoughts and the movements of the world. A real precocious child is Paloma. Most of the novel consists of Renée’s and Paloma’s sarcastic and biting critiques of modern day France and their meditations on the beauty to be found in nature, art and language. There is not much of a plot and what little there is comes in the form of a new resident, the very cultured and intelligent Mr. Ozu. A retired Japanese businessman he acts as a catalyst for the denouement of the novel. By a series of accidental meetings Mr Ozu manages to engage with both Renée and Paloma. Through his gentle proddings and kindness both women come to realize that they are not alone in their love of art and beauty. This causes both to reconsider their current approach to life. Opting out of life no longer seems such an elegant choice. But what will they do? This is a lovely little book. The choice of a Japanese as the catalyst for change is most appropriate as Muriel Barbery now lives in Japan and has clearly been much influenced by Zen Buddhism.
Three very different artistic creations, though all united by a pervading nihilistic outlook on life. This need not lead to despair - there are too many things of beauty around to be discovered and experienced, These three works for example. You just need to create your own meaning for life - whatever works.