The New York Film Festival selection committee is to be commended for its daring choices for NYFF51. This year’s screenings tend overwhelmingly toward extreme situations, characters at or beyond the edge, and severe challenges to audience tolerance for disturbing questions. Characteristically audiences look to movies for escape, diversion, consolation, and inspiration, but destabilization is the order of the day this year and a willingness on the part of filmmakers to move into uncharted territory of one sort or another. The films are always compelling but not always successful. This four-part review will survey a wide range of festival provocations, beginning here with two that raise the most questions as they push cinematic limits radically: Child of God, James Franco’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name; and Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness, a film based on her own experience, about a director who suffers a stroke.
Child of God is a study of of a rural Tennessee man named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), whom McCarthy describes unconvincingly as “a child of God much like yourself perhaps” and Franco describes, also implausibly, as one of the dispossessed. This film never reaches the level of Ralph Ellison’s audacious novel about the isolated, socially ignored “invisible man”, who on the lower frequencies speaks for all of us. Unlike Ellison’s hero, Ballard has neither linguistic skills nor the ability to experience the otherness of either fellow human beings or nature. He is nothing more than a mass of clamoring urges. Nor is he the victim of social injustice in any ordinary sense of the term. True, he is an orphan too poor to claim his family’s land. But it is not his poverty that is at issue, but rather his extraordinarily chaotic energy that renders him incapable of mounting any kind of struggle to keep what is his, or to reach out for personal connection. And Ballard has as few links to nature in his mountain environment as to society. Haunting abandoned shacks, he mutters incoherently or howls meaninglessly, lacking not only human articulation but also the meaningful music of the wild. He is neither human nor animal. But Ballard does force us to examine our concept of the human, just as the train of events in the film prompt examination of the concept of story.
Franco gives us only a drifting sequence of the protagonist’s attempts to immediately satisfy his urges, which become ever more dangerous, as he discovers necrophiliac sex and turns into a threat to the local lovers’ lanes, a development that leads to nowhere. McCarthy’s book ends with Ballard’s ultimate incarceration in an appropriate institution. However, Franco’s film ends with the suggestion that Ballard will rampage on, unconstrained by the oddly incapable backwoods police and vigilante groups who seem helpless before his unfathomable anarchy. Scott Haze portrays Ballard with a dedicated abandonment of himself to the role, but to what end? Perhaps Franco is legitimately exploring the expression of the formerly inexpressible in all of us. Or perhaps he has indulged an aspect of the imagination that is pointlessly nihilistic, alien to human experience at any level.
Abuse of Weakness provokes similar questions, albeit about a very different kind of being. Isabel Huppert turns in a brilliant performance as Maud Schoenberg, Breillat’s alter ego. Maud is not an inchoate mass of spasms, but a highly articulate and cultivated woman, or she was; her stroke causes the structure of her self to thin out perilously close to the vanishing point. Breillat’s directorial choices force the audience to engage Maud’s disintegration without benefit of an authorial constructed context by means of which to understand the protagonist’s predicament. We never see Maud before the trauma. There is no way to for us to compare her at her best to what has become of her in her compromised form. We only glean that she has been successful and is rich. The film plunges us immediately into the terrifying stroke and then jumps a year to the final phase of her recovery. For a long time, it seems to validate Maud’s belief that as she improves physically, she is also moving into a new creative phase of her work and is making a movie with Vilko Piran (Kool Shen), a thuggish con man she discovers on a television talk show who she insists offers artistic possibilities that professional actors cannot.
But despite Maud’s enthusiastic talk about her new movie, there is no evidence of any production, just the progress of her odd relationship with Vilko that involves the dissipation of her fortune, not because he bilks her of her financial resources—though this is what he intends. Maud doesn’t give him a chance to demonstrate his skills as a con artist. Rather, she foists her money on him for no discernible reason. Here, as in Child of God, the events do not add up to a story. Instead, we have the convoluted logic of a mind unhinged by catastrophic physical circumstances. At the end, as Maud’s resources are depleted and she still unclear about what has happened to her, she experiences merely a minimal level of introspection at last. “It was me,” she says, “but it was not me.”
Breillat has rendered the invisible palpable, rather than visible. We have felt the experience of Maud’s illogic, which is certainly an artistic achievement. But has Breillat shed any light through fostering audience engagement with Maud in extremis? Or is this depiction of a break with reality in which the audience also loses its way an imaginative dead end?
Child of God and Abuse of Weakness both dissolve the structures of fiction. There are no characters or events as we usually think of them. These are risks that justify attention. But as they push cinema into a liminal place, some may say they don’t reward that attention with very many satisfactions.
In Part 2, we examine a very different, equally bold, and arguably more fruitful challenge to limits.
This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.