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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

entry arrow1:39 PM | Beautiful Interlopers

I saw two films in succession that are so similar in story, but are so different in execution -- where execution finally makes one film "art," and the other one a mediocre retread into Hallmark Channel territory. Which leads me to toy once again with the notion that it's not really about the content anymore, it's the form that counts. Because all stories have been told anyway; how you tell one becomes the ultimate game-changer.

Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love [2010] and Chip Hale's Mulligans [2008] are cut from the same cloth. They are stories of a family that has its settled ways, comfortable in affluence. Along comes an outsider -- an interloper, essentially -- whose personality and passion ignite changes in the status quo, leading to tragedy or a shakedown of perfectly preserved pretense. But of course love endures. That's the uniting storyline, but how differently they are told. The same cloth begets different garments.

In Hale's film, we are led along the familiar emotional rhythms we've come to expect in middling dramas such as this, and we respond just so. It tells about a young family, the son of which invites home his best friend from college for the summer. The friend soon comes out gay, which leads to fundamental introspective examination by each one in the family -- including the father, who realizes that he, too, is gay, and in love with his son's best friend. Competently photographed, Mulligans (a term in golf, which becomes a kind of metaphor for the dramatic crisis in the film) rises a little above the average by actors who more or less hit the mark, and there is enough tension in the screenplay that keeps us guessing. In the end, however, it becomes a forgettable melodrama, and a week from now, I will probably have a little difficulty remembering the title, or even remembering I've seen this. It's just not art, although while watching it, I felt it, it moved me a little. (But eating great shawarma can also move me, a little.)

Guadagnino's hypnotic film, however, shows how cinematic art can be made: through a thorough knowledge of the vocabulary of cinema, the elements keenly manipulated to advance -- in visual and narrative terms -- this story of a Russian woman married to the patriarch of a rich Milanese family, who finds passion and a dream of escape from the stifling contours of her rigidly ordered life in a young chef, the best friend of her son. We somehow know this film will end in tragedy, but even given that, Guadagnino keeps us guessing with every passing scene, so much so that when the tragic finally strikes, it comes out of nowhere, striking us dumb with its brutality and suddenness. This is a beautifully made film, gorgeously shot, and captures the Italian landscape in a washed out but also paradoxically deeply colorful terrible beauty. It is so nuanced and so sure of its every cinematic intentions, and so loving of its influences that include Michaelangelo Antonioni and Alfred Hitchcock and Sally Potter. The key to its success, aside from Tilda Swinton's unbelievable performance as Emma, is the way Guadagnino handles his camera: he uses it as a caress, as a stalking presence, as a detached observer of high society life, as a microscope lens, as a swooping roller coaster that underlines what is not said -- desire, fear, anger, sadness, joy, pain. It is all about the visual choices that make something a masterpiece of an artist who knows what he is going for: in the delicate but also sudden seduction scene between Antonio and Emma in the mountains, for example, we observe Emma taking in the view with a measure of nonchalance dipped in excitement -- and then suddenly, we hear a soft crackling sound from behind her, the camera goes out of focus, and in that blurry vision that approximates desire and giving in, we see their obscure figures kissing hungrily. That cinematographic choice felt right, and underlined some more the consummate artistry that this film is made of. Every detail is not wasted and means something -- the ukha soup, the seating plan for every meticulously prepared dinner, the ritual of taking off clothes and jewelry, the daughter's lesbianism, the pool made of sharply angled marble, the housekeeper's emotional connection with the family, the book that must remain hidden, the names that can't be recalled, the fact that she has been named Emma by her husband who tells her, "You don't exist" -- all these disparate things mean something, and contribute to such throbbing organic whole. In the middle of all these is the incandescent performance of Tilda Swinton, a Scottish actress playing a trapped Russian woman living in Milan and speaks perfect Italian with a Russian accent. That technicality alone, equal to the chameleon-like power of Meryl Streep, amazes me. That Ms. Swinton is able to marshall all of that to a subtle and also devastating performance is a thing of beauty. Every muscle in her, as she does her craft, shouts sheer believability. This is such a sensual film, a work of art in every way. Set side-by-side with the merely passable, mediocrity suddenly seems almost criminal.

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