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Instead of Stories

12:08 East of Bucharest


Private Property

New Yorker

Ten Canoes


On December 22, 1989, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauescu fledBucharest, his helicopter taking off at 12:08 p.m. A new Romanianfilm called 12:08 East of Bucharest is set exactly sixteen yearslater in, obviously, a town to the east of the capital. The localtelevision station, which has a talk show, plans a program dealingwith the town's reaction to the dictator's flight--

the cheering in the town square and so forth. The talk-show hostgets refusals from the two guests he wanted: he has to settle for aboozy professor and a pompous old pensioner.

The program goes poorly. Political responses from the guests arevapid, listless. The professor, it turns out, was drinking in a baron the square that day in 1989; the old man folds paper boats onthe table in front of him and issues imprecise mouthings. Callsfrom viewers don't liven things much. At last, as doldrums arereigning supreme, a woman calls in and asks the host: "Do you knowthat it's snowing outside?" Such is the fervor that still rages inthis town about the revolution that changed the country.

This talk-show section of 12:08 East of Bucharest is done prettymuch in real time. It lasts as long as the broadcast--somethinglike thirty minutes-- and thus runs the risk of being equally limp.An ancient theater problem with characters who are purposely boringis how to keep them from boring the audience. The writer anddirector of this film, Corneliu Porumboiu, is aware of the risk anddeliberately engages it. He wants us to taste existence in thistown as, with some amusement and indeed some beauty in the filming,he reproduces life here. The television talk show serves as thecore of the scenes before and after it. Paradoxically, the picturewould have failed if that talk show didn't bore us a bit. It fitsinto the whole like a key piece of a puzzle.

The picture--Porumboiu's first--opens with misty evening shots ofthe town, proving yet again that dull places can look pretty, andit closes at the end of the next day with the lighting of thestreet lamps. Family scenes involving each of the three principalsprecede and follow the talk-show section. With all these materialsconjoined, Porumboiu depicts the slow muffled-drum march of most ofthe town's lives from cradle to grave.

More: the film has a political edge. Ceauescu was one of the worstmen of his time. His victims certainly knew it, and the millingthousands who protested in the streets knew it. But televisiondidn't show us the many, many thousands who didn't mill. Mostpeople, says this film, live along as best they can, whatever thegovernment, obeying this regime or that, content just to be allowedto trudge through day after day. For these reasons, presumably, theold man on the show says he didn't even particularly mind thedictator, as he folds his paper boats.

Porumboiu's film, sadly funny though it sometimes is, is an act ofdaring in itself, challenging our expectations of drama in order toshow us that, for most people most of the time, life is notdramatic; it is only--if they are lucky--sequential. For manyRomanians, surely, the end of the dictatorship was joyous andliberating, but for many others (more?) it was something thathappened off in the capital or in another city while at home onekept on sweeping floors or hammering nails. The implication is thatthis is hardly a uniquely Romanian fact. Kafka is said to havewritten that "every revolution evaporates, leaving behind only theslime of a new bureaucracy." Possibly the anti-Ceauescu revolutionhas by now evaporated and has left behind a new bureaucracy--Idon't know--but, for Porumboiu, the great change so slightlydisturbed the people in this town that they can hardly remember orcare that it happened. The old man, who later shops for a SantaClaus suit for a party, is more intensely engaged with theshopkeeper than he was on the show.

From Belgium comes Private Property, which quintessentiallyapproaches the Romanian film in concept, though with much morecomplex and heated means. The director, Joachim Lafosse, who wrotethe screenplay with Francois Pirot, puts a dysfunctional familythrough several confrontations and crises; yet here, too, ourexpectation that crises will lead to some sort of resolution isdeliberately left unsatisfied. Near the end a ghastly accidenthappens that shivers everyone, but it doesn't resolve the film'stroubles. Porumboiu showed us that many people lead their liveslike trains on tracks; Lafosse shows that people who are moderatelywell-off and educated may find themselves in more broils, butresolutions are no more certainly available to them than to others.

Isabelle Huppert plays a fortyish divorcee with twin sons in theirearly twenties; the three live together in a capacious farmhouse insouthern (French- speaking) Belgium. She has a job and supports thefamily: one son is a student, the other seems to busy himself onlywith household repairs. They all quarrel quite a lot, the sons witheach other and both of them with their mother-- quarrels minor andmajor that seem rooted in their lives.

Visually, Lafosse presents his film as a kind of study. Many scenesare literally framed in large doorways; and as far as I could see,there was never a cut within a scene. If three people are eating ata table, that is the shot. No cutting from one face to another, notwo-shots; three people sit at a table. Thus we are given somethingof the feeling of eavesdroppers, rather than a catered-toaudience.

Huppert has a lover of about her age--a Fleming, as the sonsrepeatedly note- -and they usually meet in his car for sex. Hewants her to sell the house and start a bed-and-breakfast with him.The sons strenuously object. Huppert's ex- husband, who visitsoccasionally and is still close to his sons, shares their concernsin this matter. Troubles erupt further, and at last Huppert stormsout of the house to live with a woman friend. Then the accidenthappens. Soon the film ends.

But one of the points of the film is that nothing is settled.Lafosse hasn't carefully shaped a story: he has placed us in thecompany of these people for ninety-five minutes, not to delve intoa deep theme or to unfold any startling conclusion, but simply topress us up against some fairly volatile human beings whom, hehopes, we will care about.

Thus Private Property, too, is a daring film--even more than theRomanian film, because it is so full of conflicts that some roundedconclusion is even more expectable. Because Lafosse is relying onthese characters to hold us, he has to make sure that they areinteresting. He succeeds. The writing, to judge by the subtitles,is keen enough, and the performances brim with conviction. Huppertis both reticent and strong, commanding though quiet, yet fierceenough when she needs to be. She has had these uniquecharacteristics throughout her career, able to speak throughsilence and to flare when needed. (Compare Violette and The PianoTeacher.) Her role here calls on a wide range of her now- cherishedqualities.

The two sons, who are twins, are in fact played by two brothers,Yannick Renier and Jeremie Renier, both of whom excel. (Some mayrecognize Jeremie as the boy in La Promesse and L'Enfant, bothdirected by the Dardenne brothers.) Among the Reniers and Huppert,the deft interplay and shadings, apprehensions and comprehensions,demonstrate that in addition to Lafosse's visual sensitivity, he isclearly skilled with actors.

A sort of sub-genre has been growing in recent years. In films madein countries with primitive strata of existence, now or in thepast, modern people- -often otherwise notable--have been playingprimitive roles. Burkina Faso and Senegal are two of the countrieswhere this has happened--and now Australia. In this new film, TenCanoes, a well-known Aboriginal painter plays a virtually nakedsorcerer with a bone thrust through his septum. Many of these nakedactors are known to Australians for their other achievements: aprefatory note about them would benefit the picture in thiscountry.

As the film opens, we float through expanses of landscape in color.(From time to time the camera switches to black-and-white. Nopattern is evident. Color doesn't mean the present, or its absencethe past: the mode simply changes from time to time.) A rich voicewith an Aboriginal accent begins by paraphrasing the opening ofStar Wars ("Once upon a time in a land far away"), then laughs andsays that this is a different story. But this opening tells ussomething about the cultural position of this narrator, who willreturn often in the course of the film.

We now go far back in centuries among the Aborigines, as thevoice-over tells us that we are about to see a story unlike any wecould possibly know. This is quite untrue. The story is not strangeor novel. A girl disappears from one tribe, and all the tribesmenthink that she has been kidnapped by an enemy tribe. Fightingbreaks out, time passes, and at last the girl returns. She has beenabsent for quite different reasons. There is no cogent drama: thefilm is a series of incidents.

The film's rewards are in the enactment of these people's lives: thehunting, the eating, the polygamy, the role of the sorcerer, theintricate face and body painting, the music, and especially themaking of a canoe. The title apparently means the ten men--one man,one canoe, in this world--who are principals in the picture.Inevitably this film--written by Rolf de Heer, who co-directed withPeter Djigirr--has the interest of a good travelogue, but itbecomes almost an instance of pride in their history if we know thatalmost all of these primitive people were played by modernAboriginal men and women, most of whom are recognized artists inother fields.

And, curiously enough, Ten Canoes is related to the Romanian andFrench films above: it, too, rewards us by means other than awell-turned story.