Stuff and Dough
Up the Yangtze
The leading man in Roman de Gare is middle-aged and short, with a jutting jaw. His presence in a role that is supposed to be magnetic and sexy is an immediate clue that something odd is en route. Another quick clue: the title translates as Train Station Novel (something like our phrase "airport novel"). As with Pulp Fiction, the title announces that the picture plans to take the type somewhere else.
Not many of us will know this French popular genre, but neither can many of us believe that this picture is run-of-its-mill. The original story is by the director Claude Lelouch, who co-wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Pierre Uytterhoeven. Lelouch, who was born in 1937 and made his first feature in 1960, is an old pro--a term that can be inflected several ways. This is his forty-ninth film (he is still best known here for A Man and a Woman, made in 1966). The bizarrerie of Roman de Gare, in both its drama and its comedy, suggests that it was conceived for this somewhat bizarre leading man. He is Dominique Pinon, possessed of the self-confidence of an odd-looking person who has been variously successful (as Pinon's career has been). His confidence is justified: he goes far to make us believe that we are really watching the story that we are watching.
At the start, a best-selling novelist (played by Fanny Ardant) is making a painful confession to the Paris police, and she says that her account is so complicated that she must go back to the beginning, in 1998. That account begins so far from the novelist's world that we anticipate a twisty trip. Here, twist details aside, are some of the persons involved. First, Pinon. We are made to suspect at the start that he is a serial child rapist, but he turns out to be someone quite different (who apparently doesn't mind being suspected for a time of being a child rapist). We are also made to think that he is a missing husband, and this, too, turns out otherwise. Crucial in the story is a woman of about forty (Audrey Dana), a hairdresser who has been a member of an older profession. Much of the film takes place on the road, en route to the hairdresser's native town, where her family has a farm. So, in the course of things, we are not only plunged into some aspects of sophisticated life but into farm life as well, with cows next to the kitchen. (At one point we even get an enormous close-up of a horse's behind, which Lelouch seems to supply exactly to draw comment of this kind.) Toward the end, all the strands wind back to and around Ardant, the rich and elegant novelist.
The devices that bring about this finish are alternately clever and corny, even outrageous. (For instance, a passenger on a yacht who is thought to have drowned has instead swum ashore--a long way.) Occasionally we wonder not only what happens next but also why we care. The answer is beautifully simple: character. Each of the major characters and most of the minor ones are individuals, not pawns. Each was seen by Lelouch as a three-dimensional being. Each is the product of a particular background and exists credibly in this less credible story. No, not a story: it would be better to call it a plot, a mess of plottage. Perhaps this is typical of romans de gare: whether it is or isn't, it points to a remarkable Lelouch quality.
While he and Uytterhoeven were concocting these escapades, while Lelouch was directing, he must have known--as any rational person would--that he was straining belief. But instead of slipping into the manipulation of puppets, Lelouch mined the verity of his people. All through Roman de Gare we are aware of the reality gap between the characters and the story lines. It is as if a group of genuine individuals had been recruited to perform a cooked-up movie.
Lelouch is still another director known for his use of improvisation, for letting his actors adjust and revamp the dialogue to suit their feelings at the moment. If this method was used here, high marks to it. His editors, Stephane Mazalaigue and Jean Gargonne, have worked their own magic in whisking us from one locale to another, deliberately astonishing us at first but soon locking us in so securely that we enjoy the whisk.
At any given moment, it seems that there is one foreign country pouring out rewarding films like a new oil gusher: Germany in the 1970s, Iran in the late 1980s, China in recent years. Obviously these countries had good films past and future, but the concentrated outpourings were extraordinary.
The latest such country is Romania, with 12:08 East of Bucharest; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days; and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The last, by Cristi Puiu, won many viewers with its physiological data. They may be disappointed in his new film, Stuff and Dough, which has excremental details only at the start, then moves into a very different mode, supple where the earlier picture was stolid.
Ovidiu is a young man in Constanta who is the son of small shopkeepers and hopes to have a shop of his own quite soon. He is hired by a saturnine man called Ivanov to take a box of medicines to Bucharest, four hours away, and to get them there by a certain time that day. Ivanov, who will pay well, is stern about the urgency, and he finally gets Ovidiu in motion. The young man sets off jauntily in his van, accompanied by his pal Vali, who brings along his (uninvited) girlfriend.
About Romanian audiences we can't say, but American viewers will know at once that those medicines are in fact illegal drugs and that Ovidiu and friends are getting mixed up in the underworld. Although this must become clear early to an audience here, it comes much more slowly to Ovidiu and Vali. The startling finish confirms the crime element. What we keep asking ourselves throughout is, Haven't Ovidiu and Vali ever been to the movies? How can they not know what is happening?
It is possible that they are slow in the matter because Romania was for so long under a dictatorship that controlled absolutely everything, including films. Happily, in this picture the new freedom for Romania is at least as evident in the direction as in its subject. Very much of it is shot in the van in which the three youngsters are riding, most of it done with a handheld camera in the back seat behind the two young men. The persistence of freehand camera movement, the offhand veristic dialogue, the general sense that the way to make a film is to throw away rules and follow impulse: all this is pure Godard--early Godard, too, when he was liberating himself, before he became the doyen of liberation. Puiu cites other influences, but those long sequences in the car seem pure 1960s Godard.
All the better for it. The pleasures in this picture are to some degree in the sheer behavior--hardly to be called acting--of the principals, but Puiu's directing helps even more. By cinematically flying instead of trudging, he has freshened a worn subject and, in Romania, has apparently brought the twentieth century into the twenty-first.
The Chinese flow goes on. Along with the steady stream of disturbing political and economic news from China comes an almost equally steady stream of attractive films. The latest is a documentary by a Chinese-Canadian, Yung Chang, the son of immigrants. In his voice-over for the film, Chang, who was educated in Canada and New York, explains why he made it. (It is his first feature- length picture.) His grandfather used to tell him stories about a river in China. Indeed, at one point we even hear his grandfather sing a song about it. The film is called Up the Yangtze.
Our fear that it may be only a collection of gorgeous vistas is swept away with the first shots--of a modern gray city choked with skyscrapers. It is from this city that the journey begins, and again Chang has a welcome surprise for us. Stunning as many views along the river are, he is out to sell not pictures but life. His film centers on the area where the Three Gorges Dam has been built to supply energy, an enormous project. Chang asks us to imagine the Grand Canyon converted into a lake. Here, too, Chang is more interested in human effects than engineering statistics. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate towns that were to be flooded, many of them physically driven out. Chang puts some of them on camera, one of whom says bitterly, "China is too hard for common people."
Chang centers on a family whom he has persuaded to let his camera become one of them. They are wretchedly poor and live in a hovel that the father built on the river's edge after they were forced out of their home in the doomed town across the river. The teenage daughter of the house wants to go to high school, but they don't have the money. So she gets a job on a luxe cruise ship that carries Western tourists up and down the Yangtze.
Nothing is easier in travel films than to exploit glaring contrasts. Chang doesn't try to escape them: he uses them unabashedly, almost as if fascinated himself. The girl's family has chickens pecking away on the ground under their chairs. On the ship, however, she is uniformed and trained in politesse, sees bottles of wine being coddled, learns the meaning of tips, and moves from sullen loneliness into the company's community. Chang doesn't treat the difference between her home and the ship as an expose: he is merely presenting conditions that he knows we know must be true.
Chinese comments about the corruption of officials are more frank than we might have expected, and the inevitable pat praise of the government is spouted by others. Between these views floats the ship, where most of the picture takes place. It is a smaller version of an ocean-going cruise monster, with the same aim: to load the passengers with attention and food and drink. Most of the tourists are Canadian and American, and the brutal truth is that the straight shots of tourists look like cartoons of tourists.
Little in Up the Yangtze is unexpected (except the occasional adverse comments). Yet we are held by this young man's exploration, close and indeed loving, of a place that he had lived in imaginatively all through his formative years.
Stanley Kauffmann is TNR's film critic.
By Stanley Kaufmann