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Caramel (Roadside Attractions)

Woman on the Beach (New Yorker)

The Silence Before Bach (Films 59)

HOW SADDENING some films can be, no matter what their subjects are. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Spanish films by Saura and Bardem and others arrived here, their strengths were irresistible, but it was impossible to forget the dark contrast between the films and the country from which they came. Late in the last century, film after film arrived from Iran, especially those of Abbas Kiarostami, that dwelt in soul’s quiet, in embraces of the spirit, all of them extrinsically strange because of the public face of the country that produced them. Now there is another sad contrast, of a different kind.

Caramel is a rippling comedy about five women, mostly young, whose lives are tangled with a beauty salon. (The title refers to the molten sugar used for waxing legs.) The women are lovely, their stories keep the picture light, the setting—a sophisticated city—is attractive. But the city is Beirut, the people Lebanese. The shooting of the film was finished in July 2006, just days before the start of the Hezbollah-Israel conflict, which devastated parts of this city. The picture was edited while the conflict was tearing up the country.

The writer-director, Nadine Labaki, says that while she was editing, she was tempted to give it up. “But, in the end, I told myself that Caramel is yet another way of surviving the war.... It marks my revolt and my commitment.” Glossed, this might read, “I wasn’t going to let the war stifle my ego and talent.” For which we can all be grateful. Labaki’s film is not only a smooth entertainment, it is further evidence of the perennial struggle between the negatives of existence and the persistence of self. Thus, bagatelle though it is, it carries complications.

Labaki herself is one more instance of a phenomenon lately noted here, the international roster of young women who are writing and directing notable first (or nearly first) films. She is also an actress: she plays, enticingly, one of the principal roles in her picture. The women in the stories are Christian and Muslim, the languages are Arabic and French. Only one of the stories is especially unusual. One of the Muslim women is about to be married to an orthodox Muslim man. She, unknown to the groom (or presumably there would be no groom), has had sexual experience. So, with the help of her friends, she goes to a medical center for vaginal stitches to counterfeit virginity, and another friend supplies some bird blood. This antique problem contrasts with the modern atmosphere of the picture—cafés, flirtations, gropings, a screen test for one of the group who is an actress hoping to work in a television commercial. In fact, the fakevirginity episode underscores the wide cultural diversity of these congenial young people.

Besides her own performance as the owner of the salon, Labaki has drawn equally engaging work from the other women, not all of whom are professional actresses—notably Joanna Moukarzel as a member of the group who finds herself attracted to women. Add that the cinematography by Yves Sehnaoui is delightfully bright, and the contextual sadness is complete. These people, this city, didn’t know what they were days away from.

The picture is dedicated “To My Beirut.”

Woman on the Beach, from South Korea, is quite different from other Korean films that I have seen. The writer-director, Hong Sang-soo, widely celebrated as a valuable talent (this is my first experience with him), quickly makes clear that he knows how to frame shots and control action and omit superfluities. His screenplay is fueled by the ingrained intricacies of life rather than by clunky plot contrivances, and it is ultimately ingenious. But, for me, there was a difficulty.

The protagonist, a film director in Seoul named Kim Joong-rae, asks his production designer Chang-wook to come along to a beach resort to help him with a script. Chang-wook will accept only if he can bring his girlfriend Moon-sook. The three go off together. Moon-sook is much impressed by the director, and the fairly predictable complications follow. But the troubles in the original triangle are far from the whole story of the film. Another woman gets involved, and at one point, the director is so fascinated by what is going on that he diagrams the complications on paper. For him, human relationships have graphic shapes. He studies them as if they were road maps of films he might make.

Ultimately both the shape of this film and its theme—of lurking consonances and reversals—are engaging. But this view takes some time to arrive because, though I saw, heard, understood everything, I was never really moved. I could only observe. Friendships, flirtations, kisses, sex, quarrels, reconciliations: all of these things happened, but they seemed tokens, not realities. I believed them only because the characters believed them, not because they were affecting me. It was an odd experience, which left me feeling culturally inadequate, quite unlike my responses to hundreds—thousands—of films from very distant cultures. (Just one Korean instance: Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron, which was unforgettably moving.) Here, though all was adroitly crafted, the relationships seemed remote. I look forward to a further test of my responses at another Hong Sang-soo film.

HOW PLEASANT it is, after seeing The Silence Before Bach, to think about it. It is immaculately photographed by Tomás Pladevall, every scene is well proportioned, every moment alive with intelligence. The chief question that it leaves us with is its chronological place.

A good part of the picture’s pleasantness is in returning to the old, almost quaint subject of surrealism, once so fraught with passion pro and con, now an item in the curriculum. (The term “surrealism” is not specifically attached to the picture, but it applies.) Of course artists in several arts still practice surrealism—Pere Portabella, who made this film, is one of them—but they cannot now think of themselves as radical. André Breton wrote his manifestos on the subject almost a century ago, as surrealism became the quasi-accessible offspring of Dadaism, cognate with the iconoclastic post-World War I generation. It aimed, as has become copybook text, to breach conventional logic, to pierce habits of response in order to reach primal sources in us, nativities of feeling and perception. Well, it succeeded—so familiarly, in film along with other arts, that when we see a surrealist work now, we feel something like married folks who are given sex manuals as golden anniversary presents. The work is quite possibly well made, but it is not exactly novel.

Here are some moments from Portabella’s film. The title derives from a comment by E.M. Cioran asserting that before Bach there was only stillness, and that his music justifies existence. (”Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”) In the first sequence the camera moves through large empty rooms whose walls are of ultramodern design. Then a cart rolls in, on which is a player piano rendering one of the Goldberg Variations. This funny idea contrasts eras past and present, and so far as the film has any perceptible schema, which isn’t far, more sequences continue that contrast. Some of them are set in the present, some in Bach’s time. (The settings are mostly places in Spain and in Bach’s city of Leipzig.) Some sequences blend the two eras. For instance, a modern Leipziger gets up, dresses in early eighteenth-century costume, goes to a cafe for a hot chocolate, then puts on a wig and serves as a guide for a Bach tour. In the past, Bach instructs his young son Johann Christoph Friedrich at the clavichord. In the present, a subway car is crowded with cellists playing Bach. Some moments have nothing to do with music, such as a chat between two truck drivers at a rest stop—although one of them later practices the bassoon in a motel room. A young woman in Leipzig takes a shower in detail—then, after breakfast with an older man, she goes off to play the cello somewhere and he goes to a bookshop to discuss music books with the owner.

The current boys’ choir of Bach’s St. Thomas Church in Leipzig is seen and heard affectingly. And we meet the man who now holds Bach’s job in that church. Then (for the one stop in the nineteenth century) Felix Mendelssohn’s servant in Leipzig buys some meat at a butcher’s stall and finds, when he gets home, that it has been wrapped in music paper. (This is a familiar legend.) He shows it to his master, which leads to Mendelssohn’s interest in the St. Matthew Passion and the revival of interest in the thenobscure Bach.

There is much, much more, and every one of the picture’s one hundred two minutes is interesting—easy to look at and enjoyably ambiguous in intent. The film does not attempt to “prove” Cioran’s view of Bach: Cioran just provides a springboard for sequences that (mostly) involve Bach. Of course one of the objects of surrealism is to confound expectation, which may have been bracing ninety years ago, but now—if the work is as well made as Portabella’s—is like seeing a collage. We can admire the pieces and the cleverness of the juxtapositions, but, for some of us, the result is more comprehensible than enlarging. Surrealism has done its job. We understand what it told us about art and the world around it; it can rarely surprise or stun us. We can only watch it. It may even leave us a bit more hungry for subsequent art—for Antonioni or Bresson or Ozu.

This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.