Having checked that impulse, I can honestly say I have seen a masterpiece, a film so moving that I took a time-out from the daily scrum of press screenings so that I could savor the deep emotions roused within. In fact, even now, a day later, I’m afraid I won’t be able to adequately describe the sublime The Death of Mister Lazarescu.
A Romanian film directed and co-written by Cristi Puiu, its action takes place over the course of a single night. Mr. Lazarescu, a functional alcoholic and widower whose only child has moved to Canada, has been suffering from a terrible headache and vomiting. Starting with a request of his neighbors for a narcotic painkiller, through the summoning of an ambulance, through his transit through four hospitals (three of which can’t or won’t treat him), and finally on a gurney in an empty examination room, we watch Mr. Lazarescu steadily meet his death. From an alternately cantankerous and friendly patient, he descends into confusion and unawareness, finally becoming unconscious. He’s diagnosed and misdiagnosed by a series of doctors most caring, if gruffly so, some concerned only with their own status and incrementally descends from sick human being to problematic, semi-human “patient.”
And that’s almost about it. Almost. For what Puiu brings is an extraordinary breath of vision. The societal shortcomings of the Romanian healthcare system (which is painfully similar to the U.S.’s) are sharply, realistically detailed. But Puiu’s main concern is with the people who struggle within that system, even with the doctors and nurses who, either inadvertently or through the force of circumstances (Lazarescu unfortunately gets sick on the night of a huge, emergency-room choking bus accident), deprive Lazarescu of his humanity. The central figure among these is the ambulance nurse, who ends up spending an entire night with the patient, as she ferries him from hospital, turning from an indifferent professional, to a comforting angel, to an exasperated, overworked cog in the healthcare machine.
The realistic depiction of the social scene and the ineffable depictions of vast, suffering if oft-times funny among feeling beings end up with what might be called a spiritual landscape (or cityscape), Puiu’s sheer filmmaking talent is impressive enough. His results are nearly indescribable.
Tuesday there was another good movie on the agenda and good is, well, good. Like L’Annulaire (reviewed in day one’s column), Un Couple parfait (A Perfect Couple) is a French film directed by a Japanese filmmaker, in this case Nobuhiro Suwa.
Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi and Bruno Todeschini star as a married couple of 15 years who have decided to separate. But before they do, they have a complex social situation to navigate: A friend’s wedding. Additionally, they have spent the previous ten years living in Lisbon, so their attendance amounts to a homecoming and thus a series of reunions.
Suwa shoots his scenes largely in master shots that focus on either one person or small groups. Occasionally, he’s cut into a close-up, obviously for a sudden emotional effect that doesn’t always materialize. His style, however, do make for detailed studies of body language and shifting facial expressions, as well as social context, His script lets him down once in a while, but it’s usually intelligent.
The movie’s real ace is Bruni-Tedeschi, who delivers what might be her finest performance in a distinguished career. One scene summons up the complexity and richness of her performance. Sitting on the bed during their first night in their hotel, and following a dinner with friends during which her husband blurted out the news about the separation, the exasperated wife excoriates the husband (he’s off-camera on a cot). But rather than express herself in sharp tones, Bruni-Tedeschi delivers her lines with a tragic, barely controlled, and lengthy laugh. The originality of the delivery is refreshing and the exactness of her emotional reading is moving.
The only other movie we saw Tuesday was Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud. The Taiwanese director specializes in occasionally brilliant films (What Time Is It There) in which accidents and casual encounters lead to romantic breakthroughs of Taiwan’s bustle of business and indifference. In depicting these, Tsai employs austere and exquisitely composed images that emphasize the contrast between indifferent context and human action.
For some reason, the largely humorous Tsai has decided to indulge in a light and comic outing. I wouldn’t exactly endorse the film along those lines, but it’s interesting as an auteur’s film and a sort of wacky experiment.
At its core, the movie is about the off-kilter but steadily developing relationship between a porn actor, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-shen, the star of all of Tsai’s films) and a young woman, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chy; what the identical names amount to, I don’t know). Taiwan’s capital has become oddly underpopulated and the country as a whole is suffering from a drought, on the one hand, and a super-abundance of watermelons on the other. Shiang-chyi seems mostly preoccupied with the accumulation and hoarding of water, although I believe she also has a job. Hsiao-kang spends much of his time working, nude with porn actresses in front of a porn crew’s video camera (The Wayward Cloud has mucho sex and nudity, mostly funny but somewhat graphic).
The film is also punctuated by exuberant, if sometimes shakily staged, musical numbers, in one of which Hsiao-kang dresses as a woman. The strangeness is also exemplified with a long scene in which Shiang-chyi walks around with a watermelon under her shirt, mimicking a pregnant woman, before undergoing the pangs and delights of “birth” on her apartment house’s stairs.
Simply strange, The Wayward Cloud marks a minor chapter in Tsai’s career. Still, if your interested in his films you’ll want to see it, as will those who treasure sheer eccentricity in films.