White Material (Claire Denis, 2009). My first film by Denis, and as far as I know, fairly representative of her work. At least here, she doesn't bother too much with clarifying events for the viewer … she does not force-feed us as if we were stupid. It helps to let the movie wash over you, without attempting to impose your own structure. Eventually, the film becomes a whole, and I suppose if you watched it a second time, “what happens” would seem much more clear. But I don’t think the movie calls for that kind of second viewing. Denis isn't as concerned with “what happens” in a concrete sense; she wants to explore the inner perspectives of her main character (Isabelle Huppert), and she wants to offer a feel for life in contemporary Africa. It’s very idiosyncratic, but in a way that draws viewers in. Often, this kind of approach just closes the door on the audience. Huppert and Denis work perfectly together to create a character as single-minded in her way as Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank. #179 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10. Not having seen her films before, I can’t really recommend a Denis movie as a follow up, although Beau Travail seems to be highly regarded. If you’d like more Huppert, she has a secondary role in the recent Amour. White Material is apparently inspired in part by a Doris Lessing novel, The Grass Is Singing. That book was made into a movie, Killing Heat, with Karen Black … it’s hard to find anyone with something nice to say about that one.
Limelight (Charles Chaplin, 1952). Oh, my. I admit to being a participant in the past in the silly exercise of arguing the relative merits of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as if there wasn't room for both. It’s a discussion that is unnecessary and unproductive, telling us more about the analyst than the artist. I’ve always been a Keaton guy, and so I’ve spoken more negative things about Chaplin than I actually believe. Hopefully I’ve outgrown that. Limelight is a film I’d missed, and I never really looked forward to watching it, later Chaplin being of little interest to me. But as I sat down to watch it at last, I found myself in an encouraging mood, ready to enjoy a movie I’d ignored for no good reason. Now I know the reason. Limelight consists of Chaplin, through his character Calvero, making one little speech after another filled with the kinds of witticisms found on fortune cookies (“The heart and the mind. What an enigma!” “Time is the best author. It always writes the perfect ending.” “Life can be wonderful if you're not afraid of it.”). Charlie saves a suicidal dancer played by Claire Bloom. He nurses her back to life while mentoring her with his grand philosophies. And somehow, it is always all about him. He’s like a time-traveling refugee from the age of singer-songwriters. Limelight is 137 minutes of Chaplin showing us how much he has to offer, even at an advanced age, but the bits he gives us are pale shadows of the truly funny material of his prime. He doesn't just beg us to love him, he insists on it, in a way that is more aggressive than passive, although it has elements of both. I wasn't expecting much, and I was still disappointed. #485 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 5/10. For examples of Chaplin at his best, try Modern Times or The Great Dictator.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011). 7/10.