My Netflix queue often clusters itself into themes, partly because I order from trailers and the trailers obey the theory that “if you liked this movie, you will also like. . .” Two films over the weekend grouped themselves around the theme “love.” They could not have been more different. Not at all what I expected, partly because of their national origins and partly because of their philosophical assumptions about what love is anyway.
The first, with the shorthand title “Amelie,” for “Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain,” is French. This little bagatelle is about the director’s fav gamine Audrey Tautou, a worthy successor to Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, and also about the director’s home neighborhood, Montmarte, though he includes blandly “his sex shop” in the Pigalle. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is known in the US for directing one of the Aliens series -- a fact that could not be more misleading.
These local adventures are gathered loosely around the “parlicoot” idea, that somewhere your mate is waiting to be recognized at first sight. Strangely, Jeunet confides, there are no young male actors in France -- no Brad Pitt or Leonardo diCaprio. (Perhaps he has not noticed that they are no longer young.) So he cast a young director as the love interest. Everyone else is a character if not a caricature. But it is the set that is often the subject: blood red and pea green, it is not quite Christmas, but that kind of feverish furor of tschotskes, accumulations, iconic objects. I didn’t see any salt-and-pepper shaker collections, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Notes, signs, arrows painted on the pavement, birds significantly flying up, ringing telephones. The voice-over by Jeunet deciphers it all and makes it clear that he loved the outtakes as much as the actual movie. There are so many of them that they are on a separate disc. Tautou wears big black shoes like Minnie Mouse -- we are close to cartoon territory.
One key contribution to the amazement (maze) are his personal collection of strange stock film: a sperm penetrating an egg, a woman swelling in time-lapse pregnancy, a baby being born, babies swimming instinctively and nude, a horse that jumps the fence and joins a famous bicycle race, vaudeville acts, Pearl Bailey!! , old newsreels of war, goatherds in Afghanistan.
Another is his love of CGI and special effects, so a released goldfish (he calls it a “golden fish”) turns and gazes up at the bridge from which he has been dropped into a pond. We cannot discern its emotional state. When in despair, our heroine becomes a column of water and spashes to the floor. Jeunet admits that might have been a little much. But this is a Christmas Valentine for the excessively French and sentimental, meant to cheer everyone up.
The second movie is German, “Cloud 9” or “Wolke Neun.” www.metacafe.com/watch/3141122/cloud_9_movie_trailer/ I include a trailer (there are several) because it is guaranteed to gross-out every teenager on the planet. A married woman falls in love with a man but still loves her husband. She makes the mistake (?) of telling her husband and has to go live with the lover, which is pleasant. The husband dies. She grieves. Not remarkable except that the actors are my age! The woman is “only” 67 but the men are in their late seventies, with spindly shanks and little pot bellies. The woman is pillowy, with a nice big round bottom. They strip off their clothes (all) and make love realistically, which is to say in the groping, stuttering way that people do, not the choreographed fantasy of actors eight inches from the camera lens. Not that the camera is backed off here.
The film is garlanded with traditional German songs by a women’s choir that includes the female lover. Nature, family, sweetness are offered in the words and, indeed, reviewers who loved this film called it “lyric” and bought into the sentiments -- were resentful when the plot turned dark, not considering that because the woman had a new lover, her loss of the previous one was bearable, but her choice was not without penalty.
The assumption in both films is that people fall in love at first sight. Or at least have some kind of recognizing reaction that can be developed into a whole life-changing plot turn. In the French film the key is mystery and pursuit, so that Amelie -- who loves little plots -- is forever arranging satisfying vignettes of punishment and reward. In the German film everything is explicit from the beginning. It is the simple but lyrical (it IS that) being-in-the-moment that is authentic pleasure between two people.
The review responses for Cloud 9 are fascinating because they cover a full range. Few saw that Inge is choosing between a familiar, rather controlling, rather stiff and techie man (he will sit listening to the sounds of railroad engines) though protective (he fixes meals, takes care of her when she has flu) and a surprising, engaging, skinny-dipper who likes bicycling and long walks in nature. With the first man she has been a child and also a mother with a child, but she has not really been herself, perhaps. The review judgments depended on with which of the three characters the viewer identified -- the husband? Terrible movie, neglecting the moral issues. The lover? What a delight! Inge, the woman? “Go, Inge, go!” She seems naive, but in fact she chose the man best for a father and then the man best for a lover, painful as it was to have to choose.
What I draw from the juxtaposition of these films is that Love is a concept that depends on the context. Not only the national culture context, but also the individual characters of the persons. But whatever love is, the writer/director’s task is to depict a series of moments that evoke from the viewer something real, possibly memorable. “Amelie” was self-indulgent and infused with the vision of the director. “Cloud 9” made room for the ideas of the actors -- indeed, their realities. The color-pushed novelties and anomalies of “Amelie” are fun. The gentle simplicity of ordinary essentials in “Cloud 9” will stay with me longer. But I'm old.