Saturday, December 08, 2007

Merci, La Vie

This is a film I would want every film to be, when there is no narrative to tell. I use the word "narrative" here for too often one gets mixed up in story, script, plot, drama, words that have been used substitutingly many times, words that fail to grasp at the power of cinema. All the cinema, people forget, is only narrative - it's the art of telling a story, of absorbing a viewer, or of provoking him in thought, in fantasy (maybe erotic), in anger, in a thread of something worthwhile, something which he just not eschews with the last popcorn he ate, but makes his experience.
Probably because of its religious dimensions, it is not named often – but Ben Hur has been one of the greatest films to come out from the Hollywood, just as The Count of Monte Cristo is not accorded the greatest of places in literature, probably because of a lack of that "psychological" element that people nowadays search in everything and take as a hallmark of something great. Monte Cristo is a novel great on account of its sheer richness – does a story need anything more?

With this opening, I take up the case of Merci, La Vie (in English, Thank You, Life). It's a completely unstructured film, there's no narrative, no continuity. Not only the overlap is temporal, but spatial, even visual, of roles. We have the crew of the film admonishing us directly, we have a girl exhorting her father to have sex with her friend so that she can be born. But we have Anouk Grinberg's charming smile that will at the same time woo us to sit through such logical infallacies and watch the mayhem that the director manages to create.
Or is it mayhem? On the face of it, it’s a story of two girls, Camille (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Joële (played by Grinberg), two girls starved for sex and for more than sex. Joële is the one who seduces every man, who keeps on insulted by men and yet runs after them time and again. Camille, the lonely introverted girl, sees the friend she always looked for in Joële, and in the process becomes more open, more experimental, and understands the world that in spite of the “shit” life is, one learns to love living, and say “Thank you, life.” The film is open to a host of interpretations – each viewer can draw his own inference, own morals, even own story. Joële is shown to have devastated a whole town by gonorrhoea on the instance of a depraved doctor (who gets rich in the process; played by aplomb as usual by Gerard Depardieu) who is the only true love for Joële; the film plays out elaborate farces, even plane bombings, from the Second World War; and the film ends with Joële as a prisoner with Camille’s father, loaded naked with umpteen others on a train, to be shot at randomly by German pointsmen, and Camille hiding in a bombed-out hideout.

Camille and Joële seem to be one – I mean of course not in the film, but it’s the easiest way you imagine the inference. Joële is the alter ego of Camille – a figment of the introverted girl Camille’s imagination, and through her (i.e., in her full-blooded imagination) Camille tries to fill up the loneliness in her life. She makes herself believe that her father had more to give than he could, and hence she again brings Joële as the lover for her father, in the end exhorting her father to not to fear her mother but have Joële, so that she can be born. Interestingly, Camille’s mother seems to be another alter ego of Camille – her another bit of personality, played out in flesh and bones. The mother can’t stand the men, yet she panders to the German officers when they have captured her husband. Is it the personality of Camille which asks her to refrain from the attraction of loose sex, yet which gets attracted to that heated imagination represented by Joële, maybe even destructively in the end? The mother evolves into a bitter, sober, wise old woman – one who has seen it all, gone through it all, and emerged knowing that you’ve got to live through your life somehow, even if you’re a woman. Is that the way Camille herself will emerge after her protracted bout of imagination? Or will she continue to look for Joële? Will she continue to look for being insulted, slapped, raped by men, to be dumped on a highway when they feel convenient and to be used as a prostitute when they have to further their own ends? More importantly, why should a woman herself choose such a life? Why should Camille go for it? Still, looking at the end of the film, I think that Camille might yet opt for this – imagination and living through it are quite different things.

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