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January 11, 2010

Maxime's "Best Foreign Picture" Oscar Roundup: Sadism, Prison Gangs, and Drama Queens, Oh My!
FILED UNDER: "Pop Culture"
TAGS: CanadaFilm studiesFranceGermanyqueer studies
By Max

I am very excited by three movies which will compete for an Oscar in the best foreign language film this year: I am thinking of the German movie The White Ribbon, the French movie A Prophet and the Canadian movie I Killed My Mother. Each one of these movies can be interpreted and appreciated as a queer delight in spite of their numerous differences in both style and content! Here are some thoughts on each of them.

Let's start with The White Ribbon, directed by Haneke and already rewarded by the prestigious Palme d'or this year. Haneke, trained as a philosopher and haunted since his first movies by the subjects of evil, lost innocence and eroticism, has the well deserved reputation of being a Master in the realm of perversions. In The White Ribbon, certainly inspired by the crossed readings of Un Roi Sans Divertissement and Le Roi des Aulnes, Haneke takes us for a visit in lost, rural pre-WW1 German village where Puritan adults live hard social life ruled by professional submission and religious devotion. The adults living in this small, isolated community do their best to educate children and teach them the love of pure love, and the passion of truth, sincerity and decency.

Paradoxically - not so much from our blasé bitchy point of view - this obsession about purity turns the education into an edu-castration in which children are often punished and subjects to tears, guilt and fear. One of the darkest scenes of this extremely dark movie - yet filled with the light of fields and snow all along the story - is when the pastor forces his son to confess his masturbatory habits in a very sly way before making the decision to make him sleep with tied hands. The movie is a series of hostile accidents in which sadistic acts happen to inhabitants of the village: but the thriller becomes almost metaphysical as the search for the serial torturer becomes a pretext to highlight the darkness of human soul, of every human soul raised and tamed in a puritan obsession for purity which ends up in the promotion of a clandestine ethics of cruelty. If purity is based on repression and guilt, and love has to be impossibly chaste, then society produces in the soul of innocent children a precocious taste for forbidden pleasures. All this is extremely well shown in this amazing movie in which the denunciation of a puritan vision of life does not condemn the fascination for evil angel-faced children.

The second movie, A Prophet, directed by Audiard, was sometimes introduced as a French Scarface (or anti-Scarface) because of its focus on an ethical odyssey instead of a gangster narrative starting with the rise and fall of an ambitious, smart outlaw. Malik is a young orphan who enters jail at 19 and doesn't know much about prison as a social universe with its values and rules. "Recruited" by a gang (the Corsicans), his initiation starts by a startling mission: he is ordered to kill with a razor Reyed, member of the other gang (the Muslims). Although Malik is an Arabic boy, and he should be expected to join the Muslim community, he is elected by the racist Corsican boss, Cesar, as a potentially brilliant recruit. And indeed, little by little, Malik takes up difficult challenges, learns how to speak Corsican and gain Cesar's trust, and becomes in the end smarter and stronger than his defeated boss.

If A Prophet was just the story of the social ascension of a gangster, it would be an excellent action movie, but thank you God it happens to be, on top of that, as I mentioned earlier, an ethical odyssey - more precisely the quest for dignity, autonomy and respect in the corrupted, ultra violent, ultra masculine universe of prison. Malik kills Reyeb as he was told, slaughtering him with a small razor blade, because inside his mind he has to live with a troubled consciousness, haunted by the spectre of Reyeb in his mind, and starts living with him after having killed him in the most disgusting way and against his will. Before being killed, Reyed had told Malik that he would be willing to give him some pot to smoke if Malik was willing to give him a blow job. When Malik visits Reyeb in his cell, hiding his razor in his mouth, he wants to start blowing him but Reyeb stops him, postpones the blow job and prefers to start talking in a friendly, paternalistic way, suggesting Malik he could use his time to read and increase the freedom of his soul while being in jail. All of a sudden the revolting side of the blow job as a prostitution thing in order to get some weed turns into an opening space for solidarity, exchange and trust. But malik has a mission to accomplish and, as his mouth starts bleeding, he kills Reyeb without sparing us with gore and sighs. If pedagogy in Ancient Greece was pederastic, the aborted relationship between Reyeb and Malik was opening a queer space in which a young straight boy was to be initiated to a sexual friendship with an "older brother" willing to share his sperm and knowledge as a specific training. Malik did not kill Reyeb because he was against this special bondage but because he would have been killed himself if he did not accomplish his mission. Once Reyeb is killed, Malik learns how to live with him, not just the spectre of his bad consciousness but also the humanist light, acting like a guide and a close friend in the competitive and stressful context of gang wars. If Malik, in the end, takes his revenge against Cesar, it is not merely a question of power struggle, but the payment of an ethical debt he had vis-à-vis Reyeb: the ghost, the missing father, the older brother, the taboo lover, definitely the queer friend.

Last but not least, the fabulous, talented, unforgettable J'ai tué ma mère ("I killed my mother"), a movie in French Canadian directed by the main actor and screenwriter of Xavier Dolan. Hubert is a teenager who attends high school and lives with his divorced mother, Chantal, somewhere in Québec. The whole story of this love story is how Hubert and Chantal hate each other in a devastating way. And yet, the hatred between them, however intense and straightforward it can be, reveals a mistaken alphabet of confused feelings about the extreme emotion that bonds the hysterical mother and her drama queen, gifted gay son. They both over react, are ashamed of each other, suffer from being misunderstood and crucified by the other's cruel blindness, but as the drama gets bigger and dangerous for their mental health, the spectator starts suspecting that this tempest of threats and insults hides the impossibility to express a stormy love which is doomed to express itself through a kind of SM relationship. Both actors are extremely convincing, the dialogues are vivid and written with an amazing sense of hurt feelings, the spectator does not stop being moved and splashed by the fusion-confusion between mummy dearest and her unbearable Rimbaud, and also by the poetry that structures the expression of these tormented hearts. The subject may seem cliché and predictable, but its treatment is clearly a tour de force.

If one of these three movies could be rewarded with the Oscar for the best foreign language film, that would be good news!

PERMALINK | Posted at 12:23 PM | Post a Comment (0)


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